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!
Ah, a collaboration with his wife. I wonder how much of it was by HPL and how much by Sonia.
There are passages that are typical Lovecraft, some of the horrors described. But the way the story gets on with things, and is full of plot, is very atypical for him, so I'm guessing those aspects were mainly done by Sonia. The writing is rather clumsy here, and needed a polish. It's also very unusual for a Lovecraft story to start at the end of the story with a survivor, and then look back. It's far more normal to move inexorably forward.
The images are really disturbing in this story. Again not typical Lovecraft, because he would usually leave things undescribed rather than described. The exact nature of the horror at the end isn't fully explained. Was it an adult monster, or what? And how were the people effectively glued to the rope? But it's really effective. In a horrible kind of a way.
Checking Wikipedia I see the article there also mentions the 1961 B-movie Gorgo as similar in some respects. I've been meaning to watch that for ages. But knowing some things about it already I don't think it would be nearly as horrific as this short story!
And in a cheerier vein I really like this related sketch by Jason Thompson.
Pushing ahead quickly onto this very short piece.
It's all about atmosphere, and I'm not sure the writing fully works. There are clunky sections for me, and bits which seem to have strange phrasing. For example Lovecraft writes "strange oceans that are not in the world", whereas, rightly or wrongly, I'd rather expect his take on that to end "of this world". I know the meanings are different, but it was a slightly jarring moment for me on first reading.
I do like the idea of the terror of a moonlit landscape though, especially one that is transformed, not just in subtle ways, but also stretches without daytime limits. It reminds me of my terror as a child in the 1980s watching the BBC TV adaptation of the novel Moondial. A very scary experience, and this story captures a similar feeling.
I don't know if it's intentional, but the description of spires revealed among the sea water sounds like the story of English Dunwich. I'm presuming Lovecraft knew of Suffolk's Dunwich, and that was the source for his place name. But I'm also now wondering if its legends could have inspired the "dead, dripping city" here too.
The ending is a bit poor for me, but generally I rather enjoyed the story. Even with very arcane language throughout, even more so than Lovecraft often uses, it was successful in building an evocative atmosphere, and satisfyingly disturbing. And all done in a small amount of words. Good stuff.
I'm finding the opening paragraph hard to read. It's quintessentially densely-written Lovecraft, but I do rather prefer a more straightforward form of writing, which he does use some time. I thought things were improving in the railway station, but it's still floridly written.
Much of the early section is strangely reminiscent of his story "The Tree", not just with the idea of a sculptor, but also much of the imagery and descriptive allusions. I see that the two stories were written two years apart. Also another story set in England, in Kent and London. The characters don't feel very English though.
I'm afraid that from "Of our studies it is impossible to speak ..." I started skipping big chunks. Yes I know that Lovecraft was a huge fan of the indescribable, but there's only so much writing about it I can take. I want plot! At the very least more characterisation would be nice. And while I know he's expounding a world view in this section, I just don't find it compelling or interesting, hence skipping hefty portions.
I rather like the idea of drug-induced voyages of the mind though. But I'm finding the narrator's motivations a constant struggle. This friend sounds dangerous, someone who he stumbled across at the railway station, and took up with for no particularly rational reason. Just why?! Also he doesn't know his name?
And then there's more indescribable stuff, and specifically "perceptions of the the most maddeningly untransmissable sort". Aarrggh! Yes maddening.
I do like the narrator waking in the tower room though, and then fainting from the horror of his friend's screams. That's plot, action! I am also bemused by the spelling "phrensy" that I've never seen before.
And there's more plot from this point onwards, which I approve of. I like the rapid ageing, and also the terror in the sky in the vicinity of Corona Borealis.
I'm unsure what happens at the end. Was there really a friend or was it all a hallucination? Or an aspect of Hypnos before the statue appears? But I did rather like that bit. It's just a shame the story took so long to get going.
Monday, May 21, 2018
(After playing the Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario "The Dragon and the Wolf" by John W. Thompson from The Bride of Halloween Horror monograph Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. with John Leppard and Nick Novacek.)
In the year 1000 A.D., the church predicted the Millennium of Christ would bring about the beginning of Armageddon. As if this was not enough to inspire fear in the common people, the land was wracked by the raids of the fierce Viking Northmen.
In the village of Wroxeter, tales of disappearances and a phantom Black Wolf had reached the Count of Shropshire. The Viking threat and an influx of people seeking safety kept the Earl from sending his own men to see to Wroxeter, so he had, instead, issued a reward of 500 deniers for the pelt of the Black Wolf.
Two men had answered the call and rode into the town on Saturday, October 27.
Bossard was from France and was a Norman. He was a black-haired, weathered looking man with a small beard. He wore clean boiled leather armor and had a long sword on his belt. He carried a large shied in his left arm. He rode one of the Count of Shropshire's horses as he was a sergeant in the man's house, the only person the Count could spare to see to the end of the Black Wolf.
John was Welsh and had short brown hair and a face that was not clean shaven, though not with enough stubble, even, to call it a beard. He was scruffy. A hunter and woodsman, he had known Brossard for some time and had agreed to come with the man to hunt the Black Wolf. He wore boiled leather armor his friend had lent him and carried a strange device Brossard had brought from France but never used: a crossbow. He had given it to his friend some years before and John had become proficient in its use. He rode a horse Brossard had lent him.
A cool autumn wind shook the leaves from the trees as they entered the tiny village of Wroxeter. It was said it was once one of the largest Roman cities in Britain. Now, fragments of a great wall and some crumbling foundations, as well as a broken tower were all that remained. Interspersed within and around those shadows of yesterday's greatness was a humble village of a dozen or so families. A solid church stood in the middle of the village near a village green.
The people of the village watched the two riders cautiously as they approached. Men, women, and even children had bow or knife at hand, ready to fight. The villagers were hard, strong folk of Saxon heritage. They were the ones who stayed after the more fearful had fled to Shewsbury. Yet, even in their eyes, the two men could see a hint of fear. The Black Wolf must have been a fierce beast, indeed, to trouble those folks.
Despite their unease, the men could see the villagers were preparing for a festival: All Hallows Eve. Once called Samhain, it was the time of blood and death, when the livestock were culled of those too weak to live through the winter. Such animals were slaughtered and the villagers preserved as much meat as possible by salting and drying. The rest would be eaten in a feast. Naturally, people's minds turned to death in that season and it was common to honor the memories of loved ones now gone. The church held its veneration of the Saints the next morning on the first day of November.
A bleat sounded suddenly as an old goat had its throat cut, a quick and merciful kill. Another gust of wind carried the coppery tang of blood, an ominous omen to begin the two men's hunt for the demon wolf.
Some of the houses had smoke seeping out of the thatch of the roofs but others seemed to have been abandoned. The fields and gardens around the village were fallow, for the most part, as the planting season was over.
They approached a man mending rope by a house. He was a thick man with a great jaw and a shapeless hat atop his head. He was clean-shaven and looked surly.
"Hello sir," Bossard said.
The man pulled on the front of his hat, looking them up and down suspiciously. He had a knife in his belt.
"We're looking for the Headman of this village," Bossard said.
"That'd be Aelfred," the farmer said.
"Where's Aelfred?" Bossard said.
"That's his house," the man said, pointing.
Bossard nodded and thanked the man.
"Give him a coin," John said.
The other man flipped the farmer a denier. He bit into it and tucked it away before going back to his work.
They went to the indicated house and met Aelfred. The Headman proved to be very young, only about 23 years old. He greeted them and they knew, as Headman, he was responsible for collecting taxes and generally serving as the intermediary between the villagers and the Earl's men. The villagers also looked to him to make important decisions and lead them in times of trouble.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," he said. "Can I help you?"
"We've been sent by the Earl to deal with your "¦ black wolf," Bossard said.
"Oh!" Aelfred said. "Good. I've seen it. I've seen the black wolf."
"Have you, now?"
"Aye. Aptly named and bigger than any wolf I've ever seen before. Fifteen to 20 stone at least. Wulfstan, my predecessor, saw the beast up close and was so terrified that he took his family and fled in the night."
"Do you know where he fled off to?"
"I assume to Shrewsbury. That's where many of the people are going."
"Hm. Do you have any more information about the beast besides how much it weighs?"
"It's been here a few months."
"Are any of the buildings abandoned?" John asked.
"Aye," Aelfred said.
"Do you mind if we take residence in one of the abandoned ones?"
"Well, what are you doing here?"
"We're here to kill it!" Bossard said. "Order of the Earl."
Aelfred took them to one of the abandoned houses. They found the single-room building had no furniture and a small fire pit. When John asked about a smith, he learned the nearest one was in Shrewsbury. Aelfred noted there was a miller in the village and a mill on the river outside of town. They were told the miller was Ingeld. He also told them Father Thomas was the village priest.
"He's not too happy with our festivities," Aelfred said. "But Aehtelgythe is. She's the old wise woman that lives here."
"Would she know more?" Bossard said.
"About what?" Aelfred said.
"The wolf," John said.
"The situation," Bossard said.
"The wolf?" Aelfred said. "Maybe. I don't know if she's seen it. I've seen it. It's huge. Big as a horse. If you need me, you know where to find me."
"And here I was thinking it was just some crazy Viking running around with a black pelt on his back," Bossard said.
"Couldn't we win by just killing a wolf and dying it black?" John said.
Bossard frowned at him.
"What?" John said. "We should visit the old lady. It sounds like a local myth."
"Good idea," Bossard said. "The priest might know something too."
"The priest? No. He wouldn't tell us anything."
"We're not from the area."
"Yeah, but he doesn't believe in it. To him, it's just a â”€"
"Well, he said he didn't believe in the festivities."
"Yeah, but the wolf is most likely "¦ not natural if it's that big. We can go ahead and assume that Catholicism doesn't approve of its existence."
"I don't know, it could just be some big wolf that's pretty old."
"If it's old, it wouldn't be abducting people."
"Do we know that it's been taking people from their homes or just killing them?"
They asked around and learned Aehtelgythe lived in a house connected to and partially made of stone from the old Roman tower that stood crumbling just outside of town. The door there was answered by the oldest person either of them had ever seen.
Aehtelgythe was probably 70 years old but still spry and healthy. She wore plain, dark clothing and a hood covered the top of her head. Her skin was wrinkled but her eyes bright as she looked over the two men at her doorstep.
"What do you want?" she growled.
"We seek information," Bossard said.
"Well, you've come to the right place," the old woman said.
She turned and walked into the dark hut. The two men followed and found she was boiling water which she mixed with certain herbs and honey in a cup. She sat down on a bench and drank it, not offering them any.
"What are you looking for?" she said.
"We're looking into the wolf problem," Bossard said.
"Oh!" she said. "I seen the yellow eyes of the monster, staring from the woods. These were not the eyes of a normal animal; they held intelligence and evil within them. I have cast my auguries and know what the Black Wolf is an unnatural beast and it is motivated by malice! It means harm to this village and must be stopped! Are you here to stop it, man with a sword?"
"Yes. The Earl is paying us very well to take care of this."
"Oh. Then you need to find it and stop it. Track it down and kill it. Especially before the 31st. Before our festivities."
"What kind of animals has it abducted in the past?" John asked.
"Sheep," Aehtelgythe said. "Cows. Goats. Killing everything."
"Bait," he whispered to Bossard.
"These are not my horses," Bossard said.
"Bait," John said again.
"What are you whispering about?" Aehtelgythe growled.
"Nothing, ma'am," Bossard said.
"Bait," John said. "Bait for the animal. We can draw it out and track it."
"Which one of you are you going to use for bait?" Aehtelgythe said.
"The armored one."
"You're both wearing armor!"
Aehtelgythe poked John in the side, slapping his armor.
"The shielded one," John said.
"Oh," Aehtelgythe said. "There's something evil about it. It's in the woods. Waiting."
She sloppily sipped whatever brew she was drinking.
"Is there some sort of pattern to these attacks?" Bossard said.
"No," Aehtelgythe said. "Not that I know of. But I'm not everybody."
"Does it attack at night?"
"Mostly. Nobody sees it in the day. It stays in the shadows of the woods. It's an evil creature. It's a horrible thing."
She glared at both men.
"Do you know why this creature "¦?" Bossard said. "Or when it started appearing?"
"Month, maybe more," Aehtelgythe said. "Not longer than a month. Not too much longer than a month."
"Are there any special holidays or traditions that took place in September?" John said. "Last month? A few months ago?"
"No," she said. "Nothing that coincides with when the wolf was first spotted or when it first attacked.
"Do you have any theories as to why it's appeared?" Bossard asked.
"No," she said. "I cast an augury to try to determine what was happening. I've told you all I learned."
They did learn, after talking to the woman some more that she was a follower of the old ways. She didn't come across as very Catholic or Christian. She was proud the festivities would have some of the old ways included in it.
"Do you know anyone in town who might know more?" Bossard said.
Aehtelgythe gestured vaguely towards the town.
"Just ask around, then?" Bossard said.
She again gestured.
"Is there anything else we should need to ask her, my friend?" Bossard said.
"I don't think so," John said.
"Thank you for your time, ma'am," Bossard said.
"Good luck!" Aehtelgythe said. "Kill it! Kill it!"
"We'll come back later if we need your assistance," Bossard said.
She nodded at them and they took their leave.
They went to the church and found Father Thomas, the village priest. Though they had heard him called "Young Thomas" around the village, he was actually quite old, being in his 40s. Balding, he had thick hair on the sides of his head and a beard and mustache. He wore simple, brown robes. He seemed happy the Earl sent someone to deal with the wolf and a little exasperated the locals clung to their superstitions despite his frequent sermons. He seemed a little in conflict with Aehtelgythe and a little upset none of the villagers were willing to learn Latin. He was a little crotchety and mentioned aches and pains he always felt, noting he would not be taking place in the festivities in a few days due to the "pagan foolishness," as he put it.
"As the Millennium of Christ draws to a close and the return of Our Lord, not as the Lamb but as the Lion of God, draws nigh, the Devil is loosing his demons, such as this Black Wolf, upon the world. The Dark One prepares for the great battle of Armageddon! We must prepare ourselves and put on the Full Armor of God! We must repent and pray and be ready for the End is at hand!"
"Is there anything about the wolf that makes it seem as if it's anything but a normal wolf?" John said.
"It is the Devil! It's huge! Bigger than a man! Why, Aelfred himself has said it's 10 to 14 stone. That's bigger than any man!"
"Do you believe Aelfred's word?"
"I have no reason to doubt him. I've taught him Latin. He's the village Headman now. He was a ready student. Not many want to learn. Aelfred took over as Headman of the village, appointed by the earl after Wulfstan disappeared. They left one night. Aelfred said Wulfstan had seen it up close and left due to the terror he had felt after seeing the horrible beast."
Father Thomas didn't see any reason why Aelfred would lie. Lying was a sin, especially at that time, when the whole world was coming to an end. He was willing to listen to the two men's confessions if they wanted to unburden their souls. He was also upset about the festivities planned because Aehtelgythe was adding pagan elements to them. He felt she was too supportive of the old ways.
"Thomas, do you know of anyone whoâ”€" Bossard said.
"Father "¦ Thomas," Father Thomas said.
"Father Thomas, do you know of anyone who does not believe Aelfred in town?"
"Cuthbert is very upset."
"Cuthbert is Wulfstan's cousin."
"He and Aelfred do not get along. Aelfred claimed Wulfstan left the village out of terror and fear. That he's a coward."
"What does he believe?"
"I don't know but he doesn't like Aelfred."
"Where does he live?"
Father Thomas gave the man directions to Cuthbert's house across the village. They learned he was one of the local farmers. They found Father Thomas lived in the tiny rectory behind the house, a building no larger than any of the others in the village.
"Does anyone live in Wulfstan's house?" Bossard asked.
"No," Father Thomas said. "They left a month or so ago. No one has come into the village."
"Thank you Father, I think we're going go to ask "¦ Cuthbert "¦?"
When they left the church, Bossard spoke to John quietly.
"I say we look in Wulfstan's house first," he said.
"I concur," John said.
They stopped at the abandoned house of Wulfstan and let themselves in. The hut was typical of those in the village. It was solidly built with a thatch roof and only a single door to let in light. With only a single room, there was a cold fire pit in one corner. A little debris and straw remained but nothing else was in the place except for a few mice which scurried to the corners and disappeared.
They searched the house, looking for clues but found nothing remained in the house whatsoever.
"I guess we should go talk to Cuthbert," Bossard said.
It didn't take them long to find the man. He was skinny with a sunken face and thick muttonchops. He had dark eyes and wore a straw hat and a tunic. When they questioned him about Wulfstan, he said he didn't believe the man took his family to Shrewsbury as Aelfred claimed.
"Wulfstan was a strong, dedicated leader, a man you could trust," he said. "He would never have just packed up and vanished in the night. Aelfred says that Wulfstan told him that he had a run-in with the Black Wolf and it frightened him so badly that he was taking his family and leaving. If that were true, why did he say nothing to me? We were closer than brothers! Besides, Wulfstan was no coward and as skilled a hunter as I've ever know. In fact, we were planning to hunt the beast down ourselves! The whole story doesn't sit well with me."
"When did, supposedly, Wulfstan leave?" Bossard said. "Last month?"
"It was a month. A little more than a month ago. Not long after the wolf appeared."
"Do you know what happened to his house?"
"No. What do you mean?"
"We looked inside and there was nothing in there."
"Aelfred says they took what they had. In the night. Left in the middle of the night."
"Did he own a cart?" John said.
"No," Cuthbert said.
"No. Would've had to pack it all on his back."
"Didn't leave anything behind?"
"I don't know. I haven't been in his house. You said you were in his house? Was there anything there?"
"Looked like it had been abandoned for a month," Bossard said.
"Is there anywhere the villagers congregate outside of the church?"
"Not really," Cuthbert said. "Sometimes on the village green in the center of town. That's where the festivities will take place in a few nights for All Hallows Eve."
He looked at Bossard.
"Why would he have left without telling me?" he said.
"I don't know who he was so I'm not sure," Bossard said.
"He was a good man," Cuthbert said. "In charge of this village. Did a good job. Then he was gone in the middle of the night."
"Doesn't make sense to me, personally. He would probably wait until morning to leave at the earliest."
"And he would probably have gotten a cart from someone in town first."
"But he's gone!"
"So, why is Aelfred in charge of the town now?"
"He was assigned it by the Earl."
"Uh-huh. The Earl put him in charge."
"Has he been a local in the town for a long time?"
"All his life just like the rest of us."
Bossard thought on that.
"Well, we're hunting down that beast," he finally said.
"Good!" Cuthbert said. "Kill it. Find out what happened to Wulfstan."
"That seems to be something of interest."
"Related to this. Because if we could find what happened to Wulfstan, we might find out more about the beast."
"Or the beast if we find him. Either or either. But I do not feel heading back to town would be helpful. You don't think heading back to Shrewsbury and looking for a man in that town would be helpful, do you?"
He had directed his last question to John.
"It'd waste an entire day, at least, looking for him," Bossard went on. "And, if the fears are right about All Hallows Eve, I don't feel we have enough time to bother. Plus, I feel like the Earl would have told me if the old Headman was in town. Probably would have sent him with us. Help us out with our investigation."
"We should probably leave the building," John said.
Cuthbert looked at both of them.
Bossard told him they'd look into his cousin's disappearance. He told them "Good." He bid them to kill the Black Wolf if they found it. They saw their way out of the house.
They talked about figuring out where the attacks were occurring and also about keeping an eye on Aelfred. John found him suspicious. They decided to talk to the villagers to see what else they could learn. They learned the people had refused to leave the village despite bandits, Vikings, and the Black Wolf. All of them respected Wulfstan until he abandoned them. Most of them very much liked Aelfred and were very happy the man stood up to lead the village. Aelfred was a bit less hearty than the average man but he was very intelligent. He could even read and write Latin, having been taught by Father Thomas.
They learned the Black Wolf was a monster the size of a pony with a pitch black pelt and glowing yellow eyes. Multiple villagers reported the loss of livestock to the beast but no one had been closer than several dozen yards. All of the sightings had been at a distance. Many worried that the slaughter of excess livestock in preparation for the winter would bring the wolf into the village as the demon beast followed the scent of fresh blood.
There were no specific spots where the wolf struck.
The two men discussed what to do. John suggested they watch Aelfred and Aehtelgythe's homes. Bossard wanted to stay together. He feared facing the beast alone and, when John suggested climbing a tree, Bossard wondered aloud if the beast could climb.
"It's a wolf!" John said.
"It's an abnormal wolf, according to these people," Bossard said.
"Fair enough. All right, you take the old woman. I'll take Aelfred."
* * *
Bossard went to Aehtelgythe's hut and asked the old woman if he could spend the night there. He told her he needed a place to stay but she refused to let him in, claiming he was too young for her before she slammed the door in his face. He found a place nearby to watch her house that night. He ended up climbing a tree.
* * *
John had hidden himself near Aelfred's house behind one of the rough stone walls nearby where he could watch the house but didn't think he would be noticed.
It was the wee hours of the night when he saw the silhouette of a huge animal creep up to the house. It looked like a huge wolf or dog. It was far too big and had yellow, glowing eyes. It crept around Aelfred's house as if it was looking for something. Though chilled by the sight, John watched. The animal seemed to be looking for a way into the house. It finally left, heading south and passing closer to John than the man was comfortable with. He thought it might have looked right at him before he crept out of the village. He lost sight of it when it disappeared into the woods.
He waited a while longer before he slipped back to the abandoned house he and Bossard had been shown by Aelfred. There was some firewood there that had been gathered by the villagers for them. He built a small fire before wrapping his cloak about him and going to sleep.
* * *
The day of Sunday, October 28, 1000, dawned with rain. Nothing had happened at Aehtelgythe's house that night. Bossard returned to the house he and John had been given to stay in and found it smelled of fresh smoke. A few ashes were in the pit in the corner and John slept on the floor. He nudged the man with the boot.
John explained the wolf was very real and wanted something inside of Aelfred's house. It was definitely looking for a way in and was around the house for a while. When Bossard asked if the man had seen Aelfred leave, he said he hadn't, but the wolf definitely wanted in. John suggested they talk to Aelfred and ask if he had taken anything from the ruins or done anything to anger the wolf.
They set off for Aelfred's house that morning and found the man there. He seemed happy to see him. John noticed very large wolf-prints all around the house and could see they headed south.
"Did anything strange happen last night?" John asked.
"No," Aelfred said. "I slept well."
"Have you traveled around anywhere in the last month? We have reason to believe the wolf may have wanted to get inside your house."
"Found anything interesting?"
"Done anything out of the ordinary?"
Bossard realized the man was not telling them everything. He was keeping something back and was not being completely honest. He tried to convince the man they were all trying to stop the wolf and he could tell them anything. It was almost an impassioned plea that was very convincing.
Aelfred seemed unconvinced. He claimed nothing out of the ordinary had happened. However, each of the men noticed him glance towards a chest tucked into the corner of the room. It didn't have a lock or even a hasp, but was large and weathered, as if it had been in his family for some time. Bossard exchanged a knowing glance with John before he thanked Aelfred for his time. Aelfred wished them luck finding the wolf and they took their leave.
They returned to the house they'd been lent.
"We need to see what's in the chest," John said.
"I have an idea," Bossard said.
"I have one too."
"What's your idea?"
"If you can fast talk him, if you find him out in a field, we have to be careful that villagers don't see us rummaging through his stuff. So, we need you to convince him to go get him something from the house. And we can go fetch it. And that way none of the villagers are concerned and we can go take a look in the chest."
"My plan was to convince Cuthbert to distract Aelfred for us. Convince him, maybe, that we found some information about Wulfstan that he needs to distract Aelfred for us. We don't need to be truthful about it. It might be true. But we just need to get in that house and get into that chest."
They discussed it, John noting the problem was that the village was small and the villagers might see them. Bossard suggested they try John's idea first.
They soon found Aelfred was going about town and talking to the other villagers about the festivities in a few days. They learned it was a dance with a certain song that would be sung that night.
John told Bossard they would ask to borrow a shovel to dig something around the village that needed dug in thanks for the loan of the abandoned house they were staying in. However, when they approached Aelfred and asked him about it, he told them all he needed from them was to get the wolf. He wanted them to find and kill it. When Bossard told them there was not anything they could do during the day, Aelfred was taken aback.
"You can't track it down?" he said. "Find out where it lairs? That's what I would think you could do. Find where it lairs and be ready for it when it comes out or set a trap or burn it out if it's in a cave. Kill it or block it up or collapse the cave on top of it!"
He seemed very anxious to kill the wolf.
Bossard asked the man if he had taken any spiritual attempts at self-protection, like salt in front of the door. The man said he had not. Aelfred was curious why the man asked and told him he prayed fervently every night as Father Thomas taught him.
They left the man, heading towards the woods as if they were planning on following the tracks. They followed the tracks south and found they went all around the animal pens and the barn, though not nearly as much as were around Aelfred's house.
"Well, I think, one thing we should, could, consider, is setting fire to one of the abandoned houses," Bossard said.
"You know, I was already thinking about that," John said. "I was actually thinking we could set fire to an outhouse."
They both figured it would draw all the villagers to it and they could use the confusion to look into the chest in Aelfred's house. John wanted to burn a latrine. He thought it a good idea to burn the one behind Aelfred's house. They argued over it briefly.
They followed the tracks into the woods but John soon lost the trail when it went on rocky ground. He was not able to find tracks leaving the area. It was almost as if the wolf was trying to lose any pursuit.
As they walked around the rocky ground, John suggested they set loose the animals in the barn as a distraction. Bossard was unsure how they could do so inconspicuously. John was unsure how to set a fire inconspicuously. Bossard suggested leaving something burning in the house. He was also of the opinion the Earl wouldn't mind as much them setting some animals loose as he would them burning down a peasant's house. However, he realized the Earl probably valued the livestock at least as much as the peasants, if not more so. He was unsure which the Earl would hate more.
They continued looking for the wolf's prints around the rocky area that day without any luck. Bossard found some boot prints and followed them, soon following them back to the rocky area. John realized the man was following his own boot prints in a circle. John found no tracks leaving the rocky area in the woods, which didn't seem right to him at all.
They returned to the village long before dark as the rain started.
They split up, Bossard going to talk to Aehtelgythe and John going to see what Aelfred was doing.
* * *
Bossard found Aehtelgythe kneading dough for bread.
"Hello Aehtelgythe," he said.
"What is your name?" she said.
"Bossard? That sounds French!"
"I am French! Originally."
"What are you doing here?"
"I told you!"
"Are you spy? For the French?"
"I've been sent by the Earl to kill the wolf. Remember?"
She looked at him suspiciously.
"I remember," she finally said.
"I'm not a spy," he said.
"But you're French!"
"Regardless, Aehtelgythe, I was hoping you would provide us more information about the wolf from what I've learned."
"What have you learned?"
He told her about the tracks disappearing on the rocky spot and about the boot prints. When she asked if he was sure he wasn't following his own tracks, he came to a sudden realization. Then she walked over to him and poked him hard in the chest.
"That sounds like a werewolf," she said.
"Werewolf?" Bossard said.
"I thought it was just a Viking, some crazy man with a wolf pelt on."
"No, it is a man that can turn into a wolf."
"So, like my original theory."
"I don't know."
She told him the werewolf was a man who could turn into a wolf to do horrible things. They could infect others with their curse if they harmed said others. They were the Devil's agents, or at least that was what the church claimed. She said they were very dangerous. She noted if they hunted a werewolf, they might want to have their weapons blessed by Father Thomas. She said he knew some things.
"For though he is just a priest of a new god," she said blasphemously, "he does have some power and does know some things. But it will be a wolf with the cunning of a man. Cunning of a man!"
She got in his face and pointed at his forehead.
"So, are you saying one of the villagers here is a werewolf?" Bossard asked.
"It could be," she said.
He told her there had been a lot of tracks around Aelfred's house and he had looked at a chest when they had talked to him about it. She didn't know anything about that but she trusted Aelfred and pointed out Aelfred was ready to incorporate aspects the church might not approve of for the festivities. She approved of that use of "the old wisdom." She asked if he was suspicious of Aelfred.
"Not necessarily," Bossard said. "I just don't know what he's worried about in his house. He won't tell us about it."
She thought on that.
"It could be what the werewolf wants," Bossard said.
"Why don't you just ask Aelfred?" Aehtelgythe asked.
"He refuses to divulge it," Bossard said.
He related their question of something happening or him finding anything when he had looked at the chest. Aehtelgythe was unsure but guessed the Romans had nothing to do with anything as even they didn't know the old ways. She again noted the inclusion of the old ways into the festivities was a good thing.
She asked him what kind of Catholic he was. He shrugged and alluded to the fact that he merely paid the church lip service. The old woman nodded.
"The old ways have power," she said.
"Do they?" Bossard said.
"The new ways do not have as much power. Some of them do. But not much. We need to get back to the old ways. The ways from before. From before."
He thanked her and took his leave.
* * *
John found Aelfred under a small, roughly made pavilion on the village green with some of the children of the village, helping them learn the song that seemed to be in Latin. He walked back to Aelfred's house but saw one of the townsfolk, a pretty young woman with long, dark hair named Aelfwynn, mending clothing in the doorway of the nearby house. Unfortunately, she could see the door to Aelfred's house from where she worked.
He went to the hut where Aelfwynn worked. She was very pretty and only about 16 years old. When she saw him, she blushed at the handsome man, lowering her eyes.
"Hello, good sir," she said.
Village gossip had it she was the most beautiful girl in the village. She lived with her father and mother and was unwed and unbetrothed.
"Would your parents mind if you lent out farm tools?" he asked her.
She said she didn't think they would.
"Can I borrow a shovel?" he said.
She brought him a shovel and he left with it, returning after a short while to give it back. He had hoped she wouldn't have the tool so he could use that as an excuse to enter Aelfred's house.
He wandered back to the village green to watch the man teach the children the song in Latin. He told them what to say and when to sing it. John was unsure if it was Latin but guessed it must be. He stayed until he saw Bossard returning to the village and went to meet with him.
"Did you learn anything interesting?" he said.
"It's a werewolf," Bossard said.
John was unsure what he was talking about and Bossard told him. He also noted they needed blessed weapons, according to Aehtelgythe. John wondered if they could just place the weapons on the altar and they would get blessed. Bossard felt they should just go ask Father Thomas.
They went to the church and found the priest. When they told him they wanted blessed weapons, he wanted to know exactly what they wanted. Bossard told him it was the Devil and Father Thomas was certain he was right. When Bossard told him he needed a blessed weapon to drive it off, the man looked more trepidatious. He told the man it was very costly for him to bless a weapon. When John tried to minimize the fact, he noted it was costly to him and would cost him part of his soul.
"But God would want you to do this," Bossard said.
"Are you sure it's the Devil," Father Thomas said. "Have you seen it? Have you seen arrows bounce of it?"
"My friend has."
"Have you seen your weapons bounce off it?"
"I haven't seen my weapons bounce off it," John said.
"Do you want us to try?" Bossard said.
"It's far too large to be a normal wolf," John said.
Bossard told the man he had deduced the creature was a werewolf. Father Thomas listened to him and frowned.
"How dare you lie to me!" he said. "Your eternal soul is more important than lies! You must tell me the truth, young man!"
"Aehtelgythe told me," Bossard said.
"As I thought! She's a pagan! You can't trust her!"
"But I still..."
"If you come to me with the truth, that this wolf cannot be harmed by mortal bow and arrow, then, yes, I am willing to give part of my soul to protect you. But until that time "¦ no. Especially to a liar."
"He's not a liar."
Bossard pointed to John.
"You lied to me when you said that was what you thought," Father Thomas said. "Don't lie to me. I can see the truth. I know a liar when I see one!"
"But God would want you to help me kill this creature!" Bossard said.
"You lied to me already! Don't sully the name of God with the same mouth that just told me lies!"
"Fine, we'll go try and kill it tonight. But if I die "¦"
"It's God's will. For your lies."
"And if the werewolf kills you, it's God's will."
Bossard left the church without another word. John followed.
* * *
That night, the two men entered Wulfstan's house. Bossard, exhausted from saying up the night before, curled up in a corner and went to sleep. John climbed up onto the thatch roof and set himself up on one of the braces that held up the thatch with plans to watch Aelfred's house but he also nodded off to sleep.
* * *
* * *
The morning of Monday, October 29, 1000, was overcast and gray but the rain had stopped. When the light woke John, he realized he had fallen asleep soon after he had taken up his watch the night before. When he climbed down to the room, Bossard was already awake. The Frenchman slapped him in the face.
"I deserve that," John admitted.
They went to Aelfred's house and found fresh tracks all around. Some of them headed south once again. They followed them to a stream and started to search up and down the rill to see where the tracks came out. They had lost the tracks however despite spending several hours carefully looking. They finally found some tracks that left the stream and headed back towards the rocks they had lost the tracks upon before.
Canvassing the area between the two, however, brought them to a sparse campsite on a rocky patch along the River Severn. A man had a small fire burning in the clearing. He was wearing once-nice clothing now ragged and threadbare. He looked like a merchant or a minor noble who had fallen on hard times. He had a thick black beard and thick black hair. He cooked a fish over a small fire.
John signaled Bossard and they crept back into the woods to talk, getting a mile or so away before they stopped.
"What do you think?" John said. "Do we jump him? Do we question him?"
"We should question him," Bossard said. "We don't know that he's the werewolf."
"It would save a lot of trouble if he wasn't."
"You want to try to murder an innocent man?"
"Well, it's obvious from his clothes nobody will miss him."
"No. I know the Earl doesn't care but you're not going to weigh the conscious of murdering a man?"
"I don't want to get eaten."
"You don't know if he's a werewolf! What if you murder him and then the werewolf attacks again?"
"Then he wasn't a werewolf."
"And then you go insane!"
"We should go back and ask the old woman if you can kill a werewolf in its man form."
They returned to the village to find Aehtelgythe. She was unsure if the creature would be immune to normal weaponry or not. When John asked if they could turn during the day, she told them she thought the creatures changed on the full moon. John realized the festivities fell on the dark of the moon and the moon had been waning for several days. The next full moon was not for two weeks.
Bossard asked her who the man in the camp south of town was and she didn't know. They left.
John pointed out they could shoot the man to see if he was immune to their weapons. They didn't even have to kill him. Bossard still wanted to know if the man was the werewolf first. John pointed out the man would have to answer their questions and couldn't get away if his foot was pinned to the ground. They could also claim it was a hunting accident. Bossard preferred to watch the man's camp and wait for him to come back. John pointed out the wolf would probably be able to smell them, even hidden up in the trees. Bossard said it hadn't smelled him that night he'd watched Aelfred's house.
It was noon by then and they talked about getting into Aelfred's house to get into the chest.
They found Aelfred at his house. Several people were there, adults from the village, who he was teaching the dance and the song for the festivities.
Bossard suggested letting the animals out to draw them away. John wanted to burn something, pointing out it was no raining any longer. When Bossard noted it was still damp, John pointed out things could still burn.
They discussed lying to Father Thomas once again about the man they'd found in the woods, faking evidence to prove they needed their weapons blessed. Bossard decided he didn't want to risk further alienating the priest, however. When John suggested they form a lynch mob to deal with the man in the woods, Bossard was not happy about that, not wanting to possibly murder an innocent man.
They decided to go back to the man's camp.
* * *
When they arrived at the edge of the man's camp, they saw he had finished eating the fish he'd been cooking before. As Bossard entered the clearing, John climbed a nearby tree to watch the meeting, making a lot of noise. The man stood and greeted him.
"Hello, fine sir," Bossard said. "What brings you out here?"
"I am Gerhard," the man said
"Who are you?"
"Welcome. I have little to give. I have been living a hermit's life. I seek to purify myself before the end time. I've been living alone, subsiding upon the Lord's bounty of fish and wild berries."
He held out some berries. Bossard shook his head and the man put them away.
"What are you doing to prepare for the end of days?" Gerhard asked. "It comes at the thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ."
"Hunting," Bossard said.
"You're hunting to prepare yourself for the end of days?"
"I'm trying to enjoy..."
"...the Lord's bounty."
"The Lord's bounty is important. Enjoying it doesn't come into play much anymore with the end of the world coming and all."
"But you're welcome to come share my fire and what little I have. I'm afraid I've already eaten the fish but I still have the berries."
Bossard made small talk but eventually steered the conversation towards the local village of Wroxeter. Gerhard knew the village was there but had never been to it, he claimed.
"Have you?" Gerhard asked.
"I passed through it to get here."
"Have you heard stories of the wolf?"
"Aye. I've seen the beast. Black as night and with the devil's own eyes, it was. It came stalking about my camp not two nights hence. At first I was afraid but then I stood to face the beast with only faith to guard me and, like Daniel in the lion's den, the Lord God did keep me safe and the beast fled to the east."
He pointed downstream.
"Do you know why?" Bossard asked.
"Because I had the protection of God," Gerhard said. "That's the only reason that can explain it."
Bossard wished the man to be safe and Gerhard wished the same for him. He left the clearing heading west.
* * *
Bossard circled around the clearing and found John crashing down noisily out of the tree he had been hiding in. He saw him slip the last few feet and crash to the ground on his back, knocking the breath out of himself. It took a few minutes before he could talk. Bossard swore at him in French under his breath.
"I still want to shoot him," John finally said.
"I cannot condone you shooting that man," Bossard said.
"What did you learn?"
"That he is apparently waiting for the end of times."
"Will anybody miss him?"
"If you want to shoot him, you're welcome to try."
He told John everything Gerhard had told him. He said he didn't believe the man, though. John looked around for wolf tracks in the vicinity but found none.
"Can we shoot him now?" he said. "He knows we're here. He's not going to come back to the same spot."
"What are you going to do if you don't kill him?" Bossard said.
"Run. What are you going to do?" John said.
"I'm going to go confront him," Bossard said.
The two entered the camp, John stopping at the edge of the clearing with his loaded crossbow ready. Bossard approached the man who had been deep in prayer or thought. Gerhard stood as the man approached.
"Ah, you have returned," Gerhard said. "Have you reconsidered my berries?"
"Sir, I do not believe that you scared the wolf away last night," Bossard said.
"Of course I didn't. God did."
"There are no tracks."
"There are no tracks? I don't understand."
"I fear this is not a typical wolf, sir. I would ask you that you be honest with me with what happened."
"I have been honest with you."
Bossard looked back at John. He sighed.
"I think you're a werewolf, sir," Bossard said.
"What?" Gerhard said.
"A werewolf. You heard me."
Gerhard looked him up and down. Then he sat back down by the embers of his fire.
"I used to make my living as a trader of goods and a tinker, traveling between villages, trading my wares and repairing the kettles, pots, and suchlike of the villages I visited," he said. "About one month ago, I came to Wroxeter and plied my trade there for a few days. With the villagers being more sparse than when I was last there, I soon finished and made plans to move on. Aelfred suggested that I follow a shortcut that he knew of to the next town. This route, he said, would also lead me past a village I had never visited before. As I had found less business than I expected in Wroxeter, I took his advice and followed the route.
"However, I couldn't find the promised village, and so I had to camp outside that night. Fortunately, the moon was waxing three-quarters full and bright and I had space in my wagon to be off the ground. As I was preparing to bed down, I spied a great shadow crossing the moon and barely dove aside as a dragon, a great wyrm, swooped upon me and tried to envelope me in its coils. The only thing that saved me that night is my heritage. Not only am I of a strong Saxon lineage, but my family also bears the blood of the wolf warriors of old: werewolves.
"Because I was born wolf-blooded, I can control my changes and take wolf form whenever I choose rather than being tied to the cycles of the moon. I was so frightened at the sight of this horrible monster that I froze in fear. I would have died there, but the Wolf was not ready to die. It took over and I changed. My Wolf recognized the dragon as the stronger beast and so ran for all we were worth! My Wolf was faster than the wyrm and we evaded the beast until near sunrise when it took flight back to wherever it lairs, but not before slaughtering my horses and destroying my cart, wares, and tools. Left with nothing, I began to investigate.
"I watch Wroxeter and its new Headman. I spied Aelfred skulk out of the village one night to meet with the wyrm itself! It was he who fed me to the beast. Since then I have been seeking the wyrm's lair and planning revenge upon Aelfred. They took everything from me except my life. I intend to see justice done."
"So, you say you're interested in Aelfred?" Bossard said.
"He's the one who betrayed me," Gerhard said. "He is the one who is working with the wyrm."
"Ask him what's in his house!" John called.
"What's in his house?" Bossard said.
"He is," Gerhard said.
"What? The wyrm?"
"There's something in his house that he's interested in."
"I know nothing about that."
"He was looking at it when we were questioning him. It's in a chest. I don't know what it is."
"I don't either."
"Have you been attacking the village folk?"
"Occasionally. Not the folk. Livestock. When I can get to Aelfred, I will. I cannot defeat his dragon. The Wolf does not feel that we are strong enough. I don't know where it lairs. He is up to something devilish and awful. If you are here to stop whatever evil is infesting Wroxeter, that's where you should start."
"If we shoot him we don't get a pelt," John called.
"He's not a werewolf right now," Bossard said. "He could change."
"Anytime I want," Gerhard said.
He frowned at the two.
"I could kill both of you easily," he said. "Or "¦ I can help you. The choice is yours."
"I'm inclined to believe you that Aelfred is up to something," Bossard said. "I feel like he's acting suspiciously. Do you know anything about Wulfstan?"
"No." Gerhard said.
"Well, if you'll keep your attacks just to the livestock, I'll leave you alone for the moment," Bossard said.
"No!" John said. "Come on!"
"What would you propose, Welshman from your accent?" Gerhard called to the man.
"I do not trust my ability to defeat this man," Bossard said to John. "And he hasn't harmed the villagers."
"Yeah, but we can't kill a wyrm and we can't go back without a pelt," John said. "So, I suppose we kill a wolf and dye it black."
Gerhard looked at the man quizzically.
"The earl has a bounty on you," Bossard said.
"Of course he does," Gerhard said.
"And we were sent here to collect it."
"I would suggest to you that something worse than what I am doing is going on here. If he is working with a wyrm, the gods only know what he is up to."
"I'm not getting paid for a wyrm carcass," John said.
"You might," Bossard said.
The other man looked doubtful.
"Do you have any proof?" John said.
"No," Gerhard said. "I don't have any proof. My own word is the only proof that I have."
John lowered his crossbow and walked over to the two. He unloaded the weapon and put it away. Bossard slung his shield onto his back. He asked Gerhard to tell him more about his transformation and the wyrm.
"The wolf took over," Gerhard said. "Saved my life. It knew it would die when I died. If I die, it dies. If it dies, I die."
"But you don't control the wolf?" John said.
"Not entirely, no," Gerhard said. "I control the wolf, but not completely. But if there is a battle, I can try to help you. The Wolf will help you. I am not much use."
He gestured at the dagger on his belt.
"Do you have any theories on why Aelfred benefits on feeding the wyrm?" Bossard said.
"I have no idea," Gerhard said. "I've been trying to learn what his connection is with the wyrm and I've learned very little so far."
"He is in charge of the festivities on the 31st," Bossard said.
"I've not been Wroxeter during the day," Gerhard said. "I don't know anything about that."
"If we gave you Aelfred, would you leave?" John said. "If we could get you Aelfred?"
Gerhard thought on that a moment.
"I want Aelfred," he finally said. "The Wolf wants the wyrm. But yes. If you kill Aelfred or give him to me to give him to the Wolf, that might appease it. It will appease me."
"Will you stay here?" Bossard said. "So we can find you later?"
"Yes, I'm willing to stay here," Gerhard said. "I will be going to the village every night."
"Does the Wolf know not to attack us at night?"
"I cannot guarantee your safety."
The two men took their leave of the man, who gave them both a hard, distrustful look. As they walked back, they spoke on strange story.
"It seems like the easiest solution here is give up Aelfred," John said.
"I'm not looking for the easiest solution," Bossard said.
"So, should we confront him?"
"If he's alone. How about we wait until nightfall when he goes home and confront him?"
"Then no one knows we entered except Aelfred."
* * *
They returned to the village and returned to Aehtelgythe to ask her about wyrms. She told them dragons were fierce beasts and hard to kill. When he asked if they were weak to anything, she guessed blessed weapons would be helpful against such a beast. He asked if she knew anyone else who could bless their weapons besides Father Thomas but she didn't.
"Why are you asking about wyrms?" the old woman asked.
"Can you keep it secret?" Bossard said.
"It's something I'm interested in," John said. "I'm Welsh. We like dragons."
"Oh, you're Welsh," the old woman said. "That explains so much."
The old woman said she had cast the bones, performing an augury, and found there was a looming threat hanging over Wroxeter. Something bad was coming very soon. Something that could end the world. Bossard, feeling he could trust the old woman, wanted to tell her everything. When he started to do so, John interrupted.
"She's old," he whispered to the Frenchman. "Don't trust the old people."
"What's that you said, Welshman?" Aehtelgythe said.
"Something terrible is coming. I don't know what, exactly. The augury was not that clear."
"I had too much cheese for lunch."
"Just like a Welshman!"
Bossard thanked her and they left her hut.
They crossed the village to Aelfred's house once again. They found the man teaching villagers the song that day. Torold also came to the man's house to discuss taxes.
* * *
It was not until after dinnertime when Aelfred was alone as most of the villagers had gone to their homes to eat their evening meal. The two men approached his house and asked to have dinner with him. He invited them in and shared his meager repast. It was mostly bread and cheese, as well as a little bit of boiled mutton and ale. They sat and ate in silence, for the most part.
Bossard eventually talked of how the village was doing. Aelfred said it was doing fine except for the Black Wolf, that terrible agent of the Devil, according to Father Thomas. If it was gone, things would be better for Wroxeter. He noted otherwise the village was doing well and he was looking forward to the upcoming festivities as were all the villagers. It would make a nice celebration and break from the drudgery of life.
"Have you ever heard of a dragon?" John asked.
"I've heard of lots of dragons," Aelfred said. "There are many stories."
"Have you ever seen one?"
"Do you know any local stories?" Bossard asked.
"Any local stories?" Aelfred said.
"Yeah, about dragons."
He told them some stories they had heard before. John thanked him and told him he enjoyed hearing about dragons.
"He's Welsh," Bossard said.
"Oh," Aelfred said as if understanding.
They left after the meal and discussed what to do about Aelfred. John was for accosting the man but Bossard didn't want to do that.
"Just a little bit," John said.
"The earl will hear about me accosting this man," Bossard said.
"Why you gonna accost the Headman?" a voice asked.
A little nine-year-old boy stepped out from behind the wall where they talked.
"Is it because of the things in the woods?" the boy asked.
"Thing in the woods?" Bossard said. "What thing?"
"The thing I saw. I saw. I saw. I was up late one night. I had to use the latrine. And I saw Aelfred slip out of the village. And I followed him. And I saw a shadow descend from the sky. I did. I was so scared, all I could do was hide. And Aelfred entered the trees. And he was there for a long time and then snuck back into the village. And I went back and I had been terrified of the dark ever since. I've wet my bedclothes at night. I don't want to go out to the latrine. My father's very, very disappointed in me. He says he won't raise a coward. I think he's going to put me in a bag and throw me in the river."
He nodded at the two men.
"What's your name?" Bossard said.
"I'm Leofric," the boy said.
"Leofric. My father's Godwine."
"Yes. Tell him not to throw me in the river. I don't want to be thrown in the river."
"I'll tell him that if I see him."
"Thank you. Because you have a sword and you can stop him from throwing me in the river."
"I can swim," John said.
"That "¦ won't stop him from throwing me in the river, though," Leofric said.
"I can get you out."
"Oh. And then I can come away with you? Once he throws me in the river? And learn that wicked mechanism that you carry?"
The crossbow was probably a mystery Leofric.
"I don't know what it is," the boy said. "I've never seen it's like before."
He looked the men over.
"Was it the Devil?" he said. "Was that what it was? The Devil?"
"What?" John said.
"What?" Bossard said.
"The dark shape that made me scared," Leofric said.
"Maybe," John said. "But we're going to look into it."
"I've been praying and it hasn't helped at all," Leofric said.
"Do you know where he met it?" Bossard said.
"It was in the woods," Leofric said. "To the east."
"Could you lead us there?"
"No. I'm not going back there."
"No. I'm not going back there. It might still be there."
"I'll take you with me if you help."
"I don't "¦ I don't "¦ no. No."
"Can you at least lead us to the edge of the woods where it is?"
"No. I'm not going back. That's a terrible place. It's a terrible place."
"We can go look," John said.
"Yes," Bossard said.
"We have a dog," John said.
"Where was it?" Bossard said to Leofric.
The boy pointed down the road to the east. Bossard gave him a denier. That surprised the boy.
"If he throws me in the river, save me," he said to the men.
He scurried off home.
* * *
Bossard and John returned Gerhard's campsite and found the man cooking another fish over the fire. He stood when they entered the clearing and looked at them warily.
"We have information about a wyrm," Bossard said.
"All right," Gerhard said.
"A child apparently saw Aelfred meet with it," Bossard said.
He described, as best he could, where Leofric had told them he had seen Aelfred meet the wyrm.
"I thought you were going to bring me Aelfred," Gerhard said.
"Well, he's in his house," Bossard said.
"I still vote for that," John said. "To be fair."
"I cannot defeat the wyrm," Gerhard said.
"But what do you want to do about the wyrm though?" Bossard said.
"I "¦ I don't know."
"We were hoping you can track it for us."
"It flies. You can't track something that flies."
"Well "¦ I mean "¦"
"I thought wyrms didn't have wings," Johns said.
"It had wings," Gerhard said. "Long and sinuous, it curled around my wagon and crushed it like kindling. Shattered it to pieces. Unfortunately no, I cannot track it."
He said he could track anything that walked on the ground but not something that flew. He also didn't think he was a match for it alone and his wolf knew it. When Bossard asked if they might be able to kill it together, he didn't know. He just knew it was awful. Bossard asked about using the peasants and Gerhard scoffed at that idea. When Bossard noted some of them might have training, the man doubted it.
"At best, they would be a distraction," he said.
"I have a question for you," John said. "If I were to shoot a crossbow at the wolf, would it bounce off?"
Gerhard looked at the man suspiciously.
"The crone in village said the wyvern could be hurt with blessed weapons," Bossard said. "The father won't bless our weapons unless we have proof that we've tried to kill one of these creatures."
"So, hold this and snap it in half," John said. "Then we can say the wolf snapped an arrow and it won't be a lie."
Gerhard broke the bolt in half and handed it back to him. Then he said he would do them one better. He took the sharp end of the shaft and stabbed John in the arm with it, handing it back. It hurt very much.
"Thank you, though," Bossard said.
They left the camp.
* * *
They went back to the village, Bossard trying to bind up the wound. He managed to stop the bleeding and they returned by nightfall. They went to Father Thomas' house and knocked on the door, showing him the arrow as proof of the werewolf.
"But there's blood on it," Father Thomas said. "You must have wounded it."
"Yes, but it didn't kill it," Bossard said.
"Not only that, it broke the shaft," John said. "It's hide is too thick to pierce with normal weapons."
"But there's blood!" Father Thomas said. "You obviously pierced its hide!"
The two men looked at each other.
"Obviously it's my blood," John said.
Father Thomas looked him, completely baffled.
"You shot yourself?" he said.,
"You know, I'm not very bright," John said. "It's sharp. I tried to load it. It came off my shoulder."
"Why do you lie to me!?!" Father Thomas said. "You're both a couple of liars!"
"Well, the wolf did break the arrow," John said.
Father Thomas was very angry at them.
"It's my blood on the arrow," John said.
"The wolf did break the arrow," Bossard said.
"What happened exactly?" Father Thomas said.
"We attempted to confront the wolf."
"And "¦ have you heard the tales of werewolves?"
"It's a werewolf that's terrorizing this town."
"Stabbed me with my own arrow!" John said. "I lied because it's embarrassing."
Father Thomas looked over the two men with a frown. He finally said he was willing to either bless Bossard's blade or a single arrow of John's. When he told them about the spell, he noted he had to sacrifice part of his soul to do it, something he can never replace. Bossard told him they'd need to think about what to bless.
They left, talking about what they should have blessed. In the end, they decided on the sword. Bossard questioned whether or not they should confront Aelfred that night but John was of the opinion they should wait until they had it blessed before they did so.
* * *
Tuesday, October 30, 1000, was a bright if chilly day.
The two men went to the church and asked Father Thomas to bless the sword. He said he would need the morning to do so. He told Bossard to fetch one of the goats because he would need that as well. The man did so and he took it into the church.
The two men took the time to look in at Aelfred's house but they found villagers there, decorating the structure. Aelfred didn't appear to be home. John suggested they light something on fire.
"John, you should demonstrate your superior archery skills to the village," Bossard said. "I could help you set up and then disappear."
They set up some apples on the wall some distance from Aelfred's house. Bossard tried to convince some of the villagers to come watch but they didn't seem interested as they were too busy that morning. One of them noted they might be able to come watch that afternoon.
Bossard went to the community barn and found a few animals within but no one else was there. He thought about letting the animals out. He didn't think he would be able to let the animals out without being recognized.
When he returned to John, that man mentioned using a flaming arrow to light something on fire. He went into the woods and did a little hunting but didn't get any game by late morning. He went back into the woods so they could implement their plan.
* * *
Bossard noticed Ingold in the vicinity of the house they had planned to burn. He engaged the man in conversation, making sure he had the man facing away from the woods where John was to fire the arrow from. He talked about the next day's festivities, telling the man he thought Aelfred could use Ingold's help. The man was happy to help Aelfred and really seemed to like the young man. He followed the man towards Aelfred's house.
* * *
In the trees, John saw Ingold and Bossard leave the vicinity. He wrapped some oil-soaked cloth on the end of the bolt, lit it, and fired it into the air. It flew high and went into the thatch of one of the abandoned houses, lodging there. He didn't hear any cries of alarm so he slipped back into the woods, circling around the village, giving it a wide berth, and planned to return after everything was all over.
He soon heard shouts from the village and saw smoke rising into the sky.
* * *
Bossard had followed Ingold to Aelfred's house and the old man looked around for the young Headman. Bossard glanced back at the house and saw the first, faint hints of smoke. Ingold asked where Aelfred was and Bossard asked some of the other villagers where they thought Aelfred had wandered off to. Bossard didn't say anything about the fire and no one else in the village noticed the fire before flames were licking at the dry roof.
"Fire!" Bossard yelled. "Fire!"
The villagers ran in the direction of the fire, crying out in terror and alarm. Some grabbed buckets of water, or got some water from the well.
Bossard ran into Aelfred's house and found it empty. He flung open the chest and found, hidden under some clothing was a leather-bound book. He picked it up and peeked out the door. All of the villagers were running towards the burning building. He quickly opened the book but found the handwriting was in Latin. He tucked the book under his armor and ran to help fight the fire.
The fire raged out of control but the villagers managed to isolate it to only the one house, which burned to the ground. There was little left but ashes and a little of one wall. It took them two hours to fight the blaze and, about the time it was little more than a smoldering wreck, John returned to town from the south with a pair of rabbits he'd caught.
Bossard asked everyone in the village what had happened and no one knew. None of the villagers knew how the fire had started in the abandoned house. A few people guessed the town was cursed while others blamed the Devil. Some mentioned the Black Wolf, which might have started the fire by being some kind of Devil Wolf. Father Thomas agreed the Black Wolf was obviously an agent sent from the Devil to wreak havoc at the end of the world.
They returned to the small house they were living in and got a fire going in the pit. John gutted and butchered the rabbits and got the meat cooking. Bossard showed him the book he'd found. Unfortunately John didn't read Latin either. John suggested taking the book to Gerhard to see if he understood Latin.
They ate lunch.
* * *
Returning to Gerhard's camp, the man told them he did not read or write any languages. He could speak English and German.
They returned to town.
* * *
They talked to Aehtelgythe but she didn't know how to read or write either. She could understand Low German if it was spoken but had not head for letters. They went to the church and recovered Bossard's now-enchanted sword.
They talked about getting Father Thomas to translate the journal but didn't trust the man. John wanted to simply give the man to the Wolf. Bossard wanted to know what was in the journal but John was convinced taking it to the priest would be a mistake. John suggested someone in Shrewsbury might be able to read Latin so the two took their leave of Wroxeter.
* * *
Shrewsbury was a larger town and they were able to find a priest, that night, who could read Latin. Bossard told the priest reading the book was on the Earl's business. The man took the book and looked through it, telling them to return in an hour.
They went to have a meal and, when they returned, the priest threw the book at them.
"What blasphemy is this!?!" the priest said. "Why did you write this!?!"
"It's not my book," Bossard said.
"It's confiscated from a fugitive," John said.
"It describes spells!" the priest said. "They've been learned from a creature that is apparently a wyrm . It claims it can cloud a man's memory and enthrall people and create fear and drain power and shrivel a man! Where did you find this? Who's is it?"
"Now a wanted fugitive," John said.
"A wanted fugitive," Bossard echoed.
"It also describes some rite that will turn a man into a god!" the priest said.
"Kill him," John muttered.
"Blasphemy!" the priest said. "Blasphemy!"
He wanted to burn the book and demanded it back. Bossard told him the Earl wanted proof the man's blasphemy. It was evidence.
"Whoever wrote this is a witch!" the priest said. "They must die!"
"We'll kill him," Bossard assured the man.
""˜You shall not permit a sorceress to live!'" the priest quoted.
They took the book and left the church, heading back to Wroxeter. They rode through the night, John's horse going lame on the way when it took a bad step in the dark. It took much longer to get back leading the struggling animal.
* * *
When they finally reached Wroxeter in the wee hours of the morning, they heard a wolf howl somewhere in the distance. The village was dark and quiet. They put their horses in the barn and headed to Aelfred's house. It was dark as well, the door closed. They found it latched from within.
Bossard slammed himself against the door. Aelfred cried out "Murder!" from within. Then John helped the man smash the door open. It was pitch black within.
Chanting came from inside the house. Remembering Aelfred's bed was in the back left side of the room, John fired blindly into the room. He heard the bolt strike something wooden and someone within let out a shout. He pivoted around the doorframe to start reloading his crossbow while under cover. Bossard rushed into the room, swinging wildly with his sword, stomping to the far wall until his sword struck it. He bumped into the side of the bed and brought his sword down onto it. He heard the sword strike the straw tick.
More chanting came from somewhere nearby. Then it went very, very quiet. Bossard swung around in the direction he thought he had heard the chanting from. Then he tripped over the prone form lying on the ground, landing atop Aelfred. The man underneath him said a horrible word that make Bossard's skin crawl. For a moment, an awful feeling of terrible power was upon him but it didn't seem to grasp him. Maybe it was his faith in God. Maybe it was his blessed weapon. He didn't know why, but whatever the terrible thing was, it was gone as quickly as it came. He felt the man slip out from underneath him like a snake.
Outside, John ripped his shirt off and pulled out flint and steel to start a fire. The dirty shirt began smoldering almost immediately.
Inside, Bossard swung wildly, the sword smashing into the ground. Aelfred cried out in terror.
Outside, John was trying to get the shirt to burn more quickly when a figure ran out of the house right past him at a sprint, turning to the right and running towards the corner of the building. He had no idea who it was but snatched up his crossbow and shot the man, hitting him in the side of the chest just before he disappeared around the corner. The man shrieked.
Bossard ran out of the door, looked around, and ran towards the corner of the house as well. He noticed a small flame on the ground, John crouched over it, crossbow in hand. Bossard didn't understand why there was a fire there except that the man was obsessed with fire. He ran after Aelfred.
John went around the other side of the house, reloading as he walked.
Bossard ran around the side of the house and chased after Aelfred. He was catching the man quickly, who struggled to run with a crossbow bolt in the side of his chest.
As John came around the side of the lean-to on the other side of the house, he saw a single silhouette running down the road. He noticed there was a stick coming out of the side of the man's chest and knew it was Aelfred. He shot the man in the abdomen. The man stumbled and fell to the ground.
Bossard saw the man jerk to one side, stumble, and fall when the bolt hit him. He ran up to him and found him quite dead.
He heard a growling nearby and backed away. Out of the fallow vegetable garden came a huge black wolf. Nearby, John reloaded his crossbow as the wolf picked up Aelfred by the midsection and turned to head south out of the village. It passed near John, who put the crossbow on the ground and saluted the terrible beast. The animal went out of its way to move towards him and then took a swipe at the man as it passed, tearing into his midsection. He was knocked back but it didn't stop or slow its pace, simply continuing on its way.
He thought the blow would be much more painful but then found his boiled leather armor had deflected the entirety of the blow though was partially torn. He was pleasantly surprised he was not dead or badly injured.
Lights started to shine in the village as villagers came out of their huts with candles and torches. John and Bossard got together and planned to tell them of the wolf attacking him and their wounding it. They told the villagers their story and headed off to the southwest.
They eventually arrived at the River Severn. Bossard examined the bruise John had sustained but found he was not really injured. They decided to make a little camp near the river so climbed a tree and tied themselves in the branches to sleep uncomfortably through the night.
* * *
The morning of Wednesday, October 31, 1000, was bright and brisk. The two men untied themselves and climbed out of the tree, going to Gerhard's camp. They found him there and asked if he was going to stop attacking the village. He said he would as Aelfred was dead. He knew it as he had found the body that morning, partially consumed. They noticed he looked a little bloated.
Bossard told him what was in the book, according to the priest in Shrewsbury.
"Are they going to do the ritual tonight?" Gerhard said.
"They might," Bossard said.
"Maybe you should tell them not to."
"Well, I could convince the priest."
"I don't know what will happen."
"I could tell the priest that it's blasphemous and they need to stop it since Aelfred wanted to do it."
"Will the priest recognize Aelfred's handwriting?"
"He knows how to read Latin and he taught him how to, I believe."
"So, yeah," John said.
"He would know," Bossard said.
"Show him the book!" Gerhard said. "Show him this book and tell them not to do it tonight."
Bossard told him they were going to tell the priest they were about to arrest Aelfred as a witch when the wolf attacked and killed him. Gerhard didn't really care. John suggested they also note they mortally wounded the wolf and it wandered off to die. Bossard suggested they say they had knocked it into the river and it had washed away.
Gerhard told them if they wanted to fight the wyrm, he would help them as they had helped him.
"Do we even stand a chance against this wyrm?" Bossard said.
"No," John said.
"I don't know," Gerhard said.
"We came for the wolf," John said. "We got the wolf."
"Did it cut you?" Gerhard said, noting the damage to John's armor.
"No," John said.
"His armor saved him," Bossard said.
"That is probably good," he said. "That is very good. Lycanthropy is contagious."
"We might consider taking down the wyrm too," Bossard said. "But we need to stop the ritual first."
* * *
Bossard and John went back to the village and found Father Thomas. On the way, John suggested they gather the entire village. He feared the priest might turn out to be working for the wyrm as well. That surprised Bossard and John pointed out the man had taught Aelfred Latin, noting they were clearly friends. Bossard didn't think the priest knew what Aelfred was doing. John insisted on a few people witness it in case the man tried to cast a spell.
They gathered villagers as they entered town and had a half dozen people with them when they got to the church.
"Let's say we found the book on Aelfred's body," Bossard said. "And we knew he spoke Latin."
"That's a terrible idea," John said.
"How are we going to explain this book we have?"
"We saw him drop it and we couldn't read it."
"Are you sure we want to confront him in front of a big group of people?"
"Just go with the full truth. Just don't tell him we burned a house down."
They arrived at the church and found Father Thomas. Bossard told him when they were searching Aelfred's house, they found the book which they got translated by a priest in Shrewsbury. He said it was witchcraft and handed it over to Father Thomas.
Father Thomas looked doubtful but he looked through the book, reading the Latin within. The further he read, the more horrified he looked. He was terrified by the whole situation. When Bossard told them not to go forth with the ritual that night, Father Thomas agreed wholeheartedly. Aehtelgythe was there and was not pleased at the end of the festivities, but had read doom for the village and so was willing to forgo the ritual as well.
Father Thomas wanted to burn the book and they were agreeable to that. John made sure never to let the book out of his sight. The villagers made a bonfire and Father Thomas flung the book into the flames.
That night, Father Thomas performed a mass instead of the regular All Hallows Eve festivities. They slaughtered the animals and there was a feast. Everyone ate well.
It's been bugging me for awhile now the question of "Am I alright as a Game Master?" it's a question I guess all G.M's ask themselves from time to time but after my last online group just weirdly faded away after a few poorly attended sessions without and real comment from anyone the question of my Gaming style has risen from the depths.
I do all my gaming Online and that may factor into how things pan out, Online is a fantastic way to meet up with people all over the world and actually get to roll dice but it does mean is a little more trickier to fully connect with people as off table talk is almost impossible to do, if you and another person starts talking about last nights game its heard by everyone and interrupts the game, so when the action involves someone else its probably best to mute your microphone and resist the temptation to do a google search on the information the Games Master has just dropped but back to the question that's unsettling me a little, am I okay as a G.M? as I mentioned before the last group I was part of just faded away in a really bizarre manner the first session was nearly a full house and the Players were awesome and I really had a blast running the game though I saw afterwards that I needed to change a few things to match the handouts better etc. but after that first session Players started to skip out, at first it wasn't to bad as they would post up that they couldn't make it next week which was fine, real life always trumps gaming and its always a juggling act spare time wise but soon the updates stopped and each session was a different make up from the previous and then suddenly after five or so sessions no one turned up not even the one Player who had previously made all the other sessions. For me the strangest thing was that even after a couple of days no one had really made an attempt to find out what had happened and when I managed to contact a few of the Players none seemed too concerned either way if the game continued or not, so it didn't (I never managed to contact the only Player who had previously made every session and if you are reading this I hope you're okay as your online presence went dark) Other groups though have lasted several years and I've almost completed a fantastic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign which was updated to the modern day but all these groups in the end have foundered as people lost interest or they said things in the heat of the moment that couldn't be unsaid (This one was unfortunate as the guy running the Cthulhu Dark game is pretty cool but the play test didn't go the way he expected and blamed me for all the problems and I was to was apparently on a short fuse towards the end, never have I regretted not taking a count of five and some deep breaths more) but I still maintain that whilst not playing great I did play okay and it was the adventure that was mostly at fault.
So that's a potted history of my Cthulhu gaming most of the groups have started off well but end badly or in that one case just end which is a shame as these people become my internet friends, we share a cool hobby and I don't talk to most of them anymore because of how the groups ended which is a great shame but thinking about the groups of yesterday got me thinking about what mistakes I have made and its a lot. I don't think I have ever run a decent campaign, there have been two mostly okay ones that petered out before they were finished but everything else has been pretty shabby really and that's been mostly down to me as a G.M to be honest. The Eclipse Phase game I ran was a horrible mess to be honest as I just got swamped by all those options (So many options) and it was the game that broke a Player. Looking back on my G.M'ing career its awash with partial games that ended fairly quickly due to one reason or another, a sprinkling of cool moments here and there but nothing really sustained, overall its been rushed games with not enough preparation on my part and listening back to some of those early games I'm surprised that anyone could understand me as I muttered and mumbled through endless handouts ( I went a little crazy on the handout front with one game ) but for a time at least everyone came back and rolled dice until ennui set in or I blew a fuse.
I suppose the real question is why am I writing this? the answer is I want to roll dice and try to save the world from the uncaring forces of the cosmos but I'm uncertain if it will work. All the other groups have collapsed (Though I think the Masks group might be still going in one form or other) and whilst they collapsed for a variety of reasons I was involved in some capacity with their demise. I think I'm a better Player now but I don't think I'm a better G.M and since running a game is the easiest way to get a group started I'm a bit conflicted and to honest the failure of the last group has taken the wind out of my sails somewhat.
Reading this back I think I will hang off trying to get a group together, I'm playing in a pretty awesome Renaissance campaign at the moment so I'm still getting my gaming fix and it looks like I need to get the preparation aspects right first before trying again as that seems to have been a major problem in the past as I've had to fudge and um and arr a lot which has made things difficult for the Players. Also I need to calm the hell down as I have gotten way too over excited at times as well stressing out about the lack of communication (Must admit this still bugs me but I don't get as angry as I used to)
So this has really been a way to get my thoughts in order and to get in a bit of cheap therapy on the side I guess but if anyone who has gamed with me as a Player or as a G.M reads this by any chance let us know how you thought things went, all offers of advice gratefully received and Mr B if you read this can you just confirm that you made it back safely from the Christmas cruise?
It's been too long since one of these reviews. Apologies folks! Hoping to get back into the swing of things with a more regular schedule. And first up is this one, again from the Eldritch Tales collection.
I really like Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories, though I know they're not to everyone's tastes. For me they are a wonderful mix of the exotic east, very evocative descriptions of places and peoples, and hints of magic.
It's interesting to me that this story's narrator lives in London, I presume the English one, and not e.g. in Ontario or elsewhere. The description of the narrator's writings being mocked and retreating into dreams does sound almost autobiographical, and at the very least something that Lovecraft himself could probably relate to. I almost wondered if it was late in Lovecraft's career, but no, I see it was written in 1920.
I really like the imagery of the dreamer walking through childhood memories, retracing steps from his old home, through the surrounding landscape, until he drops, rather dramatically, into the dreamworld proper.
Things drift a bit much for me when the narrator goes on the galley. Maybe it's because I enjoy reading about Celephais so much, and don't want to leave it. I'm rather like a dreamer myself at that point, unhappy about being pulled in a direction other than the one I want to go! Though I do like his repeated attempts to get back to the city, and the descriptions of the other landscapes he dreams about instead. Lovecraft can be very, very good at building up a sense of place, with a deft and compact turn of phrase.
The ending is strange though. I guess there could be various readings of it. I interpret it as the narrator dying, and in his final moments being carried away in his mind to his dreamworld. Though whether this was for a perpetual time as the story says, Heaven like, or if it was an illusion isn't clear. And then there's the bit with the tramp, and the brewer, and Innsmouth of all places. I thought the story was set in the UK! That very last bit jars for me, and I think doesn't work. Though I do rather like the story up until that point.
I've bought a box of 120 crayons and have done three drawings, including the ones that are probably the most important. I'm probably overdoing this.
I've made a map using something from Google and am not sure why I can't copy it so I can have one without all the points that didn't exist then but also without the green, and one with all of that -- or, for that matter, why I can't add park green to the Basic Atlas style. No big deal, I know, but it itches at me.
Have now seen Angel Heart twice, and while it doesn't help directly here, it's really good.
This site is Japanese CoC unofficial site. Japanese CoC official don't have official site. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/
This page is Japanese CoC official supplement and scenario page. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/d/%b4%fb%b4%a9%a5%eb%a1%bc%a5%eb%a5%d6%a5%c3%a5%af%a1%a6%a5%b5%a5%d7%a5%ea%b0%ec%cd%f7
This page is Japanese Interim CoC scenario timeline. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/d/%b8%bd%c2%e5%c6%fc%cb%dc%a4%cb%b1%f7%a4%b1%a4%eb%a5%b7%a5%ca%a5%ea%a5%aa%bb%fe%b7%cf%ce%f3
Friday, May 4, 2018
(After playing the original Call of Cthulhu scenario "Terror Over Tokyo 4: The Demon Procedure" Saturday, April 28, 2018 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Appalachian State University NerdCon 2018 with Gina Towey, Dante Valentine, Carl Cordini, Tilak Lipscomb, and Christopher Weiler.)
World War II started on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, beginning the war in Europe. Within two days, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. On September 17, the Soviet Union, a German ally, entered Poland from the east. The Soviet Union would go on to invade Finland in November while Germany invaded Denmark and Norway the following April.
Germany continued to roll over other European states in 1940, including Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In June, France signed an armistice, allowing Germans to occupy the northern half of the country. Italy invaded British controlled Egypt in September and Greece in October. In June of 1941, Nazi Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union; by Dec. 6, a Soviet counteroffensive drove them from the Moscow suburbs. On December 7, 1941, America entered the war when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. An ally of Nazi Germany, this meant that the Axis soon declared war on the U.S.
The 17th Bomber Group was flying antisubmarine patrols from Pendleton, Oregon, and immediately moved cross-country to Lexington County Army Air Base at Columbia, South Carolina, supposedly to fly similar patrols off the East Coast but in actuality to prepare for a mission against Japan. The group officially transferred to Columbia on Feb. 9, 1942, where its crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an "extremely hazardous" but unspecified mission. On February 17 the group was detached from the Eighth Army Air Force.
Initially, 20 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were to fly the mission, and 24 of the group's B-25B Mitchell bombers were diverted to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The 710th Military Police Battalion from nearby Fort Snelling provided tight security around the hangar. Each of the B-25's had the lower gun turret removed, de-icers and anti-icers installed, steel blast plates mounted on the fuselage around the upper turret, the liaison radio set removed, installation of a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank fixed to the top of the bomb bay, as well as a support mounts for additional fuel cells, mock gun barrels installed in the tail cone, and replacement of the Norden bombsight with a makeshift one.
The North American B-25 Mitchell was an American twin-engine medium bomber manufactured by North American Aviation. She had a length of 52 feet, 11 inches; a wingspan of 67 feet 7 inches; and a gross weight of 19,480 pounds. Her cruising speed was 230 miles per hour and her top speed was 272 miles per hour with a service ceiling of 24,200 feet. She had a range of 1,350 miles (with the modifications to the aircraft, that was increased to 2,400 nautical miles). The aircraft on the Doolittle Raid were armed with a .30 caliber machinegun in the bow and twin .50 caliber machineguns in the dorsal turret on the rear fuselage. Ammunition was 750 rounds for each in three belts of a proportion of one tracer, two armor-piercing, and three explosive bullets.
The 24 crews picked up the modified bombers in Minneapolis and flew them to Eglin Field, Florida, on March 1. The crews received intensive training for three weeks in simulated carrier deck takeoffs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing, and over-water navigation mostly out of Wagner Field, Auxiliary Field 1. Navigators had to learn the work of bombardiers. Pilots and co-pilots had to practice every job on the plane. Lieutenant Henry Miller, USN, from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola supervised their takeoff training. The testing was extensive. Dropping a 100 pound bomb from 500 feet proved dangerous and shook up the crew and the ship. Plus, the 500-pound bombs they would be dropping would have a 50% charge instead of the usual 35% charge.
Each B-25 bomber would carry four specially constructed 500-pound bombs. Three were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were long tubes, wrapped together in order to be carried in the bomb bay, but designed to separate and scatter over a wide area after release.
On March 25, the 24 B-25s took off from Eglin for McClellan Field, California. They arrived at the Sacramento Air Depot for final modifications on March 27. Sixteen of the B-25s were chosen to fly to NAS Alameda, California, on March 31. Fifteen were for the main mission force and a 16th aircraft was squeezed onto the deck to be flown off shortly after departure from San Francisco to provide feedback to the Army pilots about takeoff characteristics. However, 16th bomber was made part of the mission force instead.
On April 1 the 16 modified bombers, their five-man crews, and Army maintenance personnel totaling 71 officers and 130 enlisted men were loaded onto the USS Hornet (CV- under Captain Marc Mitscher at Naval Air Station Alameda. It was decided at the last minute that the eight remaining aircraft would also join Task Force 18, along with the Lexington-Class Aircraft Carrier USS Brandywine (CV-0) commanded by Captain Horton D. Frost.
Originally designed as a battlecruiser, the U.S.S. Brandywine was converted into one of the Navy's first aircraft carriers during construction to comply with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which essentially terminated all new battleship and battlecruiser construction. The ship entered service in 1928 and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. Brandywine and her sister ships, Lexington and Saratoga, were used to develop and refine carrier tactics in a series of annual exercises before World War II. On more than one occasion these included successful surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Due to various red tape and other paperwork snafus, she was issued the number CV-0 instead of CV-4. The numbers stuck and Brandywine continued under that call number. Her motto was Sit cÃ¦lum, quod pertinet ad magnanimitatem (The sky belongs to the bold). Her patch included a picture of a three masted frigate - the original U.S.S. Brandywine, a wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate commissioned in 1825.
Hornet, Brandywine, and Task Force 18 left the port of Alameda at 10:00 on April 2 and a few days later rendezvoused with Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., which included the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), commanded by Captain George D. Murray, and her escort of cruisers and destroyers in the mid-Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. Enterprise'"‹s fighters and scout planes provided protection for the entire task force in the event of a Japanese air attack, since Hornet"Š'"‹s and Brandywine's fighters were stowed below decks to allow the B-25s to use the flight deck.
The combined force was three carriers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers. The escort ships included the heavy cruisers Salt Lake City (CA-25), Northampton (CA-26), Vincennes (CA-44); the light cruiser Nashville (CL-43); destroyers Balch (DD-363) which was the flagship of Captain Richard L. Conolly's Destroy Squadron Six, Fanning (DD-385), Benham (DD-397), Ellet (DD-398), Gwin (DD-433), Meredith (DD-434), Grayson (DD-435), Monssen (DD-436); and the oilers Cimarron (AO-22) and Sabine (AO-25). The ships proceeded in radio silence.
On the afternoon of April 17, the slow oilers refueled the task force and then withdrew with the destroyers while the carriers and cruisers headed west at 20 knots toward the intended launch point in enemy-controlled waters east of Japan.
It was only after the ships were at sea that Doolittle told the pilots they would be bombing Japan with targets of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. The aircraft would fly in low, increase their altitude to 1,500 feet to drop the bombs, and then drop low again to fly under anti-aircraft fire. Doolittle ordered there was to be no bombing of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo - only military and industrial targets would be targeted. Once they had bombed targets in the cities, they would fly on to one of several airfields in Zhejiang Province in eastern China, refuel, and continue on to Chongqin in China.
The attack was scheduled for the evening of April 18 when the fleet was 350 nautical miles (400 miles) from Japan. The planes would come over the city in the dark and fly through the night to China, landing in that country around dawn.
"Surprise is our main safety factor," Doolittle constantly said.
Until the launch date, the days were filled with battle stations drills, lectures, tinkering with the birds, and gunnery practice (using kites flown behind the aircraft carrier). The ships were completely blacked out at night. It was drilled into the pilots' heads not to take anything that could be traced back to the aircraft carriers and they were told when they dropped their extra five gallon gas cans to drop them all together so as not to give the Japs a trail back to the fleet.
Each pilot was given his choice of target cities, though the planes on the Hornet were given priority as they would be heading in first. There were plenty of targets in each city between plane and tank factories, steel smelters, military sites, armories, army arsenals, steel factories, gas factories, chemical works, oil tanks, refineries, dockyards, ships, etc.
Pilots were bunked with seamen wherever there was room. The weather was pretty bad for most of the trip.
* * *
The fourth B-25 bomber in the group of eight on the U.S.S. Brandywine was commanded by 1st Lt. Brad Anderson. Lt. Anderson was tall and thin, a clean shaven man with light-colored hair, he was rugged and had a thick, rural accent. He was friendly and patient, an all-around good officer. He was 22 years old.
Born in the Logan County seat of Guthrie, Oklahoma, he was unsure what he wanted to do when he graduated high school. He got some time in and learned how to fly an airplane but, by the time he was 21, he was still unsure what he wanted to do. In August of 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps to put his piloting skills to use. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, he got the chance to volunteer for a dangerous secret mission.
His co-pilot was 1st Lt. Harold Duff, called "Harry" or "Duffy" by his fellows. A dark-haired man who never got enough cut off the top so it tended to amass there, he was also clean-shaven. He was a small man, barely five and a half feet tall, and slim with a goofy smile and a strong southern accent. Duff was 21 years old.
Lt. Duff was born in the middle of nowhere in Virginia, a town called Augusta Springs. He was able to graduate high school with only a little difficulty and get an apprenticeship with a carpenter in Richmond. He was working there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he immediately enlisted. Who would know they would need pilots? He'd learned on an old crop duster of his uncle's and the Army Air Corps had him in a bomber pretty damned quick.
He was ready to get some revenge on the Japanese as he hated all of them for what they'd done. He even had his father send him the old sawed-off shotgun when he learned he was on a secret mission. He was ready to kill some Japs.
The navigator on the bird was 2nd Lt. Thomas Locklear, a tall lanky, preternaturally graying man. He had a ready smile and a clean-shaven face. He was smart, well-educated, well-spoken, and friendly. He looked older than his 23 years.
Lt. Locklear was born in Juneau in the Territory of Alaska. He worked his way through high school and even went to college for a year before he found a job as a librarian in the territory. He took the job very seriously, however, and lived to deliver books to other places and people in need. Enough was eventually enough, though, and he joined the Army Air Corps in January of 1941. Though he wasn't terribly educated, he still had great skill as a navigator and was soon working on bombers. When he learned of the upcoming secret mission, he'd had a friend mail him his trusty Winchester '94 carbine.
Lt. Orrin Cook was the bombardier of the bird. He'd had lots of nicknames since he joined up, including "Cowboy," "Nebraska," and even "Doc." He was skinny with thick black hair and had a rural accent and a large nose. He tended to be angry, impulsive, and persistent.
Born in the little town of Hemingford, Nebraska, he worked his whole live to take over his folks' cattle ranch once he turned 18. Unfortunately, the bank foreclosed on the ranch just before his birthday and he parents moved to nearby Alliance. He decided to call it quits and enlisted in the summer of 1941. He was surprised when war broke out less than six months later. He was 19 years old.
The Flight Engineer for the aircraft was Technical Sergeant Aaron Shivo. Sgt. Shivo was a handsome man though he was fairly short, only a little taller than Lt. Duff. He had black hair and was 19 years old.
Sgt. Shivo had wanted to be in the military all his life. From San Francisco, California, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps the summer of 1941 as soon as he graduated high school. It didn't take him long to make sergeant and working on the B-25 Mitchell was a dream! Now he was part of a mission to strike back at the Japs for Pearl Harbor and he was ready. He was a ladies' man who had a girl in every port and was beholding to none of them.
En route, they were told to decide what target they wanted. They had the choice of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. Lt. Locklear wanted to bomb the Imperial Palace but that was off the table. Sgt. Shivo wanted to drop bombs on the Forbidden City, not realizing it was in China. They discussed what would be a good target and eventually decided on hitting a raw material plants, a fuel tank, and an industrial plant in Kobe.
* * *
At 7:38 a.m. on April 18, 1942, after the morning battle stations drill at dawn and before mess, battle stations was sounded again. This time it was not a drill.
The roar of guns could be heard from above decks. One of the big cruisers to the port of the Hornet, itself ahead and to the port of the Brandywine, fired away. It was the USS Nashville. Down near the horizon, a low-slung ship began to give off an ugly plume of black smoke. American dive bombers wheeled overhead.
"Army pilots, man your planes!" came over the loudspeakers. "Army pilots, man your planes!"
Lt. Duff, Lt. Cook, and Sgt. Shivo were all up on deck. Lt. Locklear was in the commissary. Lt. Anderson was in his cabin, shaving. They all made their way towards their aircraft, Lt. Duff finishing his cigarette before he headed over.
The flight deck was a hive of activity while the voice over the loudspeakers barked commands. Signal lamps flashed on the nearby Hornet and a reply was made from Brandywine. The Morse code read "Sighted by Japanese patrol boat. Bombers to lift immediately." The Navy men on the deck started taking care of the bombers. Blocks were whipped out from under the wheels and a small service vehicle moved the bombers into position. Within a half hour, the B-25's were crisscrossed along the back end of the flight deck, two abreast, the big, double-rudders of their tails sticking over the edge.
The weather was good though the sea was rough. The Brandywine increased speed until she was fairly flying through the water. The bombs were brought from below and rolled across the deck on their low-slung lorries to the planes. Sgt. Shivo helped to get them aboard the plane. Navy men topped the tanks of the bombers and, once full, rocked the planes in the hopes of breaking whatever air bubbles might have formed in the big wing tanks. Brandywine's control tower started to display large square cards giving compass readings and wind, which was gale force.
The take-off instructor went to each plane to wish them luck. Not long after, a Navy man brought five additional five-gallon fuel tins to the plane. Other Navy men and officers whom the Army pilots met came to wish them luck.
While they waited, some of them argued about naming the plane.
At 08:20, Hornet was plainly visible from the Brandywine. Lt. Col. Doolittle's plane was the first one in line to attempt a takeoff from half a carrier at sea. It worked well enough on the ground during training. It was time to see if it would work in the field. If he couldn't get his aircraft off the carrier, the entire mission would be scrubbed.
Doolittle's bomber lurched forward with the change of signals from the Navy man on the bow of the ship. With his left wing far out over the port side of the Hornet, Doolittle's plane waddled and then lunged slowly into the teeth of the gale. He picked up more speed and then, just as the Hornet lifted herself up on the top of a wave and cut through it at full speed, his plane took off with yards to spare. He turned the ship almost straight up on its tail, then leveled off, came around in a tight circle over Hornet, and shot low over the heads of the other bombers.
The Hornet had given him his bearing. Admiral Halsey had headed her right for the heart of Tokyo.
One by one, the other 15 bombers on the Hornet launched successfully from the ship, the second nearly crashing. It was only once they had all launched by 09:19 that the Navy man on the flight deck signaled for the bombers on the Brandywine to ready themselves for takeoff. The first aircraft off the ship, commanded by Lt. Ralph Conner, has a little difficulty on takeoff, getting off the deck but then crashing back down before actually getting into the air and off. It circled around the Brandywine and then headed for Japan.
"I knew he was never going to do it," Lt. Duff said.
Sgt. Shivo knew the flight engineer on the bird was Sgt. Preston Quackenbush.
"That poor mother," he said, shaking his head as he thought of the man.
The second aircraft off the flattop, that one piloted by Captain James Elloitt, lifted off effortlessly with yards to spare. Then it was off towards Japan. The third aircraft, piloted by Lt. Isaiah Bean, also took off effortlessly and headed on its way.
Now it was their turn.
A Navy man stood at the bow of the ship to the left with a checkered flag. He gave the signal to begin racing the engine, swinging the flag in a circle and making it go faster and faster. He waited, timing the dipping of the ship so the plane would get the benefit of the rising deck for take-off. He finally gave a new signal and the Navy boys pulled the blocks out from under the wheels. Another signal and Lt. Anderson released the brakes. The bomber moved forward.
"If you can't handle the pressure, just let me know," Lt. Duff said to Lt. Anderson.
"You know, I like you a lot, but honestly, now is not the time for this!" Lt. Anderson said.
With the left wing over the port side of the Brandywine, the plane slowly tore through the gale force winds. The left wheel was on the white line painted there just for that purpose. The right wing looked like it barely missed the island and smokestack of the Brandywine. Lt. Anderson pulled back on the control stick and the aircraft lifted and fell, lifted and fell, bouncing off the deck twice before it finally lifted up off the deck with very few yards to spare.
"I did say if you couldn't take the pressure "¦" Lt. Duff said.
Others were cursing over the intercom phone.
The aircraft banked, gained altitude, and circled over the Brandywine, getting her bearing, then flew on towards Tokyo. The original mission was supposed to be a night mission, but they'd be reaching their targets during daylight. The fleet was also 650 nautical miles from Japan instead of the 350 nautical miles that it was supposed to be. They'd launched 10 hours before schedule. It was unsure if the aircraft would have enough fuel to reach Zhejiang Province, let alone Chongqin. They hadn't eaten since the night before.
As soon as they are en route, Sgt. Shivo topped off the tank with the reserve fuel cans, beginning with the big emergency tank. Warm-up and take off burned the equivalent of eight of the five-gallon cans of gas and it was still 2,700 miles to China. They realized they might not have the fuel to reach the landing fields at all.
Lt. Duff suggested they land somewhere and wait until they could attack Japan at night but it was pointed out they didn't have the fuel to land and take off again and still reach China. He jokingly suggested they land in Japan and refuel there.
"They'll welcome us with open arms," he said.
Lt. Anderson flew as low as possible, about 20 feet above the waves at a slow speed to conserve fuel. The controls felt sloppy at such speed. The weather was disgustingly good - beautiful clear blue skies. About an hour and a half into the flight, a Japanese merchantman was spotted some three miles to the left. By then the emergency tins were used up. Sgt. Shivo had already tossed them out.
About five hours from launch, they spotted the coast of Japan. The island nation lay very low in the water with a slight haze that made it blend eerily into the horizon. There were several small boats anchored off the beach, including fishing boats and motor launches. As they flew over, there were surprisingly no shots fired from the boats. They saw men and women waving at the plane as it passed.
"What?" Lt. Cook said.
"That's what I told you guys," Lt. Locklear called over the ship's phone.
"Told you we'd be welcomed!" Lt. Duff said.
"You know why?" Lt. Locklear said. "Because the meatball in the center of the star! It's a psychological thing, guys. They see the meatball."
"That doesn't seem right," Lt. Anderson said.
"Why are they waving at us?" Lt. Cook called.
"The meatball in the middle of the star," Lt. Locklear said again.
They guessed the people thought they were a Japanese aircraft due to the red disc in the middle of the American star.
The white beaches quickly turned into soft, rolling green fields. Everything looked well-kept with little farms fitted in an almost mathematical precision. The fresh spring grass was brilliantly green and fruit trees were in bloom. Farmers in their fields waved at the passing aircraft.
"What is happening?" Lt. Anderson said.
There were many hills and valleys and the safest route was by following a valley going in the right direction until the aircraft needed to cross over a hill into another low valley. The plane flew over the rooftops of a few villages. More people looked up and waved at them.
"You know, I don't think we've been told everything that's happening," Lt. Duff said over the phone. "Maybe we're actually Japanese."
"I "¦ I think I would know!" Lt. Anderson said.
"What the hell you talking about, Duffy?" Lt. Cook said.
"Look at them!" Lt. Duff said. "They're waving at us as though we were friends. Maybe we are friends."
"These people probably don't know anything that's happened with the war," Lt. Cook said.
"Relations with Japan have been steadily declining," Lt. Anderson said.
"I wouldn't expect any of these people to know anything," Lt. Duff said.
They realized the people probably had no idea what a Japanese aircraft looked like, let alone an American one.
"All they know is ching and chong and that's it," Lt. Duff said.
"Oh my God," Lt. Anderson said.
"Duffy!" Lt. Cook said. "Duffy, keep off the radio if you're going to be spouting that ****!"
"Just keep chatter to a minimum please," Lt. Anderson said.
"Captain, just fly nonchalantly, will ya?" Lt. Locklear said.
"I'm doing my best," Lt. Anderson said.
"Now Duffy, I'm going to be straight here," Lt. Cook said. "We can't be talking about other people like that just because they're different colors."
"Let me put it this way," Lt. Duff said. "We have the gas "¦ and we also have the rodents below us."
"Duffy!" Lt. Cook said.
Lt. Locklear checked the fuel supply and then did some calculations. He thought they had enough fuel to get to China, just. While Lt. Anderson spoke to him, Lt. Duff tried to sneak a cigarette. Lt. Anderson smelled it immediately.
"Put that out!" he said without even looking at the co-pilot. "Don't smoke during the mission."
"We might make it to China," Lt. Locklear said.
"Locklear, Locklear, don't worry about it," Lt. Cook said. "Once we drop these bombs weight, we'll be okay."
About six hours after launch, the aircraft rose over a hill with a temple atop it and they spotted Tokyo Bay ahead. Lt. Anderson dropped down to just over the water and Lt. Locklear gave a course change as the ship continued at the same slow speed to conserve fuel. A large aircraft carrier was in the bay to the right as they approached the city, anchored a couple miles away. There were no enemy planes in sight. However, black smoke rose from Tokyo and Yokohama, the results of the earlier raiders. Lt. Duff made a crack about smoke signals and why the Japanese were so friendly. It took five minutes to cross the bay. Some barrage balloons were visible between Tokyo and Yokohama, across the river from Tokyo. The bay was filled with yachts and larger ships.
They continued southwest passing Yokohama and then west to Nagoya, both cities belching smoke from various earlier attacks, where they made another course correction to before they spotted Kobe. They saw there was a sameness to most of the city, making it difficult to spot their targets. Smoke was rising from it, however.
Once they reached their objective, Lt. Cook alerted Lt. Anderson by ship interphone and he turned over the aircraft control to the bombardier and increased speed to maximum. Lt. Anderson was still in control of altitude and climbed quickly to 1,500 feet. Black bursts of smoke began to appear in the air as anti-aircraft fire come into play. It was not as heavy as anyone expected. They just had time to get to the correct altitude, level off, attend to the routine of opening the bomb bay, make a short run, and let fly with the first bomb.
As each bomb was dropped, a red light blinked in the cockpit and the plane seemed to pick up speed as a big 500-pound bomb fell. After the third bomb drop, there was the shortest of delays before the aircraft flew over the part of the city that would burn the best. Then the incendiary was away. The last bomb separated as soon as it hit the wind and dozens of small fire bombs molted from it, spreading small fires all over the city.
The first two bombs struck their targets though the third missed. The incendiary struck an area that was not already in flames, a perfect hit.
"Does anyone smell burning dog?" Lt. Duff said.
As soon as the fourth red light blinked in the cockpit, Lt. Cook turned control of the plane back over to Lt. Anderson with a "Back to you, Captain." and they ducked back down to treetop level and reduced speed. A new course was set heading due south towards the coast to confuse any pursuers. Evasive action was also taken and all hands kept eyes to the air for the possibility of enemy aircraft. Behind them, more smoke rose from the city.
Lt. Duff lit a cigarette.
"Put that out!" Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Duff snuffed his cigarette and tucked it into his pocket.
In the back, Sgt. Shivo had lit up a cigarette as soon as the bombs started to drop. After the successful bomb run, he started to sing over the interphone. It was awful.
"Shivo, are you all right?" Lt. Anderson called back to him.
They eventually got him to shut up.
The aircraft proceeded southwest along the southern coast of Japan. All of the auxiliary gas was gone by then and the plane was dependent upon the wing tanks. At one point, three Japanese cruisers were spotted. They opened fire with their big guns, as well as machinegun fire, but the range was too great, the target too small and fast, and the plane got by them without damage.
The Islands of Honshu and Yakashima, Honshu a lumpy tail of an island and Yakashima an active volcano, were their next marker. They flew between them and then turned west to head for the coast of China, following the 29th parallel. At this point, Lt. Anderson allowed the men to smoke.
As they headed west, across the China Sea, they spotted a couple of submarines and a tanker about the time the weather started to go bad. Around 6 p.m., it started with a few drops on the windshield but quickly escalated into a full-blown storm.
"Captain, are you meaning to fly us into that big storm over there?" Lt. Cook called up.
"This is the way we're supposed to go," Lt. Anderson said. "We're supposed to go to China. We don't have enough fuel to go around."
There was talk of going around or through the storm and but they realized they didn't have the fuel to divert. Lt. Locklear told him as much and Lt. Anderson continued into the poor weather. They talked of typhoons and other terrible weather. At the mention of "typhoon," Lt. Duff asked why they were talking about food.
Most of them remembered the Navy men warning them storms gathered to roll off the shelf of China without much warning. It meant finding Choo Chow Lishui or one of the other airfields without radio guidance. The silver lining of the bad weather was it would mean the Japanese would have a much harder time finding them.
It continued to get worse as they crossed the China Sea, making it harder and harder to see out of the cockpit. Lt. Locklear recalculated their position and thought they were still on course and should have just enough fuel to reach China. Lt. Anderson had to stick his head out of the cockpit side window on more than one occasion to try to see ahead.
Sgt. Shivo examined the aircraft and found her holding together despite the storm.
Around 9:30 p.m., land was spotted. An eerie, peaked island rose out of the mist ahead of the aircraft. More islands followed, sometimes looming up out of the storm directly ahead of the ship.
"What the hell?" Lt. Locklear said. "Can anybody tell me what the fuel situation is, please?"
"Low," Lt. Anderson said. "Very low."
"How many gallons we talking about?" Lt. Locklear said.
"Not enough!" Lt. Duff said. "As in, we need to find someplace within two hours."
Lt. Anderson and Lt. Duff were of the opinion that they would push through the storm, looking for a place to land as best they could.
A couple of hours later, Lt. Duff and Lt. Cook spotted what looked like a runway of some kind below. There were no signs of lights or other markers to indicate the place was still used.
"Looks like a landing field below!" Lt. Cook said.
Lt. Anderson brought the aircraft around, heading down. Lt. Locklear thought they were over the mainland. Lt. Anderson said they'd land.
They came down in the pouring rain, Lt. Anderson lowering the landing gear. Lt. Cook climbed up into the cockpit and took a position behind the pilot and co-pilot's seats. In the back, Lt. Locklear and Sgt. Shivo took their positions with their backs against the forward wall of the cabin they were in.
Lt. Duff tried to get Lt. Anderson to let him smoke but his commanding officer refused.
"If I'm going to die, I'd like to die with a cigarette," Lt. Duff said.
"Look, we're not going to die and you can smoke when we land," Lt. Anderson said. "All right? It'll be fine!"
As they made their approach, they saw it did look like a runway. Lt. Anderson put the B-25 down perfectly.
"I must say, I didn't expect you toâ”€" Lt. Duff started to say.
Then the starboard landing gear hit a huge hole in the runway and the aircraft spun to the right. Lt. Anderson tried to correct it but that only made it worse as the aircraft hit more holes in the concrete. The forward landing gear went into one, snapped, and flew upward past the starboard side of the cockpit as the front of the aircraft hit the ground and then the entire bird flipped over, flopping several times before coming to rest on her belly, the landing gear destroyed, the props wrecked, and the craft completely demolished.
Lt. Anderson was smashed against the controls and got a chest contusion, tearing his uniform and giving him abrasions. Behind him, Lt. Cook had been flung around the cabin and fractured his right wrist when he tried to brace himself. In the back Lt. Locklear had abdominal contusions, tearing up his uniform and getting cuts and abrasions to his belly. Sgt. Shivo had a thigh contusion with cuts and abrasions to his right thigh.
Lt. Duff got the worst of it. He had not been strapped in securely enough and was flung around in his seat as the plane crashed. He had a shoulder contusion, his right shoulder torn up pretty badly. His left leg was strained when he tried to brace himself. The pain was immense. Worst of all, however, was the back fracture. He was in intense pain any time he moved even a little bit. After the plane finally came to a stop, he didn't move at all.
Painfully, he pulled out three cigarettes from the pouch in his pocket and put them all in his mouth.
"Are you all right, Duffy?" Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Anderson lit them for the man, who puffed on them.
"My plane!" Sgt. Shivo cried out loudly enough for all of them to hear, even over the pounding of rain on the aircraft. "My God damned plane!"
The aircraft was smashed up, most of the glass broken out of it.
"Captain!" Lt. Locklear yelled from the back of the aircraft. "Captain! How you feeling right now?"
"I'm all right, but I think Duffy's hurt!" Lt. Anderson called.
Lt. Locklear suggested helping Lt. Duff but also suggested posting some guards as the Japanese might be coming.
"Locklear, maybe we should focus on getting out of the plane before anything else," Lt. Anderson called back. "Cook, you okay?"
Lt. Cook used the gauze of his medical kit to bind up his broken wrist as best he could.
"Captain, I'm in absolutely horrific pain "¦ but at least I still have everything attached below the waist," Lt. Duff muttered.
"This is not the time to joke," Lt. Anderson said.
"Harry, get over here," Lt. Cook said.
"I can't move!" Lt. Duff said.
"He can't move!" Lt. Anderson said.
"Fine, don't move!" Lt. Cook said.
He pulled himself to the front of the cockpit and started to see to Lt. Duff.
* * *
"God damn it, Locklear, did you damage your hearing in the crash?" Sgt. Shivo said.
"I think maybe I did," Lt. Locklear said.
"You reckon this airfield has any buildings we could bunk up in?"
"Right now we're doing first aid. You and I might be able toâ”€"
"I want to go look."
"Check with the captain first though."
* * *
Lt. Anderson kicked out the remaining windshield and climbed out of the cockpit. The rain was pouring down, much of it leaking into the cockpit. Then he heard a howl in the distance unlike anything he'd ever heard before.
"Doc, I need you to help me get out of the plane," Lt. Duff said.
"I think there's something out here!" Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Cook helped Lt. Duff out of the cockpit. The latter leaned against the wreckage and noted aloud he could hardly walk. He also asked for cigarettes.
Lt. Cook climbed back into the aircraft and into the bombardier's compartment. He found the .30-caliber machinegun there intact and started to work removing it from the bird.
* * *
In the back, Sgt. Shivo kicked out the damaged glass from the .50-caliber turret on top of the aircraft. Then he removed one of the belts of.50-caliber ammunition from the gun. He climbed out of the wrecked aircraft.
* * *
"We can probably make use of the remaining fuel in the wing tanks," Lt. Duff grunted.
Sgt. Shivo came out of the pouring rain, a belt of .50-caliber ammunition draped over one shoulder.
"Captain, I have one recommendation," he said.
"What's that?" Lt. Anderson said.
"They're not gonna want this plane falling into Jap hands."
"The plane is busted to hell."
"Yeah, they can still grab intel and stuff from here."
"If there's anything in here, we could be giving the enemy valuable information. I recommend we take the remaining gas and burn this thing to the ground."
Lt. Duff drew his pistol and looked around when they heard some strange howl in the distance. He was pretty certain it was just a coyote even though it was terrifying. Lt. Locklear came out of the rain as well.
"It's those damned Japs, I swear," Lt. Duff said, certain the coyote had rabies. "They did it on purpose."
There was also the sounds of some great animal moving in the distance. It sounded huge, like an elephant or something equally massive. Lt. Duff pointed his pistol in the direction of the sound.
"Did you hear that?" he said. "I think it's one of those legendary Jap fat women. Sumo."
"Harry, I swear to God, you need to get serious," Lt. Anderson said.
Sgt. Shivo entered the aircraft again and helped Lt. Cook remove the .30-caliber machinegun. They got it loose and dragged it out of the aircraft along with the tripod for the weapon and three 250-round ammo belts.
They were all clustered around the front of the wreck. Lt. Locklear had his carbine out and Sgt. Shivo asked if he was any good with a machinegun. When he said he wasn't, Sgt. Shivo decided he would keep hold of the larger weapon.
They could hear something large moving around in the rain, hidden in by the darkness and stomping on large feet that thudded when they came down on the ground. Many large feet.
"Captain, I would advise we leave," Lt. Cook said. "I'll set off the scuttling charges. We don't want to be anywhere near here when it goes up."
"If y'all are gonna run, you're going to have to lift me up and carry me," Lt. Duff said, gesturing to his bloody leg. "I ain't running nowhere."
"Alright, well "¦" Lt. Anderson said.
"Doc, you're going to have to carry me," Lt. Duff said.
"He can't," Lt. Anderson said. "His wrist is busted."
"I'll carry you," Lt. Locklear said.
He shouldered the carbine and helped Lt. Duff limp painfully away. Lt. Cook went back into the wrecked aircraft and Lt. Anderson told him they'd meet him in a direction to the port of the aircraft. Lt. Duff took out his flashlight, was relieved to find it intact after the terrible crash, and lit it, shining it around them.
As they moved away from the aircraft, they realized the airstrip was filled with holes. It looked like it had been shelled.
"I don't want to get eaten by the Japs," Lt. Duff said.
"I suggest we move away from the noise if we can," Lt. Locklear said.
Lt. Anderson had taken the .50-caliber belt and Sgt. Shivo had the three belts of .30-caliber ammunition. Lt. Anderson looked around and then led them off to the port of the crashed aircraft. Lt. Cook scuttled out of the aircraft after setting the scuttling charges and ran after them.
They soon stumbled across another airstrip that ran at about a 30-degree angle from the airstrip they'd landed on. They examined some of the holes in that runway. Lt. Duff examined the holes carefully and thought they were caused by shells from a five-inch gun, very typical of destroyers.
"Why would they be firing at an island in their own ocean right on the border of China?" he said.
"I think we may be on the island they use to test their ships' guns," Sgt. Shivo said.
"Well, that's kind of awful," Lt. Anderson said.
"Because these are ship guns and this is their island," Sgt. Shivo said. "They have no reason to fire on a friendly island."
"Could we get out of the rain?" Lt. Duff said.
They were all soaked to the skin.
"Can we get out of the rain?" Lt. Duff said again.
Lt. Anderson led them down the airstrip. At the end of it, they came across a rusted and sagging chain-link fence. It was in terrible shape. Part of it had taken hits by the shells and portions of it were rusty, as if it had been left for a while. Barbed wire ran along the top of it. They thought they heard surf over the rain and, when they explored beyond the fence, they found a beach. They saw some docks nearby.
The docks lay outside the chain link. All that was there were the bare remains of concrete, metal, and wooden docks. Closer examination revealed a couple of military boats were probably there but they were now at the bottom of the water, rusted and filled with holes. Machinegun damage was evident on the deck and there were more holes from shelling.
"Oh!" Lt. Duff said. "They're killing each other! The animals!"
Lt. Locklear and Lt. Duff saw what looked like a structure nearby just inland of the blasted docks. They pointed it out and Lt. Anderson drew his pistol and took point. As he got closer, he found it appeared to be not one but two large storage buildings of some kind. Both were intact. They were simple buildings of sheet metal with metal roofs. There were a pair of doors in the front but no windows save for slits near the roof.
Lt. Anderson pushed open one of the doors and shined his flashlight around. It was mostly dry within the large building and he guessed it was used for storage. There were markings on the wall for tools and signs there had been things there, but it was mostly empty otherwise. It looked like everything of value had been taken from the place.
He went back to the others and found Lt. Duff had taken his morphine for the terrible pain. They all went to the building while Lt. Anderson went to the next. The second building was very similar to the first though it looked like it had doubled as a mess hall. A few tables and benches still stood in there and some open cupboards were built against the wall. A large cook stove was also present.
"Maybe come over to this one!" Lt. Anderson called.
"All right, fine, just drag my broken body everywhere," Lt. Duff said as Lt. Locklear helped him to the second storage building.
Sgt. Shivo stayed behind in the first building alone, looking for sacks. He hoped to fill them with sand for a makeshift foxhole. As he shined the flashlight around in the dark, he thought he saw something in the corner. At first he thought it was a rat. When he shined the light on it and looked more closely, he thought it looked like a dead baby. It was in the far corner of the room and he felt a shiver go down his spine.
He backed out of the shed and ran to the other one to find Lt. Cook.
* * *
The others found the second building had a few more leaks in the roof but was otherwise dry. They helped Lt. Duff to lay down on one of the tables there. He was still in great pain despite the morphine. Not moving certainly helped.
"Someone give me a cigarette," Lt. Duff said.
"Sure, why not?" Lt. Locklear said, lighting a cigarette for the man and putting it in his mouth.
Sgt. Shivo burst in the door.
"Uh "¦" he said. "I think I found a dead baby."
"What?" Lt. Anderson said.
"I don't know how to put this "¦ other than that," Sgt. Shivo said. "I'm pretty sure it's a dead baby."
"Listen, we don't need your promiscuous past following us, all right?" Lt. Duff said. "It's none of our business."
"You have quite a sense of humor for a man who's in terrible pain," Lt. Anderson said.
"No, I'm not joking," Sgt. Shivo said.
"Shivo, just show me," Lt. Cook said.
"I was looking for some sacks," Sgt. Shivo said. "I wanted to make some sandbags so we could mount the gun outside."
"That's a good idea," Lt. Anderson said.
"Just show me then," Lt. Cook said.
"Follow me," Sgt. Shivo said.
Lt. Cook awkwardly drew his Colt .45 with his left hand but Lt. Duff stopped him.
"If you're going to check out some freaky ****, take my boom stick," he said.
He offered his sawed-off shotgun. The man took it and he and Sgt. Shivo left.
* * *
Sgt. Shivo and Lt. Cook carefully entered the other storage room, shining their flashlights around. There was nothing there. A small gap was in the corner of the building there, but that was all.
"Nice "¦ uh "¦ dead baby, there, Shivo," Lt. Cook said.
"I don't know "¦ maybe it was a possum or something," Sgt. Shivo said. "I don't know. It's dark. I thought it looked skin-colored. It could have gotten out of the hole."
They searched the storage house again but didn't find any bags that Sgt. Shivo wanted.
* * *
The others in the second shed, quiet now except for the falling rain, could still hear something very large moving around outside somewhere. It didn't sound close but, whatever it was, it sounded big.
"Listen, all right?" Lt. Duff said. "I'm broken. I'm literally broken. Both of you need to do something about that so I can get some rest. It's really irritating, actually."
The other two men returned, closing the exterior door behind them.
"So, did you find it?" Lt. Anderson said. "Was there anything?"
"Was there a dead baby?" Lt. Duff said.
"Whatever it was, was gone," Sgt. Shivo said.
"Okay," Lt. Locklear said.
"Maybe it was an animal," Sgt. Shivo said.
"Are you seeing things, Shivo?" Lt. Anderson said. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head?"
"Look, it was an animal," Sgt. Shivo said. "I don't know anything about Japanese animals."
Lt. Cook thanked Lt. Duff for the sawed-off shotgun and handed it back to him. Lt. Duff asked him to help him and Lt. Cook put together a makeshift splint for both his leg and his back. The man remained in terrible pain.
They moved a table to the doors and tipped it over as a makeshift foxhole for the machinegun.
They set watches and tried to get some sleep.
* * *
* * *
The rain let up the next morning, April 19, 1942. Light shined through the cracks in the door and through the vents set high in the building. Water dripped outside.
"Give me drugs!"Lt. Duff said.
"Harry, we can't use up all the morphine right now,"Lt. Anderson said. "We don't know how long we're gonna be here."
"Here's the problem. I would be nothing but a deficit as I am. Give me drugs!"
"Just lie still!"
"There'll be a drugs deficit if you take all the drugs,"Sgt. Shivo said.
"I'll be less of an irritant,"Lt. Duff said.
"Look, I will rip off a chunk of my shirt to gag you,"Lt. Shivo said.
"Oh God!"Lt. Anderson said.
They argued about it while Lt. Locklear opened the door and looked outside. In the daylight, he could see the place looked like a military base or installation. Off to the left were some smaller buildings, up off the ground, most of them intact, that might have been barracks. A burnt-out building was near them. There was also a generator building. There were a pair of hangers near the runway where their bird had crashed. Further away was what appeared to be an inner compound with several solid buildings within, possibly bunkers.
"Captain, give us our orders,"Lt. Locklear said. "We got hangers, we got barracks, we got the baby. Guys, let's listen to the captainâ”€"
"As soon as you stop talking, I will absolutely give orders,"Lt. Anderson said.
"I gotta good question,"Lt. Duff said.
"Harry, not right now."
"Why are we listening to you? We're no longer a team."
"What are you talking about? We're in the military! Do you understand how militaries work?"
"Whoever can move, see if you can find a trace of whatever was here last night."
"Locklear, why don't you go check out the barracks?"Lt. Anderson said. "Doc, if you want to look through the officers' quarters. And you and I can go check out the hangers and see if there's a plane."
The last comment had been directed at Sgt. Shivo.
"I want to go look in that generator building and see if there's a generator,"Sgt. Shivo said.
"We'll stop by there on the way to the hangers,"Lt. Anderson said.
He looked at Lt. Duff, helpless on the table.
"And you stay here with your shotgun,"he said.
Sgt. Shivo moved the .30-caliber machinegun over to Lt. Duff.
* * *
They all left and, a moment later, they heard machinegun fire from the storage room.
"Don't waste ammo, Harry!"Lt. Anderson yelled back at him.
Lt. Locklear ran back to the storage room.
"Hey, Locklear, how ya doing?"Lt. Duff said.
"What the hell?"Lt. Locklear said. "What the hell do you think you're doing!?!"
Lt. Duff shrugged painfully. He had merely been testing the gun.
* * *
"You doing all right Shivo?"Lt. Anderson said. "You seemed pretty shook up."
"You crashed my God-damned plane!"Sgt. Shivo said.
"I did not crash the plane!"Lt. Anderson said. "The plane crashed. It's not my fault."
They reached the generator shed.
Wires ran from the building to the other buildings in the compound except for the two large storage houses and the inner compound. The generator building is intact with a single empty barrel outside. A large generator of Japanese manufacture was there, off, and it's fuel tank dry as a bone. An exhaust pipe ran through the roof.
There was a single empty 55-gallon drum marked in Japanese something-fuel outside of the shed. A second barrel had been ripped to pieces and there was evidence of claw marks upon it.
A small manual pump for transferring the fuel from barrels to generator was there, as well as a toolbox filled with typical tools for repair. The room could be lit by a small light hanging from the ceiling with a string attached to it to turn it on and off if there was power.
The hand pump weighed about 25 pounds and consisted of the hand crank, a long pipe that went into a barrel, and a six foot hose.
* * *
Lt. Cook reached the remains of the officer's quarters. It looked like it had taken a direct hit during the shelling and there was nothing left but a single wall and debris from where it had burned to the ground. Nothing else remained but ashes and burnt and broken debris. Something seemed to move in the pile of debris.
Doc drew his Colt Peacemaker in his off hand and cautiously approached. As he did so, there was a rattling and someone stood up out of the debris.
The thing was barely a skeleton covered in a bit of burnt and rotten flesh. It had no eyes and wore the burnt and tattered remnants of a Japanese uniform. It was definitely not alive but still walked and moved as if it was. It shouldn't have been alive. It had a bayonet in its hand.
He aimed and shot the thing with his Colt.
* * *
Locklear had reached the nearest barracks building. Of the five of them, two nearest the storage building appeared to have survived while the rest had been damaged or destroyed by the shelling. Atop each of the two surviving barracks buildings was a large, open-topped water tank.
The buildings were set up off the ground by about a foot. A single step led up into each. There was no glass in the windows and the shutters were open, closed, or blown off. Inside, a dozen cots were set up, each with a footlocker. Two bare electric light bulbs hung from the ceiling. The room was very Spartan. Most of the footlockers were ripped open and personal effects scattered about.
He had also noticed a well nearby.
He saw tent pieces, knapsacks, loose boots, entrenching spades, gas masks, mess tins, and the like across the floor. As he started to look around the place, he heard a gunshot from nearby.
* * *
Lt. Cook's bullet didn't seem to hurt the skeleton in the least. It looked like it went between the ribs. The skeleton lunged at him with the bayonet and he beat on the horrible thing with his pistol, fighting it off. He dropped his Colt and drew his hunting knife, bashing at the thing's head with it. Some of the horror's teeth flew out.
Sgt. Shivo and Lt. Anderson burst out of the generator shed and saw the fight. He headed that way. Locklear came out of one of the barracks building and saw it as well. The man he was fighting looked like he was dead!
Lt. Cook continued to bash the skeletal Japanese officer but the horrible thing wouldn't fall! It brought the bayonet down on his broken wrist and he was almost incapacitated and almost fainted from the pain.
"I told you I saw God-damned dead babies!"Sgt. Shivo shouted as he ran towards the man.
He realized he could see through the man fighting Lt. Cook. It was like he was just a skeleton.
"What is happening!?!"Lt. Anderson yelled as he ran after the sergeant.
Lt. Locklear raised up his rifle like a club, screamed, and rushed the thing fighting Lt. Cook. The blow was merely a glance. The dead Japanese soldier focused on Lt. Cook, who fought it off. Lt. Anderson saw the horrible thing as he rushed to approach but managed to keep it together.
Lt. Cook stabbed the skeleton again but it would not go down! Sgt. Shivo ran up and tackled the thing and grabbed its upper leg. Bracing his foot against the thing's hip, he pulled, ripping the entire leg free of the rest of the skeleton. It crashed to the ground. He noticed the foot was skill kicking. Lt. Locklear brought the rifle stock down on the thing but slipped and fell in the mud. The skeleton swung wildly around with the bayonet and it was flung free of its hand, just missing Lt. Locklear and flying through the air to land some yards away.
The skeleton set itself on the fallen Locklear and the two struggled against each other.
* * *
Lt. Duff heard the gunshots and then the sounds of his fellows shouting as if they were fighting someone. Then he heard some kind of scrabbling noise over by the door. He looked that way, drew his pistol, and worked the action on it. He fired where he thought he sound was coming from, right through the wall. There was a squeak or something from behind the wall. He wondered if he had hit a rat. Or a dead baby "¦
* * *
Lt. Anderson heard a gunshot towards the storage room. He turned and ran back as he figured the other three had the situation with the skeleton or whatever it was well in hand. As he raced towards the storage house, he thought he saw something by the door. It looked like several overly large fetuses, all of them connected by some kind of terrible umbilical cord! One of them was covered with blood.
He let out a shout and drew his pistol.
* * *
Lt. Cook attacked the horrible thing again, smashing at it with his hunting knife and finally smashing the skill to pieces. As the rest of the skeleton stopped moving and the bones fell to the ground, he continued to smash the skull with his knife over and over and over again. Sgt. Shivo, holding the leg by the femur, felt the lower bones fall away, leaving him only the femur in his hand.
"Doc! Doc! Doc! Doc!"Sgt. Shivo said. "Doc, it's okay! Doc!"
Locklear tried to help the man calm down their bombardier. Sgt. Shivo offered him the femur.
* * *
Lt. Duff dropped his pistol and it fell off the table and to the ground. He grabbed the .30-calibur machinegun handle and aimed it at the noise, then let fly with a relatively long burst from the machinegun, screaming loudly. Unfortunately, he was not skilled with the weapon and unused to the recoil. He fired a short burst of about 15 shells but the recoil sent the barrel upward and he basically fired a line of bullets right up the side of the building.
Then something appeared in the doorway. It was three or four human fetuses, each about three or four feet tall. They were all connected together by umbilical cords. They appeared to be undeveloped fetuses with sharp teeth and claws and dragged a fifth of them along the ground. It bled from a bullet hole in its torso. The things started making their way towards him.
Lt. Anderson appeared at the doorway right after the horrible fetus-things. He yelled and shot at one of the things from the doorway. It fell to the ground, bleeding. The other ones screamed something in Chinese.
* * *
Lt. Cook picked up his Colt Peacemaker and ran back towards the storage shed where he heard gunfire. Sgt. Shivo and Lt. Locklear ran after him.
* * *
One of the horrible fetus things ran towards Lt. Anderson while the other two ran towards Lt. Duff. The cords pulled taut and they stopped.
Lt. Duff grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and fired both barrels at the horrible things, blasting two of them away and injuring one last one, which fell to the ground and tried to crawl away, mewing like a kitten in pain.
"Didn't you hear that language!?!"Lt. Duff said. "It's a ching chong monstrosity! Shoot it!"
The horror looked up at Lt. Anderson with pleading eyes and he shot it dead.
The other men rushed in moments later.
"I told you I saw a dead baby!"Sgt. Shivo said.
"What are these things!?!"Lt. Duff said.
"I don't know!"Lt. Anderson said.
"Please take this gun away from me, "Lt. Duff said of the .30-caliber.
"With pleasure,"Sgt. Shivo said.
He asked someone to get his pistol and Locklear picked it up and gave it back to him.
"I told you I saw a dead baby,"Sgt. Shivo said again.
"What the hell is going on on this island?"Lt. Cook said.
"I don't know, maybe we're on some sort of Japanese island?"Lt. Anderson said. "Maybe they're weapons?"
Lt. Duff shot the thing again with his pistol.
"Don't waste ammo!"Lt. Anderson said.
The horrible conjoined fetuses seemed to be shrinking as they watched.
"Get me a trophy from one of these things!"Lt. Duff said.
"No no no no no no no!"Lt. Anderson said.
"You are twisted!"Lt. Cook said.
"No!"Lt. Anderson said. "No!"
"Get me a trophy!"Lt. Duff said.
"No!"Lt. Anderson said.
"Here, take this,"Sgt. Shivo said.
He handed the man the burnt femur from the skeleton that he still held. Lt. Duff sniffed at it. It smelled of ash and burnt meat.
"Is this "¦ uh "¦ is this Jap flesh?"Lt. Duff said.
Lt. Locklear went to the open door to keep watch. He saw a man over by the hangers, peeking in their direction. He looked to be Asian and wore ragged pants. He had a beard and long hair and was very sunburned.
"Captain over here on the double please!"Lt. Locklear said.
"What?"Lt. Anderson said.
"I see a guy that looks like he's alive,"he said.
He pointed towards the hanger across the compound.
"I think this guy's alive,"Lt. Locklear said. "****! I'm going to try to capture this guy or something."
"Let's go try and talk to him or something,"Lt. Anderson said.
"You cover me while I go over there."
"No, I'm going with you. I'm the only one that speaks their language."
"Okay, let's go."
Lt. Anderson and Lt. Locklear crossed to the hanger. Lt. Anderson told the other man to put his weapon away and he held the Winchester carbine by the barrel. The Asian man looked at them very nervously as they approached. Lt. Anderson held out his empty hands. The man looked terrified. Lt. Anderson talked calmly to the man, trying to get him to trust them. He noticed the man looked at their uniforms terrified.
When Lt. Anderson said something in Japanese, the man seemed even more terrified.
"Oh no!"he said.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!"Lt. Anderson said. "You speak English?"
"You are Japanese! Japanese!"
"No no no no! Obviously not. Obviously American. I'm sorry."
The man babbled and wailed. Lt. Anderson continued to try to calm him and gain his trust.
* * *
Lt. Cook redressed his wrist and Lt. Duff examined the damage he'd done to the structure while Sgt. Shivo told them what he had found in the generator and that it could work but they didn't have any fuel for it.
* * *
It took what felt like a long time for them to get the man to trust them.
"Where are we?"Lt. Anderson finally asked. "What is happening?"
"ÃˆmÃ³ DÇŽo,"the man said. "We're on ÃˆmÃ³ DÇŽo: The Island of Demons."
"Oh, great,"Lt. Anderson said.
"Great,"Lt. Locklear said.
"What is "¦ demons?"Lt. Anderson said.
"They're everywhere!"the Asian man said.
"Yeah, we noticed,"Lt. Anderson said.
"The Japanese, they brought us here,"the man said. "They experimented on us."
That's when they noticed scars on the man. He also had pockmarks on his face like he'd had measles or chicken pox recently.
"They captured me,"the man went on. "They take the captured men here."
They convinced the man to come back to the storage house with them.
"Hey, everybody be calm,"Lt. Anderson said as they approached. "He's not Japanese, Harry."
They entered the storage house. Lt. Duff was unsure if the man were Japanese or not. He certainly looked Japanese to him. The terrified man had no shirt or shoes.
"Somebody make sure Harry doesn't do anything stupid,"Lt. Anderson said.
"What the hell are you doing with that Jap?"Lt. Duff said.
"Is that permission to put him down because it sounds like it,"Lt. Cook said.
The man looked at Lt. Duff in terror. Lt. Cook took a wad of bandages and shoved them in Lt. Duff's mouth.
"Shut up!"he said.
Lt. Duff spit it out.
"I'm still in pain, all right?"Lt. Duff said. "I have every right not to shut up. The morphine. Give it to me."
"I'm not going to give you my morphine!"Lt. Cook said.
The man told them again they were on ÃˆmÃ³ DÇŽo, the Island of Demons. At least that was what the Japanese who brought him there had called it. He told them the place was used to experiment on other races besides the Japanese, including Russians and Chinese prisoners of war. He said they did terrible things to people there, including exposing them to disease, starving them to see how long it took them to die, injecting them with various substances, cutting off limbs to see how long before they died, and other terrible things. The Japanese found that the isle, called Demon Island by the Chinese, was just that. Certain people, subjected to certain horrors, would change into demons. He was not sure if the demons were ghosts of those who came before inhabited their bodies, changing them, or if something on the island caused the change. He once heard the Japanese talking about it, wondering if there was something in the water.
He thought the Japanese, once they learned of it, were trying to create more demons, perhaps for their use. One guard who delighted in his use as a rapist of the women changed, his member growing large and his body shriveling but becoming very strong. He was locked up like the rest and didn't seem to respond like a guard anymore. One terrible night long ago, he was unsure when as the scientists never told them the date, the demons all escaped. They killed the Japanese. They killed the remaining prisoners. Only he escaped and hid from the horrors and he thought he was the only actual person on the island.
The demons tried to escape the island. One of them thought he could fly an aircraft there, but a Japanese ship and troops and more aircraft arrived. They bombed the air strip and shelled the base, destroying the boats at the docks and as much of the place as they could. Then they went away. He was unsure how long he'd been there. It felt like a long time, he said. The demons mostly lived in the jungle. They mostly came out at night. Mostly. Some of them wandered about the outer compound though few went to the inner compound. He thought they feared the place they were born in.
He told them he'd been living in the generator building in the inner compound. He noted there was a secondary generator building there. He said he barricaded the door at night and he'd been living off of fish and whatever he could find on the fringes of the jungle.
He begged them to take him with them if they were leaving.
"No,"Lt. Duff said.
"Yes,"Lt. Anderson said.
"We will certainly try,"Lt. Cook said. "Don't listen to the man on the table."
"He's a scary man,"the Chinese man said. "He's a scary man."
"Yes, he's also insane,"Lt. Cook said.
They learned his name was Liao Lin.
"Captain, should we check out the hangers?"Lt. Locklear said. "Maybe, just maybe, they have a plane there."
"I mean "¦"Lt. Anderson said.
"They've taken everything,"Liao said. "They've taken everything from all of these buildings."
"We're going to take everything from you,"Lt. Duff muttered.
"We'll worry about that later,"Lt. Locklear said.
"Harry!"Lt. Anderson said.
"I heard the gunfire so I came to see what it was,"Liao said. "I was afraid it was the Japanese."
"How about this Liao Lin, have you been around the island?"Lt. Locklear said.
"I don't go into the jungle,"Liao said. "I don't go into the jungle."
"How long have you been here?"Sgt. Shivo said.
"I don't know,"Liao said. "It feels like a long time. It was 1939 when I was captured. But I haven't seen a calendar since."
"And you say you haven't seen anyone else?"
"And "¦ whatâ”€"
"None of them looked like people."
"You don't look like a person,"Lt. Duff said.
"What different kinds of demons,"Sgt. Shivo said. "How many different kinds of demons have you seen."
"Give it a rest, Harry,"Lt. Anderson said.
"I don't know,"Liao said. "There are 20 or 30 "¦ maybe more. I never counted them. The night of the escape was chaos. There's a giant one that looks like a caterpillar."
"Can you tell us more about them?"Sgt. Shivo said.
Liao Lin could not. All he knew was Chinese folklore which said when men did terrible things or had terrible thoughts, they could change into demons. They had powers and were bloodthirsty and wallowed in the terrible things that made them demons in the first place.
"So, there's no way off the island?"Sgt. Shivo asked.
He asked if there were any maps of the island on the island. Liao Lin said there were not. He was able to tell them the general layout of the island. He told them of the two mountains and the thick jungle. He thought the demons stayed in the mountain caves. He had gone along the beaches some little way but usually had to flee into the ocean or run back the way he came when he heard something stir in the jungle. He was terrified of the demons.
"What did you do before you were captured?"Sgt. Shivo said. "What was your job?"
Liao Lin said he was a welder, mechanic, and plumber and often worked as a handyman. When Sgt. Shivo asked if he could still do that, he said he could.
"That's good, because we may need you,"Sgt. Shivo said. "Can you take us to the inner compound?"
Liao Lin pointed to the inner compound and nodded, noting he would show it to them.
When Lt. Duff asked about getting the generators working, Sgt. Shivo pointed out he had told him they had no fuel to do so. He said he couldn't even try to start them without gasoline. Liao Lin told them there was no gasoline in the generator room he was living in either.
Lt. Locklear wanted orders, suggesting he go to the hanger or the barracks.
"Why don't you leave the Jap in my care?"Lt. Duff said. "I'll take good care of him."
"Please don't leave me in his care,"Liao Lin said.
"Absolutely not,"Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Cook went over to Lt. Duff and injected him with morphine. Then he took the man's pistol from his holster. Sgt. Shivo, noting Liao Lin's nervousness, offered him his sidearm. Liao Lin took it but didn't seem to know, exactly, what to do with it. He showed him briefly how to load it and the like. The man thanked him and tucked it into his belt.
They all went to the generator building in the inner compound. Lt. Anderson helped Lt. Duff walk though the man didn't really need the help any more. The door looked recently repaired and it looked like Liao Lin piled up stuff inside the door to barricade it at night. The interior had been lived in and there was a bucket of water and some food, including some raw fish he had been eating.
The generator proved to be almost identical to the one in the other generator house and as empty of gasoline as that one had been. Lt. Duff and Sgt. Shivo both looked over the generator and it seemed to be in good, working order but was simply had no fuel. They discussed getting a plane going if there was one in the hanger.
Liao Lin also pointed at the building two down from the generator building and told them it was haunted. He noted that was where they used to vivisect people, cutting them open alive.
Lt. Anderson sent Lt. Duff and Sgt. Shivo to examine the hangers, noting no one was to go anywhere alone.
"Can I take someone else?"Sgt. Shivo said.
"No,"Lt. Anderson said. "Take him with you."
"Hello friend,"Lt. Duff, feeling good from the morphine, said.
They left as Lt. Cook looked over Laio Lin medically. He found the man was skinny as if he didn't have a good diet. He was obviously malnourished and not getting enough calories but was eating enough to survive. When he asked about the bucket of water, Liao Lin told the man there were some springs on the island. He told him that he could use the pump on the well by the barracks but warned him not to open the top.
"Something is in there,"he said.
"But you feel the water is okay, though?"Lt. Cook said.
Liao Lin was unsure. He had not been using it as he didn't want to venture too far from the generator house.
* * *
Lt. Duff and Sgt. Shivo found the hangers had been stripped of tools and goods. A burnt and blackened aircraft sat on the landing field only 20 yards or so from their own cracked up bird. It looked like it had taken a direct hit from a shell, as if it had been fully fueled when it had been hit and the whole thing had burned up. Their own aircraft was more intact than they had expected it. The scuttling charges didn't destroy it completely.
They found a radio that had been completely destroyed. Sgt. Shivo scavenged everything he could find from their destroyed aircraft. He found that one of the engines was actually still mostly intact. There was also a little fuel in the fuel lines.
They headed up to check on the sunken boats at the docks.
* * *
Lt. Locklear noted he wanted to look in the barracks once again so see what they could find. He, Lt. Cook, and Lt. Anderson ended up looking over the buildings of the inner compound.
The northernmost building appeared to be quarters. The solidly built building had high windows, the glass long broken. The interior consisted of a cross-shaped hallway with numerous doors, most of them open or broken off their hinges. Each room once held a pair of beds, dressers, chairs, and other furnishings. Each of the rooms was also connected to a small bathroom.
In the center of the building was a small communal area and kitchen.
The place had been ransacked and wrecked. Tables, chairs, and other furnishings had been thrown about and there was little there of use or interest. They did find some paperwork that survived, which mentioned something called Unit 731, which seemed to be some kind of organization for medical experimentation. They also found a calendar for 1940 marked until September.
The next building appeared to be a surgery. The building had a T-intersection hallway that ran from front to back. Eight laboratories were set towards the front while the same number of cells were built towards the back, their doors open. The laboratories were mostly set up like surgeries. The place was a mess with labs and surgeries thrown into ruin and equipment damaged or destroyed beyond repair. The bars on the fronts of cells were bent outwards, cell doors ripped from their hinges, or strange slime crusted to the bars of certain cells that were undamaged.
The third building was similar to the second. The notes they found seemed to indicate the prisoners were injected with various diseases.
The fourth building was similar to the others. Liao Lin refused to enter the building, claiming it was haunted. Lt. Anderson had Lt. Locklear stay with Liao Lin while he and Lt. Cook entered. They found the man was not lying. The place had a strange feel about it and sometimes they saw rooms that were suddenly completely intact with scientists doing terrible things to the prisoners, cutting them open when they were conscious. In one case, the vision showed them cut open an woman to pull out and examine her fetus. In each case, a woman with long hair covering face seemed to watch each terrible vivisection from a shadowy corner.
It was disturbing and they quickly left.
The fifth building had high, barred windows and seemed to be a holding building for prisoners. There were 16 large cells in the building was a mess of broken and bent bars, smashed and broken doors, and debris.
* * *
Lt. Duff and Sgt. Shivo found the boats were blasted and broken. They didn't think there would be any useable fuel remaining within them.
Lt. Duff suggested burning down the island but Sgt. Shivo noted the smoke, if the fire spread to the entire island, might be enough to kill them all.
* * *
They finally got back together that afternoon to discuss what they had found. They had searched the entire compound.
"The first thing I think we need to do is clear the well,"Lt. Duff said.
Liao Lin said there was a demon there.
"Some of us are injured,"Lt. Duff said. "We need to recover before we make any kind of expedition to the forest. So, what we need to do is clear cut and reinforce."
They had no saw to cut trees.
Sgt. Shivo had an idea for cutting down trees. He suggested making a hole in the tree with a knife and then filling it with the shell of the .50-caliber ammunition he'd kept from the aircraft. All they needed was a way to trigger it to blast trees so they could use them.
Lt. Locklear asked when the last time Liao Lin had gone into the jungle but he wasn't sure. He also suggested making a raft to escape the island. Sgt. Shivo mentioned aircraft had various gear boxes in the engine that they could possibly use to make a hand-cranked propeller to propel the raft.
They got to work on their plans, using the ammunition to fell trees and gathering vines in the jungle. They found some flint and cut it into crude axes to shape the logs somewhat once they were down. At night, they barricaded themselves in the generator room with Liao Lin. They soon ran out of water and so used the spring Liao Lin told them about.
After the first night, they noticed the bones of the living skeleton they had fought had disappeared. Around that same time, Lt. Duff realized his holster was empty. He didn't know where his pistol was.
* * *
On April 21, Lt. Locklear noticed Lt. Duff's features seemed to be changing slightly. They were more severe and he looked angry all the time.
"Captain, I want you to look at Duff,"he told the other men. "What is he changing into? Remember what Liao Lin was talking about? I don't know what we're gonna do with you but we're going to have to tie you up. I am afraid that you're going to go bonkers like these other creatures we've fought off."
Sgt. Shivo noticed he looked a little different.
"What do we do?"Lt. Locklear said. "Captain, what do we do?"
"What are you talking about?"Lt. Cook said, not noticing a difference.
"Look, we've all been under a lot of stress lately,"Lt. Duff said. "We've been having to deal with this horrible island and these creatures and these monsters. The last thing we need to do is turn against each other. We need to turn against the Jap."
Lt. Cook had been on board with what the man said until that last sentence. Sgt. Shivo decided he would give Lt. Duff the benefit of the doubt for the time but would be ready in case the man turned into some kind of demon.
Lt. Duff found a puddle and looked at himself in it. He realized he was looking a little different. Were his eyebrows coming down more sharply? Were his ears looking pointed? He was certain he looked different than he did when he had arrived at the island. Lt. Locklear was right. He also remembered Liao Lin said something on the island caused people to turn into demons.
"You're right,"he said. "I have changed physically "¦ but I haven't changed on the inside. Can anyone help me to try to figure out what's going with this."
"As I told you earlier, the Japanese thought there might be something in the water,"Liao Lin said.
Lt. Duff had not trusted Liao Lin to fetch the spring water they had been drinking since their second day on the island, so he had fetched his own. But they had all been drinking it.
"So, it's the water on the island,"Sgt. Shivo said. "We may not be able to drink it or continue drinking it."
"How come you haven't changed?"Lt. Anderson said to Liao Lin.
"Good question,"Lt. Locklear said. "Good question."
Liao Lin didn't answer and Lt. Anderson stared at the man intently.
"What I was going to suggest was that we have wood, we have all sorts of containers and stuff,"Sgt. Shivo said. "We have wood. We have all this stuff we have around that we can use. Can we boil seawater and distill it?"
They discussed it somewhat and Sgt. Shivo said he wanted to have water to go with them on the raft. Then Locklear remembered there were tanks on the top of two of the remaining intact barracks used for collecting rainwater. It had rained several times since they crashed. They could use the water from the tanks for fresh water.
Lt. Duff talked about clearing the well again, as he had every day. No one else wanted to deal with it. Then Lt. Locklear brought up the question of why Liao Lin hadn't changed again.
They talked to Liao Lin.
"You're not changing,"Lt. Locklear said. "After all this time. I assume it's been months or I assume it's been since 1939."
"1940,"Lt. Anderson said.
"I've got a question,"Sgt. Shivo said. "He's the same mentally and everything but changing on the outside."
He pointed at Lt. Duff.
"What if "¦ what if Liao Lin is the same on the outside but not on the inside?"Sgt. Shivo said.
"Let's find out!"Lt. Duff said.
"No no no no no,"Lt. Anderson said.
"No!"Sgt. Shivo said.
Liao Lin's eyes opened wide and he looked terrified.
"I don't know,"Liao Lin said. "Not everyone changed."
Lt. Duff moved closer to Liao Lin and stared at him but was unsure if he was telling him the truth. It made Liao Lin nervous and he backed away from the Americans. They were scaring him.
"Liao Lin, let me check your pulse,"Lt. Locklear said.
He gestured for Lt. Cook to examine the man. Lt. Cook did so and didn't find anything out of the ordinary with the man, just has he hadn't when he had examined in a few days before.
"Didn't you say something about how, if you were a bad person, it changed you?"Lt. Anderson said.
"That's what I thought,"Liao Lin said.
He wouldn't look at Lt. Duff.
"I never claimed to be good,"Lt. Duff said. "I'm just funny."
"Maybe you're changing because you're a racist! Sgt. Shivo said. "Or what if he's changing because he kept a piece of one of those creatures."
Lt. Duff still had the femur from the skeleton tucked in his belt.
"Yeah, you should get rid of that,"Lt. Anderson said.
"It's a trophy,"Lt. Duff said.
"No, Iâ”€"Lt. Anderson said.
"Your trophy's making you sick,"Sgt. Shivo said.
"I mean, I feel fine,"Lt. Duff said. "I just look different."
"Look, we don't want anything to happen to you,"Lt. Anderson said.
"Well, my cousin felt fine and then he caught the pox and "¦ he didn't look so fine and then he died,"Sgt. Shivo said.
"Would it make you feel better if I wrapped it up in something and stopped touching it with my bare hands?"Lt. Duff said.
"It would make me feel better if you threw it away,"Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Cook thought it a good idea to at least wrap it up. Lt. Duff did so.
"Did anyone see where my gun went, by the way?"Lt. Duff said. "My pistol?"
"No,"Lt. Anderson said.
Lt. Cook shook his head. But he knew. He'd been the one that took it from him.
* * *
After their meager lunch of raw fish and c-rations, as they headed back to the docks to finish up work on the raft, Lt. Duff diverted to the well. Lt. Duff pumped the pump next to the well and clear water came out. It didn't seem to be off or strange in any way.
"Hey!"he yelled. "This!"
He pulled the lid off and tossed it aside. He leveled his shotgun straight down into the well and fired both barrels at the water about eight feet down. Sgt. Shivo ran to the man. Lt. Locklear sprinted over as well.
A tentacle came out of the well and lashed at Lt. Duff. Lt. Duff tried to beat the thing off. He switched his shotgun to his off hand and then drew his hunting knife to stab at the tentacle, which wrapped around him.
"No!"Liao Lin screamed. "No!"
Lt. Cook and Lt. Anderson suddenly looked at each other suspiciously. Both of them were filled with terrible paranoia.
Sgt. Shivo ran to the tentacle and stabbed it with his syringe of morphine. He shoved the needle in and pushed the plunger home.
"No!"Lt. Duff cried out. "My drugs!"
Lt. Locklear had stopped, put his Winchester carbine to his shoulder, and fired at the tentacle, hitting it and blasting a huge hole in it. The blood struck Lt. Duff in the face and he licked his lips. He didn't think it tasted that bad. Then the tentacle went limp. He grabbed it.
"Give me back my drugs!"he yelled. "Give me back my drugs! Help!"
Whatever was on the other side of the tentacle was very heavy and sinking into the well. It was slowly pulling Lt. Duff with it.
"Try letting go!"Lt. Locklear yelled.
"Can anyone else help?"Lt. Duff said.
Sgt. Shivo grabbed the tentacle as well and, between the two of them, stopped it from sliding into the well.
"Everyone help!"Lt. Duff yelled. "Help us yank it out of the well!"
"What the hell do you want to yank that damned thing out for!?!"Lt. Locklear yelled.
"Out of the water!"Lt. Duff said.
"I know but what are you going to do with it!?!"Lt. Locklear yelled.
"You don't have an option!"Lt. Duff said. "Do it! Now!"
Nearby, Lt. Anderson and Lt. Cook looked at each other suspiciously until Lt. Anderson drew his sidearm. Lt. Cook was ready though, and drew his own sidearm. Lt. Anderson hesitated and Lt. Cook shot the other man in the left arm. Lt. Anderson fell to the ground, the vein struck, gushing blood.
The others heard the shot behind them and looked back. Liao Lin turned and ran away. Lt. Cook looked around with wide eyes. Then he turned towards Liao Lin.
"Stop where you are!"he screamed. "Or I'll shoot you!"
"It's okay, man,"Sgt. Shivo called to the man. "Put the gun down and help us grab the tentacle. We want to help each other, not hurt each other."
Lt. Cook ignored him.
Locklear ran back towards Lt. Anderson and Lt. Cook. Lt. Cook still had his back to them and was pointing his pistol at Liao Lin.
"Do you realize what you've just done!?!"Lt. Duff called. "You shot your commanding officer. If you were to stop right now, we might have a chance of forgetting this."
Lt. Cook turned back their way, pointing the gun at Lt. Locklear, who was rushing towards him. But then he hesitated, as if something Lt. Duff had said had gotten through to him.
Sgt. Shivo used his hunting knife to stab the tentacle into one of the posts holding up the enclosure over the well. Then he eased his grip off the tentacle. It got very taut.
Lt. Locklear dropped to his knees by Lt. Anderson and tried to staunch the terrible bleeding, ignoring Lt. Cook. He was unable to stop it.
"Liao! If you don't come and help us yank this out of the well right now, I'm going to hunt you down and skin you alive!"Lt. Duff screamed.
Liao Lin stopped running away. Then Lt. Duff tried to stab his own knife into the tentacle to hold it in place. It was close to the edge though and he figured it would just tear away from the knife once the weight of the thing was placed upon it.
"You're a doctor, God damn it!"Sgt. Shivo said. "Do something!"
Lt. Cook blinked and looked down at Lt. Anderson.
"Duffy, can you try to take care of the captain?"Lt. Locklear called.
Lt. Duff continued to tell Lt. Cook to help Lt. Anderson. It finally seemed to get through.
"Get off him!"Lt. Cook yelled, shoving Lt. Locklear aside and attempting to staunch the terrible bleeding of their commanding officer.
Unfortunately, he couldn't stop it either.
"This is bad!"he cried out. "This is bad!"
Liao Lin was moving towards Lt. Duff but was not very quickly, obviously very much afraid of the man.
"Move faster!"Lt. Duff yelled.
Sgt. Shivo ran for Lt. Anderson and tried his best to patch up Lt. Anderson. He stopped the bleeding but the man had lost a lot of blood.
The other men managed to pull the horrible thing out of the well. It was humanoid, for the most part, but had tentacles coming off its chin and an elongated skull. There were several tentacles coming off the thing's body as well, distorted and distended as it was. It was horrible to behold. When Liao Lin saw the horrible thing, he beat on it with his fists for about 20 seconds.
"I like you more,"Lt. Duff said to him after that.
* * *
On April 22, 1942, they felt ready to leave the island. They had a raft they thought could get them to shore. Sgt. Shivo had devised and built a propeller with a hand crank using the modified gearbox to allow them to propel the raft and they also had a few boards from the tables in the mess hall to row with if need be.
They carried Lt. Anderson and the raft down to the boat docks and, there, found several of the horrible demons coming out of the brush. The largest among them seemed to be a great snake made of bile. Liao Lin let out a cry when he saw it.
"I am DÃ¹jÃ¬, the demon that came out of Liao Lin,"the horrible thing intoned in a voice like thick phlegm. "I helped all of the demons escape. We will come with you. Liao Lin vomited me up. I know what he thinks."
Lt. Duff blew Liao Lin's head off with his sawed-off shotgun.
"I don't need him anymore,"DÃ¹jÃ¬ said. "I've got all of you."
The demons advanced and the soldiers opened fire. Sgt. Shivo blasted away with the .30-caliber machinegun, cutting down two of the terrible things. The others shot at DÃ¹jÃ¬ or the other demon there, a horrible thing that looked like a woman who had been cut apart and put back together. All of the soldiers were injured in the terrible fight but the gunfire drove back the last two demons and the soldiers pushed the raft off, Sgt. Shivo leaping aboard and operating his hand-cranked engine while the others rowed with boards.
They escaped from the island and rowed some 10 miles to the shore of China. There, they managed to connect with the free Chinese Army after some confusion and distress. They managed to get the Americans across Japanese-held China and to freedom.
Lt. Anderson got gangrene in his injured arm and it had to be removed at the elbow during the trip.
* * *
Lt. Brad Anderson made it home alive but did not return to the service due to his missing arm. He eventually married. He was never the same, however. He had constant nightmares of the horrors he had seen.
* * *
Lt. Harold Duff also made it home alive. Since he had to work closely with the Chinese in their escape, he learned to be more tolerant of other races. The fractured back took him out of the rest of the war but, years later, when he was in a nursing home, he constantly talked about what he had seen off the coast of China.
* * *
After the war, Lt. Thomas Cook returned to Alaska and was soon ordained as a minister, preaching to the Inuit in Alaska for the rest of his life.
* * *
Lt. Orrin Cook went to medical school after the war and eventually became an M.D.
* * *
Sgt. Aaron Shivo actually took strength from what had happened to them on the terrible island. Considering all of the improvising he did there, he began to write survival manuals for the military after he served out his term in the War.
Monday, April 23, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu Down Darker Trails Catastrophe Engine Campaign original scenario "The Doom That Came to Devil's Gulch" Sunday, April 22, 2018, from 1:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. with Ambralyn Tucker, Yorie Latimer, Ashton LeBlanc, Ben Abbott, John Leppard, and Austin Davie.)
Gemma Jones awoke with a start as the train braked at Devil's Gulch, Colorado. She had dozed off in the passenger coach and had a dream about her father, a terrible man who had abused her mother, herself, and her younger sister Lily. She had been only 13 when the man had finally left them to fend for themselves in San Francisco, but it had been a blessing for all three of them. Charles Allen had been physically and verbally abusive to all three of them and seemed to relish hurting them.
Gemma had been called Jennie then. Her mother had taken the name Jones after he had left, anxious to be rid of anything that would remind her of him. They must have been happy once, Gemma always thought, but something soured her father and turned him to the path of crime, corruption, and evil by the time she had reached the delicate age of 13. She had learned, some years later, that "Charming" Charles Allen had been connected to the John Valentine gang and was wanted for numerous counts of forgery, fraud, theft, assault, and rape. So many counts of rape.
She couldn't remember the dream exactly and was glad of that. Anything connected with her father was awful.
She disembarked from the train, finally at her destination after what felt like so long.
She had left her friends on July 20, 1875, in Santaquin, Utah, taking the train north to Salt Lake City and east through Utah and Wyoming, though there were numerous delays, before heading into Colorado through Denver and finally arriving at Devil's Gulch, Colorado, on Saturday, August 7, 1875, on the 3:00 train. Steam flowed around the locomotive as the trainmen refilled the steam engine with water from the tower. A few other passengers got off when she did, including four Chinese dressed in suits. Others boarded the train.
The station stood on a rise above the town and she looked down to see the quaint buildings of Devil's Gulch. A clock struck three from a tall tower atop a building in the center of town and she saw a church on the near side of the village on a rise near a graveyard. A larger graveyard stood on a high place further back on the opposite side of town.
People in town seemed to be very busy and excited.
She walked down Main Street and soon found her sister's business, the Gilded Lily. It was a two-story saloon and hotel with a covered balcony on the top floor and a porch on the bottom in the front. The large building had a great sign with a golden lily painted on it and the words "Gilded Lily" advertising it.
Gemma found her sister and learned there were three other dance hall girls working there along with a bartender by the name of Frank Simms. Lily was happy and surprised to see her sister and hugged her and showed her all around the saloon and hotel. The main saloon was large with numerous tables and a large stage directly beside the bar. A balcony ran around the top where the rooms were and looked down over the bar and the stage. Lily had a large room in the back that she used as quarters and an office. There was also a good-sized storage room. She even had two rooms upstairs with pumps running right into bath rooms, one of them connected to the grand suite. Her own room below likewise had a room with a bath. The saloon didn't have food yet as there was no kitchen in the building, but she was saving her money to have a separate kitchen house built behind the saloon so they could serve food.
She told Gemma the building had been a general store but was abandoned when she had arrived in Devil's Gulch earlier in the year. It had cost a bit of money to refurbish it and she was in some debt but business was booming. The Gilded Lily was on Main Street and the first hotel and saloon travelers disembarking from the train saw. The stage often stopped on Main Street as well. The other two saloons in town were further down and she was certain it was helping her business.
She also told Gemma there was a man named La Forge in town representing the R.H. Macy and Co. store. Apparently, the company was talking about bringing a store in the town as well as a distribution center for mail order. They were buying land in the town and Lily was thinking of buying up a little land and then selling it later when the town boomed. There was also talk of building the county courthouse in Devil's Gulch. The Elbert County seat was presently in Middle Kiowa, which didn't even have a train station.
She told Gemma she had met a beau, a cowboy who was staying in town after a big cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. He was talking about settling down there and had been courting her for more than a week. Gemma met the handsome cowboy, Dallas Avery, and was charmed by him if a little nervous about her dating a cowboy. He seemed really nice and was quite charming, noting he was hoping to settle down so Lily could make an honest man of him. Gemma learned he was staying in one of the boarding houses in town as he didn't think it would be appropriate to stay at the saloon Lily owned. He was about 20 years old and very nice, friendly, and very supportive of Lily owning her own establishment, which was a little unusual. He seemed perfect.
Gemma settled into the Gilded Lily, her sister sharing her room with her. Gemma not only sang on certain nights of the week, always drawing a good crowd, but also helped the dance hall girls, Lily, and Simms keep the saloon up while she was there. She also had time to have long conversations with Lily and catch up for the months they had been apart. She told her of some of the strange things that had happened to her and Lily seemed to mostly believe her.
While she was in town, she heard a rumor that some people said they had heard the morning train whistle blowing in the middle of the night down at the depot. Nobody was sure what it meant. It was just strange.
She also heard about a place called the Whiskey Mine, abandoned back in '64 after the digging turned up nothing. The men who were cutting it didn't like it at all. They said they sometimes heard strange noises unlike anything they'd ever heard underground before. They said they had to take at least one drink of whiskey before entering the mine because it was so strange. Then, one day, they came to town with what little gold dust they'd dug up, cashed it in, and left without another word. It was a few miles south of town.
On Saturday, August 14, 1875, the first shipment of supplies to build the new county courthouse arrived. It consisted of lumber, bricks, and concrete powder. Construction hadn't yet begun upon the building.
* * *
Jerimiah Bowen arrived in Devil's Gulch on Monday, August 16, 1875. He was a crusty old prospector of 61 years who was very friendly. He was also squat and boney with wild white hair and a grin on his face most of the time. He carried a large pack with a pick and a Spencer rifle. From Texas, he had most recently lived in Nevada before striking east in the hopes of finding gold or silver in Colorado.
He immediately went to the general store in town and purchased a tent to live in, pitching it on the east side of town. As he pitched his tent, he saw a gypsy vardo driven by a woman who looked half-Indian arrive. She had two horses, one pulling the wagon and one pulled behind it. She set up camp a hundred yards or so from town.
Then he went to look for silver.
* * *
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 17, there was the tinkling of glass from the Gilded Lily Saloon. When Lily and Gemma investigated, they found several rocks in the saloon itself and three of the window panes had been broken.
"Damn it," Lily said the next morning as they cleaned up. "Not again."
She went to see a man about replacing the panes.
* * *
On Tuesday, August 17, 1875, Dr. Eva Weisswald, Jacali, Lambert Otto, Robert Dunspar, and Ophelia Ethess arrived in Devil's Gulch on the 3:00 train.
Brandon Stalloid had left their company in Denver, wanting to take the dinosaur skull back to San Francisco to present it to scientists as the find of the century. He had taken Night Horse with him, telling them he was going to arrange for his transport back to the Uintah Reservation in Salt Lake City before he went on to San Francisco himself. Jack West and Clayton Pierce had gotten separated from them in Denver as well and they were unsure of their whereabouts.
Before he had left, Night Horse had asked Jacali to look for him if she was ever on the reservation. She was unsure if he was sweet on her or not but they had hit it off and were friends.
On the train, Otto had talked to Jacali.
"Do-do your people know anything about curses?" he asked.
"Well, I mean, I'd say about as much as you know about how much we know about curses," she said. "I mean, there are stories "¦ um "¦ they are tales."
"Any of them have to do with scars?" Otto said.
"Probably not," she said. "Well, I mean, you know the whole Hansel and Gretel story? It's like that. The kind of curses that I know about. "˜Oh kids, don't go to the candy house or the old witch will eat you.' It's not like adults talking to each other about curses."
Otto looked embarrassed and thanked her.
"If you want to know more about that, I am not the person to ask," she said. "In case that wasn't clear."
Devil's Gulch was a bustling little town and they watched several men unloading lumber, bricks, and bags marked "concrete" from the baggage car. A few people boarded the train and others disembarked and headed into town. They saw a man with a mustache coordinating the unloading and aiding people. An old man with thick glasses manned the ticket booth and a red-headed man wearing a green eyeshade was at the telegraph.
They headed down to the town and saw the Gilded Lily Saloon and Hotel on Main Street. A man was replacing window panes in the front of the building. There was a livery and blacksmith across from it and they had brought their horses in the cattle car so Jacali took them there. The building was wide and tall with great open doors in the front and back. There was a corral behind the place and several stalls, a few of them with horses already within. Above the stalls was a hay loft with large bales of hay. She could hear the bang of the blacksmith's hammer in the nearby smithy. She had seen another large negro man working in the smithy when she passed.
She met Jeremiah Kerns, the negro livery owner with graying hair, who cooed and talked quietly to the horses as he put them into the stalls and started to rub them down. He was very friendly and helpful. She asked if he sold horses but he said he only boarded them. She also asked if he had heard any rumors about new things in town.
"Well, I've heard lots of rumors," he said. "Some people have heard the train whistle in the middle of the night but it's the morning whistle. People have heard it twice so far. Nobody knows what it means."
She asked about any weird silver things in the area and Jeremiah had not heard about anything like that. He did know there were some silver mines in the hills that were played out.
"Bill Graves and Matt Brady have a mine to the "¦ it's southeast of here," he said. "There's all kinds of old mines scattered around. Back in the "˜60s there was a lot of mining in this area but nobody really turned up much."'
"All right," she said. "Thank you."
* * *
Otto had stopped off at the marshal's office, a small two-story wooden and brick building with a tin roof and a covered boardwalk out front. The door and windows were all barred. A couple of wooden chairs were on the boardwalk and a few wanted posters and proclamations were nailed haphazardly next to the door.
When he walked in, he saw the ground floor was mostly one large room with a small table and chairs next to a pot bellied stove in the center. A coffee pot bubbled on top of the stove. A roll-top desk was set in the back of the room as well as a cot and a filing cabinet. Another board filled with wanted posters and proclamations was on the wall to the right. To the left were three jail sets set in a brick addition to the building. The cells were mostly simple bars running from floor to ceiling and each held a simple rope cot with straw-stuffed mattress. There was a small, barred window at the back of each cell, looking out into the alley.
The man behind the table had a thick mustache and a stern face. He was writing something on a piece of paper as Otto approached.
"Hello, marshal," he said.
"Howdy," the man said, looking up.
"Do you have any bounties for the town?"
"Well, there's a wanted board out front and there's a wanted board right here on the wall."
Otto went over to the board and looked over the posters. The one that seemed fresh and local was for "Black" Jack McKinney who was wanted for murder, arson, theft, banditry, and the like. The rough drawing on the poster showed a man with a thin beard and mustache holding two pistols and wearing a black hat with a feather sticking out of it.
Otto nodded at the posters.
"Have you heard anything about McKinney in the area lately?" He asked.
"He's around here somewhere," Marshal Bishop said. "Him and his coyotes."
"So he has a gang?"
"Yep, he has a gang all right."
"He been attacking the town lately?"
"Attacking the town?"
"I don't know. Some bandits attacked a town a few weeks ago."
"What? Where is this?"
"Hilton Springs, Nevada."
"That's terrible. Well, nope, he ain't that dumb but they've been robbing people and such. We're keeping any eye out for "˜em. They haven't hit anything really heavy yet, which is good."
"Well, I think I might go look for him, then."
"You do as you please. You're a bounty hunter, then, huh?"
"All right. I don't want you to cause any trouble."
"You bring anybody in here that's not supposed to be arrested and you'll be causing trouble."
As Otto headed for the front door, the back door open and a chubby man who laughed nervously came in. He wore a deputy's badge and carried a sawed-off double barrel shotgun as well as the revolver on his hip.
"I didn't find those kids, Marshal," he said.
"Yeah yeah yeah," Marshal Bishop said. "All right, Chubby."
"Marshal, have you heard anything some mystical folks in town or something?" Otto stopped and asked.
"Gypsies and those sort of people."
"I don't know. I haven't. There's some lady who just came in a wagon on the east side of town, camping, the other day."
"No, I'm lying. Yes, really!"
"Well, thank you."
He heard Chubby laughing nervously as he left.
* * *
Dunspar, Dr. Weisswald, and Ophelia walked down main street to get a feel for the town. They spotted the jail, a town hall with a clock atop it, and noted a library tucked behind that building. They headed that direction.
The library was a small building attached to the back of the town hall. Though there were plenty of shelves, there were not a lot of books. A pretty blonde woman wearing glasses and with her hair pulled up in a severe bun on top of her head sat at a table nearby and coached a boy with his reading. When she saw them enter, she told him to continue to the next page and then stood up, straightened her dress, and approached them.
"Hello," she said.
"Uh, hello madam," Dunspar said. "Would you happen to have any - uh - books on mystical things?"
She gave him a look.
"We have Treasure Island," she said.
"Could you point me in the direction of it?" he said.
"Mystical things?" she said.
She showed him the small fiction section. It was composed mainly of dime novels and a few classics as well as some Shakespeare.
Dr. Weisswald turned to Ophelia and asked if she was interested in anything. The serpent person said "Technology. Your weapons." They went in search of books on weaponry and found some history books with information on cannons and the like. Ophelia looked over the book while Dr. Weisswald looked for medical books. Dunspar sat down with Mysteries of the Worm and continued his painstaking reading of the obscure tome.
Dr. Weisswald found a few school primers and learners as well. The librarian allowed them each to get a library card with a one dollar deposit.
* * *
Jacali had wandered further into town, finding the Bull's Head Saloon further down the street. Though the building it sat within was three stories tall, the saloon itself, with its front door off to the side, was simply a darkened box. Batwing doors led into a dim room with only two windows to the front, leaving it dark and shadowed. It smelled of smoke and sweat, beer and whiskey. A rough-cut pine bar sat on one side and tables filled the room. An older gentleman with a gray beard and mustache and wearing a fine suit sat in the corner. A Colt army pistol was in the holster at his side. A blonde man sat in another corner playing cards with several other gentlemen.
She recognized somebody. Sitting in the back corner was Pete Sutter, apparently playing poker with himself. He kept checking the other hand before declaring "Beat ya' again!" A bottle of whiskey was on the table next to an empty glass.
Jacali walked up to him.
"Pete God-damned Sutter," she said. "I thought you were dead twice now and yet here you are again."
"Well, if it ain't injun girl," Pete said. "What're you doing here?"
"You know what, Pete, that's good enough from you. I won't harsh you on that one."
"What're you doing here? Did they send you? They sent ya, didn't they? I knew that they knew that I would come if they didn't want me to know that they was knowin' I was comin'!"
Jacali looked at him for a moment.
"I'm still looking at stuff that fell off that train we were both on," she said. "Heard it would end up here."
"What?" Pete said. "Train? Oh, I get ya. I know what yer talkin' about. It "˜fell off the train.' I getcha."
"You were on that train! You got shot on that train!"
"Is Jack West here!?!"
"Uh "¦ no "¦"
"Good! I hate him! I hate him so much!"
"I didn't think to see him either, but all right."
"Why don't you sit down and have a drink with me?"
"Uh, sure, I can play a hand."
She played a hand of poker with Pete Sutter. They both had terrible hands and Jacali didn't know how to play poker, never having learned. She had the worse hand, which seemed to put him in a good mood. Then a crusty old man with gray hair carrying a backpack with camping supplies and a Sharp's rifle walked up to the table.
"What're we playing?" the old man said.
"This a friend o' yours?" Pete asked Jacali.
"No one I've ever seen."
"Is it your dad?"
"I thought he was yours."
"My dad's dead."
"Oh. My dad is too."
"We do have something in common then."
"My dad's dead too!" Bowen, the prospector, said.
"Of course he is!" Pete said. "You're old as the hills! Why aren't you dead yet, too?"
"I'm lucky I guess."
"That's a shame."
"What brings you to our card table, sir?" Jacali said.
"I saw you were playing some poker," Bowen said. "Thought I'd come over. Try my luck."
"You're a card shark, ain't ya?" Pete said. "I know it when I seen ya! You're a card shark! I know a card shark when I see one."
"C'mon!" he said.
"Deny it!" Pete said. "He's not even denying it!"
Though they played penny ante, Pete kept flashing money as if showing off. Jacali asked him vaguely about any silver artifacts but Pete hadn't heard of any. Pete also told her why he was there.
"Them Secret Service agents are the ones that sent me here," he said. "But they didn't send me here. If you get my drift."
"I don't get his drift," Bowen said. "I thought we were playing poker."
"I was hired to go up to Oregon, wasn't I?" Pete said. "Paid me $500. Didn't give me a pardon last time so I didn't trust "˜em!"
"They paid you to go to Oregon?" Jacali said.
"They paid me to go to Oregon," Pete said. "This ain't Oregon, is it? See how clever I am?"
"They told me "˜Go to Oregon,'" he said. "Some town, I don't even remember the name. But then I heard "˜em whispering to each other: "˜We don't want him going to Devil's Gulch, Colorado.' Overheard it. So I said "˜I'm going to Devil's Gulch, Colorado!' That's right! Here I am.
"I like your thinking, Pete Sutter," Jacali said. "You truly are a man among men."
"I hate "˜em!" Pete said. "I'll go wherever they tell me not to! I got $500 spending money. I'm gonna enjoy myself in this pissant little town."
Jacali looked around and saw that the other poker players were looking in his direction.
"And I saw somebody else I knew too," Pete went on.
"I saw somebody else first day I was here," he said.
"Oh, who was it?" Jacali said.
"Oh, that's gonna cost you some money."
"It's somebody important. Ha! You double my money and I'll say."
"Double your money? You want $500?"
"Yes. Yes, that would be double my money. I didn't know injuns could do math."
"You think I own five hundred whole dollars?"
"Well, you got rich friends, aincha?"
"Well "¦ not around here."
"Oh well, that's a shame!"
Jacali took out the dinosaur tooth.
"This is one genuine tooth of a giant lizard," she said. "I can offer you that. There's not another one like it in the whole world."
"Why the hell would I want that?" Pete said. "I can't do nothing with that."
"I'll take that," Bowen said.
"Yeah, give it to him," Pete said.
Jacali tucked it back away.
"What are you doing here in town," she asked Bowen.
"I'm drinking whiskey right now," he said.
"No, but what brings you here?"
"I came for the silver!"
"Yeah, I was told there was silver something. I just heard the word silver and I got going."
"You didn't hear the words "˜silver horn' did you?" Jacali asked.
"No," Bowen said. "I just heard silver."
"Where are the best spots to find silver in this town?"
"Usually in caves."
"Mines. Other people's mines usually. I like them. They're already dug up."
"I was wondering if you had in more specific mines in mind."
"I haven't explored yet."
"All right. Well, if you're going outâ”€"
"Probably tonight. You don't want to go during the day. That's when they spot you."
"Who is "˜they?'" Pete said. "Is that Secret Service? Is that who you're talking about? God damned Secret Service?"
"I think he was talking about the owner of the mine, Pete Sutter," Jacali said.
"Oh, you're a mine poacher, huh?" Pete said. "Maybe you and I can do some business."
"I was about to ask if you need a partner for these mines. I do haveâ”€"
"Oh! She wants to get into the crime gang too!"
"Well, I do have knowledge of some weaponry."
She gestured towards the quiver on her belt.
"Yeah," Bowen said. "You can come with me."
* * *
Dr. Weisswald and Ophelia walked the streets of town, getting the lay of the land. They saw Devil's Gulch had a bank, a doctor's office and home, an undertaker, a Chinese laundry, restaurants, a drugstore and barber, and even a photographer right next to the Gilded Lily. It noted he was also a chemist. When they peeked in through the big front window, they saw he had a camera set up to show off.
Dr. Weisswald went looking for Jacali and found her almost immediately coming up Main Street. A crusty old prospector with a rattling pack was walking with her.
"So, Weisswald, here's an update," Jacali told her. "I found this old manâ”€"
"Hi!" Bowen said.
"â”€who's going to explore old caves and silver mines with me and see if the "¦ Crescent "¦ is anywhere nearby in any of those."
"Did you say croissant?"
"Yes, we're looking for breakfast in the mines."
They all looked at him.
"Also, you'll never guess who I found at the bar," Jacali said. "Pete God-damned Sutter."
"Why am I not surprised," Dr. Weisswald said.
"Well, I mean, I knew you were good but I didn't think you were that good," Jacali said.
They noticed a poster for Gemma Jones in front of the Gilded Lily.
"Looks like fate has brought us all together," Dr. Weisswald said.
"Looks like it has a tendency to do that," Jacali said.
They went into the photographer with Bowen following. They arranged for a photo of Dr. Weisswald, Jacali, and Ophelia, Jacali sitting in front of the other two, who stood behind her. The photographer took them outside to take the photo. He had a backdrop painted on the back of the building and the sun was in a good position. He removed the lens cover and watched his pocket watch for a minute before covering it again. Then they all went inside again. Dr. Weisswald ordered four copies of the photograph and would have it by the next day for $1 each.
Ophelia didn't see the point of the entire exercise. Dr. Weisswald pointed out it was technology.
They went to the Gilded Lily where they found Gemma Jones.
"Oh hello there!" Gemma said when she saw them. "Oh, it's so good to see you made it in one piece."
"Yes, good to see you as well, Miss Jones," Jacali said. "This is our friend Ophelia we have met along the way."
"Oh, hello," Gemma said.
Ophelia stared at her oddly.
"This is Ophelia," Dr. Weisswald also said.
"She doesn't talk much," Jacali said.
Ophelia rolled her eyes.
"Hello," Gemma said. "I'm Gemma. It's nice to meet you."
"What brings you to Devil's Gulch?" Jacali said.
"Oh, my sister lives here. This is her saloon actually."
"I'm here to help her out and perform for her in the evenings so "¦ plus we just wanted to make sure. I've heard about Devil's Gulch and I wanted to make sure she's "¦ she's doing all right."
Lily came out of the back where she had been doing some bookwork. Gemma introduced her.
"This is my sister, Lily," she said.
"Oh, hello!" Lily said.
She shook each of their hands and got their names. She was pretty and little younger and slimmer than Gemma though Gemma was prettier. She seemed very glad to meet them and Gemma told her they had shared some of her strange adventures.
"Oh my goodness!" Lily said. "Oh! Oh."
She was very pleased to meet Dr. Weisswald and pleasantly surprised to see a woman doctor. She was impressed with Jacali as well, noting Gemma had told her she had shot a dragon in the eye and killed it.
"And you're both women!" she said. "I am so proud."
She shook their hands once again.
"And who's this?" she asked.
Ophelia just stared at the girl.
"Oh, I just met her as well," Gemma said. "This is a friend of my friends."
"Yes," Jacali said.
"Ophelia," Gemma said.
"Who we met along the way," Jacali said. "She is "¦ uh "¦"
"I haven't heard anything about her," Lily said.
"She is wise beyond her years but "¦ not a conversationalist," Jacali said.
Ophelia looked at Jacali and then walked away from them, looking around the room at different things by the bar.
"So, Miss Jones, have you heard anything "¦ different "¦ showing up in town recently," Jacali said. "We have still been looking for the thing on the train. It escaped us and "¦ we're still looking for it."
"Yes," Gemma said.
She noticed Bowen. She had thought the crusty old prospector had just come in at the same time as her friends. But he stood near them like he knew them.
"Hello sir," she said to him.
"Hi!" Bowen said.
"Oh, I've seen him," Lily said. "He's been in here."
"Oh, you have?" Gemma said.
"He was in here the other night," Lily said. "He was drinking whiskey."
"Yeah!" Bowen said.
"Last night he was in here," Lily said. "He was just drinking in the corner. It was so full, I'm not surprised you missed him."
"Oh yes, I do remember your attire," Gemma said. "That hat."
"He was carrying everything he's carrying right now," Lily said.
"Yeah!" Bowen said. "This is my everything."
"Do you need a room?" Lily asked.
"I got a tent."
"All right. All right. That's fine."
"Okay," Gemma said.
"I can't afford your rooms," Bowen said.
"But as far as any mysterious "¦" Gemma said.
"The spooky stuff," Jacali said.
""¦ I have not," Gemma said. "Praise be. I've not, thankfully, seen anything of that sort. Why "¦ why do you mention?"
"Well, I had a dream one night and "¦ uh "¦ some slug "¦ insects "¦ that I saw there told me to go to Devil's Gulch and that everyone was in trouble," Jacali said. "So, I'm here."
"Peyote, right?" Lily said.
"I've heard of that."
"Oh, goodness," Gemma said. "That sounds like a nightmare."
"I've only heard of it too!" Bowen muttered.
"Why would you ever listen to slug-insects that tell you to go somewhere?" Gemma said.
"Well, there was nowhere else to go on this spooky trace so "¦ you know "¦" Jacali said. "When a lead comes from weird creatures in your head when you sleep, that's where the lead goes."
"I respect your beliefs," Gemma said.
Lily said nothing, apparently unsure.
"Are you looking for rooms?" Gemma said.
"I guess we'll take rooms," Jacali said. "If you want to go on our spooky **** chase, you're more than welcome to."
"There's plenty going on around here!" Lily said. "Have you heard about the new store that's coming in? And the courthouse they're gonna build? This is gonna be the county seat. At least that's what Mr. La Forge says."
"Well, if it's anything to be there to my close sister to protect her "¦" Gemma said.
Lily went over to Gemma and stood close to her, putting her arm around her and smiling.
"I think this man and I were going to check out some of theâ”€" Jacali said.
"Sh!" Bowen shushed her.
Jacali looked at him.
"We were going to have a talk about it," she said. "About our next plans sometime tonight."
Dr. Weisswald and Lily looked at each other in confusion.
"Sure," Gemma said.
They arranged rooms at the Gilded Lily. Dr. Weisswald and Jacali decided to share a room with Ophelia and Lily suggested one of the front rooms.
Ophelia was examining the stage. She knocked on it and tested its strength.
Lily told them there was no food served at the Gilded Lily yet. She had plans for a kitchen house out back at some point, once she could afford it, which would probably be soon.
"But I did invest," she told them. "So, that money's going to be coming back once that store comes in. Mr. La Forge says there's going to be all kinds of business. I even bought a little bit of extra property I'm going to sell for a huge mark up."
Gemma was obviously so proud of her sister.
* * *
Otto went to the east side of town about a hundred feet from the last building just off the road. The vardo was a small caravan wagon with windows in the side and an open door in the back. Two horses were hobbled nearby and tied to a stake in the ground. A small fire had been built not far from the vardo and a cooking pot was hanging from a metal tripod over it. The woman who was tending to the pot had reddish skin and he guessed she was a half-breed. She had dark hair, wore rugged clothing, and had a white hat. She was young and pretty.
He approached the camp and dismounted.
"Hello," the woman said. "Is there anything that you need?"
"Hello there," Otto said. "My name's Lambert and "¦"
"Nice to meet you Daisy. Uh "¦ the strangest thing happened back in Denver. I had a strange encounter with someone. She said that the scar I had was cursed. Would you happen to know anything about that?"
"I don't really know much about curses or anything like that. I'm sorry. But how can a scar be cursed?"
"That's what I was trying to figure out."
"It doesn't seem to make any sense to me."
"It doesn't make any sense to me either. Maybe she was trying to pull my leg or scam me."
"I "¦ I don't know. Is there anything I can help you with? Are you injured?"
"I think I'm fine."
"That was mainly why I "¦"
"No, I don't know anything about curses. I'm sorry."
"I'll keep it in mind."
He mounted back up.
"You have a nice day," she said.
He tipped his hat and waved to her and rode back into town.
* * *
Dr. Weisswald, Jacali, Ophelia, and Bowen went to the general store, a simple wooden building with glass windows in the front displaying many of the newest goods. There were all kinds of things in the store and she met the owner, Ulysses Mabry, who had a New England accent. He had brown hair and mutton chops and was slim. He wore an apron instead of a jacket and wore a bow tie. He was quite friendly.
When she inquired about purchasing a horse, he noted he didn't sell horseflesh. He had plenty of other things though. He didn't know of any facilities in town that sold horses but suggested she try out at one of the cattle ranches in the area. When she asked about the closest one, he suggested the one to the east along the road that ran by the railroad. They were a cattle ranch but might have some horses they would be willing to sell her.
Ophelia looked over some of the things on the shelves, mystified. She was surprised by the ladies underwear, unsure what to make of it. She didn't pay much attention to a barrel marked "used" that was full of long johns.
They went back to the livery and got their horses, heading out to the ranch that lay a mile or so east of town. They left Bowen, who didn't have a horse, behind, waiting at the edge of town like a lost puppy.
One of the hands there warned them to watch out for the Bar-T ranch boys.
"They think they own the whole county," he said.
He told them the ranch was a day's ride southwest of town and was big enough that it had its own stagecoach stop. He noted they didn't want to go down there as the owner was rich and let his son do whatever he pleased. He thought he owned the county due to his money.
Dr. Weisswald found the man at the ranch wasn't selling their best horses. However, he was willing to sell one of the horses for $50. The man warned her the horse sometimes chewed fences so she had to watch out for that. She knew it was not healthy for the horse to chew on fences.
She presented Ophelia with the horse, which seemed nervous of the disguised serpent person. Ophelia looked it in the eyes, staring at it for a few moments before mounting it to ride it bareback. She also bought a chicken for Ophelia and she ate it on the ride back, feathers and all.
They visited a restaurant for dinner before going to the Gilded Lily.
* * *
Gemma saw Dunspar eventually arrive at the Gilded Lily. He talked to one of the dance hall girls and then he got up and left.
* * *
* * *
Otto got there a little while later and got a room. He sat in the saloon and ate some hardtack and beef jerky while he drank his beer. Shortly after that, the others arrived at the Gilded Lily. They had hurried through dinner in order to get back in time to watch Gemma sing. There was a magician before her. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat and had colored balls that he made disappear. A pigeon appeared at one point. He also did card tricks. Bowen watched him intently.
Ophelia was not impressed at the act, glaring at the man. She had been docile since she'd eaten.
"Do you want to see some real magic?" she asked Dr. Weisswald.
"I have the pages of that one spell I'm learning," Dr. Weisswald said.
"Do you want to see some real magic?"
Ophelia started to mumble under her breath.
"Not right now!" Dr. Weisswald said. "Not right now!"
"I thought you wanted to see something," Ophelia said.
"We'll do it later."
"It might be entertaining to you."
"Tonight will be better."
"I need someone to cast it upon. I was going to pick him and his little sad tricks."
The magician pulled flowers out of nowhere.
"Now, who wants to come and help me with this next trick?" he said. "It involves cards! Cards!"
Bowen volunteered and the magician picked him to help. The man made fun of his age for an easy laugh, calling him grandpa, and then had Bowen pick a card. Bowen realized the man was forcing a card on him. He asked Bowen to show it to the audience but not him and memorize it. Then he told him to tear up the card. While Bowen did so, the man put a little kerosene in a bowl. Bowen ripped the card up and the magician lit the kerosene and bid him to burn the card as it was no use to them. He fiddled with the deck and made banter and then pulled the card out of nowhere in the deck. It was somewhat impressive.
"Is it harmful?" Dr. Weisswald asked Ophelia.
"Not physically," the serpent person said.
"We'll do it later," Dr. Weisswald said.
Gemma sang her song with the dance hall girls singing in the background. Lily joined her at one point as well and they performed a delightful duet. They used a player piano for all the music as Lily didn't have a piano player yet. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Ophelia seemed nonplussed by the performance.
"The words she's singing don't make any sense," she said.
A handsome cowboy showed up towards closing time. He snuggled up to Lily and she brought him over to meet all of the, introducing him as Dallas Avery. He was likeable and seemed very friendly, getting along with everybody. He told them about the big cattle run he had a month ago and the big bonus he'd gotten from it. He was thinking of settling down in Devil's Gulch in the hopes Lily would make an honest man of him. He was very impressed when he found Dr. Weisswald was a doctor and was even friendly with Bowen. He was simply nice to everyone and seemed to be everyone's best friend after only a short time. He was impressed with Otto's being a bounty hunter and Dunspar's being a scientist. He wanted to know more about being a scientist and Dunspar told him he'd teach him anything he wanted to learn.
Dunspar asked about why there was no food and Lily told him about her plans to build a kitchen house in the future once she could afford it. When he asked how much it would cost, she noted it would be several hundred dollars and most of her money was invested in the county courthouse and the promise of town growth in the future. She noted Mr. Finch and Mr. La Forge had said the boom was coming.
When he offered her a loan, she noted she was already up to debt to her eyeballs what with the mortgage on the property and her investments. She told them about the money she'd gotten for investing in the courthouse and the land she'd bought and she didn't want to borrow any more. He said that was fine.
"We'll pay it off in a few years "¦ or a few months if things go well," Lily said.
"They're gonna, honey," Dallas said.
Gemma thought the two were very cute together. He hung on her every word when she spoke, listening to her intently and they seemed very happy together.
Jacali asked if Dunspar knew how guns worked. Ophelia perked up when she said it.
"Work, yes," Dunspar said.
Jacali looked at Weisswald.
"To an extent," Dunspar said. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I was wondering if you might be able to get some insight into your knowledge of it," Jacali said. "We have a friend who's interested in the science."
"Well, I know the mechanics behind it, yes," Dunspar said. "However, using them "¦ not as good."
"I don't think that's what we need," Jacali said.
"Okay," Dunspar said.
"You know, Jacali, I know more about guns than this scientist probably knows," Otto said.
"You know about how they work?"Jacali said.
"I take them apart regularly. You've seen how I shoot."
"All right. Well, I might askâ”€"
"One second," Dunspar said. "Would you mind if I see your gun?"
"Which one?" Otto said.
"The one you take apart most often."
Otto handed him the Winchester carbine. Dunspar stripped the rifle as quickly as he could, laying the parts of the weapon all over the table. Then he put it back together.
"Is this some kind of ritual?" Ophelia asked.
"I'm sorry," Gemma said.
"No, this is how all the mechanisms work together so it will fire," Dunspar said.
"I think they like to show off their expertise," Jacali said.
Otto did the same, stripping the gun down and then putting it back together.
"I know how to shoot it though," Otto said.
While they all watched the gun-stripping, Bowen slipped a whiskey glass into his pocket.
"Sometimes it's easier to clean things when they're in pieces," Dr. Weisswald said.
"I understand that," Ophelia said. "I don't understand why they are taking this weapon apart and putting it back together now."
"They're showing off for you."
Ophelia turned to the men.
"I'm not impressed," she said.
"I was just showing you how to put it back together and take it apart," Dunspar said. "That's all."
"And I was just trying to show Dunspar "¦" Otto said.
Ophelia looked at Dr. Weisswald questioningly.
"She said she was interested inâ”€" Dunspar said.
"Well, one of you two are lying," Ophelia said.
"They're men," Gemma said.
"She said you were interested in how this works," Dunspar said.
"Men," Gemma said.
"Did you learn anything?" Dr. Weisswald said to Ophelia.
"Isn't that what you said, Jacali?" Dunspar said.
"Yes, I was "¦ a friend was interested," Jacali said.
"Something about primates, I think I did learn," Ophelia said to Dr. Weisswald.
"I'm always happy to teach," Dunspar said. "That's "¦"
"Well, maybe sometime tomorrow or after it's dark out, we could arrange something where we can figure it out if Ophelia is still interested," Jacali said.
"Okay," Dunspar said.
"I could teach her how to use them," Otto said.
"Will they fight for our pleasure now?" Ophelia asked the other woman.
"Mr. Dallas, you said you were interested in learning some things about the sciences?" Dunspar said, desperately changing the subject.
"Oh yeah!" Dallas said. "I want to learn everything about everything. I mean I gotta, I gotta life to lead. I mean, I'm not gonna be that kind of man that makes my wife not work. That's wrong! But we're gonna be "¦ we're gonna be one hundred percent partners. But I gotta pull my weight. And if I can't afford to get a ranch, I'm going to have to be able to do something."
"All right," Dunspar said.
He was more than willing to learn from him and seemed eager to know whatever he could about whatever he could.
"I'd be more than happy to teach you," Dunspar said. "What would you like to know about?"
They discussed it and Dunspar pulled out his briefcase and showed him the beakers and chemicals he carried with him. Dallas was willing to learn anything the man was willing to teach him. They arranged to meet the next morning to start his lessons. Dallas admitted he wasn't that smart sometimes and so Dunspar would have to help him. Dunspar said he'd be patient.
"That's great!" Dallas said. "I bet you're a great teacher."
He seemed very enthusiastic about it.
Later that evening, Dallas and Lily went to sit on the front porch for a while as he was courting her.
"The reason we came to Devil's Gulch is we're still looking for the horn, the Crescent," Jacali said.
"Silver!" Bowen said.
"Yes," Jacali said. "And he's looking for silver."
"Yes," Gemma said.
"This man, I think, would know the mines," Jacali went on. "He would know the best mining spots and I think it likely if the horn is in Devil's Gulch, as my "¦ intuition "¦"
""¦ has said that those would be the best places to hide it."
"That seems to make good enough sense."
"We are planning on going out at night and obviously it's not something that we would like to be found doing. I don't know what's going to happen and we are going to be in dark caves at night with nobody knowing we're there, so "¦"
She looked them over.
"But, if you're interested, you're welcome to come along?" Jacali said.
"How much of a threat is this horn?" Gemma said.
"What is it?" Ophelia said.
"I have also never heard of this horn before," Dunspar said.
"We're going to steal silver," Bowen said.
"Otto, you've seen it, right?" Jacali said.
"No," Otto said.
"Mr. Stalloid has trusted you with his book of strange things," Jacali said.
"Yes," Dunspar said.
"And you "¦ well, you're on the job anyway so who cares?" Jacali said to Bowen.
"He is old and will die soon anyway," Ophelia said.
"Thanks for the in-depth analysis," Jacali said.
"I'm 61 years young," Bowen said.
Jacali told them about He-Who-Waits in northern Nevada and his search for the "Horn" as well as the drawing on buffalo hide of the device. She talked of stumbling across it in Yellow Flats, Arizona, and its connection with Professor Terwilliger. She pulled out the large buffalo hide and opened it on the table. The drawing or rough painting showed a crescent shape with spikes sticking out of it at various angles. She said the Horn was about three feet across. She told them about chasing it through the train but of the outlaw Jack Parker falling from the train with it.
"When we found it, originally, there were piles of dust where people had touched it," she said. "And basically evaporated."
"Why would you want that?" Dunspar said. "Instantaneous combustion?"
"Well, whatever it was, it appears "¦ Terwilliger also said there was an electric current running through it or something like that," Jacali said. "That it might be able to conduct things like that. From my "¦ admittedly "¦ strangely sourced information "¦ it might be some kind of device of magical or advanced technological origins, but "¦ I don't know. All I know is that it's not good to touch and it does strange things that are out of my realm or my perception of reality."
"Interesting," Ophelia said.
"So, that's why we're looking for it," Jacali said.
"Do you think this "¦ what do you think this thing is capable of?" Gemma said.
"So, it's made of silver?" Bowen said.
"Yes," Jacali said.
"It looks to be," Dr. Weisswald said.
"What do you think this thing is capable of?" Gemma asked again. "How much of a threat is it?"
"Well, and again, I really, really wish I had a better word for what I saw in that dream, but "¦ the slugs had "¦ uh "¦ they told me that it gives people "¦ it changes people permanently "¦ based on what they want and need," Jacali said. "Is what my dream told me. My dream slugs. My friends in the dreams."
"That were tentacle-y."
"Well, wouldn't that be a good thing, if you were changed into something you want or need?"
"Not if you turn into a pile of dust afterwards, I wouldn't imagine, which is what some people did when we first found it."
"I don't understand how that could happen."
"Spontaneous," Dunspar said.
They looked at him.
"The combustion," he said.
"Uh "¦ well, we have heard of some people who touched it and then became supermen," Jacali said. "There was also an equal number of small piles of ash that were "¦ people."
"What did they look like?" Ophelia said. "The slugs?"
"Surely you have a chance either way," Gemma said.
Jacali described the slugs, noting they were cones some 10 feet wide and high. They had four tentacles. Two ended in nippers or pincers. Another tentacle had three eyes and the last had horn-like appendages. There were small tentacles on the bottom of the eye tentacle and others that came out of the top of it.
"Hm," Ophelia said.
"So, does anybody have a better word than slugs for these things "¦" Jacali said.
"Monstrosity?" Dunspar said.
"I would concur," Gemma said.
"I call it a lobster," Bowen said.
"Monstrosity might be accurate to the feeling I had when I saw them but it's not very descriptive," Jacali said.
Many of them noticed Ophelia put her hand to her jaw as if she was thinking. Jacali and Otto noticed the light of recognition in her eye when Jacali described the things from her dreams.
"Oh, Ophelia, did you have something to add?" Jacali said.
Ophelia looked at her.
"No," she said.
"You looked like you were thinking about something," Jacali said
Ophelia looked at her blankly.
"Did my description "¦ meet anything in your mind?" Jacali said. "In your memory?"
She stared at the Indian woman again.
"These things sound like the Great Race," she finally said. "Yithians is what they called themselves. Or did "¦ 225 million years ago."
"You talked about them," Dr. Weisswald said.
"You mentioned them. By the ring."
"My goodness!" Gemma said. "You're quite abreast of your history."
Ophelia gave Dr. Weisswald a blank look. She told the woman she did not remember that but believed her. Dr. Weisswald guessed the serpent person had been delirious at the time.
"Oh," Ophelia said. "I must keep my mouth shut."
"Do you have any information about them?" Jacali said. "And why were they appearing in my dreams and talking to me."
"That I don't know. They have been on "¦ Earth "¦ for millions of years and were still a "¦ force "¦ on the world during our reign of Valusia 225 million years ago."
"I'm sorry?" Gemma said.
"Then you might think that my dream was more than instinct then?" Jacali said.
"I might think what?" Ophelia said. "My mind is much more clearly focused than you primates. I probably don't think anything that you do."
"But why would these appear in my dreams if it didn't mean something, is what I'm saying," Jacali said.
"I don't know," Ophelia said. "I've heard mere rumors about them. They were from my time."
"What is your time?" Dunspar said.
"Two hundred twenty five million years ago," she said.
"How "¦ how old are you?" he said.
She looked at him.
"That's a very rude question to ask a woman!" Jacali said.
"Whatever do you mean?" Gemma said to Ophelia. "You talk from experience."
Ophelia looked at her.
"You haven't told her about the gate?" she said.
"What is this?" Gemma said.
"Wait!" Otto said. "Is this that snake person?"
"Yeah, I thought that was pretty clear, Otto!" Jacali said.
"You never told me!"
"We introduced our friend, Ophelia!"
"Yes, but you never told me!"
"I "¦ ah what?" Gemma said.
"But "¦ that's not "¦ that's not a snake!" Dunspar said.
"Sh!" Jacali said. "Don't think about it too hard."
"That just makes me think about it more!"Dunspar said.
Gemma looked at Ophelia carefully but she just looked like a woman. She didn't see anything out of the ordinary about her.
"Yes," Ophelia said. "Two hundred twenty five million years ago."
"But "¦ but "¦ what do you mean?" Gemma said.
"She was a snake and now she's a woman," Otto said.
"Yes, like I told the professor over here, don't think about it too hard," Jacali said.
"We've solved that riddle and it's done."
"Is she "¦?" Gemma said. She lowered her voice. "Is she safe?"
She realized she was sitting right next to the woman. There was no way she hadn't heard.
"I'm sorry, I "¦" she said.
"Ophelia, do you feel safe?" Jacali said.
"I've not felt safe since I got here," Ophelia said.
"She's as safe as she's ever been."
"I'm surrounded by primitives."
"I didn't quite mean it like that but "¦" Gemma said.
"I thought we were primates," Bowen said.
"Primates, evolutionarily, are our ancestors," Dunspar said.
"No," Bowen said. "Naw."
"Yes," Ophelia said. "they didn't evolve until well after us. You are still only somewhat evolved."
Dunspar knew from his studies that, if she was being truthful about 225 million years before, there weren't even any primates around yet at that time. The first primates didn't appear until roughly 50 to 55 million years ago. How she knew there were even primates was a mystery.
"Once again, how old are you?" Dunspar said.
She stared at him.
"I think we've been over this!" Jacali said. "This is a very rude question."
Ophelia just gestured at Jacali. Bowen patted Dunspar on the shoulder.
"Please don't touch me," Dunspar said.
The all looked at him.
"He has dirt," Dunspar said. "This is a nice suit."
"His age is not contagious," Ophelia said.
"No, but his dirt is," Dunspar said.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
"But do you know something about what they are saying about this Crescent?" Gemma asked.
"I've never heard of the Crescent," Ophelia said.
Bowen left the table, getting water from one of the dancehall girls to wash his hands with before returning.
"The Yithians have many secrets," Ophelia said.
"And, also, what they did tell me in this dream was that the Crescent was something of their creation," Jacali said. "They called it the harmonizer."
"Harmonizer," Dunspar echoed.
"So, we have three names for it now: the Horn, the Crescent, and the Harmonizer," Jacali said.
"And the Silver Thing," Dr. Weisswald said.
"And the Silver Thing," Jacali said. "So whatever you want to call it is basically fine."
They planned for Bowen, Weisswald, Otto, Jacali, and Gemma to go explore caves that night.
Lily returned just before closing time. She was very red in the face, flushed, and very happy. Then she looked a little upset.
"Dallas is so sweet," she said. "He wanted to stay and guard the saloon so we don't get rocks thrown through out windows tonight."
"Rocks?" Otto said. "Has someone been doing this?"
"I think it's some of the other hotel owners," Lily said. "That's what Dallas thinks too. They don't want a woman to compete with them and we've been very successful. I'm on the main street here, right by the train station and they're down the street and around the corner so, of course, people see the Gilded Lily first and this is where they want to stay."
"You need a guard?" Otto said.
"I know how that is," Dr. Weisswald said.
"Right?" Lily said. "Yeah! Men! They're so infuriating. But I'm just worried that it's going to happen again tonight."
"I am often infuriated by white men as well," Jacali said.
"Especially arrogant old "¦" Lily growled.
"Lily, do you need a guard tonight?" Otto said.
"If you would like to guard, yes," Lily said. "Maybe nothing will happen but if something happens "¦"
"The only thing I ask is that I don't have to pay for room and board tonight," Otto said.
"All right," Lily said. "I'll trade you for that."
Otto determined to sit on the top porch to keep guard.
Lily and her dance hall girls cleaned up early and then Lily told them they could stay up as long as they wanted, asking them to pay for whatever they took from the bar if they kept drinking. Dunspar asked the price of some bottle of whiskey and she told it to him. She gave Gemma the keys to lock up.
Jacali asked Ophelia if she was still interested in technology and weapons and willing to learn from Otto and Dunspar about it. She wanted to learn how to use them more than anything. She had not yet seen guns fired and told them she assumed the two men were some kind of alchemists.
"I wouldn't give them that much credit," Jacali said.
Just a little before midnight, when they planned to close the place up, a man peeked in through the batwing doors of the establishment from the street. He was a young man with short, black hair and a boyish face. He wore plain clothing and took off his hat to hold it in his hands. He looked them all over the room and the bar.
"Saloon's closed," Dr. Weisswald said.
"Oh, all right," the man said. "Is that "¦ is that Gemma Jones?"
"Yes," Gemma said.
"You're supposed to say "˜Depends on who's asking,'" Jacali quipped.
"Is that Lily's sister?" the man said.
"Yes," Gemma said.
He came into the room, holding his hat in his hands. He walked up to the table.
"You need to warn your sister about Dallas Avery," the man said quickly.
"About Dallas?" she said.
"I don't trust him."
"I'm sorry, who are you?"
"Oh "¦ uh "¦ sorry. My name's Patrick Mills. I work at the hardware store. Uh "¦ I-I-I-I think that Dallas is up to something."
"Whatever would make you think that?"
"I just feel it. It's just "¦ an instinct, you know? So "¦"
"Well, that "¦ frankly that is not a good enough reason to walk into my establishment and question my sister's life choices."
His eyes opened wide.
"All-all right," he said. "All right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just don't feel like he's - like he's being completely honest. I'll just leave you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
He turned and walked out of the establishment.
"Strange man," Dunspar said.
He went up to his room to read along with his bottle.
* * *
Otto stationed himself in the shadows of the balcony above the front porch.
* * *
The others went out into the badlands night with Bowen in the lead taking them southeast. They found a few abandoned mines that didn't go very deep. Then they found a mine with a cabin outside that appeared to be inhabited, a little smoke trailing up out of the building. Bowen wanted to sneak into the mine.
"That's the good one," he said. "That's the one."
They went into the mine, Bowen and Dr. Weisswald lighting lanterns once they were in. The shaft was narrow and only five feet tall. A wooden mine car on makeshift wooden tracks led into the mine and they began exploring. It looked like the mine was actively being worked. They headed deeper in, the rail ending at the t-intersection ahead. They continued exploring through numerous branches and intersections for about an hour, Dr. Weisswald marking the way out with a scratch on the floor.
They eventually found a huge natural cavern. Stalagmites and stalactites decorated the place and a large crevasse in the center of the chamber fell away into the darkness below. Bowen cackled. It echoed through the place.
"What do you think they're mining here?" Dr. Weisswald said.
"Silver!" Bowen said.
He cackled insanely and then ripped the sleeve of his shirt off and lit it on fire, tossing it in the cavern in the middle to see how far down it went. It went down and down and down and down before it finally went out.
"So, I don't think we ought to go down this one," Jacali said.
They thought they heard some kind of hissing from down there. They asked if Ophelia knew what it was and she didn't. Dr. Weisswald tossed a rock in there and it didn't hit for about 15 seconds.
"Well, the hissing could be gas escaping "¦" Jacali said.
"Let's go back," Bowen said.
They finished exploring the mine and found nothing else of real interest.
"Let's come back with climbing gear," Bowen suggested.
"What's the point?" Gemma said.
Bowen scuffed out Dr. Weisswald's markings and then snuck up to the cabin but it had no windows.
They returned to town where they saw Otto on guard on the balcony above.
* * *
They found more damage done to the Gilded Lily the next morning, Wednesday, August 18, 1875. Some window panes were broken in the front and some horrible, greenish brown paint had been splashed on the front porch and the front doors of the place.
"I thought you were guarding the place," Dr. Weisswald said when she saw Otto.
"Wha-uh-I-uh-wha?" Otto said.
Lily was very upset, especially at Otto.
"I'll slit their throats," Gemma muttered when she saw the damage.
Lily went to the glassmaker again to get more panes of glass. Otto paid her for his room.
* * *
Gemma left, angry, going to the Bull's Head Saloon. She found the place open that morning but there was no one there but the bartender and a bearded man in the corner near the bar. She went to the bartender and asked who was in charge. The man pointed to the bearded man in the corner who had thinning hair in the front and a pistol in his holster.
"Buck's over there, ma'am," the bartender said.
She walked over to the man who sat at the table, a ledger open in front of him and a bottle of whiskey on the table. He looked up as she approached.
"Well, what can I help you with?" he said as she approached.
"I need to have a talk with you," she said.
"Well sit down. You wanna drink?"
"No, I do not."
"There's only three saloons in this town. One of them is my sister's, the Gilded Lily."
"I know it," he said.
"Oh, I'm sure you know it," she said. "That's why I'm here."
"Why are you here?"
"Because you've been throwing rocks and paint all over my sister'sâ”€"
"I've not been doing any of that."
"Oh, tell me you haven't."
"I just did."
"I don't believe you."
"You don't have to."
"It's either one of two saloons here and I suspect you."
"Listen, little filly! I don't need to throw rocks through windows in order to make my business or my way in the world. Understand? Your sister is outta line. She's a woman, shouldn't be running these kind of things."
"I beg your pardon!"
"It's just the truth."
"It most certainly is not and you have no right".
"She certainly is not going to cause me to break the law to put her out of business. I'm sure she'll do that on her own pretty soon."
"Well, just so you know "¦ I'm keeping an eye on your business. And I can take you down whenever I please."
"Well, you're welcome to try."
She turned and walked out.
She crossed the street to the Empire Hotel and Saloon. It was one of the larger and fancier buildings in town. It was freshly painted white and blue and had a large sign hanging over the boardwalk in front. The windows in the front of the building all featured colored and lead glass and they really gave the place a taste of high society.
The interior was just as fancy. The oak French doors in the front featured leaded and etched glass. They were wide open to allow for a breeze. To the right of the foyer was a lobby with a front desk where a well-dressed man with a prodigious mustache and well-groomed hair stood. A carved oak staircase led upstairs. To the left was the saloon with a long, intricately carved bar, a large mirror behind it.
Gemma walked up to the lobby desk where the registry book sat. On the wall behind the desk were a rack of room keys and a number of pigeonholes. A heavy iron safe was set into the wall under the stairs. Gemma could smell breakfast food.
"Yes ma'am," he said in an upper-class British accent. "May I help you?"
"Yes, are you the owner?" she said.
"I'm Mr. Farnsworth, yes."
"Mr. Farnsworth, I have a matter I'd like to speak to you about."
"Very well. Do you need a room?"
"No, I don't. I've come on behalf of my sister's saloon: the Gilded Lily."
"She has been vandalized andâ”€"
"Yes. There's only two other saloons in this town and it must be one of you two. And/or both!"
"My dear, the Empire is doing quite well. I don't need to resort to vandalism in order to continue doing well."
"Oh, I know you're doing well, but it's not about that, is it?"
"I don't follow."
"It's about principal! She's a woman, right? That's what you all think."
"Well, she is a woman. But I don't believe that I need to resort to anything illegal in order to drive her out of town. She'll do quite well on her own."
Gemma glared at the man.
"The figures and things "¦ it's quite beyond the female mind," he went on.
She glared at him.
"You know, you see a pretty dress and you just have to buy it," he said.
"Well just know, I will get to the bottom of whoever did this "¦ and they will pay," she said.
"I admire your spunk."
"Oh, don't bother."
She turned and left the place.
* * *
Otto headed out of town for the day, looking for "Black" Jack McKinney.
* * *
Bowen went out to find out where Dallas Avery lived and soon learned he had a room in one of the boarding houses on the east side of town. It took him a little longer to narrow it down to the Widow Barrington's Boarding House. It had four rooms that were all filled at the time, he learned.
He hung around the boarding house to try to figure out which room was Dallas'.
* * *
Dunspar went to the general store and asked if anyone had bought paint recently.
"Quite a few people," Mabry told him. "Right now people are touching up their houses and businesses in hopes of construction starting on the courthouse soon."
"Any of the saloon owners?" Dunspar said.
"Oh, no, I don't think so," Mabry said. "Neither Mr. Farnsworth nor Buck Hatch have purchased any lately."
"Okay. Well, there's just been some vandalism last night and I was just checking."
* * *