“Travel not to find yourself
but to remember who you’ve been all along.”
After tumultuous travel through the ruined city, the group has found shelter in an unlikely place. Amongst the ‘ghouls’ most of the party found rest and a little peace right under the feet of the Lang that would see them enslaved or sacrificed to their gods, the Moonbeast.
Peggy has information that a friend, long thought dead, had travelled the ruins only a week before on his way to a country across the sea. Now refreshed and a little more sure of herself, she’s determined to follow in his footsteps and find lost Noel Hagan.
In the fungal lit darkness below the spiral staircase, it was morning and ghoul life was just starting for another day. Though full from the feast last night, they picked over the bones of the moonbeast as others busied themselves with the every day tasks of surviving.
Peggy, now refreshed from a night’s sleep and renewed in her purpose badgered both Rain and Algernon to ask the ghoul for information about Noel, her lost friend, and his moustached companion.
“They don’t have a word for moustache.” Rain yawned. He amongst the party had not slept, having first been kept awake with the new action of his puzzle box, later as the concerns of the day entered his dreaming. He looked up at Peggy balefully, “I guess I can use the word hairy and mime.” He suggested rubbing his top lip with his fingers. He was surprised to find more than a few days stubble and lamented the lack of showers and laundries in this recursion.
“Yes, yes, “ Peggy acknowledge without listening to anything Rain had said, as usual. “A large waxed moustache and the other one is tall with brown hair, a long point nose and something of a horse face.”
“I don’t believe we have a word for horse either,” Algernon added. The meeps and chirps of the ghouls were a simple form of language and a million miles away from the breadth and depth of English.
“Just do what you can, we have to find him.” She said walking over and sitting with Bruce who was putting together a more suitable breakfast that leftover raw moonbeast.
Algernon looked after her, “Doctor Peggy is broken. She’s going to get us all killed. She should go home.”
Rain heard him and couldn’t help but agree. Almost to himself, he paraphrased, “If everyone was treated as they deserved, who would escape the madhouse.” He looked to Algernon, the brilliant and terrifying sociopath and counted him as a friend. Who was really broken here?
“I can’t believe that I’m looking for Noel. He died, I saw him die.
“Ha, next thing you’ll know we’ll be bumping to my high school buddy,” Bruce said by way of conversation with Peggy over breakfast.
“But it’s impossible,” Peggy repeated for the uncounted time when she let her thoughts drift to Noel, “There was simply no chance of him escaping.”
“What did happen to him?” Bruce asked, pleased for this chance to tease out the detail surrounding the mysterious Noel Hagan.
“A mudslide,” Peggy answered simply without details.
“Was his body found?”
She didn’t answer, but neither was she convinced.
“Look, you know that amazing trap you made for the crow lady.”
“Dona Ilsa.” Rain correct from a group over. Bruce waved acknowledgement and continued.
“Yeah, the crow lady. She clicked something and escaped. Couldn’t your Noel had something like that?”
Peggy shook her head, “We were research partners, he would have shown me.” The recollection sparked something inside her and for the first time, she shared her story of Noel.
“We were in the same anthropology class, had the same thesis mentor. His expertise was linguistics, he could talk to anyone.
The university had received a whole shipment of things from South America and he was the obvious choice to try and make sense of it. He found something odd he didn’t understand and he brought it to me. It was revolutionary, new links to, until then, dismissed evidence. We teamed up, him the face swaying the board to provide funding into our research, me with the background in the fringe fields and evidence-based work practices.
Amongst the artifact was a set of tablets that showed the location to a temple and burial ground for an unknown god. With his linguistics and my out-of-the-box thinking we worked out the co-ordinates and brought them up on satellite mapping apps. Sure enough, the shadow of buildings in the forest. We’d found it, now we had to go there.
Using the last of the money I inherited from my parent, minus what my Yaya hadn’t taken away anyway, we set up and expedition. When we reached the location, it was incredible, a lifetimes study fulfilled in a few stone buildings hidden on a forested hillside. We found a skeleton, a humanoid creature with the head and beak of a bird, feathered wings, but a human-looking body and limbs. In the texts, we discovered it was called a Skygod and seemed to be the inspiration for the Quetzalcoatl.
Things couldn’t be going better, and then the rains came early.
The rain was so heavy that the ground, disturbed by our work, became unstable. The decision was made to evacuate straight away and the students packed up the site. Noel went back to the temple to secure our finds. The landslide swept everything away, Noel, the temple, our findings, everything.
I went back alone, tried to finish the thesis in his name. But without the evidence, it was anecdotal at best. Our mentor thought it was a fraud, accused me of going mad, or worse, of killing Noel to….pepetuate a fairytale. I was totally discredited, ruined totally in the scientific circles, socially and economically. My best friend was dead and I had nothing to show for it.”
Peggy sat quietly. Now that her story was out she was still, empty and yet more at peace. While she had told her tale, the others had joined them.
“Well, I for one can believe four impossible things before breakfast.” Rain said, eyeing off the breakfast preparations.
“Only four, not six?” Peggy asked with the ghost of a smile.
Rain shook his head, “I’m a realist, I can only do four. “ He beamed to see a little of the old Peggy peaking though this new intense one. “Listen to what we found out.”
He gestured to Algernon who shared what the ghouls had knownabout the two mysterious men described by Peggy.
“A party of two men that matching your description travelled this way two weeks ago, heading south towards passages that are known but not travelled by the ghouls. They take you to the eastern continent of Nyarlathotep. The ghouls say that many creatures worship Nyarlathotep and that he is…unpleasant.”
“We need to follow them.” Peggy had become more and more animated as Algernon had shared the ghouls’ recollections. Now she was standing, unbreakfasted ready to head out and follow Noel and his companion into the darkness.
“Doctor Peggy, I don’t really want to go looking for an evil god.” Algernon said sharing his fears.
“Neither do I, but I have to find them” She replied adamantly, “If you come or don’t come it is up to you.”
“Peggy,” Rain asked breaking the tension forming in the group, “This Noel character is a good guy?”
Peggy looked around the group nervously, still disturbed by the events of the day before.
“He was the only one who believed me, in me. He wasn’t afraid of me. Yes, he was very good.”
“He was right. You deserved to be believed.” He replied simply and for the first time her demeanour softened.
“Thank you.” She replied and shook her head, “But I just can’t believe he’s not dead.”
“I live in hope, “ Rain beamed, stealing a bite from preparations, “Your Noel is alive and if he lives then others can be as well. Mr Hagan is now our quarry.”
When she looked like she might protest, Rain added.
“Peggy, we’ve called you many things, but crazy was never one of them.”
“No, you’re super cool.” Bruce added finally handing out the breakfasts, “You are the machine whisperer.”
This amused Peggy and she smiled thoughtfully.
“They are fun. I would have changed my major if I’d known how much fun.”
After breakfast, supplies were carefully gathered from the ghoul and final goodbyes made. Out into the darkness of the massive cavern only the fungus and columns as big as tree trunks broke up the monotony of the empty darkness. Rain threw up one of his small suns for extra light.
Bruce scoffed, “Don’t need the light, we can see perfectly well.” And walked into one of the dark stone columns.
Their footsteps echoed and bounced from surface to surface, coming back to them louder than it had gone out. Rain made a game of first humming a tune and then harmonizing with the echo when it returned. It was a pleasant sound, as harmony layered on harmony adding complexity to the simple song. It was after the third harmony when Rain heard another voice singing along with his. It was deeper and rougher than he could ever have achieved. As a test, he started singing the words to the tune and listened to what the second voice sung. The second voice could not articulate the words and it just repeated a garble that simulated the words. By this time the rest of the party were aware of what was going on and everyone had turned to face where the second voice was coming from.
In the dim gloom of the fungus, black towers of stone loomed with doors 30 foot tall outlined upon them. Instantly, Peggy’s thoughts went to the giants and as one the group started moving rapidly in the other direction. Keeping pace with their footfalls, was the stomp, stomp, stomp of something far larger. The stomping made the floor shake a become unsteady underfoot.
“Have we got any cyphers for this?” Algernon asked checking his pockets for some of their more recent acquisitions.
“Vanisher? Probably not going to work against something that lives in the dark.” Rain replied tripping up.
Algernon found a dark-sight cypher. Putting on the glasses he turned to see a twenty-five-foot tall giant with four hands and a huge mouth running vertically along the top of its head. He remembered very clearly seeing this being in the mind of Hazel Jenkins, the witch from Halloween. It had been a creature just like this one that the clawed hand for the ghoul, Ismail, had come from.
“I think it wants to eat us and it’s very big and scary. “ He said in a hushed voice, “It looks like what was grafted on that ghoul.”
“Hungry?” Rain thought out loud and recalled the giant centipede that had almost had Bruce for supper up in the mountains. With a thought he made it appear behind them as they continued to run away. “Let’s hope it will at least give us a little time.”
Peggy started lagging as they continued to run, the booming from behind faulting as it came across the illusion writhing in front of it.
“Can I give you a hand, Miss Peggy,” Bruce asked as he jogged up beside her. Without a word, she nodded and he picked her up, catching up with the rest.
The pounding steps of the giant were left behind and the group slowed their pace. They started to look for places to rest for the evening as the cavern roof started coming into sight. On the cavern floor, pools of water encircled the columns. Peggy checked each pool for signs of life.
“Do you think the Rockwheelers could come from Dreamland?” She proposed but found nothing to support her suppositions and walked on.
Algernon, who had staying clear of the pools, looking into their depths, felt something at his leg. Before he could look down, he drag him off his feet. At his scream the group’s attention was drawn to the huge black tentacle that led back to a nearby pool, holding Algernon off the cavern floor.
Bruce literally swung into action with his crowbar delivering a devastating blow.
“Great hit, Bruce.” Rain cheered as the tentacle responded by starting a withdrawal back into the pool. As Algernon was pulled through the air he made attempt to grab stalagmites, stalagtites and any other rock formation at came within reach, with no success. Peggy threw herself at the tentacle, trailing fire from her hands. Where she hit the beast, steam rose and the cavern shook with the thrashing of the tentacle’s owner. They were hurting it, but would it be in time to save Algernon from drowning?
Seeing Algernon grab for rocks, Rain wrapped himself around one nearest the pond . As Algernon came within range he reached out with both actions and the Strange.
Algernon did just that, grabbing hold of Rain’s leg. Now with the leverage afforded by hold, Algernon wriggled out of the tentacle, climbed up Rain and leapt off, flying away with the use of his levitate. Rain turned to see Algernon still running in the direction they were going. Bruce got in one more good hit and the tentacle popped covering both him and Peggy with black goo.
“Urgh, that’s going to leave a stain.” Bruce spat, trying to get rid of goo that had made it into his open mouth.
“If that was a Rockwheeler, then I’m done.” Peggy panted.
Scraping off ichor, they caught up to Algernon and continued their walk, Bruce, Peggy and Celia in one group, Algernon and Rain in another.
“So, why did you join the group?” Bruce asked quietly just of Peggy as they walked. “You know, right back at the beginning, after we came back from the wastelands.”
Peggy shrugged and a piece of black tentacle fell from her shoulder, “Validation, I guess. I thought that this would be the perfect chance to show the world that my ‘crazy theories’ were true. But I’d have preferred to stay in my lab.”
“Why? You have such opportunity in the field.” Meaning, in general travelling through recursions, but the latest excitement was still too fresh to ignore.
“Ha, fieldwork is messy.” She referred to both of their black goo looks, “Lab work is predictable. Collect data, follow the evidence, build your arguments.”
Nearby, Rain mind had been mulling over the death of the Lang. Eventually, he could not keep silent and quietly asked Algernon about it.
“How do you kill so…efficiently…cooly?”
“What other way is there?” Algernon asked not interrupting his stride to reply.
Rain didn’t know what answered he’d expected, not that one. Until recently Algernon had been quiet about such actions. Since talking about his role under the dreaded Doctor Lucinda Strangelove, he’d opened up about the violence he’d had to commit.
“Ur…I don’t know. You just seem very good at it. Did you learn to kill like that under the Doctor?”
Algernon nodded vaguely, “I learnt many things. Most that survival meant others not coming up from behind.”
“Your skill is very…permanent. You can’t give a life back once it’s taken. How do you know who should die?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“No not at all. That’s what terrifies me!”
“I do whatever the voices tell me to do,” Algernon said in his usual matter of fact voice, causing Rain to stop and look at him for the first time in the conversation. Algernon turned, looking back with a small smile playing across his lips and Rain relaxed, just a little.
“Can one of those voices be mine?” Rain replied only half-joking. “Look, why I mention it is because I didn’t know what to do with the Lang. All I knew was that I didn’t want Peggy to have to make that decision. So, thank you.”
“It had to be done.” Algernon acknowledged and they started walking again.
“Did it? I wish I could be so sure.”
They walked throughout what would have been the day and into the night only stopping when another giant spiral staircase cames into sight. The staircase continued down, but the party were more interested in the staircase climbing back up to the surface.
Algernon looked around the dust on the staircase and finds several large tracks, like those of the giant, other smaller ones and two sets of boots. He pointed them out to the group.
“How long will it take do you think?” Bruce asked dropping his pack for a moment’s respite.
“We’ll know when we get to the top.” Rain replied eager to leave the caverns behinds at least for a while.
“The stairs are big and I bet they’re harder to climb up than to climb down,” Peggy noted, reminding them all of the climb down to the ghoul colony the day before.
They decided to camp for the night with the rock wall behind them. Noises in the night disturbed their sleep, but nothing attacked and the group woke refreshed and ready to tackle the climb the next day.
As the group were preparing to help each other up the first step, something large streaked overhead, wonkily flying up the stairs to crash awkwardly on its face and roll back down to where they stood. Algernon, trying his new talent had showed he needed more practice somewhere..less hard. A shimmering shield of force helped save him from most of the damage, but he was still bloodied, sore and a little sorry for himself.
“Was that an attack of some sort?” Rain asked helping his friend to his feet looking back behind them for the giant.
“No, that was just me,” Algernon said sheepishly, having now found new places to bruise.
“Here is not the best place to come in for a rough landing,” Bruce commented as they continued to climb the conventional way.
“I don’t think I would survive another,” Algernon confessed.
The trip up the stairs took most of the morning with each of the party taking turns to help the others up the too tall steps. On the last step, they turned and found themselves on an open landing. A small ledge on a cliffside. Below was a city by the sea, encircled by walls. Unlike Sarkomand, this city was in perfect condition, with whitewashed walls and brass minarets reflecting the sunlight from the sky and sea. A small flight of steps wound its way down the cliff and into the city by one of four gates. Without another word the others started walking down and towards the city. Rain alone stood for a moment looking at the ruin that was once his rainbow suit. He sighed, brushed off a few clouds of dust and followed his friends into Celephais.