Today’s update is a bit different to the past few weeks. This is mainly because I haven’t had the time to write and proof the next chapter of The Winds of Chaos.
So instead, here is some Call of Cthulhu-inspired fiction (with minor steampunk elements) I wrote for an anthology. The main character is one I created as a spare during a campaign should the worst happen.
Think of me what you will, but after hearing my tale, do not think of me as a liar. The events which lead up to my current incarceration in New Bedlam are stranger than any fiction you care to name but, I swear in the name of God Almighty, are true and without error.
You have asked me many times why I shudder when passing darkened cells, why I wake screaming in the night. Well, gaoler, if you care to sit and listen to my tale, your questions will be answered. Perhaps not by the answers you expect, or those that you believe, but they are true none the less.
You may know a little of my history, you may know that I am of a wealthy background, that my father was an engineer of the highest degree. That my mother, may she rest in peace, was a gentle soul who became the patron of a great many institutions in her later years, this fine establishment among them.
You may also know that my brother is here also. On rare occasions I can hear his screams from the floor below, they travel here via that grate in the floor, that one by your left foot. Ah, I see you move your hobnailed boot slightly. Fear not, for madness is not contagious. At least, not the madness from which my brother suffers.
No, his madness is the madness of memory. Mine, you are no doubt aware, was the madness of forgetting, that which many esteemed scholars have taken to calling amnesia. Indeed, it was only a few days ago that I remembered myself and the reasons for my forgetting.
If you would care to start the phonograph that I am sure the warden entrusted you with, I will tell you my tale. There is no rush, I will wait while you set it up, I am sure that I will need the time to get my thoughts into order.
It began, I remember, with a summons. My father, brother and I were in the smoking room. The scent of pipe tobacco mingled with the grey smoke that flowed between us as we discussed the business and where to take it next.
My father, the esteemed engineer Matthew deWitt-Smythe was at this time in his early fifties. A strong man possessed of great vigour, a head of thick dark hair and voice that any in the theatre would kill for, his mental faculties were the envy of many in the Royal Society.
My brother and I take after our mother in our physiognomy but it was from our father that we inherited our thirst for knowledge and brilliant skills of reasoning and design.
There was a knock upon the door and our manservant entered, the rest of the staff having been dismissed to celebrate the birthday of our great Queen Victoria, and announced the presence of a certain Mr Jonathon Drake.
Naturally we had heard of him. Who, in our great Empire, that is anyone hasn’t? My father stood immediately, discarding his pipe and smoking jacket.
“Tell him that we will entertain him in the study.” He commanded, his voice firm. The manservant nodded and bowed before withdrawing. My brother and I shared a quick glance before following our father into the large room that served as a study.
Father was already sitting behind the large mahogany desk he had had hand crafted and was buttoning up his tails. With quick movements of his head he commanded my brother and I to sit in the large chairs that stood adjacent to it.
We sat, our own coats already on our backs for we had only just entered to smoking room before we were disturbed.
Let me tell you, gaoler, Mr Drake is much more impressive than any story you could possibly have heard of him. He was shown in scant seconds after we sat, and commanded the room instantly.
The man is of average height and build, his dress impeccable and tailored to him perfectly. His voice is melodic and persuasive, one is filled with the knowledge that to refuse him would be a crime most grave when one talks to him.
His burning eyes speak of his great enthusiasm and desire for life, but his mind, good God man, his mind is sharper than the finest stiletto blade. You know, of course, that he visited me yesterday, and I am happy to say that none of his characteristics have diminished in the slightest which is why I speak of him in the present. Many apologies, I digress.
My father was immediately the centre of this great man’s attention, his eyes barely noticing my brother and I as we sat opposite each other. The manservant moved a chair from the edge of the room and then backed out, bowing.
“Sit, won’t you?” My father asked, motioning towards the chair.
Drake merely glanced at it and then shook his head, his hand moving to the top of the cane he held. He tapped it slightly and then withdrew the cylinder that rose from it. A small puff of steam from the side indicated the presence of hidden machinery and my brother’s eyebrow rose slightly in admiration of the masterful engineering.
“I have no time, good sir. I am here but a few minutes before I must leave.” His spoke quickly, his tone intimating a need for great speed.
“Very well.” My father replied, indicating for the man to continue with a brisk nod.
“Her Majesty has received word of an impending rebellion from the tribes of the Dark Continent. She wishes to quash it before all is lost but our military is lacking the proper equipment for an effective response. The task Her Majesty’s Government gives to you, should you accept, is to develop and begin production of a repeating rifle. Payment will be negotiated at another time and the guidelines are here.”
He halted, the torrent of words stopping abruptly, laying the cylinder of paper upon the desk. My father picked up the paper and glanced at it. Without pause he opened a drawer and signed his name upon it, tore off the bottom of what I now guessed to be a contract and handed it Drake.
The visitor bowed and left, the room seeming empty for a second as his force of personality left it. There was silence for a few minutes, my father glanced at each of us and then back down at the paper in front of him.
“What is it, father?” My brother asked, noticing the perturbation that had entered the usually clear gaze of my father. He looked up and fixed my brother with a piercing look.
“Do you know of any alloy better than that which we currently use for our rifle mechanisms?” he asked, his fingers drumming against the sturdy wood of the desk. My brother considered the question and then shook his head.
“There is none. We have put thousands of hours into testing and that was the best we found.” My father grunted as my brother confirmed what he already knew.
“Then we must find a new one. The design I have been working upon fits these specifications perfectly but will put stresses upon the mechanism we have never encountered before.” He paused, his brows drawing together in thought. “Nathaniel,” said he, fixing me with a stern glance, “wire our offices to look for a new alloy. In the meantime we can try to best our previous results but I am not hopeful.”
“Of course, father, at once.” I replied, standing. “What timescale are we working to?” He grunted.
“Six months at the most.”
“Father!” Exclaimed my brother, standing in outrage. “We cannot do any worthwhile tests in that amount of time. We will surely not find anything of note either.” I left before I could hear my father’s reply, my head full of possible combinations of metals with which to fashion a stronger alloy in the large workshops my father owned.
I will wait a few minutes, I see you have need of a new recording device, no matter. Tell me gaoler, in this wonderful Golden Age of Science and Rationalism, do you believe that we have conquered all, have discovered everything of worth?
Ah. I see you nod. I would once have agreed with you. Working with my father’s rational, scientific mind for so many years created in me a sense of complete rationalism. I would scarcely pay attention to the superstitions of the servants, knowing as I did that there was only what we already knew.
Well, I tell you that I was wrong, dreadfully wrong. I can tell that we have a few more minutes before the pressure that machine requires to begin recording again builds fully so let me tell you something for your ears only.
Even now, behind these thick walls and with fine fellows like you guarding me, I do not feel safe. There are things out there, things of which I should wish not to know, and they stalk the dark places of the world, waiting for their time to come again.
But there, the needle begins to swing to the top again. You had better slide a new cylinder into the machine for my story is not yet done. I can tell you still believe what I say for you have no doubt met the great Jonathon Drake.
Keep that belief foremost in your mind for it will save your soul. If you know what walks in the spaces between worlds, you can guard against them.
But let me recommence with my account.
Much to our surprise, it took only a few short weeks for one of our offices to send a telegram to us, claiming to have found the requisite metals. Upon hearing the news my father began organising the expedition and within three days our luggage was packed and we were boarding the ferry for France.
The voyage passed without incident, the great chimneys above the enormous steam engine blowing out thick plumes of white smoke as massive propellers, barely visible below the clear waters of the Channel, span at an incredible rate.
I should very much like to journey on that ferry again, it was a smooth ride and brought to mind memories of my own childhood. A mechanical wonder in this age of wonders.
We sped through rural France, our internal combustion engine humming pleasantly, the modifications father had added to it producing an extra ten horsepower and we easily overtook the two or three other motorists we found.
We were heading, of course, for Paris and the famous Parisian skydocks. We were still a fair distance from them when we first saw them. Massive tethered balloons of faint reds in the setting sun, joined by metal catwalks and platforms.
As we drew closer, we began to make out a dark blurry mass moving across them and I knew that we were witnessing the movement of people. There was a deep, repetitive noise from above and I looked up, the massive corpulent bulk of an airship pushed itself through the air. The propellers glinted in the fading sunlight and lanterns began winking into existence along her length as she ponderously swung about into position to dock.
We began passing more motorists, their faces looking upon our transportation with envy as we maneuvered past them quickly, as well as encountering increasing crowds of pedestrians.
It took us barely an hour to make our way through the mass of people crowding the foot of the skydocks and leave our motor car with a trusted fellow.
You may look incredulous at how short an amount of time that is, but my father was a master engineer. Only now are they making motor cars as fast as his. It is a shame that his is lost to us forever. Oh, nothing untoward happened to it, it was merely stolen.
I digress again, my apologies. In no time at all, we had carried our trunks to the elevation tubes that led up to the skydocks and had ascended. The brass cylinders fashioned for riding in were cramped and warm, but our journey was pleasant enough and we were presently walking upon the tightly woven wires of the aerial pathway.
The wind was peculiarly strong to both mine and my brother’s senses, although our father reassured us that it was the norm for such altitudes, and the surfaces upon which we walked swayed alarmingly every minute or so.
We summoned our confidence in man-made artifice and crossed slowly, my brother’s fear of heights preventing him from looking upon the panorama below.
Paris was laid out below us, the lights of its many boulevards glowing as fireflies and the myriad sounds of a city at night drifted towards us, borne on leisurely winds. That, dear fellow, is the last time I was ever comfortable in the dark.
Our zeppelin was large, one of the largest of its kind, and was a magnificent spectacle of engineering. My father had bought her a year previously and had spent a large quantity of last year’s profits rebuilding her internal structure.
From the outside, she looked like a standard Britannia-class zeppelin, but inside, inside she was a mobile house. My father had turned her entire bow section into an office, the aft was storerooms, a galley and the sleeping quarters and the large library and archive with mobile wireless and telegram was situated firmly between the two areas.
I believe that she lies on the bottom of the ocean now, destroyed in the war that has recently ended. It is a pity, for we shall never see her like again. Excuse my melancholia, I am saddened still by her loss.
Our journey commenced upon our embarkation. The chief engineer had kept her engine at full pressure for our arrival and we were away. The magnificent navigational propellers span lazily, keeping us firmly on course.
The first hints of danger were discovered that morning.
My father, as was his wont, woke early and decided to take his morning constitutional walking the length of the airship. He woke my brother and me as he passed our rooms, intending, I think, to discuss business matters with us.
But no sooner had my brother joined us, for I sleep lightly and he heavily, than a shock ran through the whole ship.
“TO THE ENGINE!” My father exclaimed, divining the source of the disturbance immediately and racing towards the cavernous engine room. We reached it within minutes to find a heated argument had broken out between two of the crew members.
One, a tall, heavily built European was shouting furiously at the small Oriental man in front of him, conversing in a language I am not able to understand. My father began to join in, his strong voice reaching over the loud tones in front of us.
The two turned and looked at us, the European accusing the Oriental of sabotage. For his part the Oriental didn’t deny the accusation, instead he stood tall, his face proud.
“Well, man? What have you to say for yourself?” My father demanded, his face red with apoplexy.
“It better to abandon trip now.” He replied in broken English. “Death and disaster wait.”
With that he walked up to my father, pressed something into his palm and walked straight out of the room. I am told he walked into the small brig we possessed and sat there, uncomplaining, for the rest of the journey.
Had we listened to him, I would not be here now. Ah, I long for the ignorance I still possessed when my father ordered the engine fixed and our course to resume. My father swept out of the engine room, commanding my brother and I to follow.
We did so, following his straight back to the library. When we arrived, he locked the door and placed a curious totem upon one of the desks.
Roughly the size of my palm and fashioned from some sort of yellow metal, although it was not gold, the thing inspired a sense of dread and revulsion in me. The head was that of a crocodilian reptile resting atop a long sinuous body ending in a snake’s tail with two pairs of ghastly, humanlike arms situated roughly halfway along it.
The blasphemous animal seemed to glow in its own light and my brother hastily asked my father to hide it in one of the safe’s dotted around the walls. Father agreed, turning the blasphemous thing over and over in his hands, his eyes clouded and thoughtful. I believe he was attempting to identify the mysterious substance from which it was fashioned.
You must change the cylinder again, my good man. Have you any questions, or points you would like clarifying so far? The Oriental? He was of average height for his race, with jet black hair and a mean glance.
I was uncomfortable in his presence, something of his odour quite upset my stomach and I was glad he left our presence as quickly as he did.
Listen, my brother is awake. Yes, those screams are his. The candles have died out in his room again, no doubt. The dark holds more horrors for him than it does for me. Ah, but that comes later in my tale.
May I ask why the warden is taking such an interest in my story? Why he is not content with the temporary account that you could recount from memory, rather than the expensive recording he has asked you to make?
WHAT?! Others are going after the alloy?!
Nay, you need not call for the man outside, I am quite myself. Please forgive my outburst. I fear that you shall not see them again and that its strength will grow.
Should they return, the ranks of patients here will swell, I am in doubt of that. Is the machine ready? Ah, we have a few minutes more before the pressure is sufficient.
Perhaps I should tell you of my education? No, no that is surely on my file. I am sorry. I grow weary, recounting this tale, remembering that which I wish to forget is a tiring task. No, do not go. I am quite up to it. I merely beg your forgiveness for not providing much in the way of diverting conversation while we wait.
Ah. It is ready. I shall recommence my tale then.
My father locked that hideous token away from sight after five more minutes. The three of us sat in silence, occasionally glancing at each other, for the most part looking to the window or the timepiece ticking away the eternal hours of our journey.
Time, it seems, moves inversely relative to the wishes of those subjected to it. Nothing more of import happened during our journey, the engines continued unabated, the crew worked as admirably as ever and my father soon disappeared into his private study to attend to business matters.
We docked in Shanghai without error or fuss, our pre-arranged transport meeting us. The large, ground car had ample room for our cases and the three of us, as well as the manager of our office in that region. My father and he immediately began discussing business, leaving my brother and I to amuse ourselves.
I had been reading for an hour, the latest of Richard Hycroft’s if you are familiar with his work, when my father cleared his throat loudly in that particular manner of his. I looked up at once, my brother a second later with his customary tardiness.
“Jensen has described the properties of an alloy that should serve our purposes most admirably.” He said, the thickset, heavy featured Dutchman at his side nodding sombrely. “It is mined only from a few caves found within the local foothills. Our journey should last no more than another two hours.” He paused and looked at both of us. “Today we shall set up a field office from where we can pay the local hired help and administrate the operation, tomorrow we shall visit the mine and inspect the workings and alloy ourselves.”
He turned and looked out of the window, dismissing us abruptly. I looked back at the leaves of my book, immersing myself in the adventurer’s quest to find a hidden gem.
I had just turned the penultimate page when the combustion engine of our ground car stopped. The hissing of various pipes as they vented steam filled the clear air and I stepped out, my shoes kicking up dust from the dry earth.
My brother descended as well, his lips downturned in an unpleasant sneer. I could tell he cared little for the conditions in which we found ourselves. The Dutchman stepped down, whistling for attendants. When a few arrived, short men from all over the globe wearing wide hats and dirty clothes, he ordered them to take our luggage and place it in the tents we had had provided for us.
My father looked around and nodded once in satisfaction, striding confidently off to the largest tent in the area. My brother followed and I remained behind, as was my habit, to oversee the proper porterage of the equipment we had brought from London.
I found them an hour later, after I unpacked and assembled everything of the utmost import, leaving the rest in the capable hands of the site manager. Father was in a heated argument with a pale skinned German, his thinning hair exposed by the removal of the hat he was turning in his square hands.
My brother relayed to me that the German was in charge of the latest of a series of work crews who refused to enter the caves and mine. Father had asked him why this had been happening and the answer had been that a daemon lives within.
I frowned at the simpleton’s foolishness and left to attend to other matters, my stomach reminding me that it had not been filled in a while.
Of course, had we listened to him, we would not be in our present situation but that is always the error of the educated isn’t it? Dismissing the superstitions of others as folly. I had a quiet meal, my brother joining me after a few minutes. We ate in silence and I stood to leave as my father walked in.
I met his eyes and he gave me a brisk nod, indicating that he wished for me to perform my work. I nodded and walked out of the tent, my eyes watering slightly as the bright evening sun lanced into them. I paused on the threshold, blinking rapidly, and was startled by the German.
“Bitte, Herr deWitte-Smythe, don’t go there.” He mumbled, his English good but his accent thick. “There is a darkness in those hills.” He looked on the verge of a breakdown and as I opened my mouth to reply he shook his head. “The locals say it looks like this.” He pulled out a talisman of similar shape to the one we had been given on the zeppelin and I felt my face pale in surprise. “Bitte, don’t go there.” He repeated and walked off, shaking his head sadly.
I remained, frozen in shock, for a few minutes before shaking off the fugue and began to go about my duties with a hint of trepidation.
The evening passed swiftly as I calibrated the mechanisms and equipment of our trade, my fingers swiftly turning black with oil and grease, one arm being scalded slightly as a blast of steam erupted from an emergency valve on the portable press we had brought with us to fashion the ore into ingots.
I wrapped my arm in cooling herbs and bandages, the injury one of many caused by my occasional inattentiveness, and pressed on as best I could. I knew my brother would not join me, for he much preferred the theoretical side of our business to the practical but I hoped my father would so that I could discuss the German’s revelation with him. Alas, he closeted himself in his tent with my brother for the rest of the day and I would not see him until early the next morning.
I must say, I slept poorly that night, dark portents and thoughts of pain drifting around my head until the small hours of the morning and it was with some relief that I passed into oblivion sometime after three according to my pocket watch, which I had checked in the low light of the oil lamp.
I was woken early by my father and I rose and dressed with as much haste as I could, all the while ignoring the sick feeling of ill omen in my stomach.
Perhaps it is fitting that the machine runs out there, my tale is almost over and I feel would be better represented without interruption during its climax.
Do you have any questions at this juncture? Hmmm? Oh, the superstitions? Yes, I had heard that the crews working for that office had reported several different ones and had frequently had to be replaced for subordination. I never attributed to them an ounce of thought though, something which I am quite certain my father and brother also did not.
Perhaps I should have, maybe if I had been possessed of a sympathetic ear I would never have entered this establishment. But is it not the purpose of Science to debunk such antique superstitions? That is what I told myself then and that is what I dearly wish I could tell myself now. Maybe in time I will able to deceive myself in that manner again, until then I take refuge in the Lord and pray that the darkness does not contain anything other than itself.
You are surprised that I follow God? Yes, I suppose that is to be expected. Was not my grandfather responsible for some of the most vehement anti-Christian literature of his age? The Lord was my solace during my amnesia and with the return of my memories, I turn to Him still for He protects me from that which should not exist.
I speak not of daemons, although that is what it may be, I speak of everything unnatural on this Earth of ours. I fear that what we found is the not the only aberration.
But you are ready I see, shall I conclude my account of what happened, or have you more questions? No? Are you sure? Very well.
As if in contrast to the portentous feeling I awoke with, the day dawned bright and clear. My father had already assembled the portable equipment we would be travelling with and was overseeing the correct loading of it into various small cases when I stepped from my tent.
The sun was bright, for it was just after dawn, and I could see many of the workforce were either returning from their shift, dusty and footsore, or were in the process of leaving for their shift at the local quarry.
Ah, I fear I have not fully explained our interest in the area. My father bought the stakes over there on a trip a decade or so before the commencement of my tale. The hills nearby were full of various minerals and ores that we could use in the production, and refinement, of arms for Her Majesty’s army and various other, smaller, contractors.
Indeed, I see your leg bears one of our stamps. An older model, one that has been discontinued by the looks of it. A replacement for your own? You lost it in battle? Dear fellow, take this scrip to my offices, I am reassured the company has continued trading, and they will provide you a replacement free of charge. The newer models utilise hydraulics in place of tendons for smoother movement, so I am told.
Alas, I digress. My mind does not wish to recall the events of that day. I beg your forgiveness.
We left the camp roughly an hour after the sun had risen properly and began our walk through the humid foliage that bordered it. The caves we sought were within the treeline but of a significantly higher altitude than our camp itself.
My brother walked ahead of me, his revolving rifle slung on his back in case of game or predators. We had been warned of bandits being active in the area and my father and I were also armed accordingly, my father with his large hunting rifle and myself with a compact revolving pistol of my own design. Not that our weapons availed us much, but that comes later in my narrative.
The workers behind us began to grow restless as we approached the first of the caves that we sought, they took to muttering between themselves and throwing the odd furtive glance in our direction. It unsettled me, I don’t mind telling you, but my father and brother seemed as unflappable as ever.
Five minutes after this phenomenon began, we reached the yawning cavernous entrance of the main cave. Within, we were told, one could follow the natural passageway through the hillside and emerge in any of caves in the surrounding locale.
A curious sickening smell emanated from the large hole and it was with some trepidation that I followed my father and brother inside. The workers remained outside, their job to begin erecting the small field laboratory that my father had ordered them bring.
We remained armed, more from unwillingness to trust the workers with our weapons than anything else, and we each carried a burning brand, the flickering light reflecting eerily from the wet rock of the cave’s entrance.
We walked slowly, following the excavated rock face, our torches illuminating a wide circle that showed us a long, straight tunnel of interminable length, roughly eight feet wide. The floor was rock covered in a slight layer of dust and we could see areas of it had been brushed clean by the footsteps of those souls assigned to work here.
I began to shiver as we followed the tunnel, my thin cotton shirt providing little protection against the chill air of the subterranean passage. After ten minutes of walking, the tunnel began to wind this way and that, its floor taking on a distinct downwards slope.
Fortunately we remained true to the excavations, ignoring the myriad side passages we passed by, and I began to relax slightly, persuading myself that it had all been a superstition I had been infected with.
This feeling did not last very long. As we progressed into the stygian depths and the signs of excavation began to fade around us, my father declaring we would continue because he wished to explore what he could of the cave’s main passageway, we began to find other signs of human visitation.
It was as I was igniting the third of my eight torches upon the embers of the previous that I saw it. A glimmer of gold in the flickering light down the nearest of the side passages. I called out to my father, my voice echoing hollowly from the warped rock walls, and he stepped past me, heading for it.
My brother brushed me aside and followed suit with his usual abruptness. It was as I arrived next to them that I heard the faint stirrings of movement. I disregarded the subtle noises as my ears playing tricks upon me, for who or what could be down there without a light source such as our torches?
The firelight fell upon a block of what seemed to be carved gold. Roughly twelve feet square and three high, it had the appearance of some primordial altars I had been lucky enough to observe in a private exhibit at the British Museum. Carved icons covered its sides, men bent over in postures of extreme respect, all kneeling before the sinuous figure of the totem we had been given upon the airship.
I gasped in recognition and I could see my brother was in no small amount of shock either. My father was unfazed and knelt down to inspect the block closer. That is when it happened.
The sounds of movement intensified and my brother unslung his rifle, spinning round to identify the source of the noise. I looked around too, trying futilely to see beyond the circle of firelight surrounding us.
My father, absorbed in his task, paid our actions no heed. He remained crouched by the altar, his torch held near it. My brother and I must have turned at the same time, our backs momentarily towards him and that is when it happened.
My father, ordinarily a quiet man, screamed. His scream possessed qualities of primal fear and pain and my brother and I span back round, our torches held high. There was no sign of our father, or his torch. Instead, there was a dark, sinuous shape resting at the edge of the light.
My brother immediately began to fire upon it. The noise of his rifle was deafening, the crank operated drum spinning as fast as he could get it to. It took less than a minute for my brother to empty it of all ammunition and the thing came forwards, unharmed.
It was tall, standing fully erect it would likely have been ten feet high and maybe six across. The majority of it was covered in scales of a dull, golden sheen. The scales covered a serpent’s body, muscles rippling smoothly under them as it came closer to us.
The fire reflected from the long thin pupils of a crocodilian as it opened its massive jaws and snapped them closed around my brother’s forearms. Its speed was terrifying and he had no chance to move, you must understand that it moved like quicksilver.
He screamed and staggered backwards, blood spraying into the air. His scream pierced the fog of horror that had filled my mind and my torch dropped from my nerveless fingers as it turned its eyes upon me. I caught one last glimpse of it before fear overrode reason and I fled from that place, following my brother’s panicked flight. Somehow we made it to the surface, my brother collapsing as the sunlight hit him, his face pale from blood loss.
But it was the last sight I had of that Hell-spawned creature that forcefully pushed all reason and memory from my mind. For you see, in the last flames of torch before it was extinguished by the pool of blood into which it fell, I saw my father’s headless body and the human arms of the creature holding his head, its mouth open and it eyes staring into my soul. And beyond that, tens of pairs of crocodilian eyes.