This is a chapter in our Deadlands game, told from the perspective of my character, Solomon Blackbird. For more of the story, check out the index.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Every step further from the camp and towards the house fills me with dread.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
I lose count of how many times I fight my instincts, telling me to turn and flee.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
The weight of my bowie knife is comforting at my waist; the words of the Psalms comforting in my mind.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I look toward at the house again, a silhouette knitted of shadow, barely visible against the black sky.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
I've reached the gardens. The only light is my flickering torch - there's not star in the sky.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I skirt around the edges of the grounds until I reach the orchard. No fruit on the trees - they claw at the sky like skeletal hands. My torch light falls on a burial mound. I creep closer to read the name on the clean wooden cross: 'Tesla'. I fall to my knees with a gasp, find the soil is damp. This grave is newly dug. But more than that... My hand sinks into the soil and I raise it to see blood. I yelp and scrabble away, catching myself before I fall into an open grave. The torch swings wildly, highlighting the clawed corpses within. Clawed and chewed, as if by a mountain lion. I manage not to drop the torch and recover my composure even as the horror sinks in. Raise my hand to my face to touch the scars across my eye, leaving a muddy, bloody streak. I've dreamt of this.
I've found my feet again, find myself running from the orchard to the house. Chin and Carson are more likely to be there than anywhere. My torch swings wildly, often in front of my eyes, destroying my night vision, but I manage to keep hold of it. Slow my steps and ragged breathing as I approach the building, looming larger than it did during the day. It's just the house, I realise: the admin building is missing.
My torch gutters and goes out as I reach the house. I drop the stick and again fight my instincts as I reach out and touch the wall. Close my eyes. Our Father, who art in Heaven. My lips move, but I find no comfort in the familiar words. Prowl around the building, fingers brushing the stone. There's no doors, no windows. It's a new floor that wasn't here before, warm as though the building is rising from Hell.
I've reached the start, I think, and carry on in a daze.
Feels like... claw marks in the stone. Horizontal ones (are these mine?!) and ... vertical ones. Like some...thing trying to climb. I can't climb after - I have enough trouble scrambling up the cliffs with help from my companions - but I don't have any better idea of how to try to get in, and I can't do nothing. Maybe the scrapes will give me some purchase? My hand digs into the wall - I snatch it back: it felt like my nails had extended into claws that had managed to pierce the brick. Run the pad of my thumb over them - just nails. I close my eyes and press into the wall again, finding I can climb it as my hands and feet grip in that strange way, one overwhelming thought. That grave. Did I kill all those people?
There's a lintel, marking the start of what had been the ground floor. Climb - a gunshot rings out, shattering glass next to me - someone's shooting at me! Don't look around to see who, but dive through the window, following the broken glass, and fall far enough to realise it's too far... but manage to land on all fours, catlike.
"Hello?" The voice startles me.
"It's Carson." The voice sounds relieved, drained of tension - and still nothing like Carson.
There's a light in the direction it came from, though. Not enough to make out my surroundings over here, so crawl there, over more clawed-up bodies. I'm nearly in tears by the time I reach him, but it is him. He doesn't know where Chin is and hasn't found any sign of Salazar or Bruce. Tell him about Tesla's grave, and then reach the question that's bothering me the most.
"Could I be a... a werecat? Puma?" As the words tumble from my mouth I realise I don't want to know, realise how frightened I am - I don't want to know, but I need to.
He doubts it. Realising I'm truly scared, says we can talk about it when we're somewhere safer. I take comfort in his words, especially the conviction with which he promises to talk later.
There's a clattering of shattering glass. We swing in the direction, Carson's lantern revealing a door. As we move towards it, he says it's the door he came in by. He also says he was the one who shot the window out, but the shot definitely came from outside...
We open the door, and immediately Carson slams it shut again, in the face of a Patchwork Man charging at us. It smashes through the door - I swipe at it while Carson unloads his gun into it, then switches to magic: balls of fire slam into it, leaving scorchmarks that fade as fast as they form. I mutter a quick prayer again - and this time find comfort in it. I still can't hit the creature, but get in the way of a couple of punches from it aimed at Carson to protect him as he finally does manage to take it down.
He's exhausted by the effort, so I start taking it apart to give him a breather as he retrieves the gun he discarded. The face... it's Salazar. Call Carson over, and he throws some more firebombs into it until it's not recognisable. He says he's seen evidence of Bruce too.
We go into the room behind the door - a lab, not the corridor Carson came in by. There's a lot of smashed glass and equipment, which has started a few small fires, and a door the other side of the room. That's all we have time to take in before Carson's lantern and the fires flicker out, leaving us in darkness. The door we entered by swings shut behind us, restored somehow. We pick our way carefully through the room to leave through the other door, which opens into a corridor. One end of the corridor is in darkness, but there's light at the other end so we go that way, to a door that opens to daylight!
It's dawn, and we're stood in front of the administration building. The orchard trees are bare, but there's no burial mounds.
We walk back to camp in a dazed near silence, hoping to find Chin there. We're both very, very hungry. We don't manage to find anything to eat on the way but there's the smell of roasting meat as we approach the camp. Not Chin, but Tesla, cooking a rabbit! We eat and sleep.
Wake to the smell of burning meat: Tesla's caught a coyote and is cooking it. Snatch at it from the flames before it becomes charcoal while Tesla talks. He doesn't remember much: when they took him from me, he was taken to a cell, then he was here. Carson's face is thunderous - fear masquerading as anger? - and he asks the Explorer's secret question. Unphased, Tesla replies correctly and asks what we saw in the place.
"I'm not sure." It's a weak answer, but the best I can give.
"Bodies" is all Carson will say. Tesla just nods.
Chin still hasn't shown up, so Tesla cobbles together something to try and locate him, using the same strange hat or headdress he used to try and track the Patchwork Man back in Shan Fan. He pulls it off his head and looks at us, a hint of confusion in his face and voice: "There's nothing"
"Nothing? What do you mean?"
"I found him, but there's nothing."
"You're sure you found him? It's not broken?" I look at the makeshift device, dubious.
"No! It works fine. There's just nothing. It's working fine." He gets defensive, starts talking technobabble I don't understand, sees the blank look on my face and puts the headdress on my head.
There's nothing. Not just no light, but no sound, no smell, no taste, no sense of temperature or pressure or even the air. I rip the headdress off and everything comes flooding back.
We pass the day waiting for him, hunting and foraging. I scrub with sand until I'm almost raw, trying to remove the blood from my skin, my hair, beneath my nails. Carson catches me, tries to calm me.
"You didn't kill those people." His voice is calm but insistent.
"How can you be sure?" Mine's high, hysterical.
"You're not a monster." My face shows my doubt. He holds me. "You're not a monster. We'd have noticed by now." The care, the compassion in his voice reassures me.
"If you're wrong," I mutter against him, "will you... will you deal with me?"
"I'm not wrong."
"I will. I swear it."
Tesla takes first watch; he and Carson must think I need to rest, because they don't wake me for a shift, and Tesla's taking another when I stir in the morning. Nothing weird happened overnight. Chin is still missing. We scuff around the camp, and head back to Perdition.
Sam's upset about his friends, of course, and, like us, worried about Chin. We tell him everything we can. He'll report back to the Explorer's for us: the asylum is beyond our capability, but maybe someone else can rescue Chin. Or at least find out more.
There's a new Good Intentions message for us, too:
The 'Children of Hasteli' - Indian cliff drawings painted in blood that never dries - have started appearing northwest of Perdition again. Someone is murdered, and the next day one appears.