Ludic Writing is the new name for Session Report, a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. The change in name reflects a growing interest in the prospect of “Games as Writing Prompt.” This month’s game is:
English Eerie doesn’t play coy with its identity. The expansive subtitle, Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, is about as direct a description as one could hope for. From the designer and publisher of Quill: A Letter-Writing Roleplaying Game for One Player, English Eerie explores the literary demesne of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood: lonely woods and sodden moors prowled by red-eyed beasts and haunted by chain-rattling ghosts in white gowns. Designer Scott Malthouse sets the mood in an early chapter of the spare rulebook:
When we talk about rural horror, we’re talking not only about ghost stories and folklore set in the countryside, but the horror inherent in the landscape itself. While many settings work for this type of macabre genre, there is something about the English country that makes it perfect for spinning ghoulish tales. There is a deep, unsettled history in the hills, woodlands and valleys of England—one of ancient bloodshed, blood-fueled rites and malicious machinations. A layer of folklore has enveloped this spectral landscape, so much so that you cannot go anywhere without recalling a story about an evil spirit living within a cave or being told about a phantom or two who haunt the halls of a stately home (‘to this day you can still hear footsteps on the landing’).
Like Quill, English Eerie is made available on a pay-what-you-want model and focuses on the production of a hand-penned* narrative. (*The rules suggest you craft your tale over a series of successive nights, illuminated only by candlelight, using as close as possible an instrument to quill and parchment; I cheated and typed one entry into my iPad each morning on the bus.) Although it makes minor use of dice (ten-sided), cards (an abridged deck of standard playing cards), and tokens (beads or what-have-you), all provided by the player, its ludic pretensions are wholly subordinate to the creation of the written tale.
English Eerie‘s mechanics can be conveyed in a single paragraph. The player/storyteller opens the rulebook to one of five included scenarios, or begins one of her own devising. The scenario listing sets the scene and provides a list of supporting characters. The player should also build a small deck of cards composed of fours through sevens in each suit, interspersed at regular intervals with three queens or “Grey Ladies.” When you are ready to begin your tale of terror, you simply reveal the top card of the deck. Each suit has a different effect: spades are minor clues drawing you deeper into the eldritch mystery; hearts result in harm (or even death) befalling a secondary character; diamonds represent an environmental obstruction; and clubs represent an obstruction caused by a secondary character. Like reading Tarot, it’s largely left to the storyteller to interpret these signs and omens, although the scenario listing does include a handful of suggestions for the obstacles and clues. Once you have settled on an interpretation, you pen a brief, in-character journal entry describing the events and the mounting dread they have engendered, and then you flip the next card and continue the tale. The die is rolled whenever an obstacle is encountered; if the result equals or exceeds the value of the card, the protagonist overcomes the impediment, but otherwise, he or she must lose a point of Spirit. Losing all of your Spirit doesn’t end the tale, but it does result in a more dire, hopeless conclusion. The player can spend Resolve, the other attribute, to impact the roll and attempt to avoid a Spirit loss. When a Grey Lady is drawn, a special event occurs, moving the story into the next act or its terrifying climax. Each Grey Lady also forces the protagonist to lose one point of Spirit or Resolve and increases the “tension” of the scenario, which raises the difficulty of all future obstacles.
I purchased English Eerie when it came out around Halloween of last year, and I spent the entirety of November working through one of its scenarios, titled “The Lost River” (earlier in the rulebook, Malthouse explains that this scenario, in particular, was inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”). Following this review, I’ve included the full, minimally edited text of the story that resulted. It’s the story of Edmund Swallow, an adventurer, gentleman, and veteran of the Great War, and a fateful boating holiday down the River Eden in Cumbria with his old friend Mary Jones and fellow-soldier Geoffrey Rose. I’ve removed most of the mechanical details, such as cards flipped and numbers rolled, to let the story stand on its own.
The mechanical elements of the game are so spartan as to be barely worthy of mention. This is very much a guided writing exercise, not a game. Even so, I found some elements of the design frustrating. I was never entirely clear which parts of the scenario (Grey Ladies, obstacles, clues) I was supposed to read ahead of time and which were supposed to remain a surprise, nor was I certain how much I was “allowed” to deviate from the framework presented to me. (The correct answer, I suspect, is that I could deviate as much or as little as I wished; it was my story.) I found myself in a constant struggle between two roles: as roleplayer, I wanted to maintain the tension and dread of the experience by not peeking ahead, but as writer, I wanted to see where the scenario was headed so that I could build toward it in a satisfying way. The two resources, Spirit and Resolve, are given equal weight during character creation, but I found Resolve to be virtually useless in comparison to the vital Spirit. I would have preferred for obstacles and clues to be presented on numbered tables so that I could roll for them randomly on the d10 I was already using. And I found some elements of the scenario itself uninspiring, although as a personal challenge, I tried to say “yes” to every suggestion presented to me. I’ve always thrived in constrained writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle of taking a fairly mundane suggestion—”a ring of dead crows”; “the sound of distant piping in the air”; “a character leaves in the dark”—and turning it into, to use Malthouse’s words, “a journal entry dripping with terror.”
As with multiplayer roleplaying games, solo roleplaying games fall under the shadow of two broad umbrellas: there are the chunky systems like Tunnels & Trolls and Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits, focused on rolling dice, gaining levels, and collecting loot; and there are story games like English Eerie, Quill, and How to Host a Dungeon. Many recent, successful indie roleplaying games (Fiasco, Everyone is John, Microscope) fall under the umbrella of story games, but these almost universally rely on the collaborative energy of at least three players. “Playing” English Eerie is a different, much lonelier experience. This was my first experience with a “solo storytelling RPG,” and when I got my head wrapped around it, I found the experience not much different from just, well, writing.
The upside to which is that I was writing. This is the first sustained piece of original fiction I’ve produced in a long time, and a few small details aside (mostly stemming from a total lack of familiarity with the English countryside, boating terminology, or how to render an American accent as heard by a 1920s Briton), I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. The controlling idea of this series, up until now, has been “games as narrative”—the often ingenious ways in which tabletop games generate a story, either by their own steam or through collaboration with the players, over the course of the session. This was my something different: “games as writing prompt,” in which the game merely suggests the ghost of a story for the “player” to write. It’s a theme I plan to explore a lot more in this year of the Session Report series. Expect to see a greater emphasis on stories inspired by games and comparatively less on the games themselves. In fact, I’m itching to return to the haunted English countryside with the next scenario, “Detox,” a 21st century tale of a “digital detox” retreat away from modern technology.
I’m still going to write it on my iPad, though.
The Lost River
July 17, 1921
River Eden, Cumbria
It was decided that we should take our holiday in July. This should have precluded any nasty weather mucking up our trip, but you know how these things always go wrong in the most memorable ways. For the first four days, we met with precisely the sort of genial weather Geoffrey had predicted–he has always had a sixth sense for such things, a gift that saved our hides more than once in the war. The pleasantness of the atmosphere and the gentleness of the Eden made our work with the oars quite mindless, affording me the opportunity to reconnect with Geoffrey, who has been absent on our latest several adventures and with whom I shared a canoe–Geoffrey as navigator, I as oarsman. At night, the weather was mild enough to make camp under the stars, and around the fire Mary and I were able to regale Geoffrey with tales of our latest exploits. I must admit that the mood was spoiled somewhat by the braying of Mary’s American friend, Ivy, whose late inclusion in the party necessitated the renting of a second canoe. I know I should be more open-minded, but I cannot help but rankle at her intrusion into our rather close company.
The atmosphere of the journey changed yesterday with the arrival of a deep, unseasonal mist. Luckily, I had prepared for such unexpected changes in weather, despite my faith in Geoffrey’s meteorological abilities, but even beneath my woolens, the mist bit into my bones and froze my muscles, making further movement down the river near impossible. Concurrent with the arrival of the mist, the landscape changed, becoming quite unrecognizable: a barren, grey expanse of inhospitable moors and abandoned, infertile quarries. We saw no sign of civilization, nor any sign of life–even the twittering of the birds had fallen silent. After Mary and Ivy nearly capsized their canoe due to the impenetrable mist, we decided to put in for the day and hope for better weather in the morning. We were disappointed; the dawn did nothing to burn off the hellish mist. What’s more, we returned to our canoes to find them destroyed with no clue as to the cause: Mary puts it down to mischief, despite the complete lack of evidence of human inhabitance nearby, while Geoffrey blames the destruction of the canoes on wild animals. If he is correct, I pray the beasts do not return; I do not relish meeting with creatures capable of such mayhem.
Ivy says she can make the canoes river-worthy, though it will take several days. In the meantime, we will have to find some way to survive in this unfriendly land.
July 18: Morning
It did not take long for Geoffrey to lose patience with this plan. “Do you remember that little shepherd’s cottage we passed by before the mists set in?” he asked. In truth, I did not remember any such thing, but I did not wish to arouse his anxieties any further; Geoffrey has always had a nervous and sensitive disposition, which was only exacerbated by our time in the trenches. “I fancy I can hike back that way; with any luck, I should reach it before the American has finished the repairs.”
“And then what?” Mary asked, perhaps more sharply than was necessary. Nerves were on edge.
“And then I ask directions to the nearest town, where we might beg the use of a motor. I don’t know; in truth, I’ll be happy merely to be away from this place. It inspires in me the most awful dread.”
“Now Geoffrey, you’re just being dramatic,” I chided, but in truth, I felt it too. In any case, there was no dissuading him, and soon Geoffrey was bidding us all farewell, walking stick in hand as if he were just going for a pleasant country stroll. We filled his knapsack with enough food to last for two days, for God knows nothing grows around here but grey weeds.
My friend was not gone long, however. With nothing to do but watch Ivy at work, I fell into a doze and dreamed of grey, swirling mists. My slumber was interrupted by screams of pain that appeared to issue from a space just beside me. When I opened my eyes, however, I found I was alone.The screams continued, however. The acoustics of the mist caused the sound to reverberate strangely, but the voice was clearly that of Geoffrey. Leaving Ivy with the canoes, Mary and I set off in the direction he had gone. It took us an hour to find him in the weird, echoing mist. His walking-stick was broken like a matchstick, and so was his leg. The sight of the wound caused forgotten memories to arise within me, and I was forced to look away while Mary prepared a splint. It appears there will be no hiking into town today.
July 18: Evening
Even with the splint, Geoffrey could not support his weight on the broken leg, as we quickly discovered. Luckily, we were at this point not far from the river, and black, sturdy reeds sprouted from the mire along its bank. With these, we were able to fashion a sort of litter with which to carry Geoffrey back to our camp. While we were harvesting the reeds, I noticed a foul, almost rotten stench emanating from the crimson mud. It had been undetectable while passing by this spot in our canoes, but at this proximity, it was insufferable. I had to cover my nose and mouth with my scarf to filter out the miasma, and thus working one-handed, the task took much longer than it might have otherwise. Mary was no less affected, lifting up a corner of her skirts to block the stench, and despite these efforts, when I glanced over, I saw her eyes filled with tears.
It is perhaps for this reason that the incident occurred. In our haste to depart from the stinking shore, we were neither of us as careful as we should have been, and we were half-blinded by tears besides. One of the black reeds had split, forming a jagged edge that neither I nor my companion noticed until it was too late. “Bugger!” Mary gasped, tearing her hand away to reveal a long, deep gash from which warm blood poured, mixing freely with the carmine mud. “Bugger and blast!”
It was a bit of bad luck, but there was nothing we could do. There were now two members of our party injured, and night was beginning to fall; although the sun’s position was invisible in the unceasing mist, a general darkening of the atmosphere had taken over. With the dark came a bitter cold, and I knew we could not leave Geoffrey out there exposed through the night. There was no choice but to complete the litter and carry our injured friend back to camp, painful though it might be. I did my best to rinse out Mary’s wound with fresh water from Geoffrey’s canteen (neither of us trusted the water from the river) and fashion a bandage from a strip of cloth torn from her dress, but I could see it still pained her. I shouldered as much of the burden as I could, but by the time we made it back to camp, the night was total, and I had been treated to several dozen refrains from Mary on the subject of Geoffrey’s rashness (a rich subject coming from her). For his part, my friend and ally had fallen into a fitful slumber, and only murmured, incoherent phrases passed his lips.
July 19: Morning
The American worked on the repairs as late into the night as she could manage, but after a certain point the darkness became too overwhelming, and she risked injury to herself or our crafts. I estimate that it was midnight when she finally retired to the ladies’ tent—our only timepiece, carried by Geoffrey, was damaged in his fall, and neither star nor moon are visible through the mist. My rational mind rebels at this thought—the moon should be nearly full, and it ought to be recognizable as a luminous nimbus, if nothing else. I distracted myself for longer than was healthy searching the sky for some trace of the orb, but all is matte blackness above these accursed moors.
I shared the tent with Geoffrey, and his inchoate mutterings and nocturnal thrashing prevented me from getting much in the way of rest. The few times that I dozed, my dreams were dark and menacing. My mind’s eye recalled me to the trenches, where I fought alongside Geoffrey. A sniper’s bullet had pierced his leg, and I scanned the blasted landscape desperately for some sign of the shooter, but all was coated in an impenetrable grey mist. A terrible keening, like that of predatory birds, echoed in my ears, accompanying the rumbling of mortars and crack of reports. Once, I saw a silhouetted, winged figure glide overhead, measuring ten feet from wingtip to wingtip. I awoke from these naps drenched in cold sweat, more drained than ever.
The third time this happened, it was as though the cold of the grave had penetrated my bones. When I recovered my senses, I saw that the flap of the tent had been left open, and thick mist roiled within. Geoffrey was gone. I ran out into the night, rousing my companions, and began a desperate search. It did not take us long to locate him: he had dragged himself through the mud to the half-repaired canoes, gotten hold of an oar, and was attempting to push off. I wrested the oar from his hands and, together with the American, managed to pull him from the craft before he could succeed in drowning himself and our vessel. Geoffrey, clearly delirious with fever, fought us bitterly. “They are nearly upon us!” he kept shouting in his moments of greatest lucidity. “We must flee!” I regret that we have no supplies with which to induce calm and rest, which he so clearly requires.
July 19: Evening
No work was done on the canoes today. The American spent the entirety of the day inside the ladies’ tent, providing comfort to Mary. I tried to impress on her the urgency of our situation, but she silenced me with a look. For the most part, the flap of the tent remained closed, and my gentlemanly nature prevented me from intruding upon their privacy. The two women spoke in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Ivy’s voice was sharp and urgent, like the hiss of air from a punctured tyre; Mary’s was weak and pleading, like the mewling of an abandoned kitten. Their words could not be deciphered.
Once, when I approached on another fruitless mission to talk some sense into the American, I found that one snap of the tent’s flap had been missed, leaving a slight gap through which the cold mist could gain entry. Sensitive to the ladies’ health, I hastened to correct this error, and it was only by chance that I happened to glance inside. I shall not describe the scene I found within, except to say that the ladies were asleep, their limbs arranged in a most suggestive manner. I was about to recoil in disgust and horror when a minor detail of the scene presented itself to my consciousness. Mary’s wound, which appeared as a mere scratch yesterday, has deepened and festered overnight, so that it now exceeds the bounds of her bandages. The skin of her upper arm has gone black and putrid, and her fingers have gone dark and misshapen, like blood sausages. Her fingernails, always kept to a manly trim, are no longer visible, and in their place oozes a thick, colorless humor.
My fingers fumbled with the tent’s snap, and as it clicked together, I fancied I saw the American’s eyes snap open, fixing me with a glare of anger and suspicion. I cannot confirm it, however; the pair have remained within their tent, and I have not sought them out. Having witnessed many an infection in the war, it is clear to me that Mary’s arm will have to come off, and soon, but we lack the equipment to perform such a procedure in a way that won’t put her at greater risk.
Geoffrey sleeps beside me, still muttering feverish phrases of incoherent fear. The splint, fashioned by Mary, hides his injury from view. I fear to peek beneath the bandages.
July 20: Morning
Last night, as I slept (if one can call that restless parade of dark omens and unpleasant memories “sleep”), a strange sound wormed its way into my mind’s eye. At first, it was too faint to make out as more than a muffled gnawing, like maggots at work upon a festering wound. I remarked upon its presence to my ally (I found myself once more in the trenches), but he kept his binoculars trained on the horizon line, stone-faced and oblivious to my presence. I risked a glimpse above the lip of the trench, curious if some enemy activity had captivated his attention, but I found not a single clue of life, human or otherwise. Of course, the enemy had ways of masking their presence almost completely, as well I knew.
The sound grew louder. Next, I took it to be the sighing of the wind, but not a hair stirred on my companion’s head. Then, it seemed to resolve into a distant singing or chanting, as at a midsummer festival. The juxtaposition of this celebratory noise with the bleakness of the terrain nearly jarred me loose from my dream, but somehow I held on to the illusion. I listened keenly, hoping I could discern some of the words being sung; the melody or rhythm of the chant seemed maddeningly familiar, yet it flitted just beyond my grasp. I tilted my head this way and that, trying to triangulate the noise, and found that by pressing my ear to the mud of the trench, I could amplify the signal, as it were. As I listened to the reverberations through my helmet, however, I was startled to discover that the sound I heard was not singing at all, but rather the mournful braying of carrion birds. I looked once more over the blasted landscape, but it was as barren as ever.
At this point, the dream accelerated. It was as though identifying the nature of the sound allowed it to more readily penetrate my consciousness. The cawing of the birds grew rapidly in volume. I jammed my balled fists over my ears, but the cacophony did not diminish in the slightest. A pressure built up in my skull, as before a migraine. When I removed my fists from my head, they were coated in coppery blood.
How long this lasted I cannot say. Time moves at a different pace in dreams, and aeons can pass in the space of seconds. I will say that I wished, on more than one occassion, for my own death as a release from this torture.
At some point, I awoke. My relief upon realizing that this had been a dream was followed immediately by the horrible understanding that the sound had not ceased. After unendurable seconds, I came to understand that the horrible, ragged laughter was emanating from my own throat. By sheer force of will, I regained control of my voice. Still the horrid cawing continued, albeit quieter now. My rational faculties returned quickly, and it did not take long to pin down the source of the cawing: Geoffrey, this time, was the perpetrator, trapped as I had been in a sweat-soaked nightmare. I nearly stopped his breath with his own pillow, so driven was I to the brink of madness and despair, but I settled for merely shaking him awake. He did not wake, but his eyelids fluttered, and his hideous braying ceased. Finally, sweet silence reigned.
Suddenly, the atmosphere within the tent was stifling, and I staggered out into the mist-laden morning, gasping for fresh air. What I saw outside, however, stopped me dead in my tracks. Arranged carefully around our tent, as regular as the arrangement of stones within a garden, was the first sign of life any of us have seen since the falling of the mist. They were not, however, alive; the black crows that formed a perfect ring around our tent had each had their necks snapped.
July 20: Evening
The crows remained undisturbed for much of the day. The American, of course, would not touch them, citing her feminine delicacy. She denies any involvement in this prank, but I am not certain I believe her. Dead birds do not simply arrange themselves into a perfectly geometrical circle. Is this some twisted revenge for the scene I witnessed yesterday? If so, the American must possess a deviant personality of the first degree. I am forced, however, to recognize the absurdity of a woman carrying out such a plot. To individually wring the necks of thirteen crows requires a callousness I can’t level with my understanding of the feminine psyche. And whence did she obtain thirteen such specimens in the midst of this lifeless landscape? Unless she packed them in with her, which strains credulity and suggests she has a hand in this entire ordeal.
At the same time, if the crows were not placed by one of our party, than by whom? Is there another living among these moors? Could this be the individual responsible for the wrack of the canoes? Is this a message, and if so, what does it bode?
For my part, I was too unnerved by the sight, and the memories it inspired, to bring myself to dispose of the avian corpses until well into the afternoon. For similar reasons, I could not spur myself to cross the tent’s threshold to attend to the injured Geoffrey. I sat, sullenly, upon an angular stone thrust upwards through the mire like an accusatory finger. My gaze shifted between the hateful birds and the yet more hateful figure of the American, who had resumed her repair-work as though nothing at all had happened. I will not commit to paper the convolutions of paranoia into which my mind twisted itself as I brooded upon the bald stone. I worked myself up into such an extremity of fear and confusion that my body would no longer suffer inaction, and I sprang up with a shout and began feverishly to gather the birds, intending to chuck them into the river straightaway. That was how I discovered the symbols.
There are three of them, scratched into the black mud between the two tents. The dissolute light, thinned by its passage through the mists, flattens shadows and mutes contrasts, which served to hide the marks until I was nearly upon them. The first, nearest to the tent I share with Geoffrey, is a simple pair of swooping lines, meeting in the middle to form a deep V like the point of a knife. This is recognizable as any schoolboy’s sketch of a bird in flight, wings outstretched. The other two symbols are less clear. In the middle ground between the tents is a complex arrangement of lines and curves that might be a goat’s or satyr’s head. The final rune, in the shadows of the ladies’ tent, is impossible to discern, not least because it has been transversed by a deep furrow, as of a boot or stick dragged through the mud. I finished the job, erasing the remaining marks while I was at it.
I can see no profit to be gained by sharing this discovery with my companions. If the creator of this graffiti meant to unnerve me, I shall not give him—or her—the satisfaction of acknowledgement.
July 21: Morning
Despite the exertions of the previous day, and the emotionally and physically draining nature of my singular nightmare, rest eluded me last night. Every time I closed my eyes, my mind summoned the image of the crows, their necks snapped like twigs; of the mysterious, maddening runes scratched into the mud; of Mary’s blackened, necrotic flesh and oozing fingers; of Geoffrey’s face contorted in hideous, braying laughter; of the blasted landscape of the trenches; or one of a dozen other horrors weighing on my beleaguered psyche. I sat, and pondered, and mused darkly upon my circumstances and my company, but my tired mind could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. My companion now stinks, and noxious humors ooze from beneath his splint. I wasted no time emerging from the tent the moment subtle alterations of the gloom told me that dawn had broken behind the pressing mist.
I was surprised to be greeted by Ivy. Her demeanor had changed overnight; if she still harbored any resentment toward me, it did not show in her face. She explained that she, too, had been unable to rest, and had worked through the night on the repair of the canoes by the light of our smoldering campfire. As a result, the repairs had been completed ahead of schedule.
“How can this be?” I ejaculated, unable to mask the relief and jubilance I felt in my spirit. Even accounting for the extra hours worked, it seemed impossible that we should have our freedom so soon.
Ivy explained, in her American drawl, that the situation had changed when our two companions became injured. “Neither one of ’em’s fit to paddle, and navigatin’ would be tricky, too. As you know, a boat needs a paddler and a navigator.” So thinking, she had concentrated her efforts on a single craft. “We can only take one boat, anyway, so I figgered why bother?”
I respected the logic of her words, but my heart fell when I realized what else it portended. “But with four of us in a single canoe, we’ll have to leave most of our camping gear behind. We’d sink otherwise.”
Ivy nodded resolutely. “There’s no way around it I kin see. We’ll just bring the bear essentials. Anyway, we can’t afford to camp until we make it back to civ’lization.” For the first time, I acknowledged the shrewd intellect and force of will of this extraordinary young woman, and I realized some inkling of what Mary saw in her.
While Ivy picked through our supplies, searching for those items that would be most necessary to us without overloading the boat, I worked on preparing my two companions for the journey. Geoffrey was easy: he had fallen into a kind of stupor, so loading him onto the canoe was not unlike loading up the tent-poles or some other awkward, dead weight, especially with the aid of the litter. Mary was more of a challenge. Deaf to my and Ivy’s cajoling, she refused to exit the tent. For my part, I did not wish to inflict another intrusion upon the lady in her dishabille, so we were at an impasse.
Eventually, the need to conserve what little daylight the mists afforded overpowered my sense of decorum, and steeling my resolve, I burst into the tent, intending to remove Mary by force if necessary. Moments later, I staggered back in revulsion. The tent’s interior put me in mind of a combat surgery. Used, black bandages were strewn about the tent, and the stink was more than I could stomach. It was the same smell that rose from the riverside. Mary shrank away from me, attempting to hide her black, rotting arm from view, but she could not disguise the disease that crept over her shoulders and across her bare stomach. My friend was in dire straits.
There was no time for pity or nausea. Wrapping my hand about Mary’s waist, I dragged her toward the canoe. She struggled feebly, weeping and cursing, but once I got her clear from the tent, her fighting spirit subsided, and she fell into complacency. As I write these words, she sits by the river’s edge, staring into nothing, as we prepare to get underway.
July 21: Evening
We rowed throughout the day, taking turns at the paddle so as not to overstrain our limbs. Despite these precautions, after my third turn as paddler, I began to feel as though I’d been conscripted into a galley-team. This is a far cry from the leisurely journey of half a week ago; we row like demons during the day, knowing that the night and the mist will render the river unnavigable. My arms burn like fire when at rest, and they burn in a slightly different way when I am forced to pick up the paddle once more. But such is the urgency of our situation. I fear the weakness in my limbs and the jostling of the craft render these words, copied out in shorthand during my few moments of rest, quite incomprehensible; they will need to be copied out in a clean hand at a later date.
As Ivy intimated before our departure, we cannot afford to stop paddling until we have regained civilization. I think we both assumed that, with an early start, this would occur before night fell, but I have seen no end to this strange, wild country. When the gloom settled, we were forced into a choice: disembark and sleep under the stars (we could fit none of our camping equipment in the overladen canoe), or continue drifting along at the river’s pace, moving as quickly as we dare, praying that a sharp rock or a sudden bend does not surprise us in the dark. We chose the latter option, for neither of us relish the idea of inaction in a time of crisis.
Shortly after midnight, however, an exceedingly strange occurrence arose. For the first time, the mists cleared, and we were able to navigate by starlight. But these were not the familiar skies of the northern hemisphere. I struggled in vain to spot a single constellation or planet I knew should be visible in this region at this time of year, but the star patterns were quite foreign to my eye, and there was a coldness to their light. I fear the isolation and stress have me disoriented, for surely it is impossible for the entire sky to rearrange itself. No moon was visible, though I could see a faint glow on the horizon, in the direction we are heading. Despite the strangeness of this vision, I cannot help but breathe relief at the clearing of the mists; we were able to cover several additional miles under this alien starlight.
July 22: Morning
The mists appear to have lifted for good, for which occurrence I thank divine providence. Few moments in my life have driven me to harbor un-Christian thoughts. The first was the death of my mother, a horrific occurence that was widely distributed in the sensationalist papers of the day. Though I was yet a boy, I absorbed enough of the gruesome details—details that followed me in whispers everywhere I went—to allow a wavering of faith. It faltered again during the war, when the atrocities I witnessed caused me to question the redeemability of Man’s soul. Yet I repented and mended my relationship with my Lord, holding steadfastly to my faith…until this ordeal upon the river. For the third time in my life, my soul sought succor in God’s love and compassion and found no sign of either.
The clearing of the mists, however, has done much to lift my spirits, and though the sun appears unusually cold and distant, I see His hand in its golden rays as they scintillate upon the clear water. By this light, too, the moors appear a little less grey and forbidding; you can see small patches of purple heather, green gorse, and some sort of blood-red vine that winds and creeps along the ground like a map of veins. There is still no sign of animal life, and the landscape is far from bucolic, but it appears less hostile than it did beneath the blanket of mist.
Around midday, a strange sound came into our ears: a distant, sustained piping, unmistakably musical, though it carried no recognizable tune. I turned to face Ivy in disbelief, and by her expression knew that she had heard it too. The sound was issuing from a spot downriver of us. Without exchanging a word, our minds were made up, for this could be none other than a shepherd idly picking out an air upon his pan-pipes. We should drift along the river a bit until we had drawn close enough to locate the music’s source, then one of us should disembark and track down the piper while the other stood watch over our sickly companions.
It was at this that the piping appeared to penetrate the pall of delirium that hangs over said companions. It is rare now for Geoffrey to surface from his nightmares, and when he does, it is clear that his perceptive faculties are corrupted by pain and fever. Mary is not much better. They both rant about the oppressive mists, unaware that they have lifted, and their eyes dart about madly as though tracking something neither Ivy nor I can see.
“They come…they come to finish me off,” Geoffrey will cry, breaking hours of silence. He also froths of “those watching with winged eyes” and other, similar madnesses.
Mary’s manias have a different focus. “It is within me,” she will moan, quite disturbing both me and her American friend. “I can feel it move within me.” And she will claw at her clothes madly, nearly toppling the boat, forcing Ivy and I to pin her in place until she has exhausted herself.
With the sound of piping, however, their disparate madnesses reached a concordance. Both of my ailing companions released the most horrific screaming I have heard in my life—and I have heard the screams of a man who lost his jaw to a German grenade. Strangely, neither of them appeared to recognize the music for what it was. “His voice! He calls for me!” Mary shouted; at nearly the same moment, Geoffrey cried, “They call, they call, they’re coming! Ignore their calls! We must flee! Flee!”
Try as we might, nothing we said or did could calm our companions. Eventually, the excitement proved too much for their weakened constitutions; their eyes rolled back in their heads and they fell into a swoon. We were left, once more, with no sound but the pan-pipes drifting tunelessly across the moor.
July 22: Evening
I’ve often remarked how strangely sound carries in moments of stillness and solitude; on the right day, at a far enough remove from human industry, one can hear the sound of a twig cracking a mile distant. So it was with the piping, which seemed to carry across miles undiminished; it was precisely as clear and sonorous at one point on the river as it was an hour downstream. Eventually, though, we reached a juncture at which the sound—though no louder nor quieter than before—appeared to issue from a point perpendicular to, rather than further along, the river. It was at this juncture that we disembarked and I parted ways with Ivy, for it was decided that I should seek out the piper while she stood sentinel over our friends, our supplies, and of course our canoe.
I did not mind the arrangement in the slightest, for after spending the greater part of two days cramped in the canoe, I looked forward to the opportunity to stretch my legs. I anticipated a hike of a few hours, judging by the sparseness and evenness of the terrain; however, the landscape proved more treacherous than it appeared from a distance, riddled with sudden sinkholes and hidden ravines. I could see easily how Geoffrey had his accident, as I nearly shared his fate once or twice—and I did not have the conniving mists to deal with.
The changefulness of the landscape made progress difficult, and I had gained no discernable distance on the source of the piping when a crack of thunder rent the sky and a thin, dirty rain began to fall. This took me completely by surprise, for the sky had been clear a moment before. The rain was a dark color, like the showers that fall near the smokestacks of London. It may have had a slight rusty tinge, but it was hard to discern under the failing light. It hissed as it fell.
Something about the sudden rains struck discordant in my mind, prompting me to glance up. Night had fallen imperceptibly, and the same alien stars hung above me. Then I realized the subtle wrongness of the scene, and it struck terror to the pit of my soul: despite the rain, the stars were utterly clear; there was not a cloud in the sky.
Something stung my eye. A drop of water; rather than the usual slight irritation, however, this burned like acid. As I raised my hand to shield my face, the rain fell harder, until it was attacking the ground around me like a cannonade. I realized that I needed to escape. A crooked finger of rock in the distance might provide some shelter; I ran for it. It kept the rain from pelting my face, barely, but I would have to stand in a very small space until the storm let up.
As I write this, it is well into the night, and still the storm continues. Yet the piping has not ceased; if anything, it has increased in fervor, wild crescendos timed to coincide with the pealing of the thunder. I begin to dread my meeting with this mad piper.
July 23: Morning
The rains continued as the night progressed imperceptibly toward morning. At some point, I must have fallen asleep on my feet. My dreams brought me back to the trenches, where a filthy drizzle pelted the dead landscape.
Once more, a nameless ally crouched beside me, transfixed by some vision through the binoculars. Once more, I could perceive no hint of the enemy, or of any other life for that matter. We might as well have been on some alien planet. This time, however, my brother-in-arms was the first to break the silence:
“The music’s stopped,” he observed. As he said this, a void opened up in the aural landscape as a sound that had been so constant so as to be unnoticeable suddenly cut short. It was like when all of the birds in a forest stop singing at once. The abrupt silence carried echoes with it, snatches of incongruous arpeggios and inhuman harmonies.
“We must never let the music stop,” my friend continued. As he spoke, he removed the binoculars from his eyes. My stomach turned. Where his eyes should be were nothing but two hollow, corroded pits.
I opened my mouth, but the scream of horror and despair seemed to come from a great distance, and the voice was not my own. It was Geoffrey’s. A winged figure blotted out the sun, and a human figure squirmed within its talons. “I told you they would return for me!” Geoffrey called despairingly. “You’re next! You’re next! They watch unseen! They hunt by starlight! Flee!”
I startled awake. In the crepuscular light, dream and reality blurred, and I fancied I could still see the winged shadow and hear my friend’s screams of warning. Then I came fully to, and these visions melted away. The piping continued as though no time had passed.
The rains have ceased. I should waste no time tracking down this eccentric, musical shepherd. Every minute puts my friends in further danger…though a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach tells me it may already be too late.
July 23: Evening
I set off the first moment I could, following the sound of piping across the moor. Though the rains had stopped, I had to watch my footing carefully; a wrong step would leave me shin-deep in sucking mud, accompanied by a sizzling noise that boded ill for my boot-leather. By the time I crossed the treacherous fen, my boots and trouser-cuffs were in a sorry state indeed. When my path diverted onto relatively dryer ground, I shouted out a prayer of gratitude; twenty minutes longer, and I would have been traveling barefoot through the corrosive swamp.
I crested a rubble-strewn, weed-choked rise, and for a moment my breath held in my throat. Stretched before me, glittering in the cold sunlight, was the curve of a river. The River Eden. For a moment, I despaired at the idea that I had gotten myself turned around in the night and lost all my progress of the previous day. Then, reason prevailed: I had been guided by the music of the pipes this entire time, so my getting lost was entirely out of the question. More likely, the river formed a switchback a little downstream from where we had disembarked, and the stretch of land I had crossed was a sort of peninsula.
As I descended the rise, I started to work on the problem of fording the river. There was a clump of black reeds; I could lash them together to form a raft…. My thoughts trailed off when I noticed two human figures down by the water. Beside them was a canoe in poor repair.
Recognition dawned, and with some trepidation, I hastened to meet my friends. Ivy, the American, was ashen, and Mary was racked by sobs. I looked from one face to another, then peered into the canoe, which was unoccupied. “But where is Geoffrey?” I cried in astonishment.
“Gone,” Mary bawled. “Taken.”
“He woke in the night,” Ivy explained bitterly. “He began to scream that we had been followed. I tried to hold him back, but he overpow’red me.” Her story suffered a minute’s interruption as she fought back tears of anger and regret. “When I put my arms ’round him, he…he must have thought I was some critter from his nightmares. I ain’t never seen nobody move like that. He wrenched hisself free and leapt into the air, almost like he was bein’ carried….”
I remembered the winged shadow of my dream, and how it had carried Geoffrey in its dark talons, but I thought it wise not to further disturb this obviously distraught woman with such a macabre coincidence.
“And…and he flung hisself into the river, way out into the whitewater. I heard his skull crack on a rock, and then he went under. There was no saving him.” She paused, and a dark expression took hold of her features. “Or maybe he saved hisself.”
“You’re wrong,” Mary moaned. “Geoffrey was a sacrifice. The first.” And she collapsed again in tears.
We cannot stay here. Mary is getting sicker, and Ivy and I cannot last much longer on the provisions we have. We must depart, immediately, as a group to track down the piper of the moor.
July 24: Morning
I narrated to Ivy the events of the previous day (omitting, of course, the detail of my macabre and prescient dream): how I had set out across the fen toward what I believed to be the source of the music; how I had been waylaid by the corrosive rain; how I had somehow gotten turned around and wound up back at the river’s edge, my point of departure.
The river group had experienced none of what I narrated; they had neither seen nor felt the cloudless rain, and they had not noticed any shift in the music’s apparent source. We reasoned through the possibilities. Clearly, the piper could not actually have crossed the waters without drawing Ivy’s attention, and the sound of piping was now quite clearly emanating from our side of the river. The explanations that remained were unsatisfying: disorientation caused by lack of adequate hydration (I had depleted my store of fresh water before nightfall), or some trick of the landscape causing the sound to echo in unexpected ways.
This talk of echoes suggested an idea to my mind. I demanded silence. Listening keenly to the sound, I began to detect two parts to it: the clearest, brightest, and most audible piping, coming from somewhere across the fen; and, faintly, an answering harmony, like a pale shadow, issuing from across the river. While the overriding melody was beautiful, in a wild, untrained way, the harmony was ugly and abrasive, bringing to mind squat fungus propagating in darkness and decay.
I brought these details to Ivy’s attention, and after some coaching, she was able to pick out the subtle counter-melody, too. Oddly enough, Mary seemed only to hear the dissonant harmony, although the it was fairly well drowned out by the melody.
Of course, this raised more mysteries than it solved. Were there two pipers, calling out to each other across the moor as in some shamanic ritual from darkest Africa? What purpose could this incessant piping serve? One eccentric shepherd is an oddity; two strains credulity. Why, depending on one’s situation, could only one instrument or the other be heard? And there was one more odd thing: In those moments when the music paused, and the landscape seemed to hold its breath, and even the running of the river seemed to abate in anticipation of the sound’s continuance, it was possible to discern that what had seemed, at first, to be the answering call, the subordinate harmony, actually picked up the tune’s tattered thread a few thousandths of a second before what we had assumed to be the melody line.
A hike up the hill soon resolved the mystery: From that vantage point, only the buzzing, rasping “harmony” across the river could be heard. The sweet-sounding melody, we resolved, was a mere echo, twisted into a more pleasing shape by obliging Nature. Our way was clear: we must turn away from the sweet but false melody and follow the obscene call to the river’s opposite shore.
The crossing was harrowing. The river had swelled its banks since the previous day and adopted a white-capped, turbulent countenance promising treacherous eddies and powerful cross-currents. I put this down to the effects of last night’s rain. Our canoe, built more for buoyancy than for stability, croaked and shuddered alarmingly as we labored to keep it aright, but we managed it somehow. Now, on the opposite bank, we have taken a moment to collect ourselves, but a moment is all we can spare. If we do not reach help this evening, I fear we shall all perish out here.
July 24: Evening
We were forced to abandon our vessel by the river’s bank and bring only the supplies that we could carry on our backs; dragging the canoe across the moor would levy too great a toll on our already exhausted bodies and spirits. We hid it among some rushes, hoping that would be sufficient to protect it from the beasts and the elements.
Tracking the music proved arduous. The closest analogue I can summon is attempting to follow a whispered conversation in a far corner of a crowded ballroom, with the band piping away at full breath. I’m getting rather tired of writing that word, piping, but it has thoroughly wormed its way into my thinking. The mental strain of isolating the slithering, insidious noise among the clear, melodious piping behind us was exacerbated by the spiritual repugnance of the song itself, for the more intensely we concentrated on this buzzing, braying cacophony, the more deeply affected we became by its utter wrongness. Every natural thing is imbued by its Creator with a sense of beauty, which is why even the croaking of frogs or the lowing of cattle falls melodiously on the human ear. This sound was utterly unnatural, its maker untouched by the divine hand.
Only Mary seemed able to follow the sound easily, but her soul was the most deeply repulsed by its ugliness. She plugged up her ears, called out for mercy, and several times attempted to flee back toward the river; we had to fairly drag her in our wake. I can only imagine that the fever amplified the song’s discordant nature, the way a serious illness can transform the faces of attending nurses into angels and demons.
Despite these difficulties, we made tangible progress toward our goal; an hour later, the true piping was noticeably louder and more distinct; the false music had begun to fade and fray. It was at this point that I set my foot down and felt no solid ground beneath it. We had crossed an imperceptible boundary into another fen. With some difficulty, I managed to extricate myself, but my trousers were now soaked through to the thigh, and the sun was beginning to set. This made it even more difficult to tell good ground from bad, but there was no question of stopping.
Another hour passed without incident. The difficult task of following the music, coupled with the uncertainty of the landscape and our mental exhaustion, nearly destroyed our nerves, but after a time, the ground became firmer and more even. We walked with confidence. Then, without warning, I felt myself sinking rapidly beneath the boggy soil. I reached out for Ivy’s hand; our fingertips grazed; the American fell to a knee and grasped me by the elbow. She managed to keep my head above the surface, but the mud had got hold of me and did not seem likely to relinquish its hold. I felt something wrap itself around my waist, and for a moment I fancied a tentacle of some dire kraken or equatorial monstrosity. Then I remembered that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we were still in England, where the natural world has been tamed by Man and all monsters exiled to fairy tale and legend.
Mary, in a moment of lucidity, stepped in to help, and with a tremendous heave from the two girls, I struggled free of the mud. The situation became immediately clear: I had gotten tangled in one of those red, wandering vines we spotted from the river. Its surface was covered in tiny barbed thorns, which had dug their way into my clothing as I struggled against the pull of the mud. Extricating myself from this vegetation, I saw that my clothing had been torn in several places, and scratches and welts circled my stomach and thighs, where the thorns had dug into exposed skin.
I can only pray I will not contract the infection that has taken hold of Mary. The very idea drives me to the brink of despair. Overcoming my exhaustion, I set a new, frenzied pace across the moor toward the discordant piping. My companions could hardly keep up. The music is quite close now, and I hear it with a newfound clarity.
July 25: Morning
At last, we have reached our destination. In the faded distance, the unmistakable shape of a little country shack rises from the mud—I should say, rather, that it sinks into its surroundings, for there is an unmistakable attitude of decline about its profile. There can be no question that the music issues from this point. At this distance, all of the confounding echoes have fallen away like a velvet curtain, revealing the tune in immaculate detail. And now, for the first time, I begin to hear its beauty, and it is with eager anticipation that I quicken my steps toward its maker.
As my eagerness waxes, however, so does Mary’s indolence. The moment the odd little shack became visible in the distance, she released a shriek of such terror that it brought her to her knees. All of the protests and exhortations that we had lately suffered were reissued with a force born of desperation. She dug in her heels, literally, sinking them into the wet soil. And when those tactics failed, she shocked us all by producing a revolver from the band of her garter and leveling it at her own temple.
“Mary, you must consider what you’re about!” I shouted. “This isn’t some game of Russian Whist! I can attest to the damage those things can do.”
“Oh, yes, and so could Geoffrey, I’m sure,” Mary spat. At that moment, I couldn’t explain the venom behind her words.
“Mary, my…my love,” Ivy cut in. “You can’t do this, please. It ain’t…I couldn’t go on.”
Mary turned her sights on the American. “Oh, you couldn’t, could you? It’s quite simple. Turn back, away from this hellish place, and return to the river. That’s all that’s required to spare my life.”
“But Mary, you ain’t yerself,” Ivy protested. “You need medicine. Food. Rest. The kind of stuff we’ll find there.” She pointed to the sunken little shack in the distance.
Mary shook her head sadly. The venom in her words was replaced by something approximating pity. “You don’t know. You haven’t seen him. You know nothing of what he’s capable of doing. But I have—” She pointed the revolver’s barrel into her bosom. “—I have seen it. I’ve felt it. Felt him. And I won’t go through it again. Not for anything. Not even for you.” She raised the gun to her temple once more.
“Mary, you must think rationally,” I began, but her finger was already squeezing the trigger.
When one hears the report of a firearm, one is used to certain consequences—the panic of birds, shouts of pain, the crack of returning fire. One is not used to the utter stillness that answered the discharge of Mary’s revolver. Nothing stirred in the dead landscape, and neither Ivy nor I uttered a sound as our friend slumped to the ground, her soul departed from her body.
I put it down to shock at my old friend’s actions that I did not realize, until minutes later, that even the music had fallen silent.
July 25: Evening
As I write this, I am digesting my first decent meal in days. The shepherd’s spartan table, provisioned from a quaint, country larder, seemed to our famished bellies a meal at the Ritz. to our famished bellies. Mutton stew, seasoned with herbes de provence; a hunk of stale bread; and a similarly proportioned hunk of hard cheese were transformed into the rarest delicacies of India, and for a moment, we forgot our recent sorrows and travails. Taking note of our sorry condition, the kindly shepherd prepared a pot of herbal tea, said to be imbued with healing properties, and we drank heartily from crude, earthen mugs.
The final leg of our journey was anticlimactic. Once Ivy and I had recovered from our shock, we stumbled blindly toward the shack, insensible to the passage of time. It seemed we had gone but three steps before a towering, hirsute man in homespun clothes was opening the door and ushering us inside. In our grief-wracked state, we hardly took notice of the shack’s exterior, but certain features of its interior now present themselves to me: its sloped, uneven floor; its misshapen windows, boarded shut from within; and the corpses of small game, such as rabbits and quail, hung from a knotted ceiling beam, waiting to be butchered. Between the meat-in-waiting, sprays of dried herb, knotted sacks of garlic and onion, and sundry necessary utensils, the ceiling is quite densely populated and proves a constant navigational hazard for the shack’s sizeable inhabitant, who is forced to walk stooped like an old man, despite his apparent youth and vigor. Interspersed—I am tempted to say hidden—among these items are a few oddities, the purpose of which I cannot place: odd totems of lashed-together bone, feather and sinew. When I asked the shack’s owner about these decorations, he burst into a hearty laugh and mumbled something about old superstitions.
“This is a lonely, out-of-the-way country,” he explained, “and its people, such as we are, do many a thing such as might seem quaint or ignorant to you London crowd. But the nights here are dark and long, and things prowl these moors beneath the stars, and those of us such as live off of the land will do what we must do, let reason nor science enter into it.” It was such a bizarre non-answer that both Ivy and I were struck dumb, and so the matter was forgotten.
The shepherd—I now realize I have quite forgotten my manners and failed to get the man’s name—had nearly as many questions for us as we for him. “How came you to this godforsaken country, anyrate? You look as though these moors have chewed you up and spit you out!” He unleashed another wall-shaking guffaw.
We explained our mishap with the canoes and the fog, and the dire fates of our fellow adventurers, and the shepherd’s manner turned serious in an instant. “This land doesn’t take kindly to trespassers,” he said with a morose shake of his great, shaggy head. “You’re lucky to have made it this far. You’d be better off not venturing any further, if you catch my drift. There’s nought out there but sorrow for a pair of travelers such as you are.” He shook his head again.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question,” I answered. “If you’d be so kind as to point us in the direction of the nearest village, we’ll depart as soon as we’ve finished our tea.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” the shepherd replied darkly.
“Excuse me?” Ivy asked, somewhat taken aback.
“I only mean to say that there is no village, nor any place of refuge save this one, for miles,” the shepherd explained. “’Twould be unchristian of me to let you venture anywhere this night. Stay this night, and we’ll all depart together on the morrow. You’ll be safe here from them such as take their prey by starlight.” That phrase struck a familiar chord with me, and the man’s words had an effect rather opposed to that intended—suddenly, I did not feel entirely safe in his presence. The dim firelight lent his features a vaguely hircine aspect, and I could not shake the ridiculous notion that his unkempt nest of wiry hair disguised a pair of curling goat’s horns.
We had little choice in the matter, however; the shepherd would not so much as tell us the direction of town. “You’ll be safe here this night, such as you are,” he repeated, with a glance toward the totems suspended from the ceiling. “Now, if you’ll pardon my rudeness, I must attended to my flock.” His stooped figure disappeared through the low door, which slammed to a moment later. Ivy and I sat in stunned silence. A minute later, the music of pipes drifted in through the boarded-up windows.
“What a curious turn of phrase, ‘trespassers!’” Ivy whispered to me. Overtaken by a sudden lethargy, I could do nothing but murmur my agreement as I drained the last dregs of my tea. Even now, I can barely pen these words. We were foolish to believe we could march through the night, following the sound of fifes across the moor. I wonder, though, as my eyelids grow heavy. I wonder about this shepherd’s flock. Despite the delicious mutton supper, there has been no sign of sheep.
July 26: Morning
In spite of our misgivings, Ivy and I encountered no dangers during the night, and though our minds were wary, our bodies were immensely relieved by the change of circumstances: protection from the elements and from unseen dangers, full bellies, and the warmth of a smoldering fire. This, couple with the soporific effects of the herbal tea—I grow increasingly certain it contained a narcotic element—contributed to a deep, rejuvenating, and—I thank the Lord—dreamless sleep. We awoke feeling as refreshed as the day we set out on our journey.
The shepherd had not yet returned—we could hear his distant piping on the moor—so we helped ourselves to the remains of the mutton stew and awaited his arrival. Departing now was quite out of the question—as I previously stated, he had so arranged things that we could go nowhere without him as guide. Eventually, the piping drew nearer, the door swung violently open, and the furry giant of a man squeezed through, trailing thick ropes of mist. I was dismayed to see that the mists had once again descended—I had thought us rid of the confounding stuff for good. Going anywhere without the shepherd as guide was now doubly unadvisable, for there was no way we could navigate through the obstructing vapor.
“I’m afraid the weather has taken a turn,” he announced gruffly. “It’d be best if you’d stay here for the duration. We can depart when these accursed mists have cleared.” I wondered what he’d done with his pipes.
“Now hold on a darned second,” the American said. I was impressed by her bluster in the presence of a man easily twice her height and triple her weight, and once again I think I caught an inkling of what Mary—God rest her soul—had seen in the woman. “That just ain’t possible. Nothing against your home here, but we’ve got to get on back to civ’lization.”
“Quite right,” I agreed. “You made us a promise last night, and if you believe you can hold us hostage here—”
The large man seemed nonplussed. “Hostage? If that’s the way you think about it, I’m truly sorry, and we’ll be on our way in a second. My only concern was for your safety.” He began gathering up his things.
The man’s earnestness caught the American and I off guard, and we apologized for our rudeness. Now that the hirsute shepherd had set his mind to the journey, he seemed eager to depart, and within moments we had been shepherded out from the comfort and safety of the shack, and the thick mists had enveloped us as we set off on what I hope to be the final leg of our journey.
The shepherd spoke all of three words to us as we set out on our journey, and I feared we had gravely offended him. He turned his hulking back to us and took long, rapid strides with which we could scarcely keep up. The mist was just as thick and opaque as it had been on those first few days after the incident with the canoes, and it took all of our effort to keep sight of the man’s fading silhouette. We rushed, breathless, across hill and fen as if swept up by a demoniac tide.
Things, half-glimpsed through a veil of mist, have a tendency to take on grotesque aspects, like shadows cast upon a wall. As we hurried after the gruff shepherd—as his form dispersed and coalesced in the swirling mist—I fancied that his limbs grew impossibly long and sickle-like, and the impression of horns sprouting from his tangled hair became accentuated until I could swear a pair of mossy, branching antlers crowned his massive skull.
We continued in this way for an immeasurable duration. All sensations dampened by the mist, unable to divert out attentions even momentarily from the fleeing figure, we descended into a dream-like fugue state. The shepherd led us into what I would term a backwoods, overgrown with nettles and choked by boulders deposited long ago by some forgotten glacier’s creeping passage. I became plagued by the irrational fear that the shepherd would abandon us in these unnavigable wilds, that he would disappear behind a boulder, never to emerge.
Then a coarse, braying laugh startled me to my senses. It seemed to originate no more than an inch from my ear. For a moment, I fancied that it was Geoffrey’s spirit, mocking me for falling into such an obvious trap, but then a second call came, and a third, and I finally placed the sound: it was the cawing of a murder of crows. A winged shadow went zooming past my head, quick as a bullet, then was swallowed up by the mist. Something grazed my cheek. The shepherd stopped and turned, shouting something, but his voice was drowned out by the cacophony of calling birds. Then, the flock descended.
On the battlefield, I have witnessed carrion birds working on a fresh corpse, removing fingers, lips, and eyeballs with ravenous efficiency. Never have I seen a flock of birds attack a living thing with such hunger. They were all beaks and talons and the beating of wings. Their shrill voices filled my ears until they bled. I reached up to shield my face, and they tore ribbons of flesh from my exposed arms. At last, I could withstand no more abuse, and I fled. I fled blindly, deafly, erratically, and I did not stop until the last echo of the calling birds died away.
Now, I find myself alone among the nettles and the boulders. I’ve called out “Hullo!” until my throat is hoarse, but I have received no reply. My spirit wanes. I’ve resigned myself that I will die out here, and soon.
July 26: Evening
I spent the day wandering these wastes of malignant vegetation and broad, enigmatic stones before finally collapsing in exhaustion and despair. The nettles have drained the earth around them of all liquid and vitality, leaving the landscape dry as a boneyard. I no longer harbor any hope of escaping this wilderness or of being reunited with my companions, except in death. The thickness of the mists makes it difficult to examine my wounds, but my flesh is tender, spongy, and blotted with dark, bruise-like discolorations. Fending off infection has sapped all my strength, and before long, I will end up like Geoffrey, an invalid tormented by nightmarish fantasies. Already, I can feel a presence stalking me, though it leaves no visible or audible clues of its passing.
As I write this, though, a faint, persistent sound intrudes upon my consciousness, a hissing as of a massive serpent. I glance up from the page but see nothing. If I attune my ears closely, I can discern minor variations in the noise: a faintly musical clattering, like bone hitting bone. I realize with a start that it is the sound of rain. But there is not a drop to be seen.
But wait! A small crater just appeared in the dusty soil by my feet, like a man’s flesh after the passage of a bullet. And there is another, and another. I realize that these are the impact sites of raindrops, if raindrops had no tangible presence. The cratering of the soil becomes more frequent, and soon, I find myself in the midst of an invisible deluge.
Finally, now, I see the faint suggestion of dark-colored drops, like the shadow of a memory, falling all around me. Still, nothing touches my skin. What could this mean?
I must have slept. Again, I was blessed by an absence of dreams. When I awoke, the rains had ceased—if they ever existed to begin with. I can no longer be sure what is reality and what exists only within my mind—whether I, in fact, still exist in reality at all. I know with certainty that I am no longer in Cumbria, or in England for that matter. I doubt I am in any place you could find on a map.
I look around me, and the landscape is changed, or maybe I am merely seeing a different aspect of it—its true aspect. My eyes penetrate the mists with acuity, and I see beneath the veneer of mundane bleakness. The nettles that creep over everything are not plants at all; they are coiled knots of writhing worms or snakes, covered all over with tiny sucking mouths that scream in silent agony or ecstasy as they partake in orgies of copulation and fratricide. The smooth boulders have been replaced by standing stones, menhirs etched with runic characters such as those scratched into the mud outside our tents. Winged shapes wheel high above, below the alien stars, but they are not crows, nor any other earthly creature. They either have too many wings or too few eyes.
And just feet away is the rushing river. The liquid that runs in it is not water, however; it is, impossibly, a current of limbs, strong arms and grasping hands, waiting for their opportunity to pull somebody under, where I catch a glimpse of tongues and teeth—not arranged in any reasonable structure, but arrayed haphazardly, like warts, where the river’s false face might have silt or smooth-worn stones.
Lifting my gaze above the questing rush of limbs, I see them clearly for the first time. The watchers, they who hunt beneath the starlight, the dark gods of this place. They are three, with impossibly long, sickle-like limbs and massive antlered skulls. Dark wings, irregular in number, sprout from their shoulders, waving gently like aquatic plants. Their eyes cannot be seen, but I can feel their gaze on me. I know what I must do.
In a moment, I will close this journal for good. I will set aside my pen and strip away the clothes that hide my wounded flesh. My blood and pus must flow for them. They must be sated. Geoffrey saw it first, what must be done, why we were taken here. In a moment, I will throw myself into the river and allow it to envelop me, hand and tongue.