I am 31 years old and winter is upon us. The first snow falls prettily and quietly, and covers the city in white dust. For a day the streets are clean and bright. But soon the snow is black with coaldust and dirt, and we put on galoshes and raise our skirts not to get dirty. Frost holds the city in its grip and the lakes in the parks freeze over. I go skating with Vincent at night, when the rinks and lakes are closed, and with Cassie in the day time, when they are open. She is new to skating, but she learns by and by. She goes skating with Vincent, too, and with the others, and she gets better every time.
MacKenzie helps me pick out a new used wintercoat, since the other got destroyed in our adventure in the Zoo. I find a wintercoat, gloves, scarf, hat and boots at very favorable prizes – all in the best of style. MacKenzie is a great shopping partner! She really knows where to go and how to find the best things for the best prices. We are on good terms again, she and I.
Surprisingly Niall invites me to join him at the Artemis festival at Midwinter. I hesitate to go, but Vincent and Cassie both encourage me. They say we need to patch up our working relationship and that it will do me good. So I go. We pair up at the hunt, and we work very well together. I hadn’t thought we would, but we do. We are both natural hunters, and we read eachother well while hunting. We end up winning the hunt, and recieve a special blessing from Artimis’ high priest for the coming year.
After all the frivolities during the winter, where we and seemingly the whole Society has laid low, Mrs M finally comes by again. She calls me into a meeting. She wants me to guarantee that Vincent’s demon is well contained, and I promise her that it is. I declare that I will check his entire body at the earliest convenience to check that all the tattoos are intact and holding. Then she makes me promise that if the demon against all odds should overtake him that I will kill him. While her request makes me frown, it is a promise easily given, as I have already promised Vincent the same.
Cassie spends hours on end reseaching my condition. While my connection with stone and rock is unusual, she seems to find information about it. She keeps her results to herself so far, but I know she has talked to Mrs M about it. I guess I well know soon enough.
Finally Mrs M call us all to a meeting and gives us a case. The Society has had Lady Sibyl descreetly followed the whole winter, but only a little has been discovered. She has her hands in a lot of different matters, and seem particularly interested in the railway in Nanga. The work on it is stopped at present – the official explanation is some technical problem or other. She has also tried to find out more about the Society, which is why we have kept to ourselves all winter. She has asked about us in particular – not by name, but by description, Cassies especially. It is time we take over from the spy and find out more.
Lady Sibyl just happens to be on the guestlist at the opening of the exibit of artifacts from Nanga at the Natural History Museum, which Niall has been highly involved in (he has brought home most of the artifacts AND he is the key speaker at the opening). We each get a task to fullfill: I will stalk her discreetly, Vincent will be a waitor at the event (the others say that waitors are practically invisible – I have never found that to be the case, but if they say so…). Max poses as a chestnut salesman across the street from her house, to see who comes and goes, MacKenzie frequents other social events to ask around about why Lady Sibyl asks around for us. Cassie has to keep away from it all, as Lady Sibyl obviously knows her face and is looking for her. So she researches Lady Sibyl’s businesses.
This is what we learn: Lady Sibyl is very interested in the ruined city that lies near the place where the building of the railway has broken down. There seems to be a lot of superstition about the place, and the natives run away and refuse to work there. Also some of the hostile tribes (the Matabeles primarily) in the area has attacked with railway. She has hired (through the Hiring Committee) a Colonel Cartwell (a really pompous and arrogant ass) to strike down on the hostiles and get things moving again. At a ball Niall and MacKenzie talk with him, and he really looks forward to kill natives, as he hasn’t tried that before. MacKenzie says that Niall almost jumped him and beat him up right there. The Colonel is also to escort a group of archeologists that are going to the ruined city. While it would be in our interest to go there too, there is no way we can work under the Colonel. He is truly an idiot of proportions!
Max discovers that Lady Sibyl’s maid is in correspondence with a journalist and is spilling Lady Sibyls secrets to the press. She might better be spilling them to us, and we inform the Society about this. She does in fact later reveal to Vincent that Lady Sibyl has a very old map of Nanga. One that isn’t updated at all, but shows the location of the ruined city. MacKenzie discovers that Lady Sibyl’s interest in us is more of a personal interest in Cassie. Though I do not like that thought at all, I am sure it is something that we can use to our advantage at some point.
I follow her from the event at the museum and I notice something very strange about her. While she does not seem to be magical in her own right, there is something magical about her. Like a shimmer or a layer of magic. Maybe a protective spell or something like that. I am rather disapointed otherwise – I had hoped she would go to visit some of the cults, but the only temple I see her go into is Zeus’. And that is hardly suspicious. All the politicians and people in power go there.
One of Max’s connections is working at the railway. He is very angry that the official explanation is that the breakdown is technical. There is nothing wrong with his technology! He says that the natives are fleeing in fear of the ruined city, that tools and materials go missing and that the Matabele continously attack the railway. He proposes to hire us to get to the bottom of things and fix it.
So – here we are, about to board the HMS Mandela en route to Nanga. Also boarding is Colonel Cartwell and all of his soldiers, along with the ‘archeologist’ that just look like plain thugs. I doubt there is a single person with a degree in anything among them! Vincent is grouchy as allways in the morning. He and I have both packed lightly – that is the perk of having few possesions. Cassie and in particular MacKenzie has many trunks, bags and suitcases, while Niall only seem to have his rifle and the clothes he stands in (which is the clothes he wears when in Nanga). He is unusually cheerful. Max has a small bag of clothes and a large box of tools, thingamajigs and gadgets.
Thomas Gordon, Max’s friend, the chief engineer and for a while our boss, greet us on board and shows us our cabins. The six of us get 2 4 man cabins (a bed for each of us and an extra for luggage). The men’s cabin has a water closet, which is quite amazing and when they offer to switch we readilly agree. So now we have the cabin with a water closet. I push a lever and water flushes down the drain. It can do it again and again. It is quite wondrous and I love it! The others tell me to stop flushing it, when there is no need. I should only flush when I’ve actually been doing on the water closet what the water closet is for.
A knock on the door reveal our cabinboy. He is quite lovely. A boy of about 15, his skin the color of dark chocolate, his teeth extraordinarily white and his smile ready and quite charming. I shake his hand when he introduces himself: James. He smiles at me so friendlylike that I like him immidiately. He finds us the best place ever for us to sit on the deck and watch while we leave the city and sail down the river. He is quick to offer us all sorts of things: tea, coffee, hot chocolate. He is so effecient and nice. In the evening he comes to escort us to the dining room and he shows me that he has gotten a tattoo in white. It says Grease, which makes no sense. Maybe he likes grease a lot? It looks a bit infected. Obviously whoever did it did not do it very well. Cassie offers to clean it. Both she and MacKenzie tries to hide their smiles, but I fail to see the fun. We tell him not to get more of that sort of tattoos, and he looks very dishearted when he leaves us in the dining room. Later Cassie and MacKenzie tells me that they thing that the boy is in love with me. I don’t get it. Why should he be? I am not his age. And I don’t want a boyfriend. Even if he is the color of chocolate.
Sailing is not much fun. I am quesy most of the time, even with my rocks in my pocket. There are days where we don’t see land at all. For 2½ days there is a storm that makes the ship go up and down, up and down. I mostly lie across the water closet while Cassie holds my hair out of the way. MacKenzie prefers the storm on deck to watching me vomit. I sympathize. Even when the storm stops and the weather is clear, the sailing is not without
events. We get into a couple of fights. Partly with some sailors that beat up James because they think he is shirking his duties, while merely serving us, partly with some of the extremely stupid orceologist (as we call them). We get involved with a rather silly pair of washerwomen who attempt to make a love-ritual in the cargohold. And finally someone mistakes Max for a famous cricket player and our fellow passengers fawn over him and thinks he is the best thing that ever happened to them. Max seem unwilling or unable to convince them otherwise. Poor guy!
We do manage to gather a little bit of information en route: the orceologist are on a mission for Lady Sybil to find some sort of artifact in the temple of the gods in the ruined city. It is small enough to fit into a specially designed box which they carry with them. Once they have found this thing, they are to return as quickly as possible to Lady Sybil.
We arrive in Numara, a harbour city in Nanga early in the morning. We are to stay here for a few days before we sail on down the coast to where the railway begins. Or ends, depending on which end of it you are at. There is so much to see, hear and smell in Numara! The houses are white, some with red tiled roofs, and many with flat roofs. There are golden onionshaped steeples that shine like the sun. Everywhere there is color. There are people in all shades of brown, from whitish like us to almost black. The clothes are colorful and the cloth that is hanging everywhere to make shade is also all the colors of the rainbow. It is hot and the air smell of spices and sweat and shit. I like it! I like especially that I have firm ground under my feet again.
Niall guides us around in the town.He takes us to meet his friend Ali, and Mr. Ali’s sister Miss Hatifa. They are both extraordinarily beautiful. Miss Hatifas eyes seem to glow like embers and the boys are very silly around her. I find her fascinating. She served us some really spicy food. I develop a fever of some kind and I start to cry at the taste of it. My mouth feels like it is on fire and my nose starts running, though I don’t have a cold. Miss Hatifa kindly brings me a small bowl of sorbet and that helps a lot. Soon I feel alright again. The fever is quite gone, though my tongue feels numb.
While we eat, Mr. Ali tells us of the M’tebele tribe that is causing all the problems in the area. The M’tebele tribe is a warrior tribe that have recently split into two over some disagreement about who should be chief (or king if you like). One part of the tribe follow the advice of a witchdoctor named Snake. Niall knows this man, Snake, and they are not on friendly terms. Mr. Snake says that the High King is coming, and brings with him some sort of new religion. Mr.Ali also tells us of the other tribes nearby: The Blue People, that are secret and lives hidden. They are almost mythical. Then there are the Tsutsu tribe, who are peacefull people, who grows crops, keeps goats and work as railwayworkers.
After the meal we go into the bazars to buy equipment. Niall has made a long list of things we must buy. Vincent and I do not have much money, so we do not buy everything on the list. Mr. Ali says we must haggle, that is the polite way, but all the salesmen seem to have very large families that are apparently all sick and starving, and I don’t have the heart for haggling with them. Fortunately MacKenzie takes over, before I make to many bad deals, and she even buys me a pretty dark blue scarf that I really like. Cassie says I don’t need to buy a hat, since she brought extra, so I borrow from her. In the market they have a bunch of strange looking horses walking around. They have hunchbacks and enlarged lower lips. They may be the ugliest creatures I ever saw, but they have lovely eyes. Max attempts to ride one, but not with much succes. Mr. Ali convinces me to try, and find me a camelhorse, as they are called, with a saddle on. I find it amusing riding on the hunchbacked camelhorse, even if it does feel a bit like sailing.
The next couple of days we take in the town. We try the Hamam, which is a bathhouse with hot (very hot!) and cold baths, mint tea, bathsalts, steambaths and massage. We attend a camelrace and we get invited to a wedding. I borrow clothes from Miss Hatifa, since I have no party clothes. Nanga fineries are a lot less like clothes and more like thin silky scarfs strategically arranged on the body. It feels very nice and unconfining, and the boys seem to appreciate our clothes too. I think maybe they are jealous of the comfort we enjoy. Cassie and MacKenzie borrows clothes too. We look like a small harem.The wedding is a strange affair, and the bride runs away in the middle of it. She comes back and goes through with it in the end, but we suspect it will not be a happy marriage.
The day after we eat lunch at the white people’s club. The food tastes of very little, but there is plenty of it, and I eat a lot. Later we visit the temple which is really big. Everyone takes off their shoes outside. Apparently shoe theft is not a problem in Nanga. We hear a lot of gossip in the temple. Primarily because the accustics are so quaint: you can speak quietly in one end of the colonnades and be heard quite clearly in the other end. We hear this: there is discord between the white workers at the railway and the Tsutsu-workers. The M’tebeles and our local army (Sepoys; locally hired soldiers) have recently met in battle, and the M’tebele wiped the sepoys out. The only reason they were not all killed, was because the local troupe of chasseurs (green coats) came to their rescue. Only a handful made it back. All the sepoy officers were killed. The M’tebele seems unimpressed by bretonian soldiers and their guns. I think the colonel has his work cut out for him. Another rumour we heard was that the local guvenor, George Nick, who leads the building of the railway has recently married a young and pretty wife. He is so distracted by this that he fails to fill his responsibility as boss. The local Tsutsus hope that the white soldiers will chase away the M’tebele, who originally stole their land. I am much in doubt whether this will happen. The M’tebeles sound like people who are determined to stay.
Then we sail again. For a whole week down the coast. The heat is excruciating and the ship suddenly seems small and confined. Finally we reach our destination: a shore with white sand, strange looking trees that look like the palm trees in the glasshouse in the Queen’s Botanical Garden. We board the train and travel through the most amazing landscape. There are grass as far as the eye can see, the occasional trees, and animals everywhere.
We arrive at Kandehar. It is not quite where the railway ends, but it is where civilization ends. Civilization here is a very few wooden buildings and a lot of tents. There are people everywhere; workers, soldiers and tradesmen. We find rooms at the hotel, and split up to gather information. We girls visit the govenor’s wife. We are turned away at first, with the excuse that Mrs. Nick is sick, but Cassie shows her credentials as a doctor, and we are subsequently invited for tea. As it turns out Lady Anne isn’t sick at all, she is just very, very pregnant. Her husband acts very odd about it, and Lady Anne also behaves strangely. We later find out it is because Mr. Nick most likely isn’t the father of Mrs. Nick’s baby. The father is more probably a native named Uno, who has run off. I don’t blame him. He is looking at quite a bit of trouble if he stayed. Poor Mrs Nick, though. I try to convince Mr Nick to go home and take his wife with him, so that the work with the railway can get back on track. So to speak. He spurns the idea.
Apparently the orceologists’ plan is to travel along with the soldiers to the ruined city, and when the soldiers march away to fight, they can do whatever they mean to do there. The colonel proposes his big plan to defeat the M’tebele at a military meeting that Niall attends: He and his army will march against them, and he counts on that the M’tebele will be so frightened at the sight of them, that they will surrender right there and then. It is probably the stupidest plan I have ever heard of. Even MacKenzie makes better plans than that! As it turns out one of MacKenzie’s plans works out very well, when she and Vincent try to talk to the one real archeologist among the orceologists. He tells them that what they are really looking for in the temple in the ruined city is an apple. More specifically the Apple of the Gods: The Apple of Strife, which once caused so much trouble between the Gods. It is rumoured to give eternal life. It is a strange collection Lady Sybil is gathering; the Key to the Gates of Tartaros and the Apple of Strife… The apple is supposedly found in the garden of the temple, which sounds plausible. The archeologist also tells MacKenzie and Vincent that there are rumoured to be titan spawn in the ruined city, and that is why he brought all the brutes with him: to protect him.
The next morning we set out again. Cassie stays behind to help Lady Anne, who seems ready to deliver any minute. I don’t like leaving Cassie behind, but I can do no good here. I would just get in her way. But I can do something when it comes to titan’s spawn! I hope… The sun has not yet risen, when the train hoots and we move on. The waggons on the train are not the semicomfortable passenger waggons we travelled here in. There are a number of closed waggons with only slits to look out of (and to fire out of if we get under attack), and some wide open waggons with equipment and supplies tied on. Niall suggests we sit on top of the waggons, on the roof, and it turns out to be the best solution by far. The view is amazing, the air is fresh (mostly, when the wind isn’t placing us in the wake of the coalsmoke from the engine) and it isn’t half as hot as inside the waggons. We see all sorts of strange animals, and Niall points them out and name them. They have really silly names, and I am not sure he isn’t just pulling our legs.
At midday the train stops and we take a rest. The engineers fill water on the locomotive, and the rest of us get a chance to pee and stretch our legs. Suddenly Niall crouches and pulls out his rifle in ready position. Vincent and I hurry back up on the trains roof. If Niall senses danger, I really don’t want to be around. From the roof I spot a strange looking animal, a sort of wide jawed dog, sneak up behind Niall. I call out to him, and he spins around in the same second and shoots the creature in the face. The rest of the pack – apparently these animals don’t go anywhere alone – squeel and run away in a strange jumping way. Niall calls them Ugly Jumping Hyenas, which seem to be a fitting name. He skins the hyena he killed and gives me the pelt, since I warned him of it. The pelt is surprisingly soft, apart from a brush like part of the neck, and I look forward to finally have fur on my wintercoat next winter.
As we continue it looks like the train rides right over the edge of a cliff. It is an enormously unpleasant experience when we first go down and down and down, and then up and up and up the other side of the chasm. There is a sort of bridge off course, but it is so tall that birds fly under os. At the bottom of the chasm there is a shallow river with green scaly creatures that Niall call Sharptoothed Floating Crocodiles. Or so I’m told, I keep my eyes closed most of the way and Vincent keeps his arms around me to comfort me. I wimper most of the way down and most of the way up. On the way up the train slows down so much that I worry we will have to get out and push. The wheels scream on the rails, but finally we are almost up and I open my eyes. On the ridge we are heading towards I see a black figure standig perfectly still. His body is painted with white and red and he stands on one leg leaning on a spear. When I point him out, Niall says he is a Hutsi warrior, probably a spy for the M’tebele. The colors of his bodypaint suggests so. MacKenzie climbs into the waggon and warn the chasseurs about him. Slowly the sun sets in the west in a gloriously beautiful range of colors, and Niall says we had better get inside. The minute the sun is below the horizon the world turns complety dark and cold. It is odd! It is as if it is either day or night here – no twilight at all. We to to sleep in the waggon and I sleep half the night. I only wake a little, when the trains stops again to fill water on the locomotive. MacKenzie quietly shakes me awake with a finger on her lips. Something is wrong. The wrongness is almost tangible, but we can see nothing.Suddenly Niall and Vincent sees movement in the dark, and the engineers working on the waterworks – which appear to be sabotaged – are attacked. We, the chasseurs and us, run out of the train to help them. The redcoats fire at random into the dark. Dark shadows fire arrows at us. Niall is grazed by an arrow and one of the green coats are hit. I see figues trying to steal our supplies from the open waggons and I run after them. I knock down one and MacKenzie is right behind me. She trips and curses impressively in her highlander language. My brute strength and MacKenzies powerful curse words seem to scare them away.
Niall calls the natives Hutsi’s, like the man I saw on the ridge. We asses the situation, take care of our wounded; Niall with his scratch, which he won’t let us touch, the wounded green coat and a wounded engineer. And Vincent. He has a massive wound on one of his buttocks. It looks like someone took a slice of him. He is in great pain, but we bind him up as best we can. I sleep with MacKenzie the rest of the night, for Vincent tosses and turns so much that I can’t sleep beside him. Max helps the remaining engineers repair the damaged waterworks, so we can continue on our journey the next morning.
The next morning Vincent is worse. His buttock is infected. It is red and swollen, and looks all wrong, so I go and yell at the green coats until one of them agrees to come look at it. He says we have to sterilize it with a red hot poker, so that is what we do. I sit on one half of Vincents body, while MacKenzie sits on the other, and the green coat burns Vincent. I don’t like it when he hurts, but this will help. The green coat says so. MacKenzie asks Niall how his wound is doing, but he refuses to let anyone look at it. Even when MacKenzie glares at him. This is the glare that makes everyone else do what MacKenzie wants, but not Niall. He says he is alright.
Finally we reach the end of the tracks. The workers unload the supplies. The army gets into lines and ranks and are yelled at a lot, until they march off, followed closely by the lone acheologist and his orceologists. We wait around for a while, until they are out of sight, and then we pack up and follow their tracks. It isn’t hard. A couple hundred men walking side by side in four-man collumns leaves quite a track to follow. And a good thing that, for before long is it apparent that Niall isn’t doing all so well. MacKenzie gives him a talking to, but he says that the locals can help. We don’t see any locals and even when I call out loud for help several times, nobody shows up. Niall shuffles along and don’t even tell me to shut up, like he usually would, and I am concerned. He must be really unwell! The sun has set before he says we should make camp. We haven’t the slightest idea how to make a camp in Nanga, and when we ask him, he just says: make a fire, gather some thorny bushes and make food. So. Max fixes a fire, and Niall makes fire signals to call for help. Then he just seems to pass out. MacKenzie and I try to find some thorny bushes (which there are plenty of, they are just really difficult to move around). Vincent cooks, or rather: burns our food. We take turns keeping watch during the night.
Just before dawn I wake and see a man sitting besides our fire. Vincent and Max seems just as surprised as me. MacKenzie sleeps. The man just sits there and looks at us, probably summoned by Nialls signals. I try to communicate with him. I yell: “Hello (I wave). Can you help our friend (I point at Niall)? He is hurt (I mime how ill he is, pain in my face and tongue lolling out)”. The man looks at me with raised eye brows and then says in perfekt bretonian: “What ails him? I came because the Great White Lion summoned me”. Oh, what a relief that he speaks a civilized language! We explain the matter. The man takes a look at Nialls wound and then leaves. A few minutes later he returns with some plants which he tears up, throws on the ground and mix with dirt and his own spit. He then puts it on Nialls wound. “Take him to the river, and dip him in it” the man says, and then he leaves without a sound. It is as if he was never there. Niall wakes up and we tell him what happened. He then looks around and complains about our shoddy campbuilding and the size of the fire, and we know that he must be feeling better already.
When we break camp, we do not follow the army trail. Niall head straight for the river. He knows a better way to our destination, he says. He does find the river without much trouble, but he is a bit delirious by then, The riverbed is beautiful, the water glistening alluringly, the trees are green and lush, berrybushes are brimming with berries (poisonous, says Niall) and the trees with fruit (also poisonous, says Niall). There are quite a few animals by the river, but they scatter as we come close. Niall walks straight into the river, and not until he lies there in the water and let the water flow over him, do we see the very large cat in the tree overhanging the river on the other side. When Niall spots it, he says very quietly: “MacKenzie, get me my rifle. Move quietly. Everybody else: stand completely still and don’t speak. Are any of the womenfolk bleeding?”. “Bleeding?” I ask quietly “Why should I bleed? I wasn’t wounded” Niall looks at me in a strange way, and I sense MacKenzie and Vincent giving me looks too. I am confused. Niall must be delirious still. It was Vincent and himself that was hurt, not me or MacKenzie. Niall takes a shot at the cat, and even if he doesn’t hit it, it does spook it, and it leaves with a hiss. We all use the opportunity to freshen up in the water. It is very nice and cool.
We follow the river. Niall, who is feeling much better now, explains that one side of the river belongs to the Hutsi and the other side to the M’tebele. A bit upriver around a bend we hear the sound of splashing and women and children laughing. Niall says it is safer if MacKenzie or I go to check it out. Men shouldn’t watch strange woman bathing. “And you have better take your clothes off” Niall says “As not to seem too strange to them”. MacKenzie splutters and protests about that being immoral, but I have no qualms about showing my body, so I take off my clothes and slip into the water. I get to the bend, and put my hand on the bank. A swarm of mosquitoes erupt from the bank and I hurry into the water and duck under. The soft current grabs me and takes me along a bit, but I halt when I flow into a body. I get on my feet, and a dark skinned girl stand before me. She screams at the sight of me. “Worry not!” I cry “I am a water sprite!” I wave my hands around as I imagine watersprites might “See? I am not dangerous”. But the woman and children still scream and run out of the water to the M’tebele side of the river. A few older boys stay behind with spears and wave them at me. MacKenzie (not naked) comes over the ridge and yells at them and scare them away. They too run to the M’tebele side of the river. They must be M’tebele.
We cross the river too (after I get dressed). We are now on M’tebele land and Niall can tell from their tracks that there are a lot of them. As in thousands. Our troupes don’t stand a chance against them. We camp on a hill. We don’t make a fire this night, but take double shifts keeping watch.During the night a storm breaks out with thunder and lightning. Niall have us break camp in a hurry. We go halfway down the hill – low enough not to get struck by lightning, but high enough not to get swept away, should the rain cause a flood. We manage to get up a tarp up just before the rain starts to pour. At dawn we climb down into the delta and up the hill on the other side. On top of this hill there is a large crudely cut statue. It is halfway into the hill and half its’ head and one of the hands have been broken off by time. The remaining hand is raised in a warding off sign. I touch the stone and a terrible and most unusual sensation flows through me: The stone is evil! It hates me! It wants me gone. I can almost hear it scream at me “Begone, foul creature. Go away! Begone!” This statue is titanic, it spews titanic vibes and I hate it! I wimper and want to leave. Vincent tries to stop me, but I can’t stay here. We retreat to the other hill again.
We talk about that we want to wait to enter the ruined city until the orceologists have entered it and have taken the brunt of titan spawn attack. Niall calculates that we are ahead of them, and that we have to wait here. Then we hear a rumble like thunder, but not thunder, from afar. Flashes of light and more rumble and a great fire from the northeast. A battle, says Niall. Max shudders. We all think it, I think: the army and the M’tebele are fighting. Gods know how that will end! Probably not well for our side.
The next morning Niall watches the northeast with his binoculars. He sees the orceologists hurrying in single file through the tall grass, with M’tebele warriors right on their tail. They are still far away, but we must decide now: we must abandone our plan to wait for the orceologists. If we wait for them, we will have to deal with the M’tebele and we don’t stand a chance against them. So we pack up in a hurry and walk at a brisk pace into the lowlands behind the hills: it is all jungle and swamp, not very welcoming at all. After a while I step on something hard on the jungle floor, and a sick feeling flows through me. I quickly step off it again. And then we see it: a brick road in the jungle. An evil brickroad, but a brickroad nevertheless: we are in the ruined city.
It is very hot and humid here. Everything is green and the air seems thicker somehow. The stones keep whispering to me to go away. It prickles my skin, but by and by the whispers turn to murmurs and murmurs turn into a slight background buzz. It settles as a light nausea in the back of my throat. Niall has the lead, and suddenly he stops and hold a fist in the air. Then he looks at something on the ground and waves us foreward. ‘A footprint’ he says ‘A bootprint, and fresh’. Second later the owner of the boot that set the print sprints out of the forrest with a monkeybaboondemonthing on his tails. I wack it in the teeth with my ironstick as it passes me. MacKenzie comes to my aid, and it promptly bites down hard on her boot. Good thing she always by quality stuff! Niall starts yelling and screaming at the poor stranger, who has collapsed in our midst. And a bit at MacKenzie and me, because he for some unknown reason doesn’t want us to kill the demonthingy. Finally MacKenzie manages to kick the thing away and I follow up with a solid hit on it’s head. A piercing pain soares through my head that same second. Was just happened? Was I just punished for killing a titan spawn? The pain slowly abates and MacKenzie looks at me with worry.
Soon our attention is diverted to the stranger, who isn’t a stranger at all! It is Henry Haggart, who we haven’t seen since our return from the Gates of Tartaros. He looks terrible! He was always a bit on the skinny side, but now he is positively sceletal. He has been here a month, he says, and have lost all of his companions in that time along with half his weight! He was sent here on an expedition by M (the old M, not Mrs M) with 7 others from the Society, along with 4 local bearers to look into a previous expedition of Lady Sybils, that had not returned. The bearers deserted them even before they reached the city, and since then the others have died off one by one. They have been eaten by local wildlife, poisoned by berries, crushed under rock, bitten by snakes and all sort of other terrible ways. Henry is mentally in pieces, and his clothes isn’t much more than tatters. They sent a message to the old M by their last homing pigeon (the others had perished), saying that is was too dangerous to come here, and not to send anyone else. Henry seems very dissapointed that we are not here to rescue him as such, but instead wants him to guide us into the city. But he complies. I think it very handy that we have a guide who have already seen many traps sprung, so we hopefully can avoid doing the same.
The big hill in the center of the city is the temple, Henry says, and that is where we are going. Henry says there is a chasm to cross to get there, and he prefers if we stay on this side of the chasm for as long as possible. The temple grounds are even more dangerous than the rest of the city. I think that this side is hazzardous enough, and very difficult to walk trough. We takes turns walking in front, clearing a path with our machetes. Vines and thorny branches seem to grab at us, but we cut them away. Progress is slow. MacKenzie and I are in front, when MacKenzie cuts away some vines and a demonic monkeyhead appear. She screams and whacks at it, but it does not react. It’s just a statue fortunately. I do not like the local monkeys. Too many long teeth!
It is dusk, and we need to find shelter. Niall and Vincent finds a suitable place to rest for the night: a cave that was probably once a house of some sort. It is very narrow and the ceiling is low. But there is only one entrance which is easily guarded, so we move in. The place smells of rotten plants and is not very comfortable. I take first watch. I am very uneasy. I keep seeing moving figures in the shadows. They look humanoid, but have heads – or masks – of animals and demons. I see long lines of slaves driven along forgotten roads towards their certain death. I know it is not really here; it is the shadows of ghosts from the past. All the while the stone whisper to me: go away, you are not wanted here, go away, we will kill you, we will kill your friends, go away. Every time a touch bare skin to stone the voices amplify and a jolt of pain surges through me. I become more careful, where I put my ungloved hands. I wonder if the others hear the whispers too? Does the rock hurt them too? After two hours I wake up Niall, and crawl in to curl up near Vincent.
I seem to barely have fallen asleep, before I am waken again by a big commotion: Giant snakes have attacked Max and MacKenzie. Niall shoots at the one attacking MacKenzie and the shot rings through the cave like thunder. Vincent and Henry attacks the one trying to strangle the life out of Max with their machetes, and the snake turns it’s attention on Henry. I have a go at it with my knife, and it lets him go. Something seems to come at us from the sealed end of the room and we abandon our shelter and run into the night. MacKenzie leads the way along a stone path. It ends at the chasm and an ancient ropebridge. There is not handrail, just boards tied together with frayed rope. There is no way I am crossing that! There is mist in the chasm, so it is impossible to see the bottom of it, but I am sure it goes a long way down! I start backing away, but MacKenzie catches me. “I’ve got you” she says, and she picks me up and slings me over her shoulders. “Just close your eyes, and I’ll carry you over” she comforts me. “Take Henry with you” Niall says, so I can’t keep my eyes closed after all: I have to grab a hold of Henry by the shirt. He is as unwilling to cross the bridge as I am. So here I am: Hanging over MacKenzie’s shoulders dragging Henry after us. I don’t know why Niall couldn’t have taken Henry; it seems very hazzardous to have three people on the bridge at the same time, though Henry hardly weighs more than a child at present. I can feel the magic practically screaming at us to go away. Henry seems to hear it too, and is not easy to convince to continue crossing this damn deathtrap. And lo and behold: we fall! Henry falls unto the bridge, while MacKenzie and I manage to grap at the rope. MacKenzie helps me up on the bridge, and I pull her up after. We crawl to the other side – me first. I am almost pushed off the ledge, so strong is the magic that wants us to go away. But I have to move further in to let the others to safety. Or you know: the relative safety of openly hostile ground as opposed to the bridge of certain death.
When the others are crossing the bridge, we see something crawling out of the mist up the chasm walls towards us. As they come closer we see it is demon baboons like the one we fought yesterday. Max comes across and start charging his electric gadget. Demon baboons are behind Vincent and Niall on the bridge too. The bridge is starting to give. Vincent comes across. Niall binds a rope around his waist and tosses the other end to us. Vincent grabs it, just as the bridge gives away, and Niall falls. He swings down and smashes into the rock wall with a sickening thud. Vincent and MacKenzie pulls his limb body up, while Henry drops stones on the baboons from above, and I chop at the monkeys that make it to the top. Max discharged his electric thing and some of the baboons drop dead smoking. Suddenly there is a sound of something big and dangerous and the baboons scatter shrieking to all sides. I don’t really want to know what might scare away creatures that wanted to kill us!
MacKenzie and Vincent finally get Niall up. He is badly hurt. I miss Cassie more than ever, for we have no idea how to fix him. He is bloody and has broken several bones. His nose is knocked askew, and that at least MacKenzie can fix: She snaps it back into place, and Niall wakes up moaning. He is helped to his feet and he can walk, but he is a mess.
Henry lead the way: we are going to the large hill, shaped like a step-pyramid. Niall and MacKenzie finds the entrance. A human scull and spine hangs by the entrance. It looks fresh, and Henry says he thinks it is one of his companions. It feels really bad here! I find a lead pencil and draw a blessing on the scull, and things feel a little better.
We enter the pyramid. The walls are covered with gruesome pictures of sacrifices and demonic creatures. We reach a group of niches along the hallway, each occupied by the sceleton remains of a demon. I can feel magic all around us, and as I approach the sceletons, Henry cries “Stop!” He says there are traps here. And by the wall before the niches there are hieroplyphs that he translates into ‘The breath of gods’. Vincent and I stand close to them, but do not go any closer. Suddenly a stone flies over my shoulder and into the nearest sceleton which explodes into a dustcloud. Vincent and I barely have time to cover our mouths and noses, before a layer of dust settles on us. MacKenzie says “Oops” and I realize who threw the stone. Henry frantically brushes the dust off us. From behind his scarf he says “It is poison! Be sure the get it all off!” There are four more niches with sceletons – the last on the right is empty. We wave a stick in front of the next sceleton and it poofs out a breathfull of poison dust, a lot less than the destroyed sceleton exploded into. We crawl carefully through the hall with the niches and nothing alse happens there.
At the end of the hall there is an opening into a large room filled with columns. Over the door there are hieroglyphs that translates into: “Follow the right path to the Gods” followed by a series of strange signs. We can see a staircase across the room. I enter the room to look at the first column. It bears one of the strange signs from under the hieroglyphs. Henry figures it out: The signs are duplicated on the columns and by following the signs in the right order, we can cross the room to the staircase without trickering any traps. It’s quite easy, once you know how it is done. We are only halfways through though, when we hear noices behind us: have the orcheologists made it here as well? It sounds like it. We reach the staircase, and Vincent discovers a few tilting steps that we avoid.
At the top of the stairs we reach a doorway into a garden. The hieroglyphs over the door reads: “Here are the dwellings of the gods”. The garden is overgrown, and the sky is open and blue above us. There is a pond right in front of us, and behind it is jungle, and in the center of the jungle there is a templelike building. If the Apple of Strife is to be found anywhere in this city this must be it. On the brink of the pond a figure is sitting, holding a stick with hieroglyphs on it. Niall pokes at it, and it falls into a heap. Henry picks up the stick and seems very exited about it: it is like a book from ancient times, he says. Suddenly Vincent pushes me aside with some force, grabs the stick out of Henry’s hands and runs off. MacKenzie and I chase him, and MacKenzie tackles him right outside the temple. When I reach them they are fighting, and I see that all his tatoos are gone! Oh, dread! The demon has taken hold of him! I grab on to one of his arms and start carving magical signs on him. It isn’t easy, because the fight between him and MacKenzie is very violent. He/the demon seems exited about the fight, and the more violent MacKenzie get, the more he likes it. Niall comes up to us and orders us to move, so he can shoot him. I remember the promise I made Mrs M (and Vincent): that if the demon took him, I would kill him, and Niall has likely made a similar promise to Mrs. M. But I will not loose Vincent without a fight! If I can only get enough wards on him, we can get him back! Finally Vincent passes out. Whether it is from fighting MacKenzie or my wards that is finally kicking in, I don’t know. but I continue carving wards into his skin, until I’m satisfied that the demon is once again contained.
Something very big comes through the jungle towards us: it is a giant gorilla. And I mean giant! It is ten times the size of a regular gorilla, and this one has yellow demonic eyes to boot! It is by far the biggest demon I have ever seen! I back into the temple to safety. Niall and MacKenzie grab their rifles and Max charges his electric thing. I have only my ironrod and my machete: how is that ever going to harm this giant thing? I back into something and look around in the temple. I backed into a sarcophagus and behind it is a statue of the ancient god Seth. There is only one place the Apple can be, so I push off the lid of the sarcophagus. In it lies the sceleton of something not human. It’s bony hands holds a cylindrical object. I fish out a handkerchief and pick up the Apple. I wrap it in the handkerchief and put it in my pocket for safekeeping, then run out of the temple just in time to see Vincent tumble between the giants legs, while Niall hits it in it’s eye, and Max zaps it right in the jambags. MacKenzie is reloading her rifle, so she must have fired a shot already. The giant monkey grabs Max and slams him into the ground a few times, until Niall hits it again, and it lets Max go. “I’ve got it!” I cry “Let’s get out of here!”. We pick up Max, who is beaten into a pulp and we flee.
The journey back to Kandehar is long and strenous. Vincent, MacKenzie and I have to help along Niall, Henry and Max, plus carry all our stuff. Soon enough we leave behind the tents, pots, pans and other nonessentials. We even leave behind Max’s tool case (which I swear is heavier than he is!), and he complains about it every other minute. When he does so for the umpteenth time, I snap “Well, it was down to you or the tool case, and I am beginning to regret we didn’t choose the tool case!”. That makes him shut up a bit and he only grumbles a bit about it after that. It’s not that I don’t understand him: his tool case is pretty much his be all and end all, but there is just so much we can do. At least he still has his relatively lightweight zap gun thingy. We are all tired, hurt and irritated. Niall is too weak to help us set up camp, but he yells advise at us from the fire side, and he never thinks we get it quite right. Every time we have a few moments I renew more of Vincent’s tattoos. There is still a way to go before they are all in place. Vincent is battling the demon with his willpower and I fight it with the tattoos. I can barely keep up. Some mornings the ones I made last night have already faded a little. We need time and calm to do this proberly. Vincent deals well with it. He is quieter than usual, but he seems very determined not to let the demon take over again. I feel light headed with hunger and fatigue, but when I put my hand in my pocket to play with my pepples I feel better. By the time we meet up with the green coats and what is left of colonel Cartwells army, we are almost spend. I think that without the disciplin of those green coats I would just toss aside whichever friend I am currently carrying and lie down and sleep on the ground. I am utterly exhausted.
Finally, finally we reach Kandehar.