Missed Part One? Catch up here: https://aethernomads.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/her-majesty-loses-an-officer-by-martin-livingston-part-one-of-three/
~ Chapter Two ~
The climbing Sun no longer illuminated the chamber beyond and the gloom had to be pushed back by their lamps. A few feet inside was a large pool of water, contained by knee-high blocks of obsidian. It was dark and impenetrable, rippling gently against the sides, presenting no obvious peril until they saw several disturbances break its surface and come towards the edge, as if the unseen fish of some macabre aquarium were coming to be fed by their keepers.
Being veterans of such circumstances as the Steam-Piranhas of Doctor Roberto and The Flailfish of Cowen Castle, the men took a precautionary step back from the poolside, as water splashed over the edge to spatter the dust at their feet. This was a fortunate move, as from the pool climbed, skittered, leapt and tiptoed a dozen or more dark shapes.
The men tensed, hands grabbing for (or in the case of the Archeologists, fumbling at), the grips of their weapons, as cat-sized replicas of the monster outside scurried past their feet, chittering and clicking to each other. They seemed agitated, but flowed around the party without pause. Some disappeared into the gloom, others into nearby cracks or up nearby pillars and the rest bustled their way up the steps, perhaps to the greater beast above.
« They seem bothered by us Sir, but not hostile. Scared perhaps Sir? »
« They’ve gone now Felps, let’s not worry overmuch about it. At least not until their larger cousins make an appearance eh? Maybe the daylight up top is keeping the big one quiet. Doubt they see much of it down here. You lot! Stop staring about like a bunch of drunken harlots and crack on with the task in hand! Now, where should we be looking? »
« Sir, it’s further in, northeast, » said the second Archeologist, checking his notepad. Sandsborough checked the Universal Compass Sphere on his wrist and took off without another word.
Felpisham felt a chill draught flowing into his face as they fell in behind their leader, stabbing their beams of light into the deepening shadow and leaving the pool behind them. The Engineer moved close to the Lieutenant and spoke in a low voice.
« Wish we still had those Redlight Goggles we had from that maker in Berlin. Fine pieces they were. Come in handy about now, Sir. »
« Possibly so Engineer, though we’ll never know how effective they’d be here. No sense in dwelling on what we do not have. »
« Certainly not Sir. Poor old Randal, silly beggar. »
The recent absence of Corporal Randal, brought about specifically by an absence of Randal’s left eye (and a significant part of his nose), was an ongoing contributor to the drag on Felpisham’s confidence of late, though of course not one he would show in front of the men and certainly not Sandsborough. Neither the Lord or the men had given any indication they blamed him for allowing the corporal to reconnoitre that narrow vent they found, in a cold large room of Castle Bavordablad and certainly the man had experience enough that he should have remembered for himself vampire-spawn would not be especially visible through the goggles. In spite of this, Felpisham felt he should have cautioned the corporal nonetheless. He’d seen them perched on the man’s unruly mop and had not given it a thought until the man had already wriggled several feet into the crawlspace, found behind a moth-eaten tapestry.
Still, Randal had survived his injuries and the be-fanged unnatural soon withered in a blast from ‘The Lamp’ and was finished off with a well-executed beheading by Felpisham and his Blessed Sabre.
The lieutenant had begun to wonder if he was losing his edge, if he should request Sandsborough end his service as second. Perhaps his personal exasperations with Sandsborough had been more pronounced of late due to this growing sense of guilt at his failures. Or the concern he may have worse failures in the future. Perhaps Sandsborough was too much to live up to, for any of them in the Haroos, given time.
Felpisham frowned, cursing himself for this self-indulgent moment of introspection, when he needed to be alert in the here and now. Such nonsense could only lead to resentment and poor decisions, neither of which had any place in the work of The Crown or facing the hazards of his duty.
Sandsborough, with uncanny timing, glanced back at Felpisham.
« With us Felpisham? Focus on the task at hand would you Lieutenant, I’m relying on you down here. »
Several minutes later they had to step (quite gingerly), through a moving line of the creatures, flowing across their path like a rushing stream of dirty yellow water and tumbling black stones, heading into the darkness in both directions on who-knew-what business. More than one of the men grimaced at the brush of tentacles and the poke of boney knees against their legs, the stab of clawed feet on their own. Sandsborough of course, waded through as if he were merely crossing a shallow river during a summer hike.
Emerging from the rush, they paused to take stock of their situation. Felpisham felt for his pocket watch and was dismayed to find only a broken length of chain.
« Most distressingly Sir, I cannot furnish you with the correct time, as my watch is gone. Rather unfortunate. My grandfather’s. »
« Tragic Felps old man, but you do not have permission to go fishing for it. God’s Teeth, there must be hundreds of the little blighters, thousands. Let’s avoid any unnecessary liasons shall we? And gentlemen, shall we proceed with a little less mucous despoiling Her Majesty’s uniforms? »
A few yards further on they could see the scattered pillars coalesce into an arcade fronting a raw-stone wall in which several deep, impenetrably black tunnels opened into the great chamber. To the right of this, the floor became chaotic with broken or unfinished paving, where toppled statuettes and carvings lay about, casting unpleasant monstrous shadows from their grotesque little forms. A smell, faint before, but stronger now, tickled their nostrils. The freakish creatures, in spite of Sandsborough’s jibes, smelled only faintly, like dust and dried fish, but this more powerful odour was sweet to the point of sickly.
« Good grief, it’s Aunt Tilda again! Reminds me of a perfume she wore. When I was a boy I thought she practically bathed in the damned stuff! »
« Somewhat like lavender Sir? Only more so.. »
Just beyond the debris of devilish and alien stones there were steps, ascending on one side, descending the other, wide enough for six men abreast.
On closer inspection they found the way upward blocked by a collapse, the upper steps shattered and cracked by the rockfall. One of the Archeologists muttered to the other, who made a noise of agreement.
« Sirs, we were expecting an opening here, not stairs. »
« And? »
« There’s nothing more to indicate where The Bell might be, but we might be close enough to use the S.R.D. Sir. »
Felpisham’s heart sank, even though it was a logical suggestion. He checked his goggles were still around his neck.
The last time the Sympathetic Resonance Device had been used, it had made his eyeballs ache. The goggles would not really stop this, but he found them reassuring. It had last been deployed to locate the concealed resting place of the Gauntlet of Ariast, in the haunted Heathly Manor.
The Gauntlet had emitted a response to the device and was recovered intact, but several other relics stored with it were less lucky, being found shattered to a thousand pieces. Unfortunate, but not of great concern to Sandsborough whose only concerns were the ancient Gauntlet and to avoid losing men to the insane mazes created by the still-unexplained presence (or presences), that reside at the Manor.
The experience in that crumbling, moss-soaked mist-enshrouded gothic mansion had put Felpisham off visiting Northumbria for the last year, in spite of having well-liked relatives living there. Whilst Sandsborough had been his usual phlegmatic self, Felpisham had found the wraiths, the barely-seens and the unseens of the supernatural ( or preternatural as the Ministry kept insisting, rather optimistically), distinctly frightening and upsetting to him. He had not been alone in this and the maddened dogs in local residence were, by comparison a reassuringly solid foe for the men to face.
Sandsborough took off his pith and thoughtfully scratched the back of his neck. He looked at the Archeologists and the Engineer.
« Any speculation on what may happen to the structure? Or how the creatures might respond? »
The Engineer sucked his teeth for a moment.
« I’d say Sir, the place is sound. It’s had these things running around it for who-knows-how-long and shows no recent signs of damage or collapse. That fall seems at least a hundred years old. I’d say we’re safe. »
The Chief Archeologist looked up from his notes.
« There’s nothing..er..delicate we know of in the immediate vicinity Sir. As for the creatures, who knows? »
They spent several moments listening to the distant clicks and susurration from the bustling throng behind them.
Felpisham felt as if their small circle of lamplight was shrinking and deliberately checked the action of his fire-pistol and the reservoir, then loosened his sabre in its sheath. However, contrary to his intention the sense of the light dimming persisted and a second later he realised the effect was not a psychological one.
The lamps were in fact, growing dimmer.
Almost immediately he became more aware of the cold air issuing from the stairway.
« Sir, the lamps are losing power. »
Sandsborough tugged at the chinstraps of his pith helmet, then reslung his weapon across his chest.
« Agreed. Felps old thing, take a cautious peek downstairs would you. Just as far as the next level, if there is one. I don’t want to use that infernal S.R.D. and find The Bell is just yards away beneath our feet. In the meantime gentlemen, get the thing ready. I really should have brought a currant bun or something. Blast. »
One of the Archeologists patted his pockets.
« I have a biscuit or two somewhere Sir, if you’d care for one. »
« Good man! For that, I’m promoting you to Sergeant. »
« Very honoured Lord Sandsborough and all that, but technically I’m a civilian Sir. »
« Won’t hold it against you. Now, a quick biscuit then we’ll make a move. How are the lamps Engineer? Are you carrying an alternative? »
« Something’s queer here Sir. Batteries seem sound, they were new not three weeks ago. The mechanism and bulbs are fine. Something odd’s going on, draining the battery quicker than it should. I do have a couple of flares and an oil lamp to hand, if it worsens. »
« Good. Kindly furnish the Lieutenant with a flare, no wait, the lamp would be better I think, less alarming in a tight space eh? Get to it Felps. »
The first few steps were cracked, but nothing gave way and Felpisham trod more confidently as the lower steps became increasingly pristine in appearance. When he came to the turn in the stairway, he first lowered the lamp over the edge of the steps and peering down into the darkness nearly dropped it when a dark tentacle tip came waving from underneath him. One brief touch to his wrist left an icy sensation, as if he had fallen into snow. He withdrew his hand and rubbed the wrist until some warmth returned to it. Gritting his teeth, Felpisham picked up his lamp from the step and carried on.
On the next flight of steps down, a more sizeable specimen squatted and quietly began to click, perhaps saying something to him, but it was impossible to tell. This one was the size of a small pony and seemed to be fresh from digging or some such, being covered in clods of earth and sand.
There was room for him to pass by, but they were hardly like two gentlemen passing on the stairway at Euston Station, with a polite tipping of the hat and a ‘good morning’.
In the end he decided to take a leaf out of Sandsborough’s book and simply walk by. The creature creaked, clicked and shuffled as he approached and he had to step smartly to avoid questing tentacles near his face, but the creature held its ground and Felpisham relaxed his grip on his sword.
Beyond the creature a chamber opened out, ten or more yards across, where several benighted portals yawned. Faced with a choice of direction, all on quick inspection turning out to be long, rough-hewn tunnels (all with chill air blowing from them), he decided to retrace his steps and report back. He realised with some regret, that they would have to use the Resonance Device, or be here far longer than planned. Who knew what was happening above, with the men, the Nomads or the beast, or for that matter how much longer Sandsborough would tolerate a lack of tea and biscuits.
Back on the stairway the shadows seemed somehow deeper and to his surprise there was no sign of the creature, for which he was profoundly grateful. Upon returning to the party, he found them huddled around an increasingly small area of light, assembling a slender tripod on which perched the complex artefact.
The Resonance Device was classified as a Sanctioned Oddity, which meant it was filed in the Occult, Aetheric and Scientific archives, as it still defied analysis.
Its inventor, one Professor Brody Davidson, whilst officially an employee of The Crown in the Science Society, was also found (too late unfortunately), to have been dabbling in dubious occult doings from Darkest Africa via the West Indies. Needless to say, he had a dabble-too-far, resulting in a devastating accident on a steamship out of Port James. Fished from the Atlantic, survivors gave accounts of terrible incantations, strange apparatus and a ritual peculiar in it’s involvement of personal mutilation by Professor Davidson. Reports were unreliable and often contradictory, some claiming he burst apart with green fire, others claiming he cut off his own arm, hand or leg and so-on. Some details were common to all however: Professor Davidson had erected a complex device, a queer altar (with predictable candles) and appeared on deck wearing an outlandish costume and wielding a knife made from some form of crystal.
Shortly after, the steamship was struck, repeatedly and viciously by lightning, which though not necessarily devastating during a normal storm did, on this occasion, result in the boiler exploding. The vessel ruptured and burned, before sinking into the depths. There had been no storm on that night and the skies had been clear.
A small number of irredeemably hysterical survivors claimed ghostly figures could be seen dancing on the surface of the ocean, as if the lightning had summoned up the sea-dead of centuries.
Neither of the officers believed a word of this, both firmly convinced that whilst the damn fool had produced some unusual phenomena, his scientific track record suggested some breakthrough in the field of Aetherics, badly handled by his increasingly unbalanced mentality.
Whatever their opinion though, the Professor did produce a number of gadgets based on principles only vaguely followed by his fellows at the Society and replicated by none.
The object itself was similar in appearance to a gramophone with several trumpets and a large brass hoop which rotated about a fist-sized crystal of unknown type and origin. Tiny lights studded this hoop and various knobs, springs and levers adjusted the angle, speed and duration of the hoop’s movement. Many scales, descriptions, measures and formulae were engraved about the controls, which the Engineer (consulting both the Archeologists and a thick copy of the machine’s operating notes), carefully set.
After reporting to Sandsborough, Felpisham edged away as far as he could, covering his retreat from the device with a show of inspecting the nearby arcade and was joined by the senior Archeologist.
« May I take advantage of the oil lamp Sir? These new things refuse to hold their charge, no matter how much we wind them. These inscriptions seem more…er… detailed than those above. »
Felpisham gave the man a sideways smile.
« Don’t like the gadget either then? I think we could spend a few minutes inspecting this area a little more. Come on, this section seems quite intact. »
Both men could instantly mark the moment the S.R.D. came to life. Their eyes ached in their sockets and Felpisham pulled on his goggles, whilst the Archeologist pushed his spectacles further up his nose and brushed more urgently at the dusty carving near his feet.
Above ground, the group of Aether Nomads had built a fire to brew coffee and roast a few pieces of goat as a small snack for the Rhuk, when the great birds began to call loudly to each other and beat their wings.
The alarmed Nomads kept well clear of this startling display, hurriedly pulling up scarves and masks against the ochre clouds of dust suddenly conjured up around their camp. Eyes watering, they spoke calming words and made soothing gestures to their agitated avian comrades, until one by one, each bird eased enough to be handled again and led to better perches.
Tilomabah was flat on his back, contemplating the infinite beauty of the sky, as a few faint wisps of cloud like bashful ghosts, flitted across the upper vaults of blue. He reached his hand up as if to brush these clouds.
Instead, his hand was grasped by that of a young woman, who hauled him to his feet.
« Zarina girl, you interrupted a moment of deep oneness with the world. »
« Tilomabah. My Uncle. My friend. Stop talking rubbish and get off your backside. Anjizar nearly broke your neck with his tail fan and you need to take him in hand. He’s becoming as daft as you. »
The smiling woman turned her warm brown-eyed gaze on Anjizar, who glared haughtily down at her and shook out his neck feathers.
« Anjizar, you’re going to be gentle now yes? Uncle Tilo is not as nimble as he once was. »
Tilomabah smiled at his niece whilst her head was turned then, straight-faced, sent her off to her own bird.
« Yes yes Zarina. Though come to think of it, is that Karina under those silks and bracelets? Your flying was poor enough today to be that of the Balloon-bound! Your Hassa will be needing your hands on him also. And tighten your right hand strap, your banking was sloppy today! »
« Yes Uncle, thankyou. Oh, what in the Spheres? »
The woman pushed aside her sleeve, revealing snaking coils of bracelets about her arm. One of these just above her wrist, held a row of tiny bells, each exquisitely made, a gift from her twin sister to celebrate the day she and Hassa flew alone for the first time.
Each bell was sounding without any movement from Zarina’s arm, their tiny ringing audible even when she covered them with her hand. After a few seconds this subsided, leaving both of them wide-eyed.
« Uncle, what are they doing down there? »
« There are things beneath these sands that do not belong and we are well rid of. I believe they might be looking for one such. »
« Like the beast down there? »
« No Niece. That does belong. Just not up here. »
Lord Sandsborough tapped Felpisham on the shoulder.
« I’m sure that’s fascinating as illegible writing goes old man, but we do have a job to do and now a bearing to follow. Assist the Engineer with the S.R.D. if you would. Says he had a ‘good response’ from one direction. It’ll take the two of you to get the gadget set on the next floor down. Just to get a confirmation eh? Crack on! »
After they had the Device set on the stand again, in the chamber of frigid tunnel openings downstairs, they once more set it to work.
This time, not only did various gauges on the machine reveal a response, but their own ears detected a faint, deep tone, as if Big Ben had tolled a moment before and still reverberated across Westminster.
Once they stilled their machine, the response faded with it.
« Down that way Sirs, not more than fifty yards. »
« Thankyou Engineer. You and the other Archeologist can box it now. The rest of us will fetch The Bell, without I hope, any further hinderance. We shall see you back here in approximately ten minutes. »
After confirming the time on their timepieces, the party divided and set about their tasks.
Their chosen tunnel was dark in a way reluctant to depart, even with the oil lamp to hand. Abruptly the tunnel dog-legged, then plunged down steep, narrow steps hewn from the living rock, where it ended in a wall carved to resemble a huge head.
A faint glow lit the nostrils, mouth and eyes, the visage sculpted in the act of bellowing, expression fierce and mouth open to reveal pointed teeth, the dark maroon stone taking on an appearance of hellish demonic skin.
Sandsborough halted on the last step to take a cautious look around with the electric lamp, before stepping up to the face, whereupon the lamp dimmed and went out. It would not be revived by any amount of winding, shaking or indeed swearing.
« Dash it all Felps, I’ve cocked-up here. Forgot to bring one of the Engineer’s flares. Pass the lantern would you old boy? »
« There you go Sir. That Stygian blast is coming from beneath the face Sir. »
The Archeologist muttered something about ‘cold feet’ and sniggered quietly to himself, before cursing in turn, as his lamp also died, leaving them in the oil lamp’s small circle of yellow.
In the deepening shadow, the furious giant face bore down upon them, as if seeking their submission to its brutal will and Felpisham was unashamedly unsettled. Both he and the Archeologist took a step back. Their leader, of course, took a belligerent step forward and poked it in the eye.
Some sort of glass in here, smoked though. Pity. Should like to have had a peek first, but there we are. »
He crouched, one hand holding his pith in place as he peered beneath the chin.
« Yes indeed Lieutenant, the air is blowing through here. There’s a half-inch gap at the base and I can see illumination of some kind, possibly fire but steady. »
« How curious Sir. One might have expected suction of cool air, or the exhalation of warmth if there were fire through there. Any sign of a catch? »
The Archeologist cleared his throat and brought an open journal into the light. The three of them knelt to look at the entry of diagrams and formulae with annotations.
« Sirs, there are required conditions for The Bell, not merely to operate but in every fundamental way, to actually continue it’s existence. »
« Very interesting, but get to the point man, my tea gauge is reading ‘Hazardously Empty’, not to mention my increasing need for the unmentionable which, I’m sure we’ll all agree, is best not done in an ancient ruin. »
« Yes, well…erm… »
Felpisham was not a scientist by any means, but had been well educated, not least by his current profession and a few salient points jumped off the page at him.
« I see, something about ‘primal sources’ and energy concepts I’m unfamiliar with. Am I correct to say this text implies The Bell ideally requires sunlight for all to be well? »
« Indeed Lieutenant, it was created with an above-ground existence in mind. I’m not of the correct speciality to comment much more on this, but it simply cannot be stable whilst residing down here. Who knows what could happen to it? »
« Look you two, that is not daylight beyond, we established there were no shafts or such before blasting the door to kingdom-come. What’s kept The Bell intact up to this point? A fireplace? »
The Archeologist turned from Felpisham to look squarely at Sandsborough.
« Unlikely Sir, even using magics, or a running fuel like erm…an oil reservoir. Not er… fundamental enough Sir…er… I struggle to find the correct elemental expression, but er…ancient, I think, goes some way… »
Felpisham closed the journal and passed it back to the Archeologist.
« I believe your average fire certainly would not do. Why that maniac ever brought it here I can’t think. »
« Well chaps, it all boils down to looking doesn’t it? Now, let’s get this disagreeable blighter out of the way. Ideas? »
« Not to be overly-clever Sir, but have you tried pushing it? »
» At this point I’m all for the methodical application of force Felps. Shoulders to it gentlemen. »
Some minutes later they discovered that by first sliding the great stone a few inches to the left, then pulling down on it, they could push the face inwards. What lay beyond left even Sandsborough momentarily shaken.
~ To Be Continued ~
The Aether Nomads Project are thrilled to be part of #ApeQuest, Professor Elemental’s latest project. As part of the run up, the dear Prof is running a competition whereby folk can submit their artistic impressions of where the rogue time-travelling orang-utan butler has been spotted. Full details here: http://www.professorelemental.com/apequest-the-search-for-geoffery
Needless to say, the Nomads are keeping an eye out for him too and collecting reports in an attempt to intercept him at the correct prophetically-calculated point in space-time. The more images we receive, the better the chance of restoring him to Elemental Manor, where and when he belongs!