Closer to the heart of the station, where the shorter buildings came close to the over-sized steam engines, O’Fallon slipped through a near-windowless, poorly lit storeroom draped in long, blended shadows of gray and black. The room was filled with wooden crates, stacked at such random locations and heights that the only path through the room was a twisted maze. At the far side of the room from where he had first entered, the quartermaster paused next to a particularly tall stack of crates and looked behind him.
In the darkness he could make out the forms of Krumer, Thorias, Moira, and even the small blur of Arcady who circled overhead near the ceiling. Satisfied, O’Fallon turned around and skirted the edge of the crates. Just past lay the wall and in it, another of the countless doors they had found on their long trip from the barracks almost an hour earlier. Like the others, this was an old, grey wooden door held to the wall by brass hinges.
“Another door.” O’Fallon said just loud enough for the others to hear him.
“We ought ta be near the engines by now.” Moira said wearily while she walked along the narrow path between crates.
Krumer moved, around the tall stack of crates to catch up to where O’Fallon stood. In the meantime the quartermaster carefully turned the latch. With a muffled click, it released its hold on the door frame. O’Fallon eased the door open slowly and looked outside.
“Ye be right, lass.” O’Fallon said with a smile. “Chambered door ta the engines right here.”
Along the entire walk, they had not encountered any more of the station crew, deceased or otherwise. However, the lack of danger was no celebration for Krumer. He had long ago been raised to be more alert, aware and cautious when the expected danger did not present itself. The orc looked around at the cramped room and then back at the open door with O’Fallon next to it.
“Any sign?” The first mate asked in a blunt tone.
O’Fallon looked down, then around at the door frame. “A wee bit. They’re bein’ careful here.” He pointed to a faint set of boot marks in the shadowy grime that lay between their door and the door to the station’s main steam engines. The gap was merely a ten foot wide alley that stretched between the storehouse and the center structure that contained the station’s steam engines.
“See? At other doors, they be careful, but here, they be stoppin’ short and steppin’ ta either side a’fore doin’ a thing.” The quartermaster shrugged. “Then they wander about a bit, then make their way around the outside. Didna seem interested ta go in.”
Moira looked over both Krumer and O’Fallon’s shoulder through what open space there was. “Or the door would na budge fer them.”
“More importantly, are they close by now?” Krumer asked quietly.
O’Fallon shook his head. “Na here, that be for sure. Where they be now, Ah couldna say.”
Krumer frowned and looked out the door again. “It bothers me they are so careless with their trail. It’s like they wanted us to know.”
“They may na have cared.” Moira said. “If’n they be in a hurry. Why waste the time?”
The first mate nodded. “True. Is the other door unlatched?”
O’Fallon carefully looked out into the alley, wary for any surprises. When nothing emerged, he stepped out and walked across the open alleyway to the other door. This door, just as weathered, was unlike the others they had encountered so far. On a relay station, any door that lead into the giant steam engines, fan blades and man-sized gears was a thick steel, secured with steel rivets and kept closed with a heavy metal lock.
Usually this door opened into a small room, a chamber only five foot square, with a similar door on the far side from the entrance. The inner door often, but not always, was rigged to never open so long as the outer door was open. In this way, no one could accidentally enter the engine rooms and fall through the fans to the ground miles below them. The quartermaster grasped the ‘L’-shaped handle, pushed down and tugged on it. The door lock gave easily and O’Fallon slowly pulled the door open an inch. A strong odor, sharp and foul smelling, wafted from the opening.
“Door’s open. Na sure it be a good idea. Smell’s like a rat crawled up inta an air duct and passed on. Ye be sure and certain ye want ta head that way?” O’Fallon said, making a sour face.
Thorias shook his head slightly at the quartermaster. “Smell or no, that’s where Miss Salgado said to meet her. We need to go that way.”
“Well, hold ye breath. It be ripe.” O’Fallon hauled the heavy door open the rest of the way. Metal hinges gave a slight groan of protest before the figure of a broad-shouldered man loomed out of the darkness. He was taller than the quartermaster by a good foot, his tight yellow shirt stained with grease and grime and his boots were broken at the seams. The quartermaster stumbled back and reached for his pistol. It had only partway cleared leather when the man from the doorway crashed into him. Krumer lunged forward and grabbed the stranger by the scruff of the neck, pulling him off O’Fallon.
The moment Krumer lifted the man away, he immediately dropped him again. “Another dead crewman.”
Panting from the shock, O’Fallon scrambled to his feet. “Like the others, then?”
“No, not like the others. He wasn’t laid to rest like those others.” the orc said solemnly while he knelt by the body. “He died fighting. Look at those bruises. Those come from a hand to hand fight.”
Thorias moved in a bit closer to see the dead man for himself, and knelt next to Krumer. O’Fallon wiped his hands nervously on his vest, then backed away from the dead man. A long breath later, he steadied his nerves and returned to the open door. Moira walked over with him.
She stopped at the doorway while O’Fallon stepped carefully inside. “Four more in here.” Moira said over his shoulder. “They all look ’bout as bad as that one.”
“This fellow’s only recently deceased by a half hour.” Thorias said after a moment’s examination of the dead man. “No more than that.”
“What?” Krumer instinctively looked around, as if the killer would somehow suddenly materialize behind them. “Who is doing this?”
A woman’s voice, colored with a light Portuguese accent, echoed from within the chamber towards the steam engines. “I can’t speak to the ‘who’, my dear Krumer, but perhaps I can speak to the ‘why’.”
From the gloom, a woman wearing a navy wool long coat, stained blue shirt, tan trousers, and brown knee-high boots stepped into the half-light that permeated the small ante-chamber. She stood no taller than average for a human, or in her case a charybdian that resembled humans in shape and appearance. Although, the resemblance stopped there. In place of skin, she had a collection of fine, interlocking brownish-green scales, not unlike those found on an alligator. These were present on every visible part of her. Her face was human enough, save for the canary-yellow eyes with light brown irises and the head full of shoulder-length, thick tendrils that strongly resembled snakes. Most noticeably, they did move very slightly of their own accord, not unlike a snake slowly moving through grass.
A half-smile spread across Krumer’s face. “Adonia Maria Ricalde Salgado. It’s been a long time.”
She inclined her head, the jumble of snake-like tendrils that made up her hair writhed slightly with the motion. “Yes, Krumer, too long.”
“Well,” the first mate asked. “Just what is going on?”
She shook her head. “Not here. We’re too exposed. It’s too hard to defend. Quickly, come inside. Put the dead man back in the ante-chamber and shut the door behind you.”
Adonia turned quickly on her heel and walked inside. Behind her Moira frowned at the charybdian’s retreating form. She had never met a charybdian before, but she had heard many of the stories. Some rumors said they could turn a person to stone with just a glance. Others said that their hair were real snakes with a poisonous venom. Still other stories claimed they were the long-lost descendants of the original inhabitants of legendary Thule, also called Atlantis. In general, most of the stories, as with any tall tales, tended to conflict. Moira had never been to Portugal, but had heard enough of these tales that she was automatically suspicious. She glanced over at Krumer. “Can we trust her?”
Krumer sighed and looked around at the grime-stained walls of the buildings, and then the clouded sky in search of a simple answer to help explain a complex person such as Adonia. Unfortunately, the walls, buildings and clouds above chose to be of little help. “Often she has her own goals, no matter what venture she’s engaged in … but she’s honorable. I trust her.”
Moira thought on that a moment, then nodded. “Well … all right, then. Sounds like we need ta hear her out.”
O’Fallon reached down and grabbed the dead man by one shoulder. Thorias grabbed the opposite one. They lifted the man to his feet and dragged him inside the ante-chamber of the building. “What ‘ere it be. Ah’m thinkin’ it be a good story in general. She na gets herself involved in somethin’ small.”
Krumer chuckled dryly. “Indeed.”