The darkness gathered in the long hallway like a hungry wild animal stalking new-found prey. It sat crouched behind the cobwebs in ignored corners and the occasional doorway that yawned wide like an open mouth. Muted light from hand-sized oil lanterns, each with a wind-up flint striker, brought long concealed shadows to quivering life. They danced among the pipes, moved through the spiderwebs and ducked behind doors. With each step, a new shadow would emerge to startle one of the group walking along the hallway. In the lead, Tiberius guided them through the tall building that held the station’s steam engines toward a blacksmith’s workshop in the far corner.
The young man paused and looked back. He silently counted the figures that followed him, including his mountain lion companion. Once he was satisfied that everyone was accounted for, he motioned for them to follow him inside the blacksmith’s shop. Past the door, Tiberius immediately turned to his right where a metal set of stairs led from the main blacksmith’s forge to a room above.
Krumer stepped through the door then moved aside to allow the others around him. He watched them thoughtfully while they filed by. Of them all, only Moira looked at ease. The first mate was not surprised. He knew that she usually felt most at home in a smithy, be it aboard an airship or even now on an undead-infested relay station. He watched while Moira’s eyes automatically took in the workshop and its various tools before she followed Tiberius up the staircase.
Behind Moira, Carlos and Thorias led Dr. Von Patterson along. Krumer noticed then that he was not alone in his observation of Moira. Carlos likewise watched her very closely until Thorias needed assistance in carrying the addled James Von Patterson. Krumer frowned while he watched them climb the stairs. The Spaniard, Carlos, had not said much during their flight from the zombies, or expressed any more opinion other than a visible desire to be where the zombies were not. However, when Moira walked by to ascend the stairs, a momentary glower crossed Carlos’ face as he looked at her. Krumer remembered a similar look earlier from the man but had explained it away as being due to the near-argument between Moira and Adonia. Now though, the orc had his doubts. Carlos bore a closer watch. Unfortunately, at the moment, current accomodations were much too tight to allow any discreet observation of the man, or to even quietly speak to Moira about the subject. Finally, the last of his group took to the stairs. With another instinctive look around at the workshop, Krumer followed not far behind.
The stairs emerged into a wide loft with a rack of parts along a wall, a secondary forge, and a small door out of the room on the far side from the stairs. Forgotten crates sat scattered around the room with the occasional canvas sailcloth idly tossed over a box. While people moved around the room to find a place to settle, the dim glow from the lanterns threw a wild dance of shadows among the blacksmith tools. The darkness retreated to hover behind the cobwebs that stretched from the forge to the soot-stained wooden ceiling. Of all of them, Moira slowly wandered the room the longest, a faint smile on her face. She paused to inspect the forge with the practiced eye of an expert before she turned to locate a place to settle down in the loft.
“At least she be feelin’ a wee bit more cozy.” O’Fallon commented quietly to Krumer when the orc entered the room.
Krumer closed the trapdoor to the loft behind him. “Indeed. I, for one, am glad for it. At least one of us should have a measure of comfort, even if it may be fleeting.” The first mate started to say something more, hesitated, then lowered his voice to a rough whisper. “O’Fallon, at first chance we need to talk. It’s about Carlos. I suspect …”
Anything more the first mate might have whispered to the quartermaster was lost as Tiberius addressed the group. Beside him, the gray-furred mountain lion circled its friend slowly.
“Thank you for your trust. We should be safe in this room. The zombies have not made their way here, so far that I’ve seen.” The young man crossed the room to a pile of canvas near an anvil. Tiberius sat heavily onto the folds of sailcloth with a sigh. Once he was seated, his mountain lion companion padded over and stretched out peacefully by the young man’s side.
Adonia checked the crate she was about to sit on. Satisfied that it would support her weight, she eased down onto it. “And for that amigo, I think I speak for us when I say we are grateful.” Many of the others in the room nodded or voiced their own agreement. Adonia frowned in thought, then leaned forward a little. “However, I would like to know something. How did you come to be here? You don’t dress typical of one who works aboard a relay station.”
Tiberius cleared his throat with a shy smile. “Ah, that would be because I don’t. I’m a visitor like yourselves, caught up in all this trouble.”
“So when did your ship arrive? When we made port, there wasn’t any other ship moored at the station aside from the wreck of the La Paloma.” Krumer asked curiously.
The young man cleared his throat. “Just before yesterday eve’.” His voice was steady though his eyes flicked away from Adonia’s yellowish gaze. Tiberius shrugged. “Our ship had to make port. It had to put in for repairs.”
Arcady shifted his position on Thorias’ shoulder. “Fascinating. The zombies forced away your ship and shipmates then? That would mean these creatures have been here for quite a few days.”
“What?” Tiberius looked at Arcady in surprise, as if he had not noticed the clockwork insect before. He smiled thinly. “Oh, well, yes. I’ve managed to stay away from them most of this time. This shop is an excellent hiding place. I had hoped to ask for passage out on your vessel. I’d gladly work for my keep.”
Krumer and O’Fallon exchanged a suspicious glance. The young man’s admission seemed plausible, too plausible. Something about it or the young man’s mannerisms bothered the pair of them but neither knew what. Likewise, neither were willing to comment over it … yet. Both were interested to see what else he was willing to add to his story.
Adonia, however, was not content to stay quiet. She narrowed her eyes in thought, then asked, “You must have arrived early in the evening. I arrived on the La Paloma yesterday, but we saw no ships. In fact, when we arrived we saw no one at all.”
Tiberius met her gaze again and paled slightly. “I was in hiding. I tried to warn you. I wanted to. But there were those zombies wandering about. When your ship exploded, I feared the worse. That was a terrible hole it gouged in your ship’s side.”
Adonia gave him a bright, predatory smile while the yellow in her eyes reflected the half-light of the flickering lanterns. “I do not think so, amigo. If I might say, you do not lie entirely well.”
Tiberius began to sweat. He rubbed his eyes with his left hand while his right idly petted his lion companion. “I … I don’t know what you mean.”
Adonia’s eyes took on a harder look. “I did not mention any explosions.”
Startled, the young man looked around at the others that now stared at him. He gestured at Krumer. “He mentioned the wreck … ”
The Charybdian woman crossed her arms. “The word ‘wreck’ can mean many things, an explosion is very specific. Also, last I knew, we are not able to see any of the ports very well from here. How can you know anything of the hole in the La Paloma‘s side?” She paused and took a slow breath. “Tiberius, many of those who traveled with me fell to either the assassins who scuttled us or to those monsters in the darkness. Some of those that are gone were my friends. I wish desperately to sit and grieve for them, for deep down their loss feels like a tear in my heart, but I cannot risk even a moment to grieve with the rest of us still in danger. I suggest you begin to tell us some truths, not fables.”
For a long moment, Tiberius sat deathly still. Finally he sighed, his voice ragged and broken. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but this was not supposed to be this way. I’m not even supposed to be here, none of us should be.”
Krumer sat forward, his concern mixed with a deep interest over what Tiberius meant. “Tiberius, I think you should try again. The truth this time.”
Tiberius glanced at the orc then looked down at his hands. Krumer saw the internal struggle on the man’s face. Some war of confidence raged, one that would not settle easily. Finally, Tiberius seemed to come to some sort of resolution.
“I did come on a ship. However … you didn’t see it, Madame Salgado because … I was stowed away on yours.” Tiberius said carefully with a gesture to Adonia.
Adonia’s eyes narrowed with an ugly, cold look. “So … you are in league with the assassins who set the explosions?”
“No! We wouldn’t have ever done any of that!” Tiberius stammered and put up his hands quickly, as if to ward off some invisible attack. The motion was so sudden, the mountain lion at his side looked up then glanced around the room. Convinced nothing threated either itself or Tiberius, the beast settled back down, only this time its eyes glinted watchfully in the half-light. After two heartbeats, Tiberius likewise calmed down as well.
“I’m trained in weapons but I hardly ever got to use them, until now that is.” He explained slowly. “I’m merely a scholar. You would call it an archeologist, I believe?”
“Archeologist?” Moira echoed. “If that be true, why are ya here? Nothin’ worth diggin’ this high in the clouds.”
“No, not here.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Oh gods, I’m making a mess of this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. I should just come out and say it.” Tiberius cleared his throat. “Where I am from, we have followed Dr.Von Patterson’s studies with great interest. Myself and others have been researching similar texts that involve that same ruin. The only difference is that we wished to remain more anonymous about it. When he mounted his expedition to the mountains, myself and a few of my cohorts were dispatched by the universitas … pardon, I mean university … to meet with Dr.Von Patterson. Our goal was to do so quietly. However, we underestimated the travel time to find him. When we eventually did manage to find his campsite, it was quickly determined we were not the only ones interested in his work.”
“Tiberius, please forgive me for being overly curious, but a question if you don’t mind.” Krumer asked.
“Certainly,” The young man replied.
“Your dialect, are you from Italy? I thought I detected a faint accent?” The orc asked.
“Uhm.. yes, Italy.” Tiberius said after a moment’s hesitation.
Dr. Von Patterson suddenly twitched in a flurry of spasms that interrupted any more questions. Slowly the archeologist quieted down. Concerned, Thorias turned to check the doctor’s health while Carlos sat up, alert to assist. While he checked Dr. Von Patterson’s pulse Thorias half-turned so he could speak over his shoulder to Tiberius. “You mentioned ‘others’, who were these others?”
The young man shrugged. “We never knew. They dressed in dark clothes and kept to themselves. The man we believe to be their leader only appeared once early on, then left. We weren’t overly concerned until they pulled a large amount of weaponry from their own packs and supplies.”
“Why didn’t you come forward to Dr.Von Patterson then?” Adonia asked, her curiosity having taken some precedence over her anger.
“We tried, but Dr.Von Patterson had already left the camp for the ruins and we were caught in the ambush at the camp. All of my companions, except for my mentor, lost their lives there. They were butchered before they had a chance to say much of anything. Only my mentor and myself managed to run to the forests. We were still searching for a safe place to hide when we came across your ship in that clearing.” Tiberius gestured to Adonia again. “It was sheer luck your captain had offloaded those crates of cargo for whatever reason. We slipped aboard using those.”
O’Fallon frowned while he remembered what he had found in the La Paloma‘s hold. “Ye na be the only one ta be usin’ the crates. There be several busted open. Though Ah did be findin’ the one ye used, laddie.”
Krumer stirred from his own thoughts. “Tiberius, what did their leader look like?”
The young man closed his eyes and thought a moment. “He was tall and thin with what I think you would call an ‘aristocratic look’. His vest, shirt and all his clothing looked expensive. Even the wool long coat he wore. His hair was dark and cut short. His eyes I remember best. They were very gray and cold as if he could stare through a person. He had hurt his hand at some point because it was in some strange brace.”
Moira frowned. “That be soundin’ ever so familiar,” she commented aloud.
“Did he wear a signet ring?” Krumer stood then rummaged about the room until he found a forgotten piece of charcoal near the forge. With this, he made a crude sketch of a family crest on the wooden floor. He retrieved one of the lanterns and held it close so everyone could see the drawing. “Did it bear a mark like so?”
Tiberius squinted at it. “I think so. It was hard to see.”
Krumer nodded sagely at the young man’s answer. “Arcady, you showed me something like that once, did you not?”
The clockwork insect perked up and nodded. His wings buzzed for just a moment from dozens of tiny gears while he stretched. He cleared his throat, much in the manner he had heard Thorias do before he would speak. The static-laden sound echoed for a moment in the clockwork’s voice box. His usual mechanical echo that punctuated his dialect reverberated faintly with each word. “Yes, Mr Whitehorse. It belonged to Archibald RiBeld.”