The headache started almost immediately. A slight throbbing in my left temple that began the minute I entered the grounds of Melmoth House. It would get worse.
But first, Robinson. He met me at the gate, as arranged. “You can’t drive up to the house,” he said. “Oscar will know. He always knows.” So, the gate. I parked the car safely off the road, and we walked by flashlight. He looked ghastly in that light, older and more haggard than he’d seemed earlier in the day. If I hadn’t been distracted by the headache, I might have taken more notice of it.
As it was, though, I just wrote it off as one more horrorshow element of an evening that seemed full of them. Melmoth House is quite the imposing Gothic manor at night, looming dark and mysterious against the night sky. The place even has a hedge maze, which is where Robinson lead me first. “A shortcut,” he told me. I didn’t see how that was possible, but with the throbbing in my temple, I decided not to argue.
The maze was fascinating. Sinuous. All curves. No hard corners anywhere. And, despite my training, I found that I couldn’t keep my bearings. Robinson moved quickly, and with assurance, and it wasn’t long before I was hopelessly lost. We went round and round, the headache worsening with each step, and suddenly we were standing in a clearing. Round, of course, with a multitude of paths curling off from it into the dark. In the center was a totem pole, rough-hewn, all leering faces topped with a serpentine head of terrible design.
Robinson turned to me and smiled. “Lurid thing, isn’t it? Oscar had it made from his own sketches. Local artist did it. Fellow who served as a guide on a couple of his expeditions back before– the incident. Used a chainsaw to carve it.”
“I’ve seen his work,” I replied. My voice sounded distant, submerged. “He also does beavers.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Robinson approached the pole. “Now. Don’t be alarmed, but…” He put his hand in the mouth of one of the totem faces and pressed. There was a click, and the pole rolled smoothly to one side, revealing a hole in the ground, and a ladder leading down. “This is the shortcut.”
Head throbbing on both sides now, I followed him down. We climbed perhaps 20 feet before the ladder terminated in a stone tunnel. Robinson muttered a bit as he cast the flashlight along the walls. “Oscar didn’t build this. He says it’s been here longer than the Melmoths. I think it’s– Ah.” He found the light switch. “I think it’s Alo work.”
A series of dim old light bulbs flickered to life in sequence down the corridor, filling the space with a faint yellowish glow. It wasn’t a great improvement over the flashlight, but it was enough that I could confirm his suspicions: the construction looked just like the Liar’s Path.
“Where does this lead?”
“Under Melmoth House. The location is no accident. This was Alo land before they settled the boundaries of the reservation, and a good bit of Melmoth money went toward making sure this place didn’t stay in Alo hands.”
“Why did they want it?”
“You’ll understand when we get to the library.”
I rubbed my forehead. Felt something pulse beneath my hand. “Wait. You mean… the library is…”
“At the end of the passage. Come on. Hurry.” He looked around, suddenly paranoid. “I don’t think he can see down here, but… he’s fooled me before.”
The world throbbed in time with my head. It was getting hard to concentrate. “He who? Oscar? I’m not sure I… ugh.”
“Come on!” He grabbed my hand, walking faster, fairly pulling me down the hall, the walls beginning to crawl with the spidery script of Old Alo as we passed. Words leapt out of the chaos at me, assaulting me, battering at the doors of my perception. “Paahhnoowaaahhh,” I drooled out. “Kiinnnekkteeehhhkkekkyyyy… Paaahhhnoowaaaaahhhhh…”
The world flipped. Turned inside out. A light flickered out, and when we arrived in the sickly yellow glow of the next, it wasn’t Andrew Robinson leading me on anymore. It was Oscar Melmoth. That feeble old man, somehow vital and young and alive, yanking me down the corridor, toward something. Something looming and dark and impossibly old. Something under the Earth. Beyond it. Secret. Seductive. Predatory. He hissed, then turned back to me and smiled. “Feeling a bit under the weather?”
The words pounded against my head like a club, echoed in my ears and reverberated back out. My forehead pulsed. I blinked, and suddenly he was Robinson again, looking genuinely concerned. “Are you okay?”
I pulled my hand away in response and used it to brace myself against the wall, the snail-trail Alo letters feeling alive beneath my palm. “Just… Just a headache.”
“Migraine? Do you need to–?”
“No.” A steady pulse started in my head, relieving the pain more and more with each beat. The pressure remained, but the pulse evened it out, kept it from getting in. “Just give me a minute.” I looked past him down the hall. We were less than ten feet from the end now, and I could see the library beyond, shelves and cabinets lining the walls, fine tables and chairs spaced around under dim light. And… something else.
I stood straight again. “I’m okay. Let’s go.” Robinson followed me now, my stride becoming more purposeful with each step. Something was emanating from the walls of the library. From the ceiling. From the floor. Something that magnified the external pressure on my head, and the answering pressure inside. The pulse got stronger the closer I got, and slowly the headache subsided. By the time I stood in the center of the room, it was gone completely.
I turned to face Robinson. But it was Oscar again. He didn’t look happy. “Had that third biscuit yet?”
“I was thinking about having it in the morning. You know, to round out the week. Edna’s a wise woman. You have to pace yourself. But I suppose you’ve just learned that.”
“Watch that smart mouth, Agent. You’re standing in my house.”
“Soon to be Alexandra’s.”
He smiled again. “Details. Now. What do you want?”
I looked around the room, walked over to a shelf. “I’m not sure, really. When I came in, I just wanted to see the place. But, now…” I pulled down a copy of the Unaussprechlichen Kulten. “Von Junzt. Cute.”
“You prefer Fort, I suppose.”
“Always. Bit more straightforward, don’t you think?”
“Bah. He lacks art. Not you, though. You, I think, know something of art.”
“’I wear no mask.’”
“Hmph. We’re neither of us wearing yellow, Agent. But I do think you’re wearing a mask. Several of them, if I don’t miss my guess.” He sniffed the air. “Four names already. Five, if you count what that trollop of yours calls you in bed.”
“Five, then! You’re a cool one, Agent, I’ll give you that. But your kind always are. Self-righteous clods, bumbling in the dark without the slightest hint of the majesty you seek to contain! Working-stiff Shamans! Wizards masquerading as every-men! You have the stench of Bill Roberts on you!”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“And I’m sure you do!” He sighed. “Just go ahead. You’ve beaten me in my den. I owe you something now. Take it!”
I put the Kulten back on the shelf. Looked around. It was a good library with some dangerous texts, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Normally, I might try to get a particularly virulent book out of his hands, at the very least. But I thought I’d play for higher stakes, instead.
“Nah. Nah, there’s nothing here worth taking. So instead, I’m going to extract a promise from you.”
He looked even less pleased at that, but he acquiesced. “Fine. What would you have me do?”
“Protect Alexandra. Keep her from harm.”
He looked incredulous. Then he barked out a laugh. “Done! Done, Agent! Oh, perhaps you’re not as artful as I thought.”
“So you’ll keep her safe? Won’t try to harm her, or allow others to harm her?”
“Yes! A thousand times yes! It would be my heart’s desire!”
“Alright, indeed. I will protect my beloved granddaughter with all my might.” He smiled again, and this time I really didn’t like it. “But I do wonder who’ll protect all of you from her.”
I found my own way out.
– Agent X-23, signing off.