[Hands up, everyone who thought I'd go for the obvious pun!]
(The story begins here.)
“Everyone was edgy,” Lassiter continued. “The area was odd—there were geomagnetic anomalies that made compasses useless, and some of the areas we visited did not welcome us. I thought the Ruritanians would meet us with force; a team working further south had already encountered volley after volley of crossbow fire from Grand Fenwick.”
“They are fond of quarrels,” Darren observed.
“From time to time a worker would disappear. Given the general tension, that was understandable, but sometimes they left all their possessions behind. We heard odd noises in the night—something like wolves, but, contrary to myth, wolves normally don’t attack a healthy young man, only children, the aged, and the sick, and seldom even them. Then one of our survey crews failed to report back one dark and stormy night.
“I was in the search party the next day—there was a new order against staying out past sunset. The missing survey team had known about it, so they must have been delayed somehow. They were just supposed to see whether there was an obvious route for the rails through all the rocks and hills. Why didn’t they at least fire a flare?
“The theory was that the others had run afoul of a ravine or some other unexpected feature of the terrain. The land was rocky, with numerous caves, and it was possible that their combined weight had collapsed a cave beneath into a pit. It was a reasonable explanation.
“I took a gun. We all did.
“We set out in the morning and followed the path they were to have taken. We soon found traces of them. Some of us had done some hunting and were reasonably good trackers, so following them wasn’t hard. They deviated a bit at one point—or so I thought; the compass was acting up—and entered a ravine. The sides and the growth at the top blotted out the sun for a few minutes; it was almost like being in a tunnel. Then we emerged and found ourselves turned around: the sun was in the wrong place, and we had to get our bearings. Though the ravine was reasonably straight, we had somehow gone east and come out facing west, for the morning sun was at our backs now, not in our faces.
“We soon found evidence of some kind of rout. The crew had scattered, leaving equipment here and there. The tracks were too confused to follow. Some had apparently sought shelter in some nearby caves; we weren’t sure what had become of the rest. But there was no one there now.
“It was as I inspected the tracks that I realized the light was bad. I supposed it was the brush or a cloud obscuring the sun. But then I ran up to the top of the rise to get a look at the area as a whole, and I happened to see the impossible.
“The sun was setting.”
Next: Strange encounters
1 year ago