The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Lindorn of Storsjon
Thursday 19th September 1998, 9.30pm
The lake is lapsing into a dark mirror, the roll of the mist settling to a slow, smoky ooze. In the direction of Dubois' pointing finger, those operatives with acute vision can glimpse the dim outline of a boat, suspended in the greyness over its reflection.
"Looks like he's taken one of the hotel rowing boats." Loki gestures towards the tarpaulin-swaddled huddle of little craft at the southern side of the quay. One of the mooring hooks is empty. "We'd better look for a boat with oars, if we're to catch him up without a scrap of wind."
"Are there any motor-powered boats?"
"One or two, but we don't have the keys. Does anyone know how to drive one anyway? No? Well, it's a bit academic then, isn't it?"
Gerard Dubois picks out a small sailing boat that is equipped with a pair of oars. "If the wind rises again, we can raise our sails and use it," he points out.
Micheal clambers aboard, somewhat unsteadily, and mans one oar. Mal follows him onto the boat, then offers a hand to help Loki aboard. Loki takes up a place next to Dubois at the stern, while Mal takes up the second oar.
"Robert! We've got to go now! Are you with us?"
Robert Montague Flint hesitates for a moment on the dock, gripped by a sense of panic and indecision. Stepping aboard the boat seems so irrevocable. He is haunted by an anxiety that somewhere he has missed something important, and will only realise what it is when it is too late. The summoning words on the runestone, they had mentioned an armlet, hadn't they? Was the armlet needed to perform a ritual and summon the defender who could defeat the monster of the lake?
Had there been any sign of an armlet at the museum? Robert hastily casts his mind back. In his mind's eye, he visualises the various artifacts arranged in the display cases, the buckles, the coronets, the... wait... wait... he recalls a curved twist of gold, perhaps a fragment of a larger circle...
"One of the coronets," he mutters under his breath. "I thought the curvature was rather strange at the time. It might have been a coronet for a child. Or it might have been an armlet for a man with arms half again as thick as that of an ordinary man.
"Go. Don't wait for me. I have to go back to the museum..."
Daniel's mouth is dry, but he manages to speak.
"The la... the lady of the lake?"
"Oh, you are conscious. Good, I thought you probably were. You do seem to have an annoying way of bouncing back from things. I suppose if I wasn't such a self-indulgent soul, I'd have beaten your brains out already, but I'm afraid I've rather set my heart upon allowing you the experience of descending into the depths of Lake Storsjon without scuba equipment. They say drowning seems to take an eternity. I don't know how long it takes in real time, so I can't tell you whether you'd be likely to die from water in your lungs before the cold killed you, or before you were torn to pieces by the residents of the lake. I suppose I'll never find out. You won't have the chance to tell me, even after you know the answer."
"Oh God. You can't be serious."
"I can, you know. I just often choose not to be."
"In heaven's name, why? Why do you want to kill me?" Daniel has done his best to twist around so that he is facing Louis. His head is propped at an uncomfortable angle against the side of the boat, which he can now see is a small rowing vessel.
"Let us suppose, Mr Masterson, that you have a flower. Let us suppose that you spend years carefully cultivating this flower, protecting it from the harsher elements, keeping away pests, and nurturing the bloom. Let us suppose, furthermore, that the flower is your life, that you find the chief pleasure of each day in the observation of this one bloom. And let us suppose that some day a stranger wanders into your garden without invitation, casts a lazy eye on the flower, and plucks it so that it can decorate his button hole for a day. What are your feelings towards the stranger?
"Belle-Marie... you're talking about Belle-Marie?"
"Jesus Christ, Louis, how was I supposed to know you were interested in her? I talked to her, and she seemed to be unattached. If I'd had any ideas about your feelings, I'd have stepped aside, I swear it."
"Would you?" Louis pauses for an instant in his rowing. His boater is pushed onto the back of his head. He is still dressed in his white blazer and calfskin gloves. Around his neck is draped a long scarf striped in black, yellow and blue - perhaps college or university colours. As usual, his appearance has a comically incongruous appearance. His figure would have suited a painting of an Oxbridge idyll, a punting and Pimms party on a sky-blue river, perhaps. "Would you really?" The great eyes behind Louis' spectacles are speculative and not unsympathetic. "You know, I doubt it. Well, perhaps you would have done. It's a little academic now, anyway. You've had your fun with Belle-Marie. I hope you feel it was worth it."
"We've got to be able to talk about this, it's so unnecessary to kill me..."
"Oh dear me, no. I've rather burnt my bridges, you see. The way things stand, your death may be absolutely necessary if I am to ensure my survival and that of our other passenger," he nods towards Belle-Marie. "Have you ever seen any of those old films, in which an intruder enters a house which he knows is inhabited by a large and fierce guard dog? In many of those films, the cunning criminal will bring along a nice fat steak, to keep the dog happy and busy.
"My current exodus is not exactly licensed by the powers that be. In short, the lady whose domain we are currently crossing is quite unaware that we are doing so, and would not be best pleased if the matter were brought to her attention. The lady has numerous... servants. Minions. Guard dogs. Lindorns, if you want to use tourist phraseology. Unlike their mistress, they are not endowed with much intelligence, and I think a suitably fat, juicy steak might well serve to distract them in an emergency.
"You, Mr Masterson, are the aforementioned steak."
"Have we lost him?"
"Stop rowing for a moment." In response to Loki's command, Mal and Micheal lift their dripping oars from the water, and pause for an instant. In the distance, the group can make out a gentle dip, splash, dip, splash. "Thank God, he's not a very good rower, or we'd never have heard him. Listen to him, he must be catching enough crabs to set up a seafood bar. It's coming from over there - is he curving round to the left?"
"No." Dubois is studying the wake that extends behind their craft, before vanishing into the mist. "No, we're veering to the right. Ciel! I should have noticed it before, but in this mist it is impossible to make out landmarks. Mr Stockton, I believe you are pulling harder upon your oar than Mr Harris. We shall have to stop from time to time and listen for Lakersson's rowing so we can tell where he is." He mutters a few expletives in his own language, under his breath. The phenomenon that Micheal had noticed before is now clearly apparent in Dubois' features. As the craft proceeds, the muscles can be seen jumping under the skin of the Frenchman's face, as if restless for action.
"Never mind," remarks Loki. "If we can hear the sound of his oars now, we must be closer to him than we were. Remember, he's probably alone, which means one man at the oars rowing without a break. We've got a man at each oar, and we can relieve each other if anyone gets tired."
"I don't think we should underestimate Louis Lakersson." Mal glances up over his oar. "I don't know whether his surname is a coincidence, or whether he really is some kind of 'son of the lake.' But he seems to have some kind of paranormal powers at his disposal. Do you remember what happened the evening the runestone was dropped over the edge of the cliff?"
"The events are rather firmly engraved upon my memory," remarks Dubois drily.
"Then you'll remember what happened after Louis fled. You gave chase, and so did I, a little behind. And as we were running, he called out a word, 'Hagalaz.' Do you remember? And immediately afterwards, the fog thickened, and we lost him. Dr Massey says that the word is the name of a Norse Rune, referring to disruptive weather such as fog. Do you think Louis could have cast a spell to summon the fog to cloak his movements and secure his escape?"
After a moment or two, Mal notices that all the other inhabitants of the boat have fallen silent. The oar is no longer being plied on the other side of the vessel. He ceases to row, and looks up at the faces of his companions, all of whom are staring at him.
"Mal," Loki says at last, "I really wish you hadn't said that."
"That word you said. Look around." Mal glances about the boat, and realization dawns. The island of Froson has melted into nothingness behind them. The wake of the boat is all but lost in the heave of vapour. In the space of half a minute the density of the fog has doubled.
"You mean that the fog closed in when I said..."
"Yes. The rune word. Don't repeat it. Just don't, OK?"
"What the dickens...?" Louis has halted once again in his rowing, his broad, good-natured brow blemished by a small crease of concern. "Tut, that isn't good." The interpreter is staring about himself at the swiftly thickening mist. "I think we may be in trouble. Unless I'm very much mistaken, someone on the lake has just cast a weather spell. As far as I know, there is only one individual in the region other than myself with that particular skill."
"Indeed. I had set up a small rune to ensure that there was fog at our backs, and clearer air before us, so that I could judge our direction. Just now a real pea souper set in all around us. I regret to say that the lady may have detected us. In which case, of course, I may have to end our association in the near future by precipitating you into the water."
Louis pulls out a large, white, silk handkerchief, and carefully wipes his glasses. A moment later, he perches them back onto his nose, and gazes about owlishly.
At the sight of this, a stray memory touches against Daniel's mind. He recalls the sight of Louis, enthusiastically joining the search party looking for the potholing expedition. He recalls Louis approaching them full of boyish energy, wiping the steam from his spectacles. Steam on his spectacles. Steam from the wet weather outside, testimony to the fact that Louis had only just entered the hotel himself. Testimony of the fact that Louis had himself been wandering Froson, rather than following his duties at the hotel.
"You sabotaged the potholing expedition, didn't you?"
"Guilty, I'm afraid. Look, Mr Masterson, I hate to be curt, but I am a little distracted right now, and I would hate to have to beat your head in with an oar. Would you mind giving me a few moments of silence?"
He's quite mad, reflects Daniel. Maybe he's possessed as well, but he's definitely mad. My best chance is probably to keep him talking... when he's had his few moments silence. Daniel lies quite still, watching his captor leaning forward and blinking in an abstracted attempt to make out sounds over the soft lap of ripples against the flag of the boat. Louis' face is round and empty as a baby's, his left hand unconsciously polishing the buttons on the back of his right hand glove.
"Stop rowing!" hisses Loki. Both oarsmen stop.
"I can't hear any..."
"That's the point. He's stopped rowing."
"Could he just have passed out of our hearing range?" Mal automatically adopts Loki's hushed tones.
"No, the rowing stopped all of a sudden. I'm getting better at picking out the sound of his splashes, like a sort of echo to ours. And all of a sudden - no echo." There is a silence during which each of the four men in the boat strain their ears.
"I believe Mr Smith is right," Dubois says at last. "I believe he has stopped to listen to us, just as we have been stopping to listen to him."
"Ah." Louis' face relaxes very slightly, although there are still traces of anxiety in his countenance. "Did you hear that?" Daniel had, indeed, dimly heard the rhythmic splash of distant oars for a few seconds after his captor's rowing had ceased. "It seems that we are facing a human antagonist, after all." He begins rowing once more, now taking care to slide the blades of the oars into the water as quietly as possible. "I hope you will oblige me by conducting any future conversation is a subdued tone, Mr Masterson."
Daniel considers calling for help to alert the people in the other boat to his whereabouts, but decides that this strategy is too dangerous.
"Louis," he whispers, instead, "who is the 'lady of the lake' you keep talking about?"
"The Nykk? She's... well, hardly a lady in the truest sense. Don't expect some lovely nymph giving swords to young kings - 'the lady of the lake' is just a fanciful, little name I give her in my own mind. She has the sort of power one senses dormant in mountains. But she is dependent upon the consumption of living flesh in order to maintain her strength. Preferably human flesh. Which is, of course, where I come in. We have been... useful to one another."
"How did you meet this... Nykk?"
"It was something of an accident, actually. As I think I mentioned to your friend, Mr Harris, I am half-Norwegian. I believe that it is from my Norwegian father that I inherit the trifling magical talent I possess. Unlike my relations, I was inclined to try and cultivate my abilities. While at university, I became interested in the Norse runes, and observed with interest the way in which I could use them to channel my 'unconventional abilities.'
"However, I sensed that there was far to be learnt than could be gleaned from scholarly works or 'New Age' tracts. About eight years ago, I came to Scandinavia, to 'rediscover my roots.' Froson is a focal point for many of the local ley lines, so I made a point of coming to visit. One night, on the beach, I performed a small ritual out of curiosity, to see if I could detect any local spirits. You might say that the ritual was roughly one thousand percent successful."
"And you agreed to find flesh for her?"
"No, not at first. At first it was a simpler bargain. I would provide her with an insight into events in the human world of Froson, through a form of telepathic link, while she would assist me with my magical training. As things worked out, of course, we both needed rather more from the association.
"From what she revealed to me, I understand that the Nykk had spent many centuries in a torpid state following some severe injury. She was revived about two hundred years ago by the blood from a number of bodies which floated down to her from some shipwreck. Since then, she had only been able to maintain her strength through a sequence of opportunistic strikes upon unwary individuals. Less than a year after my magical training had started, she became impatient, and I was made aware of this other agenda - she wanted me to help her acquire human flesh.
"I nearly left Froson as soon as I learnt what the Nykk wanted. I walked down to the harbour that very day, and stood on the waterfront, thinking of just getting onto a boat, and leaving forever. While I was standing there, I noticed a new girl working on the docks. You wouldn't have recognised her then - she was a skeleton in skin and denim, with coat hanger shoulders and a forest of hair. I stood in a corner of the quay and watched her work, until it got dark. I don't think she noticed. I don't think she ever noticed." Louis falls silent for a moment, casting a glance towards the huddled, unconscious form of Belle-Marie. His expression is hard to read, but seems to combine tenderness, distance, and a cold light that might have been pain.
"What is there to say? Leaving Froson was no longer an option. I learned soon that Belle-Marie was Ingvar Njalsonn's mistress and fiancée, and suddenly the Nykk's proposal had a new appeal. Can you understand what it was like to watch that grotesque old man putting his arm around her, and displaying her as his? It was like watching an ape sawing away at the strings of a Stradivarius." Daniel is slightly chilled by the way Louis has recovered his affable, confidential manner, as if he had forgotten his earlier threats.
"Njalsonn went swimming every morning. He was less fit than he chose to believe, and sooner or later he would have met his death that way. I decided it was better for Belle-Marie that this should occur sooner rather than later. I simply informed the Nykk when and where the old man would be in the water... and we ceased to be troubled with his presence."
"So you murdered him. How many others have you killed?"
"Not more than I could help." Louis seems slightly scandalised. "I don't actually enjoy any of this, you know. The fact is, the Nykk is something of a loose cannon. If I were not there to select victims for her, she would most probably run amok, and kill indiscriminately. You and I know that some people deserve to die, and others do not. However, the Nykk lacks this moral perspective. Who can say what damage she might have caused to the innocent if I were not there to moderate her actions?"
He really believes what he's saying. Daniel maintains a slightly stunned silence. His captor nods, as if satisfied that he has successfully carried his point.
"The body of Njalsonn kept her appeased for a while. However, a few years later, she became impatient once again, and I eventually ran out of excuses. By that point, I was experiencing a certain amount of trouble with the VAM. You've met some of them - mindless Neanderthals with no redeeming features. Of course they despised me - a foreigner taking a job in Sweden. Worse still, they took to patrolling the beaches, in an attempt to frighten tourists. Since most of my rituals required solitude and a location on a beach, this was an unpardonable liberty.
"I discovered one day that a large number of VAM members were travelling to the mainland on the S/S Stiklestad, to attend a meeting in Ostersund. I contacted the Nykk, informed her of the imminent journey, and added my magic to hers so that she could disable the boat. Unfortunately some tourists were killed in the disaster, but I think on balance my decision can be justified by the fact that some eighteen or so VAM members were removed from the gene pool.
"You know how it is. One has to make sacrifices..."
Meanwhile, Robert Montague Flint is scaling the western path towards Mjalleborgen, the beam of his torch dancing along the path before him as he hurries across the benighted terrain. Two painful falls caused by the slippery and irregular ground have persuaded him to slow his progress from a moderate jog to a walk. In any case, careful advance is necessary so that he does not lose sight of the luminous markers that define the path. The fog has thickened about him even since he left the harbour, and now his torch is doing little more that illuminate an opaque column of the mist ahead of him. On the ground beneath him, frost sparkles like scattered sugar.
Struggling up the slope, he watches his own breath become steam, as if his spirit were bleeding away into the air, and becoming one with the mist. There is something deathly in the lazy, mothwing-white surge of the mist. Robert feels suddenly claustrophobic, as if he were held within a bland, blind, all consuming, pallid mouth. The white mouth of the mist seems suddenly to be the final end of all.
All will return to this, it seems. In the final ending of things, all that is without life will be beaten back down to this black, ribbed rock. In the final ending of things, all that has life will pour its ghost out into the dull air, and be swallowed by the wide, white mouth of the mist. In the final ending of things, nothing will be left but the mist, prowling a land of black rock like a dull, white wolf, breathing steam, steam that burns like ice...
Robert is suddenly aware that he has slowed his pace almost to a standstill, as if his volition has bled away into the hungry mist. With a violent effort of will, he starts to move once more, fighting the chilling sense of fatalism that has gripped him, afflicting his limbs with paralysis.
The dark outline of Mjalleborgen starts to loom out of the mist.
Back in the other boat, a hushed debate is being conducted.
"I don't see that we have much choice but to continue rowing," says Loki. "I think I heard a splash of oars just then, from over there. If he is rowing away quietly, he may get out of our earshot, and then we've lost him. And if he's just staying silent, listening for us, and we start rowing again, there's a fair chance that he'll panic and start using his oars as well."
"I agree," says Micheal. "Anyway, if we don't keep on the move, the flow of the water is liable to swing the boat around, and then we'll lose all sense of where we are." With new caution, Micheal and Mal brace themselves against their oars, and push the little boat forward through the water.
"While we're on the move, shall we make a quick inventory of the weapons we have with us?" Mal pauses to pull his sleeve down over his cold-numbed fingers. "After all, we may need to defend ourselves against Louis and... other things."
Dubois holds up his harpoon gun. "Regrettably, I only have one harpoon left."
"Well, it might be best not to use it up on Louis. We may need it for something else. What has everyone else got?"
The weapons at the party's disposal seem to be entirely comprised of the items which Loki had bought for the group's self defence. They include a letter opener with a handle shaped like a lindorn's head, two fairly vicious looking pocket knives, and a few spikes of the sort used for climbing.
"By the way, Dubois," Mal continues, "could you tell us what we should be expecting here? This creature that devoured the other survivors from the S/S Stiklestad - did it look like a lindorn, or is it some kind of evil spirit?"
"It was not a lindorn. That much I can tell you, my friend. It had arms, and legs, and a face a bit like that of a human. It was dragging itself on its stomach along the beach, but not as if it moved naturally that way, but rather as if it were weak, or tired with swimming.
"It was large. It is hard even now to say how large, and I cannot quite explain exactly why. It was as if one saw her vastness only by looking at her well, and there was a terror in my mind that if I saw her more clearly I would find that she was bigger than a house, bigger than the beach, bigger than the island..." He shakes himself slightly. "I know that she had many teeth, gleaming in her mouth like stars. I remember that her hands ended in great hooks instead of fingers."
Rather sadly, Dubois looks down at the small harpoon gun in his hands, which seems to have become somewhat less impressive during his last few sentences.
"So what did the Nykk want you to after that?" Daniel has found that with minimal prompting, he can keep the interpreter talking. It seems that the other man is almost glad of a chance to express his sentiments after eight years of secrecy.
"Ah. Well, that involved the runestone. The Nykk wanted it destroyed. She was always a little coy about the reasons she had for wishing this, but I gathered that she suspected that there were some runes on it that curbed her power in some way. My first impulse was to obey her, but then I hesitated. It seemed just possible that I might be able to interpret the runes myself, and that they might give me some idea how I might bind the Nykk, and no longer have to cater to her bloodlust.
"Of course, things went rather wrong. While I was delaying, Dr Marcus Massey arrived on the island, and started studying the confounded rock, this making it rather difficult for me to find time to examine it myself in solitude. I was just coming round to the idea that I would have to steal the stone in order to get some time alone with it, when somebody else beat me to it. You can imagine my dismay when I learned that the rock had been stolen.
"I performed one or two simple rituals, and at last succeeded in determining the location of the stone. Unfortunately, when I attempted to drag it from its hiding place to another of my own choosing, I was interrupted. I was forced to introduce the witness to the lady of the lake." Daniel recalls the disappearance of Bjarnison, and the steep cliff face near the old man's home. "I found the whole incident very upsetting. I abandoned the stone, and returned to the hotel to recover.
"More upsetting still, when I returned the next evening to recover the stone, I was interrupted again. This time I believe my assailant may have been the madman Dubois. In the struggle, the runestone, possibly the only hope of controlling the Nykk, fell over the cliff and was smashed." Louis tuts under his breath, with the same degree of mild vexation that might be expected if he had accidentally spilt tea over his flawless calfskin gloves.
"You admitted that you tried to sabotage the potholing expedition. Why?"
A glitter like frost shines for an instant in the depths of Louis' mist-grey eyes.
"You might well say that that was your fault, Daniel. Do you mind if I call you Daniel? Formality seems a little foolish at this point, don't you think?
"I watched you that evening. I watched her take you to the Konditori, where she always drinks coffee alone. I watched her take you to the restaurant afterwards, and laugh and smile as you talked. I watched you walk her home. And I could see the future, right then. At the next date you would tell her more about yourself. At the date after that, you would ask to 'come in for coffee.' You should not put a man in a killing mood, Daniel.
"It was all rather spur of the moment, actually. The Nykk had been bothering me for blood, and suddenly I was in the mood to indulge her. I had taken a brisk walk to settle myself a little, and when I chanced upon the upper fastening of the rope on the cliff, and realised that your friends were at the lower end, I allowed myself to vent my sentiments upon the upper peg through a sequence of vigorous kicks. I left it at snapping point, and continued my walk.
"I regretted it, of course. That alarming Miss Shen!"
Hearing Harriet's name mentioned, Daniel starts. As he does so, he hears a small moan from Belle-Marie, as if she were starting to recover consciousness.
"What did you do to Harriet Shen?"
"Not a thing. I rather doubt that I would have stood a chance against that frightening young woman. How she succeeded in scaling that cliff without the aid of a rope, I cannot imagine. It certainly did not occur to me that any of your friends would attempt it. I suppose she must have seen me, and followed me across the island to the beach where I was planning to perform one of my rituals.
"I was quite unaware of her presence. Fortunately, I never perform such ceremonies nowadays without a guardian in the form on one of the Nykk's lindorns. They are silent beasts, and some of them have scales that camouflage them rather effectively against the rocks of the island. I believe that Miss Shen and the lindorn became aware of one another simultaneously. In fact, I rather suspect that she trod on the poor beast's head.
"I had never before seen anyone even attempt to fight back against one of those animals - never. I must confess, I was at one point almost afraid that your friend might triumph, unarmed as she was. When the lindorn did succeed in dragging her off into the water, it was bleeding heavily from one empty eye socket.
"Before I had only suspected that your group were not what they claimed. After witnessing this battle, I could be left in no further doubt. A martial artist of Miss Shen's calibre could not be a mere guide researcher. Which reminds me," Louis pauses, and folds his arms over the oars. "I have been meaning to ask about that.
"Who were you working for?"
The museum is utterly lightless. Robert rubs the windows clear of frost, and shines his torch in through the glass. The building appears to be empty.
A padlock has been placed upon the front door. Finding a stone, Robert beats at the slender chain until one of the links breaks. Hoping against hope that he had not made enough noise to attract the attention of anyone within hearing, he pulls the padlock away from the door, and gingerly enters the museum.
The glass has been left unswept, perhaps in an attempt to leave the scene of the crime untouched for the benefit of the police. Robert enters the room gingerly, scanning around with his torch for the item he dimly remembers.
At last, he finds it, under a pile of crushed glass crystals, in one of the broken display cases. Carefully, he pushed away the fragments of glass with one gloved hand, and lifts the twisted length of wrought gold. Yes, this might have formed part of an armlet for the arm of a heavily muscled man.
The decoration is simple but well-executed and regular, some four strands of gold twisting over and over one another. Such a gift would have been given to a man favoured indeed by his lord.
Gripping the piece of gold, Robert creeps to the door. Outside the museum he hesitates, then makes his way further up the path towards the site of the archaeological dig. The ground rises steeply, but he succeeds in keeping his balance, the single piece of gold held close to his chest at all times so that if he stumbles it will not be lost.
At last the ground levels, and Robert straightens. He is standing on the highest point on the island of Froson, the site of the old hall in the ancient settlement of Mjalleborgen. Here at least, there is something other than the mist and the black, faceless rock. Here at least there are the faint, indelible marks of men in the traces of building outlines and the stubs of primitive walls. Here at least there are footprints that have endured, and Robert is not alone.
Pulling a notebook out of his pocket, and hooking his torch under one arm so that it shines upon the page, Robert Montague Flint starts to read out the words that had been written on the runestone. He reads it first in English, then in the original language. The harsh syllables of the latter echo oddly, as if the stones were speaking.
Loki becomes aware that Dubois is once more listening intently.
"Do you hear it now? The footsteps! I hear them again, the footsteps I heard yesterday evening, up on the cliff. Strange, they seem so close, and there is nothing but water about us... yet they sound like the clash of metal boots on solid stone. You must hear them."
Loki looks into Dubois' animated face, and slowly shakes his head.
"How can that be? They are almost deafening, almost upon us. There is a jangle, like bells or armour, with every step. You must hear!" Dubois' tone has raised to an almost hysterical pitch. He is not standing, turning this way and that, pointing his harpoon gun into the mist. He glances at the other occupants of the boat. "Will you tell me that none of you can hear the..."
"...footsteps..." Louis has started slightly, distracted from his interrogation of his captive. "Footsteps. Did you hear them?" Daniel stares back at him with an incredulity and incomprehension that is not unmixed with fear. He has heard no footsteps. "Surely that is impossible - we cannot possibly be so close to land already. But it sounded like boots on rock. Well, who can say, the fog makes all sounds echo so strangely here. Hush! Hmm. That's curious. They seem to be coming from behind us, don't they? What do you make of that?"
There is a pause of a few seconds before Louis shakes his head, and shrugs.
"They seem to have stopped now, don't they?"
Dubois is standing rigidly at the front of the little boat as it passes through a dense patch in the fog. For a few seconds he is all but obscured from the sight of his companions, then he comes back into focus. During that tiny interval, his posture has changed.
Dubois is no longer half-hunched as if his joints pain him. He no longer trembles with cold and tension. He has straightened, raising his head to peer into the mist. The harpoon gun is cradled more easily in his arm. The watching SITU operatives have a dim impression that he has somehow increased in height. The strange, convulsive twitching of the muscles in his face have settled, and his face is intense, but calm.
"That way." He raises an arm to point through the mist. His voice is subtly altered, as well. Unlike all other sounds, it does not appear to be muffled by the mist, but instead rings out with an almost jarring clarity. "The other boat is that way."
Mal and Micheal exchange glances, then start to row with new energy.
"Well, I hope that did something." Robert stares down at the little lump of cold metal in his hand. His sense of the ridiculous is triggered as he considers his situation, and he wears a small, grim, ironic smile as he walks back to the museum to return the artefact to its display case.
While Louis has been talking, Daniel has been attempting to alter his position, inch by inch. He is now lying on his back, his knees somewhat bent. He suspects that it might now be possible to attempt a kick outwards with both legs at once. As yet, however, he has had no success in working his hands loose.
"I'm afraid we may have to part company quite soon. The footsteps seem to have stopped now, but something in the lake seems to be on the move."
"Louis, don't do this. Please don't do this. Look, I can be useful to you, if you let me live. I'll do anything you want, I just don't want to die, OK?" Daniel keeps his eyes carefully lowered, so that they do not betray the hate and fury in his mind. From his captor he hears a light, pleasant laugh, like that of one who has just heard a rather fine joke.
"I'm not a complete idiot, Daniel."
"I'm not so sure." Daniel fills the words with as much venom as he can muster. "I've heard your account now, and all your justifications. Do you really think you've been in control here? Do you really think you've been outsmarting the Nykk? No. You've been doing exactly what she wants, all the way along the line. You're just a weak servant of the 'lady of the lake,' something to use and to amuse her."
"Why should I? How can it make things any worse for me? Does the truth hurt? You're a dogsbody, Louis, that's all you are. Everyone has your number, you know. You're just Louis, the dogsbody. You're a joke to everyone."
Every instinct in Daniel shows him the danger in Louis' sudden silence, and mask-like features, but he has committed himself to the verbal attack, and continues, giddily. "You were on the same island as Belle-Marie for seven years, Louis. Seven years as a trusted friend. You might have stood a chance with her, Louis. She might have liked you if you'd had a spine, if you hadn't been a weak, little sheep following orders..."
Louis starts to his feet in one disturbingly agile motion. Daniel at that same moment puts all his weight into one great thrust with both feet. He catches Lakersonn a little above the knees, and pushes him violently backwards. There is a thud of a body striking wood, and a slight splash. The boat rocks vigorously. Turning his head, Daniel sees the form of the interpreter draped over the side of the boat, head and shoulders hanging over the side. For a moment the operative believes that he has rendered his opponent unconscious.
Daniel hears a small gasp behind him, as if Belle-Marie has been startled awake by the rocking of the boat.
Louis sits up, lifting a dripping boater in one hand. Daniel realises that the other man had been leaning over the side to retrieve his hat.
"You got my hat wet, Daniel. I'm not very happy about that." A smile passes over Louis' face in a dark glitter, like the sheen on a piece of coal. He shakes the water gingerly from his hat before placing it on the seat beside him. "It's not so hard to get your number, Daniel, you are hardly ex-directory. I have seen enough indie kids and drop-outs hanging around the docks, with their obscenity-laden T-shirts, and their fashionable angst." Louis' smile fades, leaving his face as clean of sentiment as a scalpel. "And you think that you have a spine? Perhaps you think you would die for Belle-Marie. Would you kill for her? I would. I have killed for her three dozen times over. That has to count for something, by all the rules of justice! There is such a thing as just deserts!"
Louis stands, and picks up one of the oars. Placing his feet apart to steady himself, he raises the oar high in the air, over Daniel's head.
There is an ear-splitting scream, less than a foot from Daniel's head.
"Louis, don't! Don't!"
Startled by Belle-Marie's cry, the rune wizard hesitates.
Walking down towards the quay once more, Robert hears the long, loud scream. He becomes aware of a sudden stirring in the air, a disturbance in the fog, and if that one sound had awakened something that had been lost in meditation. In brief, irascible gusts, the wind is starting up once again.
Hearing the scream, the group in the other boat row with renewed vigour. Even as they increase the tempo, abandoning stealth, they become aware that a wind has started up, and that the fog in its path is thinning.
The little rowing boat stolen from the hotel mooring post is visible. One figure is standing, on oar raised in a hesitant, uncertain manner. When Loki's torch is shone into his face, the figure ducks his head behind his hand. There is a glint as the beam strikes the lenses of a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles.
"It's Louis! Is he alone?"
Loki becomes aware that Dubois, who stands next to him, is carefully sighting up on the figure with his harpoon gun.
Despite the darkness, the fog, and the absence of his trademark boater, the SITU agents are able to recognise the figure in the other boat as Louis Lakersonn. He stares towards them as they draw in upon him.
He stares past them.
Facing backwards in order to row, Mal and Micheal are the only men in the boat to see the ridge of a considerable wave glide swiftly out of the mist. Mal only has time for a brief cry of warning before the larger boat abruptly rears and plummets. All within lose their seating, Loki only prevented from falling into the water by Dubois, who succeeds in grabbing the collar of the smaller man. Another wave follows a few seconds later.
Mal, gripping the handle of the oar tenaciously, catches sight of twinned ripples streaking away from the boat across the surface of the water, meeting in an arrow head, as if something large and scarcely submerged were moving with great speed, and dragging the water behind it.
Louis also seems to be staring at the V-shaped ripple, which appears to be weaving towards his craft. As Mal watches, Lakersonn drops the oar and stoops. A moment later, he stands again, unsteadily, hoisting some large bundle upright.
"He's got someone else with him! It looks like... I think it's Daniel!"
The figure-bundle is swung so that it hangs over the edge of the boat, heavily, like a roll of carpet. Louis pauses, as if recovering his breath, then carefully lifts the legs of the prone form, and... tips it into the water.
"Hold both oars." Mal hands his own oar to Micheal, and strips off his coat.
The larger boat judders a little as Mal stands, then gives a lurch as he jumps into the water.
"Mal, are you crazy...?" Loki abandons the stern, and starts to stagger to Micheal's side, to assist him with the oars. As he stoops to grab at one, he freezes, his eye caught by a motion behind the boat.
Shit. I wanted her to know...
Daniel has held his breath, despite the brutally shocking cold of the water. The chill had struck him like a hammer in the chest, and the air had come within an inch of exploding from his nose and mouth.
The water penetrates his light clothes easily. Daniel feels a jet of icy water slide into his collar and down his back, like a steel finger running down his spine. His shoes are suddenly abominably heavy, and he feels them start to drag him down. He struggles in vain to kick them off.
...winter water... if you were to slide down into that, it might cold your blood, make your breath hard, stop your heart...
Daniel remembers the slightly vexed and empty stare on the face of Sverre Krippner's corpse. Would his face wear a similar expression when his body was found?
...they say drowning seems to take an eternity...
There is a motion in the water. Something passes close to Daniel, and something lashes him in its passing. He feels a roughness against the skin of his hand, as if he has just grazed it upon rock. Something in that contact fills him with an unreasoning panic, and several bubbles of air escape him as he strives against his bonds convulsively. When he feels his shoulder gently grasped, he bucks away from the hold, using his last energy to push away through the water.
Once again his arm is gripped, this time more firmly, and with an effort he recognises it as the grasp of a human hand. Someone wraps an arm about his upper torso, and begins to drag him upwards through the water.
Mal breaks the surface of the water, dragging the dead weight of Daniel with him. Micheal has been waiting anxiously by the side of the boat, and between the pair of them, they succeed in heaving Daniel into the bottom of the boat, where he lies, gasping and shivering.
As he drags himself into the boat, Mal has an uncomfortable suspicion that something has passed just below the boat, and that he has felt something gently brush his foot. Beneath him, the water is dark and impenetrable, but he sees another set of V-shaped ripples arch away in a different direction.
With his eyes, he follows its path, watches the ripple arrow-head double back on itself, pass under the boat once more, watches it glide off into the mist once again, watches it glide off to join...
There is something else in the mist behind the boat.
The water is swelling in a way that is unnatural. There is a fevered shifting in the mist like that over a geyser, and no distinct images may be seen, but a wave is rolling in, rolling slow as a funeral cortege, slower than the companion waves that slip about its base like pet dogs. Foam, and the frenzy of the mist make faces, make pictures. It is a mirage, it is a trick of the light, it is a monster of froth and fancy. It is something greater than both boats drawing itself up from the lake, and dragging water behind it like a train.
There is a long cry of fear and anguish from the other boat. Louis is also staring at the approaching... shadow. He shouts a few words, which sound Scandinavian in origin. As if in laconic answer, an oily, black wave rises from nowhere, and lazily strikes at the little craft. There is a half-muffled shriek from within the boat as it capsizes. The black water closes over the pale figure of Louis Lakersonn immediately.
Not without trepidation, Mal leaps into the water once again. By now, he is shivering so violently that it is hard to control his breathing, but he grits his teeth, and submerges himself once more.
As if hypnotised, those remaining within the boat watch the shape beyond the mist cruising towards them in a leisurely but directed manner, like a thunder cloud guided by a will.
Each man struggles with the vision. He is staring at a disturbance of the weather, that is all, the dawning of a local storm. And the local storm is staring back at him, with eyes as pale as mist-moons.
At his place by the stern, Gerard Dubois stands, and levels his harpoon gun.
The great moon eyes seem to pause upon his figure, and in their depths, something wavers like a reddish light. Anger? Fear? Recognition?
There is a single metallic note, like the sound of a nail plucking at the string of a steel violin. Dubois' arm jerks with the recoil, and suddenly his gun is empty. For the last time there is heard the sound which Loki had first noticed on the northern cliffs. Now it is deafening, the broken scream of a nightmare orchestra.
Then there is silence, only a gentle slapping of water on water, as the lake goes about smoothing itself, like the brow of a plausible liar.
Mal breaks both the silence and the surface of the water, lurching from the depths to gasp and cough. One arm is tightly braced around the half-conscious figure of Belle-Marie. The pair of them are dragged into the boat.
Daniel has been unbound, and is capable of sitting up. As Micheal and Loki start to row for shore, he looks over his shoulder at the other boat which is floating belly up some twenty yards away. Something white is floating by upturned vessel.
...they say drowning seems to take an eternity...
The white shape is less than a foot across, and roughly circular.
... I can't tell you whether you'd be likely to die from water in your lungs before the cold killed you, or before you were torn to pieces by the residents of the lake...
Louis Lakersonn's boater is bobbing forlornly on the surface of the ebony lake.
...there is such a thing as just deserts...
Daniel smiles to himself.
Robert meets the others at the docks. Given the presence of Dubois, it is judged unwise to return to the hotel straight away, and instead the party retreat to Belle-Marie's house, where those who have become acquainted with Storsjon's icy waters are plied with hot drinks. Micheal returns to the hotel to find dry clothes.
When Dubois removes his wet shirt, Flint notes that the scars from his injuries in the wreck are clearly visible. One scar in particular attracts his attention. It encircles Dubois' upper arm, and the fibres of the flesh have knotted in a curious fashion, a fashion that almost suggests a pattern formed of four threads weaving over and over one another.
Gerard Dubois catches Flint examining the scar, and flashes him a quick smile.
"Yes, it is strange to look at it, is it not? And it is strange that I have two memories of the way I found this scar. In my mind I know that it dates from the wreck of the S/S Stiklestad, but I seem to feel at the same time that I won it in a fight. There are strange memories in my head - perhaps you will indulge me?
"I remember coming to this island once before. Very, very long ago. There was no village then, nothing but a great hall and a few little buildings on the west of the island. All the people were afraid of something, and at first they were afraid of me, too. The leader's nephew seemed to want me thrown off the island. But their leader said I could stay with them, so I did.
"Yes, I remember why the people in the hall were afraid. Something was visiting them in the night. I saw it come and I fought it. I think it was a man in armour of a sort I had never seen before. In the struggle I tore off his arm casing - it had claws attached to the glove. The man got away, but the room was covered in blood that wasn't mine, so I think I must have hurt him badly.
"Everyone thought the nightmare was over, but it wasn't. The she-spirit of the lake had lost the servant who had been creeping into the hall in magic armour to slay men and bring her the flesh, so she started to invade the hall herself. In the end, I went down to the beach to find her. The lord's nephew had been ill in his chamber since the night of the first fight. He sent his apologies, and a present of a sword for my battle.
"I do not remember much of the battle with that she-devil. I know that one of her sea-snakes seized me and dragged me under water. I even remember some of the things I saw down there. She had a cavern there, decked out like a hall. And there was air you could breathe in this hall, and there was a great fire burning in the hearth. I remember another thing too. I remember that when I tried to use the sword I had been given, the blade broke away from the hilt immediately.
"The she-devil and I fought until we nearly destroyed one another. When she was too weak to hold me, and the water was black with our blood, she released her grasp, and I drifted to the surface. I was washed ashore. I gave instructions about my gravestone, and the runes upon it, but I cannot recall the details now.
"I think even then I suspected that it had been the lord's nephew who had been betraying us all, and serving the water-devil. Strange, I can faintly recall the faces of many of the men at that hall, but when I try to remember the lord's nephew, all I see in my mind is the face of Louis Lakersonn.
"Thank you for listening. I tell you all this because I think these memories will leave me soon. They crept upon me while I sat in the boat, listening to some footsteps approaching me across the lake. I think soon I shall hear them leaving me again, and I fancy that maybe they will take these memories with them.
"I just keep thinking, please, God, no, not Louis!" Belle-Marie lapses into a stunned silence once more, staring into her coffee. "I'm sorry," she says simply. "He was one of the few people who was kind to me here. I just didn't take him very seriously."
"I can't feel convinced of that. Seeing his hat bobbing on the water isn't enough. Maybe if I see his body, and the dental records check out, then I might believe it, but until then..." She shakes herself briskly. "Daniel, how soon can we get off this god-forsaken island?"
"The weather's clearing up, and Robert's made our flight reservations. We'll be out of here by tomorrow afternoon."
"Is it a long flight?"
"A few hours. Why?"
"Good." The Irish girl directs a grim smile at the rest of the group. "Then you'll all have plenty of time to tell me what you lot were all really doing on Froson..."
From: K S Pyke, Debrief / 295
To: Operatives: Robert Montague Flint, Mal Harris, 'Loki', Daniel Masterson, Micheal Stockton.
Achievement of aims: good work, operatives Flint, Harris, 'Loki,' Masterson and Stockton. Although you found yourselves unable to fulfil the original mission objectives, i.e. the acquisition of concrete evidence of hitherto unrecorded species of water serpents in Lake Storsjon, the information yielded by your investigation is of the highest interest.
Louis Lakersonn: The information gleaned through observation of, and conversation with, this individual, opens many promising avenues of future research. It may be speculated that if Lakersonn's own account is to be relied upon, he was gifted with some form of hereditary psychic ability, which he was able to cultivate through using and manipulating Norse runes.
Various modern, 'New Age' movements promote the use of the Nordic runes for divination or 'self-help,' but few seem to suggest that the runes can be used to influence the material world in the way that Lakersonn seems to have achieved. The weather effects which Lakersonn appears to have achieved with his magic seem to bear closer kinship to the spells which are often described as a speciality of wizards in many of the ancient Scandinavian legends. There are many accounts in the sagas of 'wise men' calling up storms, or creating fair weather for their friends.
SITU would have been interested to know more of the rituals that Lakersonn had apparently perfected, such as those for conjuring weather, locating a specific item or contacting local spirit, and would have liked to have learned more concerning the telepathic link he claims to have formed with the creature he refers to as 'the Nykk.' It is regrettable that operative Harris was unable to acquire the runes he discovered in Lakersonn's secret drawer, although considering the circumstances, his caution is understandable and, indeed, to be applauded. The sketches operative Harris made of these runes are currently undergoing study.
As yet, no explanation has been found for the fact that the weather responded when operative Harris spoke the word 'Hagalaz.' Since such a phenomena has not recurred, it is to be assumed that this was a freak occurrence resulting from the number of runes set up by Lakersonn, which perhaps caused the climate to be unusually susceptible to manipulation.
Gerard Dubois: As you are probably all aware, Dubois insisted on surrendering to the authorities shortly after the death of Lakersonn. He is currently recovering from the pneumonia which he contracted while hiding on Froson. Apparently there is every hope of a complete recovery. It seems that the police currently consider him their chief suspect in their investigation of the murder of Sverre Krippner and the disappearances of Leif Bjarnison, Harriet Shen and Louis Lakersonn. However, it seems probable that the case will be abandoned through lack of evidence.
SITU lacks sufficient evidence to make a judgement concerning Dubois' state of mental health. It is possible that many of the phenomena which he described hearing and seeing may have been the result of a delusional state. Alternatively, it is possible that Dubois may have possessed some form of latent psychic ability, which was triggered when he underwent the trauma of the shipwreck.
The 'animals' which he describes following people bear a striking resemblance to the Norse legend of the 'fylgja.' According to folklore, fylgjas are animal spirits, or totems, that follow each man or woman from the moment of their birth. These creatures are said to be only visible to those with second sight.
Belle-Marie Prior: SITU congratulates the team for recruiting this young woman to the organisation. As you are probably aware, shortly after returning to England, operative Masterson obtained our permission to inform her of SITU's existence, and to invite her to join us. I am pleased to say that Miss Prior is now a member of SITU, and will soon be embarking on her first mission for us. We wish her luck.
The Runestone: It is regrettable that this artefact has been destroyed, but the team are to be congratulated on acquiring rubbings of the runes, and the translations produced by Dr Marcus Massey and operative Flint. These are currently being studied by our experts.
The Nykk: It is too early to establish what breed of creature this spirit may have been. It seems certain that the Nykk was not a lindorn, nor the Storsjoodjuret of popular myth.
The VAM: Since your investigation, legal proceedings have been initiated against many of the leaders of the VAM, for illegal entry into the museum on Froson, and the theft of the Runestone.
The Children of the Lindorn: SITU accords with the investigative team's assessment, and believes it likely that the cults possess no magical or psychic ability. The cult are recovering the financial losses sustained during the assault upon their headquarters, and appear to be prospering.
Harriet Shen: It is deeply regrettable that this operative was lost during the mission. It is, of course, a deplorable event when any SITU agent is lost during an investigation, but the loss of operative Shen is of particular significance. It is perhaps sufficient to say that Harriet Shen belonged to another organisation with which SITU had been negotiating in the hope of creating an information pool, and combining the efforts of both groups in order to collect information for the betterment of mankind. Operative Shen had been sent to work with a SITU team as a trial attempt at co-operation. Consequently, her disappearance is likely to have severe repercussions.
It would be useful if members of the team could inform us of any details, theories or suspicions concerning the disappearance of this operative.
From: Celine Coombes, Debrief/278
To: Operatives: Robert Montague Flint, Mal Harris, 'Loki', Daniel Masterson, Micheal Stockton.
Many thanks for your help in the recent investigation of matters surrounding events at Lake Froson. You will be pleased to learn that following your successful completion of this mission, you have been promoted from the rank of Investigator to that of Agent, meaning that your Illumination level is now 2.
Now that you have reached a higher rank within SITU, it is right that we should share some facts with you. Please note that these are strictly for the knowledge of Illumination level 2 or higher, and must on no account be communicated to, or even hinted at when with, persons of lower Illumination. In fact, you should not even let them know that a Level 2 of Illumination exists.
You will be aware that SITU sends Operatives to investigate Unexplained events all over the world. What you will not have known before now, but do as of today, is that these events are not as scattered and unlinked as they may at first seen. In point of fact, SITU has evidence that there exists today and has done throughout most of human history a wide-ranging global conspiracy, inimical to humanity. Therefore part of SITU's duty is to ascertain whether individual Unexplained events fit into this pattern or not: and to learn more about it and those responsible. So you can be sure that your investigations have helped all of humanity!
You will be contacted separately with the details surrounding your particular mission, and you will then be asked whether any of you wish to prepare a report to go into our magazine 'SITUation Report': this is far from compulsory, but may provide interest to other members. Your report will of course be censored by SITU HQ, so you need not fear giving too much away.
Thank you again, and I hope that you will wish to continue serving SITU on further missions.
CC / D / 99