Before we start, after two years of work, Bound for the Styx is now Live on various platforms, including our own website! Our Backers should already have received their digital rewards. Experiencing a minor issue with the Paperback version of the novel.
Also, if you enjoy RPG's, we also have a special announcement at the end you don't want to miss.
“What is this merde?” muttered Sargent Comba through his filter while stirring his machete inside the putrid ground concealed beneath the undergrowth.
“There is no way we get through that, Sargent,” said one of the tirailleurs with a muffled voice. The soldier stepped back the moment Comba looked over his shoulder. “You don’t say,” the Sargent sneered. “Maybe we should be sure and send somebody through to see how deep it goes.”
The soldier froze, causing Comba to burst into laughter. “Don’t worry, garcon. I don’t mean you.”
Meanwhile, Paulus and Leon looked at the torn vines between Pépite’s joints. They had not seen the horror that had attacked Pépite. Just Marie’s new machine released its barrage at a massive shadow moving through the fog. The size of that thing was enormous. They didn’t even notice until Marie lit it on fire. Whatever it was, it had made no sound as it fled back into the bog, leaving black rubbery remains dangling from the automaton—a lot of them.
“You couldn’t keep your mouth shut, could you,” mumbled Paulus.
“It’s not my fault they volunteered us!” protested Leon. “Comba has it out for you, not me.”
Leo straightened himself in an eye blink when Comba bellowed his name. “The emperor requires your service. Voilà!”
“Oui, monsieur,” Leon said as he came running and formed up in front of the Sergent, who he imagined baring his pearly teeth behind that mask of his. “We are doing a scientific experiment,” said Comba. “Go into the swamp and see how deep it goes.”
“You heard me, you dog. Now get in, or I’ll throw you in!”
On instinct, Paulus stepped forward, clenching the club in his hands. But he’d stopped himself just in time when the Sargent looked his way. “What’s wrong, Charrière? Are you volunteering to join Trompette?”
The convict swallowed. “Non, monsieur.”
“Good,” said the Sargent and looked back at Leon. “Now, go!”
With heavy breaths, Leon took his first quivering step. The ground flowed from beneath his soles as he shifted his weight and one foot and thusly walked into the bog. Holding his rifle overhead, he sank deeper into the doughy ground with every step. Despite that, the ground around him still looked undisturbed, be it a dying forest floor.
Amazed, the other soldiers watched as the undergrowth in Leon’s wake moved like leaves on the wrinkles in the water. Yet, the ground surrounding him appeared solid, making it look like a scene from folklore.
“Medre,” complained Leon as he stepped on something hard.
“Shut up and keep going!” cried Comba.
Paulus stepped closer whenever he felt nobody was watching him. “Monsieur,” he said to Comba. “You might attract the creature.”
“Bien,” said the Sargent. “Let’s see how it attacks.”
Paulus squeezed his club handle, knowing full well that striking the Black Bear was a guaranteed death sentence for all of his comrades. Thus, he watched his friend fade away into the fog till he was nothing but a murky shadow.
Meanwhile, Leon kept on going until his ankles were submerged. Then his shins. But by the time he had sunken up to his knees, the ground became more fluid, easier to move through, and didn’t appear to go in any deeper. He turned around. “Ehm… I think this is it, monsieur!” cried Leon. However, the Sargent raised his hand to his mouth. “Keep moving!”
Paulus couldn’t stand it anymore. “He has gone far enough.”
Comba looked at him. “Are you talking back to me, Charrière?”
“What if I am? That creature is not coming. And even when it does, the CBs haven’t reloaded yet.”
Without warning, Comba punched Paulus in the gut. Pain shearing through his abdomen, he clutched his stomach and keeled over. As the convict lay on the ground, Comba turned face toward Leo. “Fine! Come back.”
From on top of Pépite, Toinette had observed it all with a thousand-yard stare on her face. Underneath the blanket wrapped around her, she was still wearing the sweat-soaked undergarments. “What was the point of all of this?” She muttered. “Even if we destroy that beast, there will be another.” She rolled her head to the side. “I thought becoming a would be preferable to wasting away in Cayenne. But now, prison seems quint. If disease grabbed hold of you, that'd be it. No different from being free, really.” She observed Marie’s new machine. Dark, with a rough surface like unwashed fur. “Why do you want Pépite back, Marie?”
“Are you alright?” asked a gentle voice.
She looked down at Emile, realizing she had forgotten about him. “I’m alive.”
Emile tore one of the tendrils of the machine. “Looks like you had a close one.”
“Not the first time,” she said dismissively.
“I’m glad you are still alive,” he said, but Toinette wasn’t listening, distracted by the opening hatch of the strange CB. She swallowed as Marie popped her head out and squinted her eyes as the pilot climbed out on top. For some reason, Marie crawled on all fours across the top of the machine. Maybe Marie was just not used to the surface, but she moved her arms and legs deliberately, like a cat.
Toinette recoiled when Marie shifted her gaze toward her. Toinette’s heart skipped a beat as the lifeless gaze looked straight into her eyes, and anxiety grabbed hold of her again. She threw off the blanket and jumped down next to Emile, who barely dodged her. “Hé, you alright?” he asked.
Toinette looked longingly into his eyes.“Care to walk with me?”
Nervously, he looked around. “Now? I’m working.”
“Rochard!” cried chief mechanic Colmar, beckoning Emile. “Get over here!”
She followed him for no particular reason to where Comba was speaking to Bernadotte and the other mechanics. “Can Croc make it through that bog?” asked the sergeant, not using his sneering tone for once.
Bernadotte looked at Leon’s mud-soaked trousers and nodded. “Croc can make it that deep. Won’t be fast. Or be able to turn. But in a straight line, she might.”
Toinette crossed herself. “And do what? Only those missiles that Marie fired harmed it.” Suddenly, an extraordinary chill ran down Toinette’s spine. As she swung around, Marie was glaring at her whilst squatting on top of that black CB like some gargoyle.
Meanwhile, Comba looked up at the darkening sky. “The sun is on its descent. This place will be shrouded in darkness long before the evening. We’ll start early tomorrow.”
As everyone was preparing to head for camp, Toinette observed Marie climbing back inside her CB with those strange animalistic motions. That is when she noticed that strange device in the back of her neck and wondered. What if all Coffin Girls were made to have the same procedure?
With a limp tread, Pépite had stagged back to camp. Once parked inside the train, Toinette had crawled out of the cockpit still drenched in a cold sweat and felt relieved when she got to dried off just before being debriefed. It was just her and Bernadotte explaining what happened to Uncle Henry, who was surprised to hear about the mysterious swamp but didn’t show it. Or maybe he just couldn’t.
After an hour, Toinette finally got the opportunity to gather dry clothes and retreated back to Hanger Trois for some privacy before they were confined to their cages again.
Exhausted and tired of life in general, she entered the twilight of the garage. The orange backup lights flickered as the persistent buzzing of Hugo’s systems reverberated between the machinery. Its tapes kept turning and turning while its colored indication lamps blinked at regular intervals.
“Allo? Is anyone-” She stiffened when a shadow shifted beneath Pépite’s frame.
Something was moving on the other side.
Walking on her toes, Toinette sneaked around the CB, peaked around the corner, and gasped. It was Marie walking on all fours again. Catlike, she crawled past Pépite’s flank, gazing up at the machine with something akin to longing. Toinette resented her presence, but by looking at her, she was shocked by what Marie was turning into[[ And the fear that she could be next on the operating table.]]. Clasping her bomb collar, Toinette stepped back with a mixture of disgust and fear. That’s when the heel of her foot nicked a spare bolt on the floor.
Alarmed by the noise, Marie looked over her shoulder, and in a burst of awareness, she sprang to her feet. “What are you looking at?” Marie sneered, feigning ignorance.
“I-I,” Toinette shook her head to break the spell. “I just wanted to thank you for saving me.”
With slow, deliberate movements, Marie leaned her shoulder against the machine. “I saved Pépite,” she said, stroking the exterior with one hand. “Who gives a shit about you? You think you can’t be replaced?”
“I- I just.”
“Oh, fuck off. You think I don’t know what you are doing?”
“I’m not doing any-”
A door was flung open. “Oi, what going on?” It was that mechanic again.
“Emile?” exclaimed Toinette, glad he showed up.
“I heard screaming,” he said, walking into view. But the moment she saw Marie, he froze.
After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Marie suddenly marched away and, a moment later, slammed the door behind her.
Emile turned to Toinette. “What happened?”
Toinette covered her chest. “Well, you said Marie’s bark is worse than her bite. Well, you were right.” He held out his hand to hold her, but she stepped back. “I’m not in the mood.”
He, too, took his distance. “No, I just-”
“Go away, Emile.”
Holding up his hands, he stepped back into the shadows. “Right… Just wanted to say, you be going back to the woods in two days.”
“Two? How come?”
“We need more firepower to deal with this thing,” Comba had said during the meeting inside the officers’ carriage. But Capitaine La Croix of the regular army wasn’t listing, distracted by the scent emanating from the wineglass he was holding.
Despite being a man of simple needs, Guesclin’s train carriage was a well-furnished room, complete with curtains before the windows, embroidered seats, and all the instruments he needed for command. Those instruments included proper wine because being able to serve a proper vintage was the difference between a mission’s success and failure.
Gently turning the stemware, La Croix breathed in deeply through his nose and gasped. “Exquisite! I haven’t smelled a bouquet like this since… Oh. After living in this stink for weeks, I couldn’t imagine something this heavenly.”
“I’m glad you approve,” said Guesclin. “My brother has a vineyard In the Bordeaux that survived the phylloxera blight… For now, at least.”
La Croix shook his head in awe of that fact. “Truly a sign God loves us and wants us to be merry. After drinking vinegar for years, I feel blessed, monsieur.”
Standing beside the chief mechanic, Mr. Colmar, Emile glanced at Sargent Comba, who, Apparently not appreciative of the finer things in life, was growing impatient. “Monsieur. Can we go back to the matter at hand?”
“Ah, oui,” said La Croix. “You were saying the beast was impervious to the weapons of your machines?”
“Not impervious,” commented the Sargent. “The moment it feels threatened it retreats into the swamp where we can’t see it. Only Croc can drive through that sludge.”
Guesclin nodded. “Just Croc, then? That won’t do… Colmar. Suggestions?”
Shrugging, Colmer shook his head. “Maybe we can dismantle the CB’s weapons and put them on Croc.”
The lieutenant tilted his head. “And attach them how?”
Emile pursed his lips. “What about attaching the CB on top of Croc?”
Colmar flared his nostrils and raised his shoulders. “Croc is large enough.”
“Well,” began Emile carefully, “It’s not that machine’s size I am concerned about.”
La Croix look at him. “Excuse moi?”
Guesclin raised his voice. “We’ll prepare Croc and the CBs,” he said and bowed politely. “Capitaine, could you excuse us? In a moment, the train will go into lockdown. Strict protocol, you see.”
“Oh, oui. J’comprend.” The officer hesitated. “Uhm…”
Guesclin nodded. “Of course, be free to take the whole bottle.”
La Croix bowed his head in gratitude. “You are too kind!”
Guesclin just nodded, trying to force a smile with the remains of his lips.
La Croix raised the bottle. “Au demain, Lieutenant!”
“See you in the morning, Capitaine.”
As La Croix left, Emile stammered. “Did I say some-”
“Indeed you did!” bellowed Guesclin. “It doesn’t matter. I think we are all aware of Miss Pelican’s new… Eccentricities.”
“Having her mind inside that thing is changing her,” suggested Colmar.
“My men saw it too,” said Comba. “It reminds me of an old tale about shaman wearing an animal’s skin to take their form.”
“I have no time for folklore!” Guesclin spoke over him. “However, I take your point… Was the trail at least successful?”
Comba nodded reluctantly. “Oui. Its performance was… Adequate. Compared to most CBs. But Pelican is probably one of the most experienced. Not just of this battalion, but the whole Legion.”
The mechanics just listened, unable to do anything about the situation. No one but Marie could control the black CB. For now, at least.
“I’m glad we got some use out of that dumb bitch,” swore Guesclin. “Couldn’t have happened to a better person…I need to have a talk with that Constructor when we are back at Little Cayenne.”
“What do we do with her in the meantime?” asked Comba.
“Make a note of every stupid thing she does. Well, the different types of things. Maybe the good Constructor can work on the chinks.”
“Lieutenant,” began Emile. “Is Marie... still human?”
Guesclin raised his voice again. “How should I know? But her individual parts are state property under my supervision.” There was an eerie silence until Guesclin waved his hand in frustration. “All of you, we are entering lockdown for the night. Get everyone to their posts. Tomorrow we start with those modifications. Now get out of my room.”
Two days later…
The engine turned to a high-pitched roar as Croc struggled to crush another root lodged in the spoiled soil. The withering grass on top of the bog kept up the appearance of being solid while the tracks scooped up the nauseating substance from underneath. Just the thought of getting touched by the stuff sickened the two coffin girls, Bernadotte and Toinette, who have securely locked away in the driver’s cabin.
Bernadotte pulled and pushed the levers while staring through a small viewport. Not that there was much to see in the fog. It was Toinette who had her eye glued to the viewfinder of Pépite’s jerry-rigged periscope to peer above the mist.
Toinette couldn’t resist. She turned the periscope to see the black CB mounted on the makeshift platform at the back of the tractor. Marie’s CB was fastened with clamps from the hanger carriage. A good thing these clamps were designed for just such transport. The tricky part had to be to weld the floor plates to Croc’s frame in a day’s time.
“You see anything?” asked Bernadotte, her faze fixed in front.
“Dot! Please stop asking. I’ll let you know.”
“Jeez, what crawled up your arse?”
“It’s Marie, isn’t it?” said Bernadotte. When Toinette didn’t respond, she continued. “I’ve been hearing some strange things about her.”
“You know her longer than I do, right?” retorted Toinette. “What is her obsession with Pépite anyway?”
“Yeah, we met in Cayenne,” she said, avoiding the last question.
“So? What was she like over there?”
“Much the same as now.”
“Walking on all fours?”
Bernadotte smirked. “We’ll she liked to be on all fours with… Wait, did you say walk?”
“Oui! Like a crazy person. Haven’t you noticed?”
She shrugged. “I got accustomed to ignoring her. How he sees anything in her is beyond me.”
Toinette shook her head in confusion. “Who are you talking about?”
“Forget it… Check if she is still awake.”
Toinette reached for the radio control dangling from her padded helmet.
“Marie, you there? Over.”
*Be quiet* answered a cold voice. An expected response but strangely worded.
“Just wanted to check the radio was working. Over… How has she remained alive with that attitude?”
Again Bernadotte shrugged. “Good instincts, I guess.”
“Dunno. She just has this ability to notice things before anyone else.” She barely finished the sentence when the recoil of machine guns suddenly droned through the whole machine. Toinette nearly bumped her head against the periscope again when pressing her eyes to the viewfinder and froze. There it was! The floating aisle. It was that close she make out the slithering vines on top, reminding her of a maggot-ridden carcass. “There it is! Nine o’clock!” she cried.
Suddenly, the guns stopped.
After the vehicle came to a standstill, Croc started to turn.
“What the-” Bernadotte muttered as she pulled the brake. But Croc kept moving.
“Those must be the vines,” Toinette said and reached for the radio.
*Keep turning 82 degrees* demanded a cold voice.
“What? We can’t. We might-”
*Keep turning 83 degrees* the voice insisted.
As Toinette turned to Bernadotte, she noticed tendrils crawling across the viewport. “We have to keep moving!” cried Toinette. “It’s in Marie’s dead corner!”
“Don’t you think I know that! But In this sludge, we might lose a track.”
Toinette felt the periscope being moved by forces from outside. “Turn, for God’s sake!”
With reluctance, Bernadotte shifted the levers, and Croc started the drive again. Some of the vines were away from the viewport, and there was an odd popping sound coming from beneath the treads, and the machine’s engines were running to a fever pitch.
The view was cleared again, but the horizon was obscured by the creature’s dark shape. The beast was just ahead. “We are coming to a close. We have to turn in place!”
Bernadotte pulled one of the levers fully backward, and Croc slowed to a crawl. Toinette could feel the track slip as it struggled to turn in place.
Finally, the machine guns started to roar again, and even missiles were fired. Toinette tried to look through the periscope, but the recoil of the weapons made Croc tremble despite being entrenched.
Suddenly Croc moved. But it wasn’t the tracks. The tractor was shifting sideways!
Then the guns went silent again as Croc was dragged deeper into the swamp.
“The thing has ensnared us, and now it's pulling us along.”
Toinette grasped the radio. “Oui?”
*Detach the clamps* said the voice from the other side.
Toinette paused. “What for?”
*Detach them* Marie demanded again.
“What is she saying?” asked Bernadotte. Toinette explained, making her eyebrows rise. “Well, what choice do we have?”
“We can’t go outside,” said Toinette.
“Not if we wait any longer.” She looked at the dark vines crawling over the port’s exterior. “It's now or never.”
A moment later, there was a loud clunk as the hatch hit the exterior. Hurried, the two pilots climbed out and glanced at the swarm of tendrils slithering like stranded eels across the vehicle. The fog seemed to intensify as Croc drifted through the overflowed forest of sullen trees and withered leaves while dark flakes danced on the breeze like snow. The flakes crumbled like ash when Toinette rubbed her fingers. But the gray powder sticking to her skin was unusually unusably smooth, like fine ash.
Smoke still lingered around the sideways-facing CBs like a broadside’s cannon. The cockpit had pivoted sideways to a thirty-degree angle, along with the machine guns, but the Mitrailleuse had no such flexibility. The machine needed to be detached to be of use in this situation. And yet, Toinette couldn’t help but be reminded of some mythical monster waiting to be unchained so the beast’s master could release her wrath upon the earth.
However, the floating mass reeled them in. Its cap was looming above Toinette like a maggot-ridden man-o-war, supported by a stem of countless tendrils that moved with such fluidity it looked like an endless mud flow.
“Close the hatch,” cried Bernadotte, who had already climbed down on the platform and jumped across the tendrils like a child playing hopscotch. “Marie, are you alright in there?”
“Detach the clamps,” spoke a cold voice.
“You can’t enter the bog!” cried Bernadotte. “Your weapons will become useless.”
Bernadotte, armed with nothing but a spanner, groaned in disgust as the clamps were overwhelmed by the things. “Toin! Get the fire extinguisher.”
Toinette dove back into the cabin and returned with the brass capsule. Bernadotte held up her hands. “Hurry! Give me that.” The moment Toinette threw the extinguisher Bernadotte removed the safety pin and held out the device. With a loud hissing sound, she covered the tendrils in the white powder. And they worked. The vines writhed miserably, releasing their hold.
“Vite! Held me loosen the clamps.”
The two quickly used the spanners to loosen the calms. The moment the vice grips were released, vines snapped as the beast rose to its feet. Croc tilted as the machine turned in place, forcing the two pilots out of the way. Then the machine proceeded to the front and climbed the cabin with the front legs.
“Oh, non,” muttered Bernadotte. “Prepare for the recoil.”
“Wh- Oh, non.”
The two jumped into the sludge just before the weapons started to roar. Bullet traces, and trails of smoke dispersed the mist, striking the man-O-war right where the stem met the body. Among the gore, severed tendrils fell to the ground. The body tilted and collapsed sideways, causing a tidal wave of sludge, carrying the sulfurous stench of rot in its wake. And all the two pilots could do was hug Croc, and wait for the inevitable.
A moment later…
The Black CB climbed down from the cabin and parked itself back on the platform as if nothing happened.
Behind the machine, the two pilots standing in the bog were shivering while sludge drops seeped down their fingers and hair.
“I hate this,” said Toinette, feeling like she was about to get sick.
“Oh yeah…” responded Bernadotte, disgusted. “Merci, tell me you closed the cabin’s hatch.”
The next day,
The convicts were standing in lines on the side of the railroad, awaiting the order to board the train back to Little Cayenne.
Bernadotte and Toinette were wearing fresh clothes for once as Toinette reached in her pants.
“What are you doing?”
“Tightening the cord of my underwear. Couldn’t they bring more for us ladies?”
“You need to change your underwear often.”
Guesclin was standing beside his personal wagon with Capitaine La Croix.
“Your men did well, Luitenant.”
Guesclin handed him a bottle. “Merci, Capitaine. Have this bottle as a sign of gratitude for your hospitality.”
The Capitaine nodded approvingly as he inspected the label. “Merci beaucoup… Oui, operation successful. J’suppose, I cannot be surprised with such weapons at your disposal.” Guesclin chose not to react as his superior continued. “But one question has been plaguing me.”
“Why is it that criminals are in control of the Empire’s most powerful engines of war? Surely, these machines should be in the purview of the army.”
Squeezing his hands, Guesclin breathed in through his nose. “And what would the army use these for, exactly?”
“For which purpose would the army use these engines of war?”
“For the defense of the Empire, of course!”
“Of course…” Guesclin repeated. “And would the army use them to confront any Outsider threats rather than wait for conscripted convicts to arrive?”
“Forgive me, Lieutenant. I understand the importance of your mission, but we have more pressing concerns than Outsiders. If anything, they are a distraction from the real threats that surround us. Just a year ago, our nation was one military disaster away from a crippling defeat that would have ended the Empire.”
Guesclin inhaled before responding. “You are, of course, right, Capitaine.”
“Please, don’t think of me to be ungrateful,” said La Croix. “I am merely considering the big picture.”
“Of course, Capitaine,” said Guesclin. “But be careful. As my father once said, if one is too concerned about the journey, they might overlook the pitfalls at their feet.”
The Capitaine nodded with pursed lips. “Your father was a wise man.”
The engine’s whistle announced the train’s departure when Guesclin opened the door to his carriage. Entering his office, he sighed with relief as he undid the tight collar and whipped the sweat off his forehead. He was looking forward to some peace and quiet. But then he saw Marie on his fancy chair, clenching her thighs against her chest like a child.
“I told you to keep your feet off the seats!” Guesclin berated her.
“It’s cold,” Marie whined
“It's quite the contrary,” he said while unbuttoning his coat.
Marie held out her arm and spread her fingers.
Leaning forward, Guesclin observed the pilot inspecting her digits. “What is it now?”
“Did you replace my hands?” she asked without moving her eyes.
Groaning, he straightened himself and threw his coat on a bench. “I need to have a word with that Constructor.”
I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Casket Girls I am writing. Anwin! is being proofread.
But what is this announcement I talked about at the start? We are finally talking with a game developer about making an Association of Ishtar based RPG. No contracts have been signed, and we are still in the preliminary phase. But we are looking for people who want to help in this endeavor. We are talking about people who want to support us with drafting rules, playtest, and writing lore. For those who are interested in playing, tell us about the kind of adventures you want to play inside the Association of Ishtar Multiverse.
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