The Horror of Chateau Casquette
1868, south of France
“Have you seen an Outsider before?” I asked.
Groaning, Associate 92 straightened himself while his body swayed to the rhythm of the horse-drawn cab.
Our journey across the country had been long, and I needed a distraction to sharpen my dulling mind after staring for hours at the passing countryside.
“Just once,” began 92, whose usual upbeat ways were subdued by our shared boredom. “I was investigating a report near Lyon. While I climbed uphill, surrounded by pine trees, I spotted this strange creature down by the bank of the Rhône submerging its snout in the river. As I was studying its back-end from a distance, it suddenly turned its head a full 180 degrees and aimed its saucer-like eyes at me. At first glance, it looked like one of those odd simians from Tasmania, or those freakish stuffed homunculi they exposit at sideshows. An odd amalgamation of a fox, kangaroo, and whatever animal has its teeth pointing outward like the needles on a cactus. Then. Woosh! It leaped away, stretching its long hind legs like a grasshopper… En viola. That was the last I saw of it.”
‘That’s the only one?” I asked, disappointed. “I thought you walked through a rift several times already.”
“I did,” he said. “But as I demonstrated, they are as afraid of us as we are of them. And animals, in general, stay away from anomalies. This specimen I saw probably starved later, too afraid to touch any potential food source. Who knows what it is looking for in the water,” he reminisced. “Imagine that creature seeing a salmon for the first time… At least, I assume it was looking for something akin to fish.”
“It’s afraid of fish?”
“Have you ever looked a live fish in the mouth?” he asked, clearly aghast at the thought. “You can see the gaping depths of its body as it flaps its lips open and shut.”
“J’suppose… I also resent the appearance of mussels,” I confessed. “As I do lots of shellfish. They just look like they don’t belong on this earth.”
“They don’t belong on land, just like you don’t belong on the seafloor. As a matter of fact, we are surrounded by things that want to kill us when you think about it. Evolution just made us harder to kill within a certain environment. We learn to feed on it. Thrive in it. I suppose we are here because nature wasn’t trying hard enough.”
‘maybe God just made us that way.”
He raised his eyebrows in amusement. “God, eh?” He had a hardy laugh. “God made us too hard to kill. Qui, J”aime ça!” he bellowed, slapping his knee.
“So, what did you see on the other side of the rifts you visited?” I asked.
92 sighed. “One led me to a cave. The other rift led me to a Precambrian forest. The trees gave me vertigo just looking at them. But no animals, apart from the passing birds… Or at least I think those were birds… Look, don’t believe what you read in those ten-cent novels,” he cautioned. ‘monsters are the least we have to worry about.”
I just nodded. For a year I had endured the tall tales of Associates who traversed the rifts. While I perused the newspapers, hoping to spot some hint of anomalous occurrences or cryptid sightings, they told me of their encounters with Outsiders and the maniacs who worshiped them in some form or another. This would be my first time going into the field. I looked at the large coffer beside 92. “What did you bring?”
He leaned his head back. “You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see.”
Our carriage stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
“We are here,” cried the gravelly-voiced driver, thick enough to pave a road with.
Outside, the afternoon sun was oppressive, and the pebble’s beneath my feet irradiated such heat that I could feel them through my soles. Even the wheat fields that covered the hills like a blanket blinded me with their golden shine.
Hauling the coffer out of the carriage, 92 looked around as if he was unsure about our location. “Where is the Casquette Estate?”
‘down that road,” the driver answered, pointing at a neglected track marked by an overgrown boundary wall. Unkempt tree branches cast foreboding shadows on the old gate as if to indicate there was another world behind those crumbling walls.
“I take it nobody lives here anymore?” I asked the driver.
“Non,” groaned the old man as he hauled a bucket of water to his horses. ‘t his village has been deserted for as long I can remember.”
“Apart from one lady, as I understand it,” said 92.
He nodded. “Madame Casquette. She lived in the mansion. Two years ago I found her by the side of the road. She would get her groceries in the town next over, tu compris? Year after year, three times a week she walked by herself all that distance to the market and back without a single complaint… Until it ended her.”
“Why didn’t she move to the town?” I asked.
The horses were drinking from the bucket as the driver produced a clay pipe from his vest. ‘s he was old and poor. She barely had any money by the time she passed away. Barely enough for a funeral. Or so I’m told.”
“What happened to the mansion?” asked 92. “Wasn’t it sold?”
“All this land is transferred to the empire. Nobody wants it, as you can see.”
“Because of the ghosts?” asked 92 unannounced.
“Uh,” the driver groaned dismissively. “Let me guess. You are paranormal investigators, or whatever the title is these days.”
“Preternatural Advisers,” answered Associate 92 proudly. “We have been requested to confirm the rumors about this place. So, that’s what we’ll do.”
Nodding sheepishly, the driver lit his pipe. “Hmm… So, you find ghosts often?”
92 just looked at him and smiled. “If I told you, monsieur, I would need to kill you.”
As the coach drove off, we walked through the crumbling gate. In the tree’s shadows, the temperature was comfortably cool and I welcomed the still-wet grass as I sat down.
“Come,” said 92, and unclasped the lock on the coffer. “It’s time to suit up. It’s a special occasion after all.”
Dying to see what was inside, I looked up as he opened the heavy coffer. Two folded-up uniforms; brown leather reconnaissance suits, complete with gloves, gaiters, and head protection. The light blue pants were typical military garb, but the leather coat with many pockets was unlike anything I had seen before. The mask was even stranger. It included wide goggles with gold-colored visors and a mouthpiece that was beak-shaped like that of a bird of prey. Finally, a canvas padded cap with thick leather ridges and solid ear guards.
“Once we’re near the rift, don’t take that gear off for a minute,” 92 said sternly.
“How do you know there is a rift here anyway?” I asked.
Ignoring my question, 92 grabbed one of three cases inside the coffer and lifted its lid. It contained a service revolver with bullets. “A local hunter shot a strange animal,” he explained. “It had turned to dust before we could see it, but that is proof in itself that creature was an Outsider.” He then handed me the gun. “You know how to use this, correct?”
I nodded as I took the weapons. “Is it normal that Outsiders turn to dust?”
“Oui. And it will happen to you as well if you are not careful,” he insisted. ‘So, do as I tell you, and you’ll be fine.”
At that time, I noticed a change in my companion. ‘t here is a lot I don’t know.”
‘t hat is right,” said 92. “And the less you know, the safer you are. Come.” 92 opened the other case. Inside the red velvet inlay were two devices with grated speakers in the front. “These are wireless telegraphs, mon ami.”
“Those are telegraphs?” I asked, baffled. I had never seen them of such small size.
“One of the Association’s secret weapons. Wireless communication. It will revolutionize the world one day,” he said, longingly. “But for now, it will allow us to find the rifts.”
He handed me one of the devices and demonstrated it on the other. “Regarde. You turn that dial over there and, viola.”
The receiver produced some cringe-inducing tones before it turned to a coarse static that worked on my nerves very quickly, and I felt genuine relief when 92 dialed the volume down.
“Now listen,” he said.
I listened. The static was akin to that of most Wavecasters people had in the living rooms. Just the persistent hissing of white noise. But there was something off about it; a dark droning vibration just beyond the waveband audible to humans, like dog whistles. “What is this?”
‘t he sound of the multi-verse, mon ami,” he whispered, ominously. ‘These ain’t just any telegraphs. These can listen in on the universe itself. It might sound like static now. But you’ll learn to hear its call.” Then he raised his voice. “But whatever you do. Never answer. Never! Tu compris?”
“Bien!” he said. “Now put those clothes on. Time to get to work.”
The sound of my breath passing the mask’s filter was all too similar to the radio-static as we walked across the overgrown brick road leading to the old estate. My uniform appeared uncomfortably heavy for this weather, but for some reason, I maintained a conformable temperature. However, I also felt disconnected from my environment, as I saw the world through a golden haze. My ears were also fully covered and sound barely penetrated the guards. Everything I heard passed through the ether.
“You hear that?” asked 92’s static laden voice straight through the headphones built into the helmet.
“Oui,” I spoke into my mouthpiece. I too noticed the discrepancies in the persistent hissing. Voices, like baby words drowning in the sea of static.
“We are getting close,” said 92, curtly.
“You think the rift is really in the mansion?” I asked.
His beak bobbed up and down. I barely recognized 92 without seeing his face. “Our ancestors often built religious sites around rifts.” He didn’t elaborate. Maybe the mask made it too hard, even for him.
Eventually, we reached the clearing. Sunbeams, which sifted through the surrounding tree’s canopies, illuminated the Casquette mansion that stood amidst the shadowy forest. I imagined what it could have looked like. It was one of those medieval fortified houses, often used as hunting retreats, that was renovated over and over again to keep up with the times. From a distance, it was a picturesque building to inspire romantic painters. But in reality, it was on the verge of becoming a ruin, drowning in a sea of ivy. The rooftop on the second floor was already showing several depressions, and sun-bleached shutters dangled from crooked hinges.
“Probably cheaper to just level it,” I said.
“They want to put a military facility here, correct?”
“If there is a rift,” 92 replied. “That would make a fine cover story… Tensions are rising,” he mumbled.
“You think the Prussians will start a war?”
“Who knows…” he groaned and looked at me. In the gold reflective surface of his oval goggles, I saw my own mask reflected into infinity. “You hear that?”
I concentrated on the hissing coming from the ether.
I suddenly felt cold in my thick clothing and my breathing accelerated. “I did,” I whispered.
‘t he rift is calling.”
We approached the entrance. Paint flaked off the bleached wood as we pushed the door open and entered the hall that was decorated by dust suspending from cobwebs. A shallow spiral staircase in the corner was blocked off by leaves, and furnishings like door handles were suspiciously missing.
‘remember, we are here for the rift. These are usually close to the ground, or beneath it. They make their own caves, so to speak.”
“We are looking for a cellar then?”
Step by step we advanced to the main chamber that looked like more of a great hall than a living room. Above and around the spacious fireplace hung a large collection of antlers of various sizes. At one time, nobles might have gathered here, celebrating, sharing tall tales, and feasting on a fresh game. But now its size and the crooked rafters up high made one feel small and insignificant.
Inside the fireplace stood a simple cast iron stove. A kettle to boil water was still there, and a collapsed chair stood beside it. I imagined Madame Casquette sitting here all alone by the fire. What on earth drove a woman to spend her time in such loneliness? If she didn’t die beside that road, who knows if anyone would have missed her.
*Shshshshshshs*Arr*U*der* sounded over the telegraph.
A chill ran down my spine. ‘did you hear that?”
“I heard all sorts of things,” 92 responded, without looking. “Whatever you think you heard, ignore it. Do not ever answer on that frequency.”
92 raised his hand dismissively. ‘t ais-toi,” he hissed, keeping his eyes in front as he advanced. Something caught his attention, I could tell.
And there it was. A depression between the broken tiles was flooded with water. And in the middle of it floated a fluffy white-purplish ball of mold or moss, like a big, furry caterpillar.
“What’s that?” I asked, reluctant to even look at it.
“Not native,” 92 answered curtly, still aiming his gun at it. “Forget monsters, Associate. Flora is what is really dangerous. Hopefully, our climate ain’t hospitable to them.” He lowered his weapon, looked around the room, and groaned. “We might have to burn this place down after all.”
“It’s just a ruin.”
“You can’t just build ruins,” he said, without elaborating on it. “Let’s go to the cellar.”
As we left the room, I felt a cold sensation running through my bones thinking about that voice I just heard.
Inside the kitchen, we found a stairwell going down. Whispers swam through the telegraph’s static as we looked down the shallow stairs that took a sharp turn to the right and into the unknown.
“You really think there is a rift down there?” I asked.
‘might be the reason she stayed here. To be its last guardian,” 92 murmured.
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
So we started our descent. The moment we passed the bend, we were submerged in total darkness, with nothing but the electric lamps on our caps to light our way. I imagined entering a medieval dungeon, but it was far more mundane. Nothing but abandoned provisions left on dusty shelves. And yet, I had difficulty controlling my breathing. Maybe it was the odd noises coming through the telegraph, and me waiting to hear that voice again.
At the back, we encountered a junction going in two opposite directions. There wasn’t much left to explore, and no trace of a rift. But the ongoing eerie murmuring suggested otherwise
“Take the right,” 92 said. He too was nervous, I could feel it.
I watched as his illuminated visor darted through the dark, like blazing eyes fixed in a permanent frown. Through my tinted visor, I scanned the shadows between the closet and reed baskets that were filled with nothing but dry compost. I was about to give up when I stubbed my boot against a jar. I jumped, as something slithered away past my feet with the speed of a scared cat. As I looked, I could just see it disappear between the baskets. The creature was serpentine, but I could swear it had fur… Maybe it was a rodent.
After turning off my lamp, I sneaked up to the basket and bent forward to look. The light coming for my own glasses illumined just enough to-
I straightened myself of fright from hearing those nasally whispers.
About to step away, the floor gave way beneath my feet just like that.
Screaming, I dropped through the floor and into darkness.
My visor dispersed the glow of countless specks of light shining above me in the dark as I caught my breath. The impact of the fall had knocked the air out of my chest as I fell flat on my back. It might have broken me if something squishy hadn’t cushioned my fall.
My light! It wasn’t working anymore.
Frantically, I fidgeted with the lamp and adjusted the wiring. Then the world was illuminated once again. And I wished it hadn’t . For, I had landed in an alien world. The walls, ceiling, and ground were covered in thick fur-like moss that covered the ancient masonry, like the flake stones of the dolmens found in Normandie. White luminous mushrooms grew out of the ceiling like dandelions, giving it the appearance of the night sky.
*Shhh-Are*you*there!* That voice cut through the static, clear as rain.
I couldn’t resist anymore. “Qui! What do you want?”
There was no response. Just a low drawn-out hum, like a dreadful mantra, reverberated in the background. I imagined a crocodile at the back of a river, ready for its prey to come near. I should not have answered.
“389?” I heard 92 cry. “Is that you?”
“Where are you?”
‘down a hole! That moss is all over the place.”
92’s lamp shone down on me. “Hold still. I think I saw a ladder back there! I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Joints popped as I got up. Rising to my feet, I noticed something lodged in a large alcove as light poured down on it. Daylight! A large deep-blue mound, reminiscent of a flower’s receptacle, was stuck between the side of an old well. But most disturbingly, it heaved up and down as if it was breathing.
Behind me, a ladder descended down the hole.
“Voila,” said 92, and climbed down. He gasped as he stepped on the carpet of moss. “Now, what is that thing?”
Spurred on by morbid curiosity, we approached the receptacle. A strange honeycomb structure was visible beneath the blue membrane holding the thing together. Dotted about its surface, strange pods protruded outward from depressions like carrots sticking out from the soil. But was most concerning was a thick vein-like root that ran all the way down the tunnel.
‘t he scholars will love this,” I said softly.
“Or petrify them.” 92 kicked the strange vein. “I don’t like this. Let’s go.”
We followed the root down the tunnel as it contracted like a blood vein. I could only speculate what it all meant. Careful not to slip on the moss, I asked. “Was she hiding this?”
“Je ne sais pas,” 92 groaned. ‘maybe the rift recently emerged, and she wasn’t aware of any of it. You’d be amazed how much we forgot through the millennia.”
‘more of them each year,” he mumbled.
Meanwhile, the tunnel went way longer than anticipated, stretching on and on like a mine shaft. Then we finally reached an antechamber: a naturally formed cavity underground. ‘dugout by the rift itself,” suggested 92. “Probably thousands of years ago. Who knows what our ancestors saw in it.”
I looked out in confusion. “Where is it?”
He grabbed my shoulder and directed me to the middle of the cave. ‘regard,” he said, looking straight ahead.
Following his glaze, I squinted my eyes. Then, through the yellow tint of my glasses, the rift looked like a knife’s cut in the air itself; like a linear tear inside the backdrop of the stage-play called reality. And the roots vanished inside of it.
*Are your there* I heard, clear as day.
‘t he voice, there it is-”
‘t urn that damned thing off!” 92 interrupted me.
“P-pardon…” Embarrassed, I reached for the dial on my telegraph.
“Merci. Well… you wanted to visit another world? Viola! Now, come.”
I struggled to control my breathing as we approached the rift.
“I’ll go first,” he said, stepping in front of me.
I tried to hold my nerve as he walked inside the anomaly. It looked like he was passing through a waterfall and then melding with the water until he was gone.
Without slowing down, I followed him, my breathing audibly increasing as my heart pounded against my ribs, and then…
The moment I touched the anomaly, I felt fluid, like water pouring through nothingness. I was like an empty vessel. All fear and uncertainty had gone. And when I ended up at the other side, my mind was clear. My heart was calm and my breathing normal. My mind felt like a clean slate, washed and polished. The tranquility didn’t last, however, as the different reality over stimulated my senses.
92 was looking up. Even while wearing my mask, I could tell he was baffled.
In front of us, surrounded by a field of purple moss underneath a cloudy sky, stood a statuesque- Thing. A mound crowned by an anthracite totem reminiscent of a mandrakes root, with a slimy film dripping down its pustule-like surface. But there was something animalistic about it I couldn’t formulate. And its head at the top of the pillar… It reminded me of a faceless mummy, its mouth shriveled into a permanent shriek of terror.
As I observed the totem, 92 kneeled down by the mound. I was so glad we wore our respirators, for it resembled a compost heap with strange flaps of rancid skin drabbed over it like dead fern leaves. But the thing was, there was nothing like it anywhere around us. Just lush moss and purple trees.
On one knee, 92 had produced his knife and lifted one of the gelatinous skin flaps. The sight of what was revealed still haunts me and I had to turn away to not throw up in my mask.
“Ergh… Whatever it was, it’s dead,” 92 groaned in disgust.
“Mon Dieu, I can never see maggot cheese again.”
“God has nothing to do with this, I’m afraid. It has the same honeycomb-esque structure. I got a suspicion there used to be eggs inside”
“I’m worried about those tubes hanging from that pillar.”
“They remind me of umbilical cords.”
I could finally bring myself to look. ‘t his is part of their breeding cycle?”
“Don’t these flaps remind you of those pods back on our end?”
Looking at the totem gave me an idea, and I walked to the back of the mound. It was as I feared.
92 joined me, as I was looking at the empty cavity inside the totem. ‘merdre,” I heard him hiss. “It’s shedding its skin.”
“You have seen this before?”
“Hell no… But I doubt it’s growing its roots through a rift by accident. Come.”
And so we traversed the rift again, with the intent to destroy the nest at any cost before those pods could hatch whatever was inside. The imperial army would do it, but 92 was convinced we didn’t have the time to spare.
As we reached our objective, the light of our lamps revealed a slithering thing slip between the pods. It looked similar to the creature as I saw earlier by the baskets. A fat worm covered a root-like fur. The moment it became aware of our presence, it slithered down the hall.
Without flinching, 92 aimed his gun and fired.
Despite my ear protection, the shot was deafening. But 92 struck his mark.
The creature was pushed aside by the impact and whirled spasticly in agony until, to my horror, its side started the swell up. The side of the creature burst open like a blister.
“That’s supposed to happen,” said 92, a matter of fact.
“More aggressive Outsiders can not be stopped by mere bullets,” 92 said. “Therefore we carry these.”
“It’s how we stay alive!” remarked 92. “Now, lets deal with the nest.” He then produced something that looked like a tube. A disposable nitro-torch which he lit up like a flare. He then continued to ignite the nest with a flame that seared with the same intensity as that of a blowtorch.
The moment the flame cut into the nest, the heaving mass came alive, rolling it bulk away like a full bladder.
Without flinching, 92 stepped closer holding the torch in front. “Burn, damn you!”
As he leaned over the receptacle, the nest changed shape again as it tried to climb up the wall. From the top emerged a dark serpentine shape contorting in agony. Its rugged pelt fanned outward like a fluid mass of tendrils that slithered violently in distress.
We jumped back as the creature jolted toward us, but 92 slipped. To my horror, it tore itself free from the nest, severing itself from the base. Tentacle-like limbs dragged its mass across the moss in a similar fashion to octopi, lashing out its countless tendrils.
92 drew his gun. But the creature lashed out at him, sweeping the revolver out of his hands.
In a panic, I fired repeatedly, but regular shots did little more than illuminate the feral form of its coils swaying about like branches in a storm. Branches! Keeping my distance, I reached inside my jacket and grabbed a flare. A bright light lit up the cave. My visor could barely protect my eyes against the glare, but it was working! The creature backed away from the flame.
As I held the flare in front of me like an evil repulsing torchlight, 92 came crawling toward me groaning in pain.
I dropped the flare immediately and grabbed 92 under the shoulders to drag him off. I noticed the creature’s tendrils had pierced his trousers and had attached themself like leeches. It did more than wound him. His breathing got heavier by the moment, and I felt his arms going numb. I kept helping him, but deep down… I knew he was done for.
As the flare appeared to be a substantial barrier against the thing, I leaned 92 against the wall, and he removed his mask.
“Take- my te-le-graph back!” he heaved, gasping for air. “We can hear it! It comm- Arg. Speaking on ultra-low frequency… Same. Ah- the rifts””
“That is not important right now.”
‘don’t you- See. Remember the thing- The thing that I told you about- turned to dust?”
Assuming he meant the Outside, the hunter shot prior to our arrival, I nodded. “Oui!”
“No creature can live for ext- periods on other planes withou- turning to dust,” he explained.
“Its breeding cycle!” he cried. ‘t his thing found a way to spread itself across other Planes!” “Mon, Dieu…” he groaned. “Who knows what environment this species has adapted to. We can’t wait. We got to kill the nest. N-nowww!”
“What about you?”
He ignored my question. ‘t ake these torches,” he groaned. “Burn this place to the ground.”His voice lost a semblance of coherence after that point.
It pained me, but I had no choice. That thing could move and, if 92 was right about the eggs, it could produce thousands of offspring.
I took his remaining torches and activated my telegraph again.
“Oh, I’m here.”
Behind the veil of illuminated smoke, the mass of tendrils was blocking my way.
All I needed to do was get to the ladder. But the creature shifted and coiled itself into an amorphous ball of tendrils, and I could sense it was out for my blood.
I threw another flare to scare it back. Unfortunately, the flare bounced off its tendrils. The creature then took its distance, but it collided with the ladder. I cringed as the wood creaked under the strain of the monstrous mass that wrung itself in odd ways as it tried to crawl around the flame. I feared it was learning.
Figuring that, if I could lure the creature away from the ladder, I could force my way past it. Risky. But if it grabbed me, I at least could take it with me using the nitro. I grabbed the active flare and walked back. It worked. The thing followed me, away from the ladder. Now for the next part. I pressed my shoulder against the wall. As expected, the thing pressed itself against the opposite wall, leaving just enough room for me to run past. I hurried, but its tendrils brushed against me as I attempted to force myself through. Only the bright fountain of nitrate-powered flame stopped it from overwhelming me. And the flame’s intensity already started to diminish. My heart pounded, and my mind now only thought of escaping while the tendrils cut into my leather coat.
Looking ahead, I suddenly spotted the golden light of 92’s gun shine amidst the moss, its barrel reflecting the pale light of a mushroom.
The creature crawled up against the wall to evade the flame and came at me like a raging torrent of vengeful feeder tubes.
All or nothing, I leaped toward 92’s gun, evading its charge. But its tendrils latched on to my trousers. It felt like getting stuck in a thorn bush.
Clumsily, I grabbed 92’s gun from the moss, while I could feel its needles scratch my skin like a thousand tiny teeth! Now or never. I aimed at the mass and fired.
The recoil was considerable, but the blow knocked the creature back. Before long, the wound beneath the tendrils started the swell as the creature contorted in pain. An ear rupturing shriek across the ether nearly burst my eardrums as the wound busted open like a boil with such force that it tore the horror apart.
I couldn’t see. I had to wipe the gore off my visor before I could assess what just happened.
In the faint light of the dying nitro torch, I could make out the form of the creature crawling deeper into the tunnel while the unnerving noise in the ether was ongoing.
I got up and walked up to the thing. It looks like nothing but a dense tumbleweed going down the hall. I threw another flare ahead of it to block its way - out of spite I must confess.
That’s when I realized what was going on. ‘s on of a bitch, that’s your breathing!”
The thing didn’t dare to go near the bright flame but didn’t have the strength to crawl up the wall again.
Killing it, despite it not being my intention to do so, was an act of mercy.
As I left the tunnel, it lit up the reed baskets in the cellar with the remaining nitro-torches. The sun painted the forest as I left the estate behind me.
I walked down the shadowy road in a daze, probably poisoned. Fortunately, I could call for help over the telegraph. To ignore the pain, I just focused on the ether in wait for a reply and the sound of my own breathing. *HhaaahshshshshshHhuuhshshshshHhaaahshshshshshHhuuhshh*Are*You*Still*there?*