"Forney, you old devil! Good to see you arrived in one piece!"
Morris Forney stepped off of the pier, blinded by the bright sun and the cool, mild temperature of Vilsandi. The train ride to Tallinn had been traumatic enough - a long, sordid affair that had left him feeling glum and suspicious. His only companions had been several detatchments of soldiers (who kept to themselves) and a family of refugees, withdrawn and malnourished, who seemed to have no clue where they were fleeing - only an iron-clad determination that it would be better then wherever they had come from. One of the soldiers, a young man who spoke poor Russian, had tried numerous time to get Forney to engage in a game of cards; but he had refused politely and firmly, stating that he wasn't feeling well.
And he hadn't been, something that certainly hadn't been helped by the unnerving way the rest of the soldier's cohort had seemed to shift their eyes to him unilaterally as he walked between cars. Forney had hoped matters would change when he'd arrived in Tallinn, but the city itself was a buzz of activity - far too much for an itinerant 'war tourist' like himself to find much comfort.
He hadn't liked the label, of course - but it had been Voronov's idea. The two had met several years back, long before the rattling of sabres - Voronov had been little more then a hopeful cadet at the time, and Forney had only began his career in literary embellishment; Voronov had always been a Anglophile, and a Francophile, and perhaps just a man who fell too easily into love. HIs trip to Britain had dampened some of those tendancies, perhaps, but the two had met in a pub that Forney frequented when he was suffering from pangs of consequence - and immediately disliked one another immensely. It was only several drinks and furious arguments later that the two had managed a halting friendship, and only years of correspondance that had tempered that into the familiarity they had, now.
"Voronov. You look well - though I can't say I approve of the way the Tsar is handing out medals to anyone, regardless of merit."
The two shook hands, Voronov laughing heartily from behind his too-thing moustache.
"Apparently so; I was awarded half of these just for coming to this goodness-forsaken nature reserve. If I had known dignity was so easily attainable, I would have stuck to my guns and became a poet! You though - you look like you just came from Linnusitamaa, not Tallinn. The travel arrangements didn't suit you..?"
Voronov was short. He had never filled a military uniform out, and never would. His moustache was poor, but dreamed of becoming the kind of moustache heroic generals might wear as they drew their sabre and cut through injustice. And the way he fidgeted when he spoke was full of a kind of childish optimism that seemed in short supply elsewhere, both home and abroad. Forney placed a hand to his head, trying to stem a headache only worsened by the sun, leering down at them from above.
"They were fine enough. I just can't say I expected to be called out to, no disrespect, the middle of nowhere for no other reason then because an old friend had received an important task which needed documentation. Certainly, there have to be local journalists you can trust with this sort of thing?"
"Not at all." Voronov's face fell, and he looked from one side to the other, even though no one else was present. At any time, the suspicion would have seemed comical. Now, however...
Suddenly, the newly-promoted Poruchik's face burst into a wide grin, and he produced several letters from his coat-pocket.
"You know, my sister asked me to deliver these to you, personally! If it were anyone else, I'd likely to have to deliver them with a beating - but so it goes. Just respond to them when you have the time, would you? She's been contemplating simply up and leaving, and I feel a rational gentleman such as yourself would be a good influence on her - please."
Forney tried to ignore the sudden shift and topic and took the letters with a smile, not planning to either read or reply to them. He had known Voronova some time before had known Voronov, after all - perhaps, if memory served, that had been one of the reasons they had not met on the best of terms...
"Certainly, though I'm afraid I'm neither rational nor a gentleman. Now - could you explain why it was so urgent that I came here? Me, specifically?" Forney wanted to ask more - why the secrecy, why he had been met by several self-proclaimed representatives of the King while doing research in the Japanese island of Honshu - simply, why. The sun felt heavy and oppressive above, but more oppressive by far was the silence by with which Voronov met him."
"You're the only person I trust." The officer said bluntly, eyes slightly glazed. "I was told I could ask for any one person of my judgment to record this for the sake of history, and I wanted to make sure no one would take it seriously. If someone who writes titillating fiction and character-assassinating editorials for humor magazines of dubious repute were to publish this matter - no one would take it seriously, and it is my hopethat it might yet be forgotten." Voronov shifted nervously in his uniform, then split into another - uneasy - grin.
"C'mon. Let's go for a walk. It's been some time, hasn't it? Too long, by far! This island is all but depopulated; we can catch up while I fill you in. I happen to have food and drink reserved for my lonely watch here, and it would be a damnable shame to have no-one to share it with."
So Voronov began to walk, and Forney followed at a distance, face set in a frown. "Sounds lke whatever poor sap you've got interested in this task has their work cut out for them. So - what's your take on the war, then, Voronov?"
The change in topic almost immediately resulted in a change in Voronov's demeanor, his face filled with a self-certain pride and a swagger that belied any good reason.
"Our boys are going to make sure any move by the Kaiser is met with enough fire and thunder to send him back to Berlin with his tail between his legs. I even hear tell that we'll be in Galicia before long - ancient Franz be damned. Wouldn't it be nice if this whole thing was over by the year's end?.. We wouldn't have to use it, then, of course."
Several waterfowl stared at them from across the waters of the Baltic, turning away as Vornov half-heartedly cracked open a bottle of something - champagne, perhaps? It looked expensive, much more so then anything Forney had seen in recent memory - and the way Voronov stared past it as he continued to poor far more then was needed into a glass, until the liquid scattered across the rocky ground, seemed desolate and resigned.
"They say we'll attack German lines the moment we receive a signal from one of our own - a Baron, I believe. I met him briefly."
Voronov seemed to realize that half the bottle had now disappeared, and placed it carefully on the ground - sitting next to it with an unreadable expression.
"He is - excited. Yes."
Forney contemplated taking the sole glass of champagne as his old friend closed his eyes and went quiet, but instead decided to watch the water and wait - throwing several rocks into the placid surface as Voronov said nothing. But the glare and the silence grew thick and smothering around them, and Forney felt his patience evaporating.
"Look, pal. I didn't come here because I was frightened into it, or overcome with patriotic fervor by agents of the King just coincidentally present in the Japanese state. I decided to come here because a friend asked me to - but to be of any help at all, I need to know why you did. Please, Genya."
Sighing, Voronov got to his feet and threw a stone across the surface of the water himself; it didn't skip, but sunk slowly to the bottom, and Voronov watched it with bleary eyes.
"We found a thing."
He threw another stone - and once again, it sank, the water engulfing with a vengeful greed.
"I do not know how to describe it."
The third stone was already in his hand - but Voronov's hand was shaking, and he did not throw.
"This was before everything went... The way it is going. The Petersburg Military District hypothesized that maybe it woke up now - maybe it wanted to wake up now. We sent a few people to look at it - and, I don't know..."
With a bizarre and almost ritualistic care, a look of sudden and serene calm upon his face, Voronov set the rock upon the shore.
"I wanted to serve my country, Morris. So I volunteered to look after it. And if things go poorly - well."
Voronov gave a half-hearted little shrug, then smiled.
"But perhaps there's no worry of that. Perhaps I'll just sit here on the Tsar's coin, indulging in good food and drink while the war is over before winter has had time to sink teeth into the soil, and catch up with an old friend."
Forney frowned, about to interject something - when the ground beneath Voronov opened up with a wet and horrific squelch, and the shocked officer fell too quickly to even cry out for help. Staring blanky for a moment at the sinkhole that had opened suddenly upon the shoreline, Forney quickly noticed that despite all logic, it seemed to have almost perfect hand-holds for climbing; and fighting a sudden bout of nausea, began to climb as hastily as he could down the chasm, fumbling with a pocketlight and yelling as he did.
"Voronov, you bastard! You aren't dead, are you?!"
Came a weak reply. The light flickered to life, revealing softly pulsating dirt around him as he clambered downwards. The tunnel went much farther then it should have - and as the air filled with the scent of brine, Forney knew they must be below sea-level. And yet...
As the vicious glare of the light above began to fade from above, Forney made it to the end of the sinkhole. The weak beam of his light could just make out the prone form of Voronov, barely moving.
"I fell, Morris." Voronv smiled - his face smashed terribly from where it had landed against a large shard of something that could have been rock.
"I cannot feel my legs."
Forney tried to contain a mix of tears and nausea, and was surprised to find himself doing so easily - a strange sense of self-hatred overcoming him as he heard himself repeat that it would be fine, as though from a great distance.
Voronov's legs were twisted at an angle no legs should have been able to bend - the white columns of bone stick up every which way, a mesh of skin and blood. Occasionally, they would wiggle ineffectually - still tethered to him, however loosely.
"Don't worry, Genya. We'll get someone over here to move you back out, all right?" Forney said, smiling - and Voronov smiled back, obvious relief and lack of oxygen making him seem at peace.
Then, in an instant, the expression disappeared as he screamed in terror - and was drawn further into the darkness by something woven and sinous that knocked the light from Forney's tremblign hands and then struck the journalist to the ground.
But to his surprise, after the pain in his side cleared and he had grown accustomed to the darkness, Forney was aware that he could see. The caverns were filled with a pale green light so much more comforting then the judging sun above - and it was just bright enough to make following the trail of blood and effluvia left by Voronov an easy task, indeed. So Forney ran, as quick as his aching side would allow him.
Occasionally, he called out, but there was no reply - even as his cries began to echo around him and the cavern grew wider and more open. He could make out carvings on the rocky walls, though they looked like nothing at all; mere lines and shapes without any clear purpous, such that they hurt to stare at.
So he did not stare at them, but continued running until finally he made it to what seemed to be the end of the passageway - a large antechamber, filled with fragments that could have easily been bones, chalk, or powder woven together with what prayed was plant fiber.
Voronov was nowhere to be seen.
From the gloom, something looked out at him - and as his ears leaked a fluid that even disoriented, Forney could tell was his own blood - Forney could feel but not hear a strange, burbling, joyous laughter - one simply esctatic to be alive. Words were thrown towards him from the holes in the still-warm body of Voronov, escaping from his perforated flesh like musical notes. And yet - they formed no coherent sentance, at first.
At some point, Forney realized he was both crying and laughing, himself.
It was then that the words made sense.
Did you bring the disc?
Did you return the disc?
Do you have the disc with you?
Is it time?
Do you know where the disc is?
Are you hiding it?
Do you want me to find it?
Can I have it?
Are you going to give it to me?
Do I have to take it from you?
Must I take it from you?
All the sentances jumbled together at once - as did the crushing sense of disappointment and sorrow the entity felt as it realized Forney was shuddering not in excitement, but in fear - and that he had no clue what it was talking about, let alone have anything like it on his person.
Strands of razor-sharp twine tied around his toes, and nearly sliced them off as they dragged him close to where Voronov's corpse stood - nearly, but not quite. The vines were almost tender, unaware of the cruelty they held - and as he struggled to break free while not slicing himself to ribbons, the floor opened beneath him. Not in another chasm, but like a lid - his body now motionless as Forney realized he was resting on a single, giant eye.
It stared at him for hours, unblinking - then finally shuttered, and the vines disentangled from him, and Forney slowly rose to his feet, covered in blood and bile.
Nothing assailed him as he cautiously limped back towards the entrance from before - but the golden haze of the sun above seemed unwelcoming and nightmarish as the pleasing green glow of the caverns seemed to beg him to stay, just a moment longer. Shrieking despite the lack of air in his lungs, Forney pulled himself back onto the rocky shore of Vilsandi - and the entranceway closed itself shut behind him, leaving him entirely alone.
And Morris walked into the water, letting it wash over him.
Unfinished as it was, Michael Findlay's last manuscript promised to deliver where his few experimental forays into adventure fiction never did. Most remembered as a writer of the kind of peculiar stories designed to sensationalize and sell in local papers, Findlay was gripped by deep depression in later life, corresponding to his lack of output and eventual series of dramatic suicide attempts. Claiming in letters to friends that he was attempting to return to a place he had seen once before, Findlay was finally successfuly last year - 'this republishing of his collected works the first time the incomplete piece has been brought to press.
A much-lauded correspondent during the World War, Findlay was celebrated for his unflinching and stoic coverage of the Eastern Front, which, unusual for a western journalist...