Field Journal of Miranda Bingle
We made landfall at dawn, carried to shore in small embarkations. The sailors of the Corbeau gallantly dragged ours onto the rocky beach so that I would not have to wet my boots. While most of the crew prepared a base camp in a pleasant clearing, the members of our expedition made our way inland with five workmen carrying supplies. Mr Champignac proposed to lead the way on account of his experience trudging around, to which we agreed, and we were soon on our way.
The palm trees and bleached trunks of the shore soon left room to a dense forest showing essences from all across the Mediterranean! I saw olive trees, Lebanese cedars, Moroccan argan and other essences I did not recognize growing in dense clusters with thick, dark green leaves, and carrying unripe fruits. They seemed to close around us as we trudged our way in, and I could not help but feel a surreal sensation from their appearance. Many of the species I spotted were normally shrubs, and yet here they stood tall and strong like oaks.
We started to follow an uphill trail. Emilien Champignac went first, followed by Herr Mueller the Prussian researcher and that sneazy little merchant Stefano. I made sure to follow at a small distance while Mr. Sheridan went behind, sometimes helping the staff cross the more arduous obstacles. The high cliffs surrounding us must have trapped the humidity inside, turning the basin into a greenhouse. The cloying smells of life soon replaced that of the sea and it was not long before I huffed and puffed under the weight of my backpack. Even wearing a thin cotton dress was not enough to escape the smothering sensation of this wet heat. My only reprieve came when the Texan bodyguard casually removed the burden from my back with a gravelly ‘allow me, miss’. Even if he was already carrying his own, and enough weapons to overthrow a government! I wondered if all Texans liked firearms that much.
I believe that he was taking our security too seriously. What could there possibly be to justify such an imposing arsenal? Preposterous.
We paused for a lunch of bread, fruits, and cold cuts near a small spring. Mr Champignac was confident that we could reach the base of the cliffs opposite the beach tomorrow at the latest. From there, we could climb the comparatively gentler slope for a commanding view of the valley.
It was during early afternoon that we made our first tremendous discovery.
“Une route! A road, a road!” an excited voice came from the front. We all spread out — me with some difficulties since we had run out of path to stand on — and exclaimed our excitement at such a good find. There was indeed a road of stone with an elliptical surface reminiscent of Roman viae. Its inequal surface showed the passage of time and it was strangled by roots and creeping vegetation. None of it dampened our mood.
“Civilization,” Mr Champignac proudly exclaimed, and we all rejoiced. Miss Delaney’s map had not led us astray. There were indeed ruins in this place.
“Should we follow it?” Mr. Sheridan asked.
“Of course we should follow it!” the Frenchman scoffed, “roads lead to places after all.”
I was a tad aggravated that he would take a rhetorical question seriously, then look down upon he who had asked it. Mr. Sheridan took no offense, thankfully, and I crossed my arms and scowled in silent disapproval. That would show him! Fortunately, Professor Fergusson managed to save the mood by detailing the remarkable make of the ancient road. The ancient via led up to the center of the island and the base of the tallest cliff, and so we decided to follow it.
I never realized how valuable a road was when going somewhere. With solid ground under our feet, our speed increased dramatically. The trees around us grew more sparse, but also taller as the altitude increased, until we started under the sun again. We entered a forest of pines just as the sun was starting to set. The pleasant scent of their sap soothed me, and reminded me of home.
Our excitement returned when the stone path stopped at the mouth of a large circular opening. The forest was at our back, and the cliffs in front of us behind some rocky elevation we would have to climb. To our left, bramble-covered stairs led to a sublime discovery: an imposing, primitive statue of a man.
It was at least eight feet tall and made of some darker stone than that of the island. The beard and flat, round face showed both Babylonian and Egyptian influence. I felt a sense of rare pride from this discovery, to which I had contributed! It was, perhaps, the first original Sea Folks artefact ever found at all! And it had been done with the contribution of Miranda Bingle!
However, my pride soon turned to outrage. As we stood there mesmerized by the august spectacle before us, Mr. Stefano stepped forward and onto the thick layer of vegetation separating the clearing from the base of our discovery. ‘There is something shining in its eyes!’ he said, moving forward with speed. Oh, what a lout I thought he was, although he spoke the truth. The statue’s eyes shone slightly blue under the afternoon sun, and I realized that jewels had been placed inside its orbits.
My blood boiled in an instant. We were on the verge of the greatest archeological discovery of the decade and the only thing he cared about were precious stones! Alas, how I regret my reaction now, how I wish I had held him back and instilled into him the necessity of patience, for no sooner did he reach halfway that the vegetations at the edge of the clearing cracked ominously and the poor merchant sunk five inches. Too late did we realize our mistake. The cover of vegetation did not rest on solid land. It was a densely woven bridge of creepers and lianas over the abyss below! Mr. Stefano screamed in distress. Mr. Sheridan took out a rope and threw it to him, but it was too late. We were stuck on one side, powerless to come and rescue the poor soul and powerless to hold the heavy weight of nature as it collapsed down. There was a dreadful shriek, then silence.
The men walked forward and looked down. Their horrified expressions told me all I needed to know. I screamed, I think, and had to move away.
Our expedition had been struck by misfortune on the very first day!
I remained prostrate under a tall pine tree for some time. Mr. Ferguson brought me a cover and I felt better afterward. Poor Mr. Stefano, he certainly did not deserve this. I had judged him hastily and only thought bad things about his morality, manners, fashion choices, and personal hygiene and now he had departed this world.
It took me some time, but eventually I picked up on strange activity going on. The helpers had set up camp in the clearing while I was gone and they had a fire going. Meanwhile, someone had cleared the passage to the statue, only to discover there was none. It stood on an elevated platform in the middle of a pit. The research team was nowhere to be found.
I stepped closer and was informed that the mortal coil of Mr. Stefano had been recovered by Mr. Sheridan, whom they had lowered with ropes. It had been set upon a stretcher and two men were selected to carry it to base camp.
I murmured a quick prayer and moved to the now-exposed hole to see what the fuss was all about. The opening into the bowels of the earth was not natural. It had been excavated, and strange wooden statues set on poles lined its walls. The research team — minus Mr. Stefano — was gathered in an animated circle. I found that they had installed a rope and wood ladder down and took the opportunity, while everyone was distracted, to climb down. It was difficult to respect propriety and still pursue research! I almost showed my calves! One must suffer in the pursuit of science.
As soon as I reached the ground, the reason for all their excitement became obvious. The statues were not statues, and the poles were not poles. We were surrounded by the unmistakable shapes of ship prows.
I marvelled at the incomprehensible sight of it all as Professor Ferguson welcomed me into the circle.
I expressed my surprise and wondered at the age of those remains, and more importantly, the identity of those who had brought them here. It was then that Mr. Sheridan attracted my attention to the statue of a unicorn. On its flank, I found the following words engraved:
“HMS Cutlass, Portsmouth, 1807.”
Surprise robbed me of my voice, and the good Professor anticipated my curiosity with amusement tempered by obvious worry. The island had been inhabited at the very least forty years ago, because it must have taken the hand of man to move those heavy things here. Where, then, were the inhabitants? And where were the rest of the ships?
My many interrogations were mirrored by the others. We could find no adequate answer to this puzzling mystery. It was promptly agreed to make camp here to document and explore the locale, and to climb to the base of the cliff on the morrow.
We stayed there and documented eight ships from five separate nations, the oldest dating back to 1789, but the latest being only twenty years old! Our belief that the island was inhabited only solidified from then, and I suggested that the local dwellers perhaps lived elsewhere and only came here rarely, perhaps for religious ceremonies. Everyone agreed that my theory made sense and so, at nightfall, we climbed the smallest of rocks to look at the sky.
We did not find a single campfire. Not a light, nor a hint of smoke besides our own.
We ate dinner in silence, with the Professor leading a moment of prayer for the departed. We each wished his soul a prompt journey, as did I, even if Mr. Stefano was catholic and quite a bit unpleasant.
I promptly retired to my tent afterward, but for the longest of time, sleep eluded me.
“We already lost someone,” Sheridan announces in a gruff voice. He is leaning against a trunk, looking out into the woods with his trigger on the finger of the custom needle gun I have made for him.
“Don’t mention it. I had to give Ozenne ten dollars.”
Sheridan looks positively shocked.
“I bet with him that the Prussian would die first,” I grumble as a way of explanation.
“Ariane, this man was alive just this morning.”
“And I was so looking forward to remedying the situation personally.”
Sheridan gives me a slightly disappointed, chiding look.
“You know that most of these people are going to die, right? I explained it to you,” I tell him.
“This history has not been written yet!”
“It’s already half-way there. If you grab Miranda by the waist like a monkey right now and forcefully drag her to the ship, it will sink.”
We stare at each other and I do not relent. This expedition is doomed to succeed with terrible casualties.
“You can no more stop Godlings than you can stop the tide, Sheridan. Even if you manage to kill her, you will not succeed unless it makes sense from a narrative perspective. That is why I am not fighting the tide, and that is why I am stacking the odds in your favor.”
Sheridan’s coat, hat, and guns have been magically reinforced by my own hand. He could be shot in the chest at point-blank range and survive.
“Is this arsenal necessary? The coat is rather heavy.”
“I… lost your predecessor to a shot in the chest. I cannot force you to do anything, but I would appreciate it if you still wore it.”
There must have been some emotions at play, because Sheridan’s expression is one of deep sympathy.
“I am sorry. I did not know.”
“I want you to be safe.”
“Then, forgive me for asking, but why did you allow me to join?”
I stare at him, askance.
“You asked me.”
“And you said yes?”
“Vassal is an inexact term, Sheridan. We do not control you. In fact, we cannot really refuse you. You exist to challenge us and keep us human. Our very instinct will push against controlling or harming you. Even hurting a rival’s Vassal is taboo.”
I shiver at the memory of what Sinead did to that poor Cadiz vampire.
“I believe that you stand a very serious chance to make it out alive.”
“I have been a part of the Bingle Epic since Miranda’s father came to our shore. I am reasonably certain that there is a thinking being behind all this nonsense.”
“How does this relate to my continued survival?”
“Should you fall, I will track down Miranda and rend her limb from limb. I will also massacre the rest of the expedition and burn down their notes. I clearly said so to Isaac.”
“There is no story when there is no one left to tell it.”
“I am not certain that you should threaten a powerful being in that manner. Did you not tell me that killing a Godling was impossible?”
“Ah, but I am already a character in this story. I will take my chances. I like them better than Miranda’s chances against a grieving vampire master in an enclosed island.”
“I see. I promise that I will wear my armor at all times for my own benefit then. It’s not even that heavy. By the way, we are looking for the denizens of this island. Have you found them yet? Can you lead us to them?”
“Oh yes, I have found them alright. Or rather, Syrrin showed me. And as for meeting them, don’t worry,” I finish with a toothy smile. “They will find you.”
Field Journal of Miranda Bingle
We woke up the next day to find out that Herr Mueller had disappeared.