Chapter 1:

PART I: The Incident in Outsmouth - Chapter 1

The King of Madness


PART I: THE INCIDENT IN OUTSMOUTH

"The oldest and strongest feeling known to mankind is fear"

-H.P. Lovecraft

~~~

“They say the oldest and strongest feeling known to man is fear. I disagree. It is madness.

“Anyone who has endured the things I only reluctantly dare to put down in writing would agree. Because witnessing the sunken hell-city of Fu’Ryeh is to lose touch with one’s sanity.

“Experts concluded that when it rose from the South Pacific Ocean, the force and weight of its ascent solidly swung the earth off its axis in such a way that the sun hasn’t shone upon it since, but to assume one could see the sky from such a place is laughable.

“When one approaches the city, a mist settles in, little by little. It’s unclear exactly when the haze becomes the storm that imprisoned the earth’s sky and stole both night and day, acting as a barrier wall around the city. But miles inward, the cataclysmic hurricane-strength winds and rods of never-ending lightning, more akin to permanent, bleeding scarlet cracks that carve up the sky rather than fleeting streaks, are unmistakable. It becomes immediately clear from the gale’s power alone that it could be none other than the damned fountain of such an apocalyptic, ageless tempest.

“If one could maintain their senses and venture further inward, they would see the ocean lifted into the air by innumerable cyclones, and with the amount of rain washing through the smoke-shrouded atmosphere, the sky mends with the sea to the point that one can’t guess if they were above or below the ocean.

“And through that, if one could even catch a glimpse of the black, polished surface of the ancient citadel, then they would see something that could only be described as Piranesian.

“Black towers stack together in a close, huddled arrangement, but close perhaps isn’t the right word for it. Instead, our feeble minds grant us the mercy that the towers can be registered on our unrefined human senses, when rather the bridges that connect their dizzying heights are miles wide and even further miles long. Simply imagining the endless hours one would need to cross just one of those bridges, scale to the top of just one of those colossal columns, or even let gravity plunge them into the black, unseen depths below would drive someone mad on its own.

“Yet there I was, approaching the summit of the highest tower. I, a simple man with a simpler goal.

“One could easily lose themselves amidst the deafening clamor of the storm, the oppressive darkness, and the atmospheres of wind acting upon you. So to quell this, I needed to be keen to every detail I was lucky enough to catch whistling by within the mad maelstrom. I listened to the din of thunder wail into the listless night, answered only by the low, ominous crashing of waves countless depths below. Or above. I simply could not tell. Arcs of crimson lightning gave the horizontally falling rain the impression of blood, sweeping over the varnished rock, carved into rising, evenly-placed stairs. As I ascended each step, I did my best not to dwell on the implications that somewhere as inhospitable as Fu-Ryeh, never meant to be visited or even regarded by mankind, would host a staircase leading to the city’s very peak. It’s a chilling thought, that the mad architect who had designed such an inhospitable dwelling had anticipated the exact dimensions of who was coming.

“Cautious to not lose sight of who I was amidst my surroundings, I carefully studied my composure in the polished reflection of the stairs. I watched as my ivory hair flowed weightlessly behind me, riding upon the wind like a cape. I could identify my garb: a three-piece silk suit, clinging drenched to me like a second skin underneath a canvass cloak, a matching snowy pale hue to my locks and complexion. My lips pursed, forested by my bushy beard, producing no noise. However, I observed the way the nostrils of my thin, prominent nose flared with each breath I drew. Beneath a pair of square, bushy brows, two eyes rested deep within my skull. I maintained strict eye contact with my mirror image, seeing the pale hue circling my pupils making it unclear where my sclera ended and where my irises began. Apart from the sound of my methodical breathing, the flapping of my cloak in the wind, and my soft footfalls, not a sound rang audibly above the storm’s volume other than the rapier hanging from my belt, which gave a light jingle after each ascent.

“Nothing surrounded me on either side except a dizzying, plunging abyss below where the stairs suddenly dropped off. Behind me, innumerable identical steps lead as far back as I could make out. And up ahead, after what I could assume were days, perhaps eons of endless trudging, I could discern the staircase’s end.

“I felt no accomplishment as I reached the final step and cast my vision across my destination. Miles across in every direction, composed of the same ebony, textureless stone as the perilously climbed steps, spread a hollow plateau. Thousands of overlapping rings formed with each drop of rain that splashed against its sleek surface. Within its mirror, I could distinguish the same red bolts of lightning raging overhead. Just beyond its widths, partially obscured by the curtains of falling rain and inky darkness, I counted other plateaus of apparently identical width and lower altitude. They appeared at vast yet designed distances apart, suggesting they extended far beyond my field of vision for what could very well be endless lengths. Lastly, I noted the plateau’s shape, including the very one upon which I stood: a perfectly regular, perfectly symmetrical six-sided polygon.

“I lifted my gaze from the hexagonal spread of plateaus to the distance, yawning open like an endless void. There, with both the darkness and distance working to obscure it, I vaguely spied a towering, nebulous mass of absolutely cyclopean scale. What brief glimpses the lightning afforded me were only hints at an outline, but suggested something higher than any of earth’s peaks and more colossal than one look could fully perceive.

“What I beheld next was the impossibly vast outline starting to move.

“Though the silhouette’s stature remained at its maddening height, lower streaks of lightning illustrated dark, blurry contours panning slowly to the right, as if the mammoth were turning to greet me. As it did, two red dots appeared superimposed across the amorphous void of night ahead, sharing the brightness and ferocity as the cracks of lightning. Shallow and thoughtless, they resembled two round eyes. When they locked onto mine, a certain shift could be felt. The air’s coldness grew thorns. The thunder crescendoed. The duration between the flashes of lightning halved, shedding further brightness across the sky. The two round portals of crimson drew nearer, and with them, the shape to which they belonged entered further into view.

“The thing, though half-submerged beneath the crest of the towering plateau, reached an immense height over me. Its shape could be considered sapioid, yet its dimensions were anything but. Two inconceivably vast arms connected to a pair of broad shoulders, composed of what appeared to be fibers of muscle all writhing and throbbing as if trying to decide on a shape or density. Upon its neck, wider than the entire diameter of the plateau, sat a head the shape of an octopus, with countless colossal tentacles hanging down to fill the profile of a beard. Fins protruded from either hemisphere of the creature’s bulbous head, if it could be considered a head at all. Even more massive behind the figure’s back extended a pair of wings, wider than my entire field of view could capture.

“That was when I knew I had found him.

“Those same experts that placed the cause of the cataclysmic quakes, the sudden eruption of all of earth’s volcanos, and the drastic shift in the planet’s magnetic field and orbit on Fu’Ryeh’s rise heralded his arrival too. They knew not his origins, if he was a voyager from beyond the stars inexplicably come here, or if he had always belonged to this earth, but regardless of where he came from, his prolonged existence would spell the end for the human species. He single-handedly conjured the storm that blotted out our sky for centuries to come, leading future generations to only speculate about the sun, moon, and stars above. He alone sunk over ninety percent of the earth’s existing landmass. Then, as if not bothering to follow through with his execution of all the planet’s species, he rose an army of Unspeakable Terrors to finish the job. His cause for all this remains mere conjecture. All that is known is his name, found within the Hexanomicon. Those black, damned pages dubbed him Fusshigoroth, and through meticulous translation, we’ve identified its meaning in our speech: ‘The King of Madness.’

“With deliberate, rehearsed movements, I lifted my arm to raise my cloak away from the hilt of my blade in its scabbard. With my other hand, I squeezed the handle and began to steadily draw it forth. The moment the blade began to surface, a white, heavenly glow emanated from within the lacquered holster. With every inch it exited afterward, a brighter, whiter light escaped to bathe the air around me in a star-like radiance. At half-drawn, its shine fully encompassed the width of the plateau, even starting to rival the lightning in the sky. When at last fully free from its sheath, the light seemed to shrink away, concentrating into the long, needle-thin blade of my rapier. Darkness once again befell the plateau, revealing Fusshigoroth’s watchful crimson stare on me.

“I held my sword at the ready, bringing my second hand around the handle, sliding my feet to shoulder width across the rain-slick ground, and lowering my center of gravity. At that, the tentacles hanging like curtains over Fusshigoroth’s mouth writhed. They pushed apart to reveal an O-shaped mouth, a terrible yawning cavern lined with jagged fangs as far back as I could see. From its depths, loud enough to cause the waves miles beneath the plateau to crash against its ebony walls, spraying whitewater as high as its head, emerged a cataclysmic din. The sheer soundwaves of the creature’s roar pushed back the rain, forming a bubble of dryness around both it and me. As the noise landed against my ears, an odor flooded my nostrils, one more chilling than any strong or pungent stench. Instead, a rusty, salty aroma permeated my consciousness with vistas of spilled blood and fallen tears. I remembered every life sacrificed to bring me to that very moment, atop the highest peaks of Fu’Ryeh, facing the King of Madness at long last, brandishing the weapon that would spell his doom.

“When Fusshigoroth’s tentacles fell back to cover its maw and the last echoes of his roar faded from the air, the waves fell beneath the plateau and the rain resumed falling. Immediately, the moment’s urgency was followed by the creature bounding forward. His massive arm reached above the plateau. Countless tentacles and fibers knotted at the end: a colossal, grotesque fist, aimed straight at where I stood. Drawn from the sky and coagulating across its nebulous surface gathered bolts of lightning.

“A new din entered my ears, one that drowned out all others: my own pulse.

“Man’s fate was riding on me. This world’s future was riding on me. And fear never once crossed my conscience.

“I creased my brow. My eyes spread to their fullest width. My foot slid forward, adding momentum to my next movement while I felt my body’s energy pool into my arms. The ones that would bring my sword swinging down.

“The second the tip of my blade descended an inch, a shrill whistle swallowed the storm’s noise. A white light, more blinding than any before witnessed, washed across the entire scene. And just at that moment, I-”

The writing ended with a tear. A careful set of eyes studied the frayed, diagonal edge of the page for a prolonged moment before slowly returning to the top. A thumb, an identical colorless pale as the sheet, smoothed over the header:

“March 15, 1937 - HPL.”

~~~

A mechanical rumble spread through the air. A rusty winch, belonging to an even rustier crane suspended over the churning waves gyrated slowly. Gathered near the railing, watching the iron-woven rope dipped in the water slowly tugged aboard, stood a huddle of bodies. Each donned jackets, draped over their bodies like canvasses, comprised of a chewy leathery material that repelled the light drizzle and the whitecap’s spray. Beneath their long, hanging hoods were faces, each uniquely unkempt. Some profiles hosted scraggly beards while others just patchy fuzz. All complexions were washy and pale, complementing the grey overcast clouds, the fishy smell riding upon the frigid salty air, and their dreary eyes. What shone through their sunken cheeks and lethargic visages, however, was the eagerness brimming on each of their faces as they saw the ascending rope begin to split into branching woven patterns.

The gargantuan offshore rig upon which they stood rose high out of the water on a set of winding, towering legs of scaffolding like awkward stilts. As it loomed over the churning waves, the myriad of cranes marking its perimeter cast their lines far below. And every hour upon the hour, like the tallies of a clock, one crane would dredge aboard its net and the yield within. The event never failed to draw the full participation of the rig’s crew, such as with that instant, with every withered yet hopeful face watching the net surface one inch at a time.

But instead of full as they’d hoped for, all they found were hanging bits of seaweed from the empty mesh. At that, the group recited a unanimous, disappointed groan. Some departed from the railing to sulk about the platform. Some even gathered near the adjacent crane, eager to grab spots for the next hourly spectacle. One of the men leaned forward, resting his elbows against the rusted steel railing and cupping his temple in his rugged paws.

“It’s hopeless…” He moaned. “Out here for days and not even a mackerel to show for it!”

“Hey,” Another voice cut in. “What’s that?”

The man’s head lifted away from his palms to watch the last of the net rise from the waves. There, resting against its very bottom, lay a small, singular entity.

“I’m not sure,” he said while his posture perked up. “But let’s find out!”

Every fisherman about the rig assembled near the crane again in a dense half-circle. They resumed their still, observant postures and watched its boom swing forward over the platform so that the raised net hung over their heads. Underneath, as seawater dripped from the net onto their faces, landing like drops of rain, they stared perplexed at what lay within.

The largest and most obvious component resembled a typical octopus, if not slightly larger. Complete with a wide, spongy dome and long, hanging tentacles. What set it apart, however, was what appeared to be fixed to the creature below its bulbous head: a stout, sapioid body with two stumpy legs, two even stumpier arms, and a tiny set of leathery bat wings sprouting from its back. Each appendage comprised of the same rubbery green texture as the octopus, indicating that both parts belonged to the same creature. Within the net, it lay limp and motionless while the fishermen below continued to study it. Though the longer they did, the more puzzled their expressions grew.

After a few more prolonged moments of perplexed silence, long musing, and awkward blinks, the first fisherman finally opened his mouth to utter, “What in the name of Fu’Ryeh did we fish up?”

“Sure isn’t anything of this world. Could it be a UT?” Said another.

“Well, either it’s a species that belongs to earth, or it’s an Unspeakable Terror. But I dunno, it’s not as grotesque or indescribable as the other UTs we drag aboard.”

While a confused mumble started to spread through the crowd, one of the sailors shut his eyes and shook his head. “Of all the ungodly creatures the King of Madness unleashed upon the world, you really think this is one of ‘em?” He whispered in a gruff, distant tone.

A sudden shaky finger shot above the crowd’s heads toward the net. “Hey, look at that!” Exclaimed the pointing fisherman. His astonished eyes bulged from their sockets as they spied the caught specimen. “It’s moving! It’s alive!”

The throng bowed forward and squinted their eyes to obtain a closer look. Together, they watched as the netted fins on either side of the creature’s head twitched while its chest rose and fell as if to breathe. However, the eyes they spied remained closed and not a sound emerged from the creature’s hidden mouth.

“It looks like it’s unconscious. I didn’t even know UTs slept. Whenever we drag one of those aboard, either it’s dead or it’s trying to make us dead.”

One fisherman drew down his hood to scratch the back of his hairless head. “What do you think we should do with it?” He mumbled tiredly. “Sell it? Throw it back?”

“I’m thinking we sell it.” Suggested one. “Who knows? Maybe some sicko will pay a good price for a live one.”

“Well, since I’m ninety-nine percent certain that this thing ain’t from any genus this side of the planet, that means we gotta sell it as Unspeakable Terror meat.” Said one fisherman, sweeping his gaze across his comrades while rubbing his hands together. “And you know what that means, dontcha?”

“Ready ship M-A! Chart a course for Outsmouth Harbor Settlement!” One of the deckhands chanted, splitting from the group to march dutifully toward the tower at the center of the rig.

“On the double!” The same man called after him, voice ringing with a mix of urgency and unease. “I don’t want this thing to be aboard if it decides to wake up!”

~~~

Beneath a black mesh net crowded a cluster of swollen, patchwork balloons. They held aloft a gondola, equally patchwork in nature, with walls comprising of scrap that appeared to belong to other airships at some point. A veranda consisting of scaffolding wrapped around the perimeter of the pod, held to its exterior by metal coils. From beneath the zeppelin protruded a braided, winding mass of exhaust pipes. They rose steeply on either side of the craft like a pair of wings while emitting a slow trail of black fog and a low, steady chug, elevating the vessel high above the churning ocean waves. A wide, fin-shaped rudder protruded from the back, splattered with a coat of high-contrast red paint and black, cursive letters spelling “Red Alert.”

Through one of the round porthole windows of the Red Alert, within one of its rooms, a surface of silk emitted soft whispers, stirred by something sluggish underneath. At the same time, a low, guttural groan emerged from its depths, its full volume muffled. Though directionless at first, the amorphous stirring moved on a set course. That course eventually led to a ninety-degree threshold, off which it clumsily slid and landed with a thump against the carpeted floor.

Roused from the fall, the source of the shifting erupted from the ground. The harsh ascent cast the silk blanket away to reveal a girl. Her bloodshot, sleep-ringed sapphire eyes, although half-closed, were large in diameter. Her skin emanated a burnished bronze hue with darker freckles dotting her cheeks under her eyes. Her frame was stout with her weight distributed evenly through her compact, stocky build. Her exhausted, deadpanned expression permeated the air with gloom.

After pulling apart her curtains of bouncy, wavy black hair, she reached for the pair of glasses sitting on the nightstand next to her. To match the width of her eyes appropriately, each circular lens was roughly the diameter of baseballs. She slid her glasses up the bridge of her shallow, slightly upturned nose and swept her sleepy gaze across her setting.

The narrow walls of the compact room hid behind semi-translucent sheets of fabric and pages displaying chicken scratch scrawling. The sheets were a similar texture to the kind hanging from the canopy of the bed, occupying the entire length of the wall to her left. The walls of the bed were comprised of tufted leather that shimmered in the room’s sparse light, adorned with matte metal studs and varnished wood. Taking up the full width of the opposite wall stood a drawer hosting a plethora of shelves. Each displayed an inlaid carving in its wood and delicately crafted iron handle. Upon its waist-high surface crowded a host of items: a tin tray housing a ceramic tea set, a series of glass vials, each swimming with a different colored substance, several candles all giving off a steady blue flame, partially melted into their iron candlesticks, and a tall, glass dome under which sat a book. Unlike the volumes that scattered the ground amidst her lace, gothic garments, the leather-bound book beneath the dome was in surprisingly peak condition. The binding showed no folded indications of ever being opened.

As to be expected, every surface of the tight quarters from the sheets hanging from the walls, the dresser’s wood, the teacup’s varnish, the lace carpet, and even the garments scattered across the floor were all nearly the same tone: black.

It only took the girl two steps to reach the wall in front of her where a curtain hung. Drawing it open, she uncovered the iron porthole riveted into the coarse, steel wall that viewed the outside of the Red Alert. Her gaze sank. Visible beneath hanging layers of fog far below, she spied the constant churning of whitecapped waves. Not so much as a rock protruding from the tides could be seen to account for any land. Next, she raised her chin to peer above where she spied the plethora of crimson balloons, all held down by that ratty, woven net like they were about to escape. Through the five-inch pane of glass, her ears faintly detected the engine’s steady chugging. That’s when she registered the gentle, weightless sway of the floor beneath her.

The next sound she heard cut cleanly through the air: a knock at the door, as deep and resonant as an iron gong. She turned around, slinked five steps in the opposite direction to reach the other proximate wall, and pulled apart the black lace curtains. A steel entrance stood tall before her, the type one would usually find on a submarine. She cranked the bronze wheel that acted as a doorknob hard and with a low groan, drew it open.

The woman waiting on the other side nearly reached the height of the seven-foot-tall entrance while her taut, muscular frame reached its width. Donned over her brawny figure was a plain white nightgown. Straight, golden hair spilled past her waist. Once the door opened, she practically toppled inside, scooped up the comparatively puny girl, and pulled her into her armpit.

“Rise and shine, Charlotte!” She sang, her angelic voice carrying a note of innocent fun. Not registering the fun of the situation, Charlotte thrashed about within her iron grip.

Once she broke free from the headlock, Charlotte aimed her enraged glare up toward the woman’s face, seeing her harmless, pale blue eyes and cheeky smile. “Would you stop doing that every time I wake up, Vrida!” She hissed, continuing to catch her breath.

“Hey, it isn’t my fault you keep opening the door for me!” Vrida snickered, raising her hands as if a gun had been drawn on her. “Can I apologize by making you some tea?”

“I suppose…” The edge in Charlotte’s tone sank to a low murmur. She rolled her eyes and shuffled tiredly toward her bed.

As Vrida wafted toward the tea set on the vanity, Charlotte sat down and rubbed one eye, peeking through the window with the other.

“Another gloomy day?” Vrida asked, sprinkling the crushed herbs into the iron mesh catcher.

“The weather hasn’t changed in three hundred years. What makes you think it’ll change now?” Charlotte sighed.

“With that attitude, it won’t.” Said Vrida matter-of-factly. Charlotte habitually rolled her eyes again.

“Right. Because the hex that engulfed the world in never-ending rain, thunder, and darkness is partial to wishful thinking.”

Vrida turned around and approached Charlotte on the bed, pinching the handles of teacups in each hand. She sat beside her, causing its chassis to creak under her weight.

“It doesn’t hurt, is what I’m saying.” After Vrida handed Charlotte the vessel, they both took a sip.

“I guess the weather could be worse.” Charlotte said, the edge in her tone disarmed by the calming brew. “I mean, it does match the whole look I’m going for.” Her gaze shifted from the overcast clouds outside back to the gothic aesthetic of her room.

“Even this look?” Vrida said, holding a wide, laminated poster in front of Charlotte’s eyes. It depicted a muscular young man whose fair complexion closely matched the alabaster of his slicked-back hair, flowing white garments, and tempting, silver eyes. A haughty smirk flaunted the outline of his high cheekbones. So much blood rushed to Charlotte’s cheeks, it was by sheer miracle it didn’t come pouring out of her nose.

“Don’t touch that!” Charlotte belted, snatching the poster out of Vrida’s hands. “Where’d you find that anyway!”

“Next to your tea set. Did you forget to take it to bed with you?” Vrida laughed as Charlotte scrolled the paper and stowed it from view underneath the sheets of her bed. “Anyway, I just swung by to tell you that the Boss wants to see us.”

“Why’s that?” Charlotte asked, the rosy pigment in her cheeks subsiding. “A new job?”

“Hopefully. It’d be our first in over a month.”

“I hope so too. I’ve been itching for something to do.”

“If you really want something to do, it wouldn’t hurt to tidy up.” Vrida mumbled, casting her judgmental gaze over the floor littered with garments and books. “Or is that part of your aesthetic too?”

After Charlotte guzzled the rest of her tea, she stuck her tongue out at Vrida and marched out of the room through the open steel door. Vrida quietly swallowed the last of hers, placed it on the nightstand, and followed.

The two disembarked into the hallway, which closely resembled the style of the heavyset door, porthole window, and the Red Alert’s exterior as a whole than that of Charlotte’s quarters. The floor consisted of lusterless steel grates that peered down into a mess of iron tubes leading in the direction of the corridor. The bare walls exposed knots of wiring, most feeding the ceiling’s light fixtures. The coiling filaments of each bulb gave off a weak, sickly yellow glare.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re in desperate need of work since Boss gives us salary anyway. Even during dry spells like this.” Charlotte remarked over her shoulder at Vrida, earning a shallow nod.

“That is if this even is a job.”

The two only walked a short duration before reaching an identical door at the corridor’s end. Vrida turned the wheel and swung it open into the room. Although much larger than Charlotte’s, its dimensions were occupied by very little. A plain, wooden desk stood at one undecorated wall. A mattress lay on the floor next to the other. And in the center, a chair faced the panoramic window overlooking the churning sea. Only the natural light shining through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall and the weak glow coming from the hallway quelled the room’s dreary darkness. In the sparse light, Charlotte and Vrida could faintly discern the top of a head of ruffled white hair and a tall, bulky silhouette seated in the chair, hardly visible in the window’s blurry reflection.

“Morning, Boss!” Vrida cried, her jovial voice clashing with the bleak tone of the room. “Charlotte’s here with me now like you asked!”

“So what is it?” Uttered Charlotte. “A job?”

A low, raspy “No,” emerged from the chair. Both girls perked a confused brow. “I want you to go into town and pick up something for us to eat tonight. That is all.”

“That’s all?” Charlotte scoffed, almost in disbelief. “But there aren’t any settlements for hundreds of miles. And the only land with sustainably-grown food is on the other side of the planet.”

“Not necessarily.” The figure in the chair said. “The Red Alert’s on a set course toward a harbor settlement named Outsmouth. We’ll be arriving there shortly. The produce there will suffice.”

“But Outsmouth’s only exports are UT meat!” She protested. Both her and Vrida’s postures snapped out straight when they saw the silhouette in the window’s reflection stir, as if calmly adjusting its composure.

“Be thankful there’s any food near us at all.” The Boss whispered with a deadly calm to his tone. “And be thankful that Unspeakable Terrors are somewhat safe for human consumption.”

“You sure? UT meat never goes down easy for me.” Vrida remarked.

“I’m in the mood for something octopus-shaped.” Boss continued. “If they have any.”

“Oh, that’ll be easy! All UTs have some number of tentacles! C’mon, Charlotte, let’s go before the rush!”

Vrida proceeded to grab Charlotte by her forearm and yank her out of the chamber before she had time to register her words, let alone squirm in protest. As she was whisked into the hallway by Vrida, she spied the Boss’s murky reflection one last time in the distant window.

~~~

The smell of fish lingered like a cloud, suffocating the cold, dreary atmosphere. Not even the metallic scent of misty rain helped to quell it. All the way down the boulevard, a layer of wetness washed over nearly every surface. From the people’s waxy skin, the damp concrete walkways, every condemned, half-collapsed building that lined the block, to the slick tarp, wood, and steel panel rooftops, all shimmered in the drizzle. The hungry squawk of seagulls rang audibly overhead amidst the slow, tired shuffle occupying the plaza and the loud chug, whistle, hum, and clanging of boats at the adjacent dock.

Side by side, Charlotte and Vrida took in the scene of dreary greens, browns, and greys. Having changed out of her pajamas, Charlotte donned a black lace button-down blouse and leggings, though her plaid miniskirt, suspenders, bow tie, leg warmers, and the ribbons used to gather her hair into two braided buns highlighted her outfit with tones of bright red. Vrida, meanwhile, donned a blouse, pencil skirt, and tall ruby pumps, raising her stature even higher.

“So this is Outsmouth!” Vrida sighed wistfully. Her pink lips resiliently formed a smile, as if the setting’s drab atmosphere failed to reach her.

“Mhm.” Charlotte murmured, making no attempt to hide the disgust in her voice.

“Looks a little sparse, don’t you think? Plenty of buildings but not enough people to occupy them.”

“Well haven’t you heard of the Look?” Charlotte asked. The two matched eyes and Vrida gave a shallow shake of her head, her smile sinking. “Well, some say it’s a disease. Others say it’s the rough conditions here. But every generation or so, all around the same time, half of the population dies from a type of degenerative disorder.”

“Really?” Vrida batted her eyes in mild surprise. “Dies?”

“Dead, missing, it makes no difference. But one thing that is for sure is that the ones who disappear have a different look about them. Their stature is generally shorter and squatter. Their skin, a bit rougher. Their eyes, a little too big to close. Large hands and feet, lots of… yeah, you know. The locals have their superstitions but honestly, I just think hanging around a place like this can do that sort of thing to people.”

Vrida examined the people passing by her. Opposite Charlotte’s description, however, she saw most reaching average stature with relatively normal complexions. Their eyes, rather than large and glassy, seemed sunken and shriveled within their skulls. “I don’t think these people look all too strange. Not to say they look normal either. Just not like what you described.”

“That’s because I’ve heard the Look epidemic struck just a few weeks ago and took away half the town.”

“So all that’s left are the ones who don’t have it?”

“Until the population starts to rise again. As if this place didn’t already give me a bad feeling…” The hairs on the back of Charlotte’s neck bristled. “Let’s just find the market and get out of-”

Her words were cut short when a shrill, distant voice caught her ears. “Look, mommy!” It cried. “Inspectors!

Charlotte and Vrida both turned toward the voice, seeing one of the child pedestrians aiming his small finger straight at the two of them. The tall, willowy woman beside him stared right back at them, as did the crowd in their immediate vicinity. The more eyes gathered on them, the further Charlotte shrunk into herself, raising her shoulders up to her ears and leaning her head away as if hoping to hide behind some imaginary wall. When the crowd spied them, their downcast eyes seemed to brighten, and it wasn’t long before they were upon them.

Forming a tight ring around the pair, the townsfolk emitted a deafening clamor of fawning voices.

“Please!” Charlotte heard one cry from the crowd. “What’s your advice for an aspiring Inspector like me?”

“What’s wrong with this Hexanomicon?” Another bellowed, clutching a stack of brown papers stapled together between two sheets of cardboard.

“Do you know the Blanche Barons?

“Haven’t these people ever seen Inspectors before?” Charlotte whimpered, scooting closer toward Vrida who embraced the crowd with a relaxed posture and warm smile.

“Probably not.” Vrida answered out of the corner of her mouth. “None of these townsfolk can probably afford to hire one.”

“Make way!” Boomed a voice., audibly further distant than the edge of the crowd but compensating for its distance in sheer volume. A hush fell over the plaza, their shouting queries supplanted by uneasy silence. “I said move aside!” Thundered the same tone. Little by little, the crowd’s eyes broke away from Charlotte and Vrida to face the direction of the voice. There, its owner made his strolling approach.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked, rising to her tiptoes in an attempt to see over the wall of bodies in the direction they faced.

That was when the crowd began to part little by little, forging a path through them toward where they stood. Through that opening, Charlotte spied him: a rotund man with a head that was made puny by comparison. A set of wide mutton chops was all that accounted for his hair. His jowl hung beneath his wide, grinning mouth. A crisp, burgundy three-piece suit donned his broad silhouette. As he swaggered in through the opening in the crowd, approaching Charlotte and Vrida, his globe-shaped eyes seemed to pop from his skull, almost as if they were too large to contain.

“Friends, welcome!” He bellowed, forgetting to turn down the volume of his excited voice. His arms raised to either side like he planned to embrace the two girls in a hug. “Allow me the pleasure of introducing myself: I am Phil Gilman, the mayor of Outsmouth! And I must say, it’s been quite a long time since we’ve been graced by the presence of bonafide Inspectors! Even I can’t remember the last time.”

“Weird how everyone seems to know we’re Inspectors.” Charlotte thought, knitting her thick brows in suspicion.

“So please, make yourselves at home in our humble little Outsmouth, and if there’s anything you need, don’t be shy to let me know!”

“That’s ok,” Charlotte said immediately, feigning a smile. “We were just-”

“Actually, we were hoping you could point us in the direction of the marketplace. We hear your selection of UT is unlike anywhere else!” Vrida beamed genuinely. Charlotte spun toward her and scowled.

“Why, absolutely! It’s two blocks down on Market Street. You cannot miss it!” Gilman puffed out his chest, preening like a peacock.

“Convenient naming.” Charlotte mumbled inaudibly.

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor! We’ll be on our way now.”

“Of course, of course.” Gilman nodded graciously before turning to the crowd. “You heard our guests! Get out! Leave them be to shop in peace!” He impatiently barked.

Accordingly, as a disappointed mumble spread through the crowd, they began to disperse and resume along the boulevard. Once their path was clear, Charlotte and Vrida set out down the street again. Behind them, the mayor lingered. His tangerine-sized eyes continued to settle on them strangely as the edges of his broad, frog-like lips began to sink.

Charlotte and Vrida hung a left after two blocks, according to the mayor’s directions, entering onto Market Street. There, bodega stands lined their path. Within their street-facing open walls, grotesquely indescribable mounds of pallid flesh hung from rusty iron hooks, limp and lifeless. Their shapes were grim parodies of limbs found on other creatures: talons, trunks, hooves, some with hair, others with scales, but all with an inexplicably otherworldly nature about them. The rugged, equally-lifeless vendors stared idly at the shoppers that shuffled tiredly through the arcade. The fishy smell abundant earlier seemed to subside on Market Street, replaced by the more distinct odor of rotting flesh.

“Boss wants us to find a meal here?” Charlotte’s expression crinkled in disgust.

They began taking cautious steps down the boulevard, roving their eyes across the selection, but it wasn’t long before Vrida halted.

“Look!” She exclaimed, pointing her finger at a vendor stand to their right. “An octopus!”

Charlotte’s sight followed Vrida’s finger and found it, hanging from a shallow eave of one store by what appeared to be its leg by a length of rope. At less than three feet tall, its entire body seemed to be in one piece, though utterly devoid of movement. From its upside-down head dangled a mass of tentacles, nearby the creature’s two arms and single unfastened leg. Charlotte raised a single questioning brow.

“That thing?” She adjusted the angle of her lenses. “It barely looks like it can feed one of us, let alone all three. C’mon, let’s keep looking.”

“Let’s just get it, Charlotte! It’s so cute!” Vrida grinned, bouncing excitedly on her heels like an amused child.

“You know we’re supposed to be eating it, right?”

Without acknowledging her, Vrida pranced toward the stand. She leaned forward to meet the tired-looking vendor at eye level and asked, “How much for the octopus-shaped one?” She nodded her head toward the pint-sized UT strung up beside him.

“That?” The man glanced at it. “Three tokens.”

“What!?” With the sound of a meteor, Vrida brought her fists down upon the counter, startling the clerk from half-asleep to fully lucid. “Three tokens for that? It’s gotta be at least five!”

“Ok…” The man uttered slowly, puckering his brow. “Five tokens.”

“Make it seven.” Vrida snapped. A slimy smile began to creep across the seller’s face.

“Eight…?”

“Ten. Final offer.” Vrida folded her arms. Behind her, Charlotte lowered her face into her palms in shame.

“Fine.” The merchant gave a feigned forlorn sigh while sporting an uncontrollable leer. “You have yourself a deal.”

After the clerk untied the creature from the ceiling, lowered it into a paper bag, and handed it to Vrida, she slapped ten hexagon-shaped coins onto the counter and snatched the bag from his hands. “Thank you!” She sang, marching away toward Charlotte with a skip in her step.

“Vrida?”

“Yes, Charlotte?”

“What the hell did you just do? You’re supposed to haggle down, not up!” The vein bulging across Charlotte’s temple looked three seconds away from bursting.

“I was feeling generous. Plus I don’t wanna hurt this guy’s feelings by paying less for him than he’s really worth.” Vrida said, holding open the bag and peering inside.

“Whatever, let’s just get back to the ship…”

As Charlotte stormed off and Vrida followed her, she continued peering inside the paper bag at the creature. The longer she studied it, the lower the edges of her smile sank and the deeper her brows creased.

“Say Charlotte,” Vrida murmured. “Doesn’t this guy kind of look like the King of Madness?”

“Nobody knows what the King of Madness looks like.” Groaned Charlotte, leaning her head back in frustration.

“But people have speculated. Octopus head, sapioid body, some kind of grey-ish green hue, he’s even got lil’ wings!”

“And again, the only person to have seen the King of Madness was Howard-Pierre LaBlanche three hundred years ago, right before he killed him with the White Blade of Oblivion.”

“Well, I think he looks like him.” Vrida smiled again. She raised her voice a full octave in pitch in a tone clearly meant for the UT in the bag. “Isn’t that right, Shigo?”

Charlotte slowed her march to peer over her shoulder at Vrida, a bewildered look wide across her face. “Shigo? You named it?”

“Yeah, you know,” Vrida said, looking up at her. “Like as in Fusshigoroth.

Charlotte’s eyes seemed to grow to the size of golf balls. Through gritted teeth, she shushed her loudly, but at that point it was far too late. What conversation there was about the plaza fell silent in an instant. All around, terrified eyes snapped toward Vrida. Both she and Charlotte froze, feeling an air of guilt sweep over them.

Before they had time to steep in the wrought tension for much longer, a pile of empty glass bottles to the side of the road stirred. From the stack rose a man, previously buried underneath. His skin shared the pigment and consistency as butcher paper, stretched thin over his skeletal frame. From his impossibly gaunt face sprouted patchy growths of hair and beard, both a ghostly white hue. Brown patchwork rags hung loosely off his body and the scent of pure ethanol emanated off him, like it comprised of his entire soul. His crazed, hollow eyes locked onto Vrida, now clutching the paper bag in a taut, worried fist. Like a zombie, he staggered toward her, his gums flapping noiselessly as if he’d forgotten how to speak. Finally, a frothy, bile-choked voice emerged from the depths of his sunken chest.

“He shall return!” He croaked. The terror in his cadence instantly lifted goosebumps across every inch of Charlotte’s skin. “King Fusshigoroth shall return! No human could quell him, only put him to sleep! Why do I know? Because he's shown me it! Vistas beyond dreams! Truth beyond the boundaries of waking consciousness!” The old man spoke as if the words spilling from his dry lips pained him, like they were covered in thorns. His mad gaze broke away from the pair to dart back and forth across the still, silent crowd. “Now his hour is nigh, and when he sits upon his throne again, I’ll stand atop this drowned city, spared by his grace! Because I know that those who dream of madness shall prosper, and those who indulge in the lies and vices of the Inspector menace have numbered days before he-”

Abruptly, the man careened upward as if the gravity had been flipped. His body flailed weightlessly upward for only a moment before his head smashed against the rooftop above him. Then, he came plunging back down, landing with an anticlimactic thump. Soft, gravely snores emerging from his hanging maw slowly washed away his crazed aura. And as soon as the crowd saw him asleep, they turned away and resumed shambling about their business.

Charlotte lifted her eyes from the man collapsed in a pile beneath her to the thing responsible for his plummet: a long, golden feather suspended in thin air behind where he stood. She watched as it zipped toward her, as if pulled on a string, before disappearing behind Vrida’s back. She shut the book that she now held an inch open at chest-level before tucking it into the black sash belt around her waist. Charlotte shut her eyes and slowly shook her head.

“Crazy cultists.” She grumbled. “We’ll just leave him for the local authorities to mop up.” She and Vrida resumed down the road, past a street-facing tavern to their right. There, a trio of men donning spiffy uniforms adorned with metal badges strewed themselves about the bar like their strings had been snipped. Their faces glowed beat-red, puddles of drool pooled beneath their agape maws, and drunken snores permeated the air. “… As soon as they wake up.”

“Sorry I said that so loud.” Vrida scratched the back of her neck, giving a guilty smile. “I guess seafaring towns like these were hit a lot harder during the King of Madness’s reign. Who knew saying his name would garner this sort of reaction?”

“It’s fine, it looks like we’re almost at the edge of town. Then we’ll be…” Her tone fell away when she glanced behind her at Vrida, pausing in place. Her eyes swelled, glazing over with fear. The edges of her frown pulled taut. Vrida curiously cocked her head to one side at Charlotte’s reaction. “Did you see that?” she mumbled.

“See what?”

With a trembling finger, Charlotte pointed to the bag in Vrida’s hand. “It… just moved…"

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