A day late on the upload of Part 2 ... my apologies! Should be a pretty decent read ... just a reminder this is mainly practice, and as such, rather rough. Going about this unplotted, so the events of this story catch me off guard as much as any reader! It is rather entertaining. Hope Part 2 is as enjoyable as Part 1, as Caitlin and Leon enter the Lost Grove Halfway Home. If you missed the first part, here is a link!
“Well, this is a lot eerier up close.” Caitlin spun her revolvers absently, staring up at the empty windows and shadowed eaves of the building that rose around them. Maybe her eagerness to step foot into the halfway home had been misplaced. The hair at the nape of her neck stood on end, the static-laced air she’d been on the alert for through the wood had finally made itself known. The face of the manor was consumed by rampant overgrowth, the earth itself wrapping the structure, seeking to reclaim it. The reddened light of the moon reflected off a half dozen latticed windows that lined the buildings four apparent stories. She fought the urge to step back, away from the manor, aware from the windows which glared down upon her, Leon, and Ranger like the beady eyes of an arachnid ready to pounce on its prey.
“Does it,” Caitlin felt Leon’s presence at her side, the sounds of his footsteps crunching in the gravel-lined road. The static tingle retreated, replaced by the warm radiance his lantern emitted, “does it remind you of the brood moth—”
“Yes Leon. Yes, it does. Although somethin’ bout this is a damned sight more scarier than a giant spider burstin’ from a church steeple.” The roof was a shamble of mismatched shingles, a weather vane shaped like a bird of some sort squeaked as it shifted at the roof’s apex.
“I hardly see how.”
“You don’t feel it?” Caitlin raised a hand toward the manor as if she were checking a hearth for warmth. Ranger pattered past, nose hugging the ground as he wove toward the steps of the house and came up short of the first stone stair.
“No.” Leon answered flatly, as much an answer to Caitlin as it was a command to the ram hound. He moved beside Ranger, crouching next to the hound and wrapping one arm around its neck in a protective motion.
Caitlin moved up the stairs and around the rusted metal railing that bridged the gaps between chipped columns, the fluctuating surface of gravel replaced by a reassuring firmness. Warm air blew down the concourse scattering leaves across the concrete porch which spanned the front, Caitlin shivered despite herself. The skittering leaves rasped and tittered into the nooks and crannies of the fractured surface. A lone chair groaned at the far end of the porch, rocking idly. It was missing an arm as well as a few gaps in the seat itself.
The static continued to harry Caitlin. What is wrong with this place? She ran a mental checklist of items she’d brought along, her revolvers—of course, the crucifix around her neck, a few silver bullets, a hagstone, and some odd pill-sized statuettes a Cajun seamstress had given her in a trip through New Orleans after Caitlin had fended off a vicious Rougarou who’d taken up residence in a nearby swamp.
“Ranger!” Leon’s voice was hushed anger answer his hound bolted up the stairway. Before Caitlin could react the ram hound had vanished through a break in the wall.
Dammit. Caitlin holstered her revolvers. “Well, I reckon we go in after him.” She placed a hand on the front doors knob, a fine layer of patina obscuring any detail that had once decorated the metal. Caitlin jostled the handle lightly, it gave with ease, opening to a central hallway in which three doors branched off. A wave of musky stale air caused her to recoil, a putrid stench of something—or multiple things—rotting away choked her up. She gagged, stepping back out into Leon who had moved further up the porch.
“What a smell.” Leon shied away from the doorway.
“Dear Lord.” Caitlin felt her eyes begin to water. “Looks like your dog is lost forever L-Leon. I sure ain’t draggin’ myself through that stench.”
“We’ll get used to it.” Leon answered.
“Like hell.” Caitlin grimaced, she forced herself back through the doorway, drawing on of her revolvers. The central hall was much smaller than it had first appeared, going no more than a few yards back into the manor. An ornate chandelier hung in tatters from a vaulted ceiling that vanished behind a veil of miasma, motes of dust dancing in the soft light of the lantern. The floor was a checkered tile pattern, once-white crown molding framing chestnut colored wooden walls. Caitlin suffered through the odor which seemed to seep from the walls.
“Ranger’s probably back this way.” Leon said, he pointed to a door that hugged the wall immediately the right of the entryway.
“Lets go that way then.” Caitlin glanced at the other two doorways. The middle of the three doors rested dead center to the hallway, continuing on a straight path from the front door itself. The leftmost door was along a wall that slanted at an odd forty-five degrees, lending the room an almost triangular shape. A plaque hung at its center. No Patients Permitted, Caitlin felt a return to the feeling of discomfort. Patients. What kind of people had once resided here?
A great crash resounded throughout the manor, distant and muffled, a shower of shattering glass and thumps of who knew what came from somewhere beyond the entryway.
“I found your dog.” Caitlin chuckled. The grip on her Colt had tightened, reflexively she’d dropped to a readied stance, the revolver positioned directly between the two first doors, ready for the unknown to burst forth and meet a lead-filled demise. The speed at which Caitlin could fan the hammer of her revolver had saved her on more than one occasion.
Leon pushed through the first doorway to the right of the entry, revealing a hall illuminated by moonlight, pools of red-silver spotlighting rubble and a myriad of other personal affects that littered the floor. Recessed room doors lined the left side of the hallway, number plaques starting with ONE and working the way up presumably to SIX, faced the windows directly opposite. Maroon drapes were bundled back behind small hooks screwed into the walls.
Caitlin’s eyes scanned the courtyard outside, her wagon appearing on the hill a half mile away as a darkened silhouette against the forest. The breeze from outside buffeted the manor, moaning through cracks in the glass.
“Stop.” Caitlin urged quietly. She pressed beside one of the windows, a hand set against the sill where green and gold wallpaper of a repeating floral pattern clung to the wall, pealing back like skin around brass sconces, revealing the raw flesh of wood beneath. Leon slipped behind her, easing the door to the entryway shut. Steady footfalls crunched on the gravel outside, followed by a churning of gravel as something heavy was dragged across. The footfalls shifted to plodding thumps as whomever was responsible for them stepped up onto the manor’s porch.
The time between each step slowed, a hulking shadow falling across the window, stretching out along the door of room TWO. Who the hell? Caitlin steadied her grip on the Colt she’d drawn. Caitlin could hear ragged breaths being forced out of whomever approached as the footsteps grew ever closer, the shadow twisting and dancing over side tables which lined the hall.
Caitlin flinched backward as an arm nearly as thick as her head flashed past the window, black surgical gloves stretched up to its elbows, tattered off-white tunic hanging loosely over a hefty mass that belied slabs of dense muscle. The figure lurched past the window, continuing toward the end of the porch. Slow as molasses Caitlin dared not breathe as she watched. Broad shoulders seemed to connect directly to the man’s head, forgoing any neck. Tangles of matte brown hair tumbling down in patches from his head. Maybe it had just been a trick of the moonlight, but Caitlin could’ve sworn there was a green twinge to his flesh—it’s flesh—which was made even more unhuman by its unsettling gait. The thing was massive as a buffalo, maybe even an elephant. Caitlin had never seen one in person, but she’d heard about the large animals, and seen a few pictures of some. Maybe not that big. She shook her head.
“What do you think he’s doing?” Leon asked.
“That’s a hell’ova lot of blood.” Caitlin muttered. She’d seen enough, and shed enough, to recognize the crusted stains of blood that marred the fabric of the orderly tunic. “I’m not s—” Caitlin’s words died on her lips as the hatcheted corpse of a middle aged man came into view, fresh blood gleaming from the deep gouges lining his face, tendrils of flesh hanging loosely where his jaw had been removed. The monstrous thing that plodded along dragged the corpse behind him, dragging the jaw-less corpse by a fistful of leather jacket. A trail of blood and other bodily fluid reflected off the broken concrete.
“Goodness!” Leon gasped, then clamped a hand across his mouth as if caught off guard by his own reaction. Caitlin winced, his tone hadn’t quite been a whisper.
The monstrosity stopped. Wavering atop its two stumpy legs as if listening for more noise. Caitlin felt Leon step away from behind her, receding into the shadowy corner of the hallway. As he shifted his weight, the wooden floor let out an agonized groan.
The monstrosity turned.
“Full moon.” Leon Hunt sat back on his hands atop the jostling wagon, staring up at a sky laden heavy with thick clouds, swollen fat with rain. Ranger, and Lee, their two ram hounds rested with their heads buried in his lap.
“Blood moon. Always an interesting sign.” Caitlin added, comforted by the familiar weight of her twin Colt Navy 1851 revolvers which dangled at her side. As she spoke the words a phantom of gun smoke, distant in memory haunted her, the bitter taste on her tongue. Her grip tightened on the wagon reins, damp to the touch recalling the comforting kick of the weapons—a recoil she knew, and loved. The last time she’d seen a blood moon had definitely been an interesting course of events. She’d have sworn the tips of her revolvers almost matched the glow of the moon before her ammo had been spent, and the body of the wendingo convulsed a final time.
She stared up at the crimson body that watched down upon them tinting the frame of clouds red and lighting the trail where it forked a few yards ahead. She regarded the paths which cut through tall grasses, swaying to the periodic breeze. The left-most path continued on over the only hill they’d come across in the past hour, to presumably more flat expanse of Texan wilderness. The other pathway veered right, shadowed by twisted canopies of birch trees which grew from the hillside stretching off toward the northern horizon. Through slits of moonlight Caitlin caught the glittering surface of a river which flowed black through the wood, labored groans of the wagon which groaned beneath its full load nearly overpowered the low, heavy rumble of water. Where’s the source? Caitlin squinted through the trees to no avail. However odd the river’s presence was, its origin didn’t really matter right now. Water was water, its origin was probably deep in the wood known but to the sprites and other fay who possibly called the region home.
“Which way?” Leon’s words pulled her from her thoughts.
“Water’s right. So we go right.”
“I’m sure we’re only a mile or two from the next town.” He sounded almost pleading, hastening to unfolded a table map he’d picked up in one of the last towns before she could guide the wagon down the path Caitlin would claim to be too narrow to turn around easily.
“Don’t be a baby.” Caitlin guided Bitty to the right, the large blue roan horse responded quickly. She glanced at the map in Leon’s lap, the markings he’d made of their presumed course all but invisible as the trees began to block out the moonlight’s full glow. From where they sat perched on a seat the formed the first two feet of a stowage notch cut into the wagon’s roof, the threat of an errant branch was almost enough to make her want to walk alongside Bitty, but the threat of being further exposed to the unknown dangers down below convinced her to take her chances with the branches. She slumped slightly lower. It’s warmer here with the hounds too. “Is my canteen over there?” They plunged fully into the shadowed path, the rumble of the black river grew.
“If I could see, I would tell you.” She heard Leon’s searching hands thumping around the smattering of supplies secured against the hand railing and anchor bolts that lined the roof.
“It is pretty dark.” Caitlin managed to slump even lower. She was already shorter than Leon, a mere five six to his six two or so, at this angle she was level with the top of his elbow, nearly laying flat. Her back pushed into Lee who snuffled a protest and shifted away, taking his precious warmth.
“Can’t find it.”
“Well shoot.” Caitlin scowled. The path snaked gently through the woods a few turns before straightening, the river running alongside a few yards off, moonlight revealing a dense thicket of skeletal tree limbs and brush separating them. “Well, once we find a nice spot to stop and fill up I’ll check in the wagon. I think I see the end of the wood up ahead anywho. Rather quicker than I expected.” Much too quick. She’d not noticed any breaks in the swathe of trees from where they’d been. A pang of unease grew within her, she cast wary eyes to the edges of the dirt path. The air felt normal, any thickness or static that could possibly give away the presence of sorcery or a concealing enchantment conspicuously absent. Reckon you just weren’t in the right position. Yea, that’s it.
“At least we’ll have some light again.”
The pathway leveled and widened as they neared the end of their forested tunnel, Caitlin sat upright, awash in returned moonlight. The small forest of birches was actually a ring around a small valley, the flat horizon they’d been treated to on their journey so far had vanished, replaced by by the bristling uneven peaks of trees and domed clusters of birch leaves. The shadowed arboreal crowds looking more like a crowd of onlooking giants staring down into the grassy vale.
And the tumbledown ruins that inhabited its center.
“We can find water in there.” Caitlin felt the snares of curiosity seize her, excitement welling up within. The caution stoked by the peculiar wood all but vanished. “Yes, I think that’s where we shall look.”
“The river is—” Leon began.
“River be damned, I want to look in that overgrown sprawl Leon. Who knows what secrets it keeps.” The space below was a grand mess of courtyard walls, turrets, and colonnades. A manor house inhabiting the central courtyard, its windows black and porches empty. It was more a fortress than the typical plantation house or countryside dwelling. A conservatory stretched along one side of the manor, vanishing around a corner. Through the moonlight Caitlin could see the silhouettes of vegetation within, pressed against the glass. The glint of moonlight accented a few panes which were shattered along the roof, thick vines reaching through the breaches as if some leviathan plant was trying to hoist itself free.
“That’s what I’m afraid of Cait’.” He sighed, then grabbed her by the wrist and pointed.
Caitlin startled at his sudden movement, but kept quiet following the direction he indicated to where a short red brick wall jut up from the dirt angled slightly backward as it toyed with the idea of collapse. “Lost Grove Halfway Home.” She looked at Leon who stared with apprehension at the sprawl below. "Which area should we poke around first?"
Caitlin hopped down from her wagon, unlocking the drawers and storage compartments along its side where she stowed extra ammunition, holy water, silver, and all manner of items meant to rebuff the vilest of the vile monstrosities the fay world could throw at her.
“Is no area an option?”
“’Fraid not.” Caitlin frowned and shrugged, checking the satchel on her right side, it was full holding four small vials of cattlemantic brews. “Pick one.”
“Can I stay with the wagon?”
“And leave me to go poking around all by myself?” Caitlin scowled, Lee hopped down from Leon’s side and pattered around her feet. “What happened to chivalry? Protecting your lady folk ‘n what not?”
“It ended when my lady folk—” Caitlin smirked at the awkwardness of the words, “wanted to go poking around a clearly abandoned halfway home. Which, might I be adding, is not marked on the map here. Or, any other map I can recall seeing of the area. For what is probably good reason.”
“Probably.” Caitlin conceded, then turned to head down the path toward the courtyard.
“Is that all you’re going to say?” Leon asked.
Caitlin waved him on. “I want to know why it's not marked.”
I will do my best to be posting new content every Wednesday. Tentatively dubbed "Workshop Wednesday" I will relatively unedited practice pieces I create to work on certain aspects of the writing craft. Bear in mind military service and training schedules are unpredictable and may be cause for the occasional late post.
In the future I plan to have a set schedule for posting about other writing-related things, or topics in my interest field such as Table Top War Gaming and Video Games.
Thank you for your support and feedback!
Matthew Taylor was born February 13, 1991 in Simi Valley, California. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from California State University Channel Islands, where he served as treasurer and briefly President of one of the campus's two political clubs. While earning his degree he continued to write and hone his craft, eventually releasing an initial few short stories on Kindle.