Author's note: A special thanks to MrDupin and JohnathanNash for helping me edit and revise this story in the writer's workshop as well as the developers of Darkest Dungeon for inspiring this attempt at Lovecraftian storytelling.
A Note from the Desk of William Machen:
The foreword to this interview is to provide the Stoker Estate some elucidation on the more unseemly sections of the proceeding interview. For the sake of brevity, a brief detailing of events leading up to the interview has been listed. I was contracted by the Stoker Estate to locate the crew from the latest expedition to inquire about their dereliction of duties, conduct an interview about their failings, and mediate in the termination of their service. After plying the locals around the Providence area, I received some information about the possible whereabouts of one Mr. Howard.
Mr. Howard had been inducted into expedition 5A under the behest of the Stoker family. He had been selected due to his knowledge of the nearby town and his disbelief of the local rumors surrounding the recently purchased Ladd excavation site which had been shut down two decades prior to the Stoker Estate’s involvement and subsequent purchase. The subject of interview was intercepted from the local constable after an incident at a local bar in the Providence area.
Mr. Howard had been sequestered after a violent outburst in a local bar which lead to his expulsion from the establishment. Afterwards he was detained by the local constable when he was witnessed in a state of dishevelment and unseemliness. I was made aware of his location and arrived at the constable’s office to negotiate his release after the proposition of accounting the events of his expedition. He appeared groggy, and suffering the effects of the previous night’s revelries. He initially turned down my inquiry until I made him privy to the fact that I was mediating on the behalf of the Stoker family. It was only then that he began his tale.
The Testimonial of Mr. Howard Regarding the Events of August 20th, 1913
We left that morning in high spirits. We had been promised a great sum for a small deal of work. Our party consisted of myself, Mr. Ambrose Derleth, Mathew Campbell (a name I suspect to be a pseudonym), and Ramsey Hodgson. We had all been enlisted due to our desire for work, easy pay, and familiarity with violence. I was a willing participant in the Border War before being called home to address family matters. Mathew Campbell was likely a sellsword willing to work for the highest bidder. Ambrose Derleth had little experience, but he showed fortitude and an admiration of my brief military history. As for Ramsey Hodgson, he didn’t talk much the night before. He instead chose to keep company at the bar. The damnable Stoker Estate paid us a pittance upfront with the promise of a full payment after the work was done.
(At this point Mr. Howard was advised not to speak ill of his employers, this admonishment did nothing to change his disposition and instead seemed to agitate him further.)
As mentioned, we were paid a paltry sum by the ‘venerable’ estate to lead a small expedition to investigate the claims of workers at the Ladd excavation site. Outfitted with only the most basic weaponry: a Springfield M1903 with a bayonet from my time on the frontier, a bolo knife (which Campbell asserted was all he required or likely the only weapon he had any real proficiency with), and a Colt Single Action Army Revolver. The intrepid Ambrose did not arrive with a firearm, which I suspect was due to his lack of means and financial situation. He instead carried a cudgel that had likely been put to work in the farm for dealing with pests. In the end, the weapons afforded us little hope against what we would encounter down in the darkness of the excavation site.
Having been briefed and provided with details of our excursion, Mr. Hodgson led us through the woods towards the Ladd excavation site. As we journeyed, I regaled Ambrose with tales of my experiences during the Frontier War. He listened wide-eyed and rapt as Mr. Hodgson regarded him with a sad smile. He knew the intrepidness of youth and the tragedy which followed such an attraction to adventure. Upon recollection, the woods have taken on a darker and more sinister tone, whether this is a result of my experience or if it is actually the case, I do not know for certain. The only thing I can say truthfully is that Ambrose noted the presence of a large amount of mistletoe on the surrounding trees and how it seemed to increase as we drew closer to our goal.
Mr. Hodgson briefed us that the ‘esteemed’ Stoker Estate had experiencing a number of workers who had either failed to report in for duty or had fled. Due to the presence of bandits and ne'er-do-wells in the surrounding area we assumed these people had been waylaid and robbed. After a sweep of the woods, we found little to suggest the presence of a raiding party. We saw no signs of camp and nothing to suggest that anything supported the theory of bandits abducting, ransoming, or robbing travelers or workers. It was at this moment that Mathew Campbell suggested we return to the town and collect our reward.
Mr. Hodgson adamantly opposed this idea and proposed the counter-suggestion of exploring the excavation site to ascertain whether or not there was any signs of brigands having set up an encampment there. Mr. Derleth vocally supported this suggestion. As a young man, he assumed everything would be an adventure and would end with the forces of good routing the evil. He was too young to realize how a skirmish with the thieves would only be quick, violent, and wholly unfulfilling. I had learned that lesson already.
I supported the idea and we continued towards the excavation site as a group. Matthew Campbell wasn’t pleased with the outcome, but knew that if he left the party now, he would get nothing upon completion of our task. He did not seem to be in accordance with this turn of events and made his sentiments known to us. Mr. Derleth was so energized by this prospect that he almost danced through the woods as we drew closer to the damnable site. The entire time, he kept inquiring about Mr. Hodgson’s and my experience in combat. I told him a few stories to help pass the time while he listened with attention, hungry for every detail.
As we prepared under the auspices a tree riddled with so much mistletoe that it was near impossible to see the sky under its infestation. The excavation site was devoid of life. The silence of our surroundings hung like a pall over us, yearning to be broken. We decided that a lantern would only serve to alert possible miscreants to our presence so we would press into the deep with only our weapons and our wits. God help us, they were not enough.
(Mr. Howard requested a drink and was promptly denied one due to his circumstances. He became taciturn and refused to continue his recounting of events until something was procured for him. Once a cup of spirits was provided, he drank it in a single draught. He found no respite in the strong drink and he continued his story.)
The excavation site was wholly uninteresting. It was what you would have expected from an abandoned site. The air was thick with dust and agitated our lungs. We refrained from coughing for fear of giving away our position as we ventured deeper into the darkness. A majority of the mining equipment we found had been haphazardly left strewn about the tunnels. As we proceeded deeper, the area grew darker and more difficult to navigate. Still we refused to use the lantern until we could ascertain whether or not brigands were abound. The darkness obscured a lot of detail, but I do remember noting that our uncertainty increased the further we ventured into the depths. Our weapons bought us a small measure of comfort, but the darkness was almost oppressive.
Whereas most of the party was discouraged by the environment, Mr. Derleth pressed on undaunted, driven by the singular promise of adventure and excitement. Mathew Campbell lingered behind the group with furtive movements, as if preparing to take flight at the slightest hint of danger and Mr. Hodgson pressed on with the grim determination of a veteran. We made progress deeper into the site by clinging to the walls and proceeding with caution. It was here where we came across the depths, purely by accident.
Poor Ambrose was the first to discover the descent. His hand slipped into the gap and he went tumbling down into the darkness with a shocked cry. Mr. Hodgson was the first to react. Without a second thought, he threw himself into the hole and slid to the bottom. I moved next and tried to careful navigate the treacherous descent down to the other two. By the time I reached them, Ambrose had regained his senses and with the help of Ramsey, rose to his feet. I surveyed the area around me and noticed that climbing back out of the pit would be a difficult task without rope or means to secure ourselves.
I called up to Mathew to tell him we were unharmed and that he needed to find some means to help us extricate ourselves from our predicament. He promised us he would try to find some rope or some other way to help us out. I requested he slide down the lantern so we may try to find some way out, but he stated that he needed the light to search the area. I tried to protest, but by then the coward had fled and left us in the darkness.
Luckily Mr. Hodgson had a small amount of tinder sticks which could be used to survey our surroundings. He struck the tinder stick and briefly illuminated the pit, which revealed the desperation of our situation. The incline was far too steep to try and ascend with no footholds without risk of falling and badly injuring ourselves. It appeared the excavation had broken through to another cave system while mining the ore out of this one. Before we could make out any more of the area, the light was extinguished by a slight gust.
We watched in despair as the flame on one of our few tinders flickered and went out. Our despair was quickly replaced by Mr. Hodgson’s insightful nature. He reasoned that this deep in the cave, we shouldn’t be subject to air currents so the fact we had just experienced a warm breeze suggested we were close to an exit. Uplifted by this fortuitous news, we proceeded in the direction of the wind.
All thoughts of finding any possible bandits and razing their encampment were forgotten in our search for an exit. We moved slowly through the blackness and groped along the walls to keep on the right track. Ambrose Derleth had suffered a slight sprain in the fall and had a pronounced limp, but our encouragement drove him onwards. We came to the conclusion that we were ill-equipped to deal with our current situation and would need to regroup and request more funding before we were able to mount an effective expedition.
Ramsey led the foray into the blackness armed with only his revolver and a few tinders with Ambrose trailing behind us. The wind was intermittently blowing and drawing us forward down the winding series of tunnels and further away from the light. We walked in complete darkness for a few minutes with nothing but the steady footfalls of our boots before Ramsey decided to ignite another tinder stick. He fished one out of the carton and it was upon striking the second tinder stick that he revealed the man standing before us.
The man was in such a disheveled state he almost appeared like a wretched wight straight from a cautionary tale. I would have put him to the bayonet of my Springfield M1903 had Ramsey not stayed my hand. The man regarded us with wide eyes that appeared almost black from the dilation of his pupils. His clothes were filthy and he was no longer wearing boots. He was dreadfully thin and appeared sickly. Ambrose fearfully inquired about his wellbeing, but the man just looked beyond us with an agape mouth as if in shocked awe at something beyond the veil of normal sight. He mouthed words I could not comprehend with a tone and inflection which seemed completely alien to our group.
All attempts to rouse him from his trance proved fruitless. His experiences and time in the cave had rendered him semi-catatonic and unaware of the world around him. We reasoned that we had come across one of the reported lost miners who had gotten lost in the depths. His harrowing experience had rendered him dumb and deaf to our inquiries. We tried to coax him to come with us, but he stood transfixed facing deeper into the tunnel. We eventually decided we didn’t have the means to free him from his wretched reverie and that we would have to return for him later when we had enough men to prepare a makeshift transport for him.
One memory of the man sticks with me, which is that he wasn’t attired like the local miners who wore thick clothes and cloths around their faces to protect themselves from particulates and dust motes. Instead this man was outfitted in gear more befitting of a traveler or wanderer. Given that no sane man would wander into a cave of their own volition, this leaves me with one essential inquiry, how many expeditions had been sent there before us?
(Mr. Howard’s question was evaded and he was provided with another drink which he gratefully accepted. He once again drank it in a single motion before continuing on.)
We left the catatonic man behind. He refused to be moved closer to the exit where the wind was coming from and we did not have the numbers to forcibly extricate him from that spot. I promised Ambrose we would return for him once we were able to locate and exit and re-group with Matthew. He assented and we continued our descent with trepidation steadily welling up inside us.
I tried to ignore the fact that the air flow was leading us deeper into the darkness and further underground, but with each passing moment, the realization grew stronger. I told myself that the cave would eventually open up on some lowlands and we could see the sun again. The further down we walked, the more close the walls became. We started out being unable to reach either side of the walls, to the point where we could touch them with outstretched arms. Soon it shrunk down so much where we had to walk in single file and squeeze through crevices. Still we pressed onward, following the intermittent puffs of wind, driven by the promise of freedom and light.
The smell was hardly discernible at first, but as the earth closed in around us and the darkness grew, it soon became apparent that the odor could not be ignored. Each time the breeze worked its way through the tight channel, it brought with it a singular smell. We were forced to cover our faces with the sleeves of our clothes to try and shield ourselves from the overpowering sense. I cannot forget that malodorous sensation as long as I live. It was the smell of rot. I assumed we had found the remains of the other men.
Finally after squeezing through a path so tight that we had to draw in our breath just to pass through, we came to a large cavern. I wondered if this was the final chamber before the terminus of this excavation site. The wind had now grown in strength and it buffeted us as we walked further into the abyssal blackness. In the darkness, we could make out something in the center of the chamber amidst a pool of stagnant water.
(Mr. Howard grew despondent at this point in the retelling. After a few moments, I decided to ply him with another drink. It took a moment of coaxing, but I was able to convince him to accept this offer. He drank this cup slowly, as if trying to delay the conclusion of his tale. After he finished with the spirits, he pressed on.)
We all approached it, curious to figure out what the object was. Mr. Hodgson and Mr. Derleth reached the thing first. In their excitement, at the prospect of a new discovery they pushed forward into the murky water. It was my hesitation to enter the stagnant water so hastily which saved me the brunt of the horror. As soon as he was within reach of the object, Mr. Hodgson struck the tinder stick and illuminated the room. Words cannot describe the abomination we witnessed, but I will try for the sake of my final request.
The thing in the center of the room was a large mass of flesh. It looked like a tangled, jumble of sinew, skin, and sin similar to what a carrion bird would disgorge when it had feasted too much on the dead. I could make out fingers and toes, arms and legs, and torsos and heads writhing and wriggling in the abominable amalgamation. The fusion of fetid flesh was covered in a sickly slick viscous layer which encapsulated its form. It pulsed with a fiendish frequency and I thought I could see through the slick layer of membrane to something inside, but I was too far away. Ambrose was not spared that mercy.
Everything seemed to happen at once: Ambrose shrieked as if a searing hot poker had been driven into his nervous system. Off in the distance, I could hear the sound of voices, alerted by Ambrose’s panicked yelling. We were not alone with this thing and something told me we would not want to meet the others. Their voices were distant but I heard enough to identify their ululations and gibbering nonsense as they grew in volume. They almost sounded tribal in nature. The struck tinder stick was extinguished by the wind that thing generated, its breathing. Then the true madness began.
Ramsey drew his revolver in response to the sight of the thing that should not be and fired blindly into its mass. The muzzle flash lit up the cavern in brief bursts and revealed something moving underneath the water towards Ramsey in response to his attack. I tried to shout a warning to him, but he was too busy screaming and trying to reload to heed my words. Before he could finish reloading the revolver, the fleshy mass which was part of the monstrous mound of meat encircled him and pinioned his arms down to his torso.
I charged forward into the water in an attempt to save my compatriot from the amalgam. I stabbed my bayonet into the twisted tendril of tendons, watching it sink in with a sick slushing sound, but it did nothing to weaken its hold on my companion. It held tight to him and constricted his movements. A resulting shriek sounded from the mass and I could hear the others yowling in sympathy as they hastened to the creature’s aid. Ramsey struggled against the flesh as it drew him towards the misshapen mass in the center of the cavern, but it was too powerful.
I could do nothing but watch as the tendril drew him towards the writhing shape and pressed him against the odious orb. Ramsey’s pleas for help turned into incoherent screams as viscous fluid made contact with his skin. Whether the ooze was acidic or just facilitated the fiendish osmosis, I cannot be sure, all I know is how painful it sounded. Ramsey tried to pull himself free and I watched in horror as the skin on the side of his face sloughed off where it had contacted the vile substance, but it clung to him and incorporated him deeper into its mass. At this moment Ambrose reached my side and stood with me before the abomination.
Whereas Ramsey’s military experience had steeled him against such grotesque sights, Ambrose was wholly unprepared for the imagery of decay, death, and destruction. He was not familiar with the cloying stench of death nor methods of how to persevere. His eyes said everything. He had seen what was inside the mass, he knew the creature’s true form and that revelation blasted his mind to fragments. He held tight onto my coat and screamed about ‘eyes, thousands of eyes inside.’ He repeated those words endlessly as if transmitting the message to me might give him some sort of solace.
I pretended I didn’t know what he meant with those words. I didn’t want to know what he had seen which had irreversibly altered him. I tried to pull myself free and calm him, but he was past the realm of sanity and rationality. He gripped me tighter and drew me closer to him while trying to vocalize what he had seen. I could hear others drawing near, perhaps they were miners or wanderers, perhaps they were other expeditions sent forth from the ‘august’ Stoker Estate intrigued by the promise of riches, unaware that their only reward would be paid for in blood and lunacy. Ambrose Derleth had fallen victim to their machinations. He was slipping into the abyss and pulling me with him.
(Mr. Howard hesitated at this part and a draught of beer was provided for him. He stared at the mug for a few moments before continuing the tale without drinking.)
Ambrose’s shrieking about eyes and twitching mandibles only served to disturb me and draw those wretched worshippers to our location. If any of us stood a chance at survival, we would need to flee now, while the thing was distracted and the others were not around to apprehend us. Ambrose, however, would not let me go. He was dragging me deeper into the darkness and desolation of that place. I did the only thing I could do. I stuck the bayonet into Ambrose’s throat and I ran.
God help me, I ran.
Ambrose choked out a few words as I broke free of his grasp. I ignored them and ran back the way I had come. Sprinting through the darkness, colliding and ricocheting off the walls, I could hear the animalistic cries of the horde descend upon their god’s chamber. I tried to ignore the sound of struggling and screaming, but it came unbidden to my ears all the same. I wondered how those raving madmen survived in such close proximity to that malevolent mass, and I came to a horrifying realization. It let them live. Everything needs sustenance, the fleshy shell encapsulating the thing, it was almost like a cocoon, almost embryonic… It needed them.
I broke most of my fingernails climbing out of the pit back into the mine, but I was too harried to care at that moment. All I remember was running with the sounds of their feet following me and their ravings and ramblings bouncing around in the darkness. I passed by Mathew trying to fend off a number of the psychotic supplicants who had ambushed him, but there were too many and I was in no condition to help. Reduced to a craven child, I could only hide in the darkness as the madmen fell upon Mathew and dragged him towards the cavern. They were caked in sweat and were in various stages of undress. The skin along their arms was riddled with teeth marks and sections of missing flesh. They babbled nonsensical words to each other that only they could comprehend as they subdued Mathew.
Once I was certain they had passed, I continued fleeing. I could hear them behind me, searching the darkness and cackling. What happened to Mathew, I do not know. Perhaps he is still down there, gibbering and driven mad by the things he will be forced to witness. He may have been an uncouth and unsavory character, but no one deserves to suffer such a fate.
Free from the horrors of that expedition, I could do nothing but try to come to terms with my cowardly and craven actions. The worst thing that haunts me still was Ambrose’s words as I stuck my bayonet into the hollow of his throat. I couldn’t hear him clearly, but his words sounded something like: “Thank you.”
No, that is not right.
His final words were not ‘thank you’. They were not appreciation for sparing him from the madness and giving him the only mercy I had. No, his words were, ‘How could you?” How could you fill my head with tales of heroics and adventure? How could you not help Ramsey Hodgson? How could you lead us into this horrible place? How could you do this to me? How could you run? He is right. I have done those things and the only thing that brings me any solace is drink. I think the only hope any of us has now lies in the Stoker Estate. Please intimate this message to Mr. Stoker:
Cease all exploration into that place, nothing good will come of it. Blast the entrance and leave the incubating thing down there to famine. Let it starve and save us all the horror it will release once its inchoate embryo is done gestating. For all of our sakes, do this.
A Final Note from the Desk of William Machen
After speaking those words, Mr. Howard became non-communicative. As per our negotiation, bail was offered and he was released. As per his uncouth upbringing, he did not extend gratitude or make eye contact with me. He only repeated his request that we cease all exploration and dynamite the entrance to the mine. He left after those words, likely in the direction of the nearest pub. What became of him after this point, I do not know, nor do I wish to know.
While I do not place any value in the words of Mr. Howard, I would like to offer a suggestion to the venerable head of the Stoker Estate. The other expeditions which have been sent out have yet to return. It is extremely unlikely that there is any truth to his fantastical tale, but there may be some prudence in deciding to suspend all excavation and exploration until we can muster a large group to discover the truth of what happened to the fifteen miners and the four previous expeditions sent. As a mediator, I can only advise that you utilize your best judgement and evaluate the transcripts I have attached.
Telegraphed Response from the Stoker Estate
Believe not the tales of superstitious locals, Mr. Machen. They are irrational simpletons who see shapes in shadows and weave fantastical tales. There are valuable minerals to be had in the Ladd mine. Expeditions shall continue as long as I have the funding and men boast of their curiosity. I am willing to pay any price necessary continue with mining operations.
Written by EmpyrealInvective