The Shack was a small hovel on the far side of the sanctuary. It looked like it had been put together with a lot of haste and little care. A stark contrast from the rest of Stratica. Above the door was a marquee that read “The Shack”. Each letter lit up in succession before they all came on at once and blinked a few times. It reminded me of home. My father had a sign like that over our Diner way back in the day. I couldn’t help but smile.
Samuel opened the door and motioned for us to go in ahead of him.
Unlike the outside, the interior was a sight to behold. Maps and schematics lined solid, sturdy walls while displays of various sizes littered the floorspace.
“Wow.” Sylus croaked.
Samuel pushed past us and rang a bell sitting on a counter beside us.
“Yeah what?” A rather irritated voice came from somewhere out of sight. A short stocky woman emerged from behind a curtain in white a hazmat suit. Upon seeing us, she tore off the helmet revealing short black hair. “What does Madame’s little manservant want from me?” She spat. “I’m already busting my ass alone down there.”
“I’ve brought assistance.” Samuel replied flatly.
“Assistance?” She looked us over. “Outsiders? You’re serious?” She scoffed. “This is Madame’s solution to our problem? No offense to the both of ya.”
“None taken.” I replied, still uncertain of what was going on.
“Madame Telvas has recruited these outsiders to assist with our current predicament.”
“Because no one else could be bothered, right?”
“Because they have a unique skillset we believe might be of use to us.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yulia Drel.”
“I’m Jeron MIles and this is my partner Sylus Synclaire. We’re here to investigate some issues with wild spawn infestations.”
Yulia shot Samuel a furious glare.
“I’ll return to escort you both back to Tower Telvas later.” With a bow, he was gone.
Yulia spit in Samuel’s general direction before leaning on the counter. “So what did Madame tell you about the situation?”
“That there’s an entry point through which an unusual amount of feral spawn are entering your subsystem.” I explained.
I glanced at Sylus.
“And that people have died.” He replied.
Yulia nodded. “Yeah. People died. My friends died. And they shouldn’t have.” She spat. “I told that hag what was going on. I told her so many times we were having spawn problems yet she did NOTHING.”
Sylus and I exchanged glances.
“Pointless avoidable deaths and she just stayed silent.” Yulia bit her lip as she turned away from us. “Now everyone’s too chicken shit to help me down there and I have to do the work of fifty alone. Oh but don’t worry, they’re not too timid to come around asking where supplies are. Ungrateful bastards. The lot of them!” She cried out.
Clearing my throat in an attempt to keep things professional I began my line of questioning. “Before the incident, how many spawn encounters had there been?”
“It started with some kind of fluid seeping down through the walls. I’d bet it was spawn matter of some kind so I sent some in to be tested. Never got an answer. Then the crack started forming and several echlaine packs came down while it was fresh. That’s when report number two was filed with her majesty. We got the rats under control but then a pile of dead gaunt kits showed up and that’s when people started losing their shit.”
I swallowed hard. “Gaunt kits?”
“Tiny little things all torn up. It was awful. Anyway, report number three followed.”
I took notes on my pad while Sylus watched her carefully as she spoke.
“And then the worst possible thing happened. Ungolths showed up. Attacked the livestock. We couldn’t get the animals into containment fast enough. They were getting slaughtered. My people…” She choked up. “My friends tried to intervene. They did everything they could, but you know how those monsters work. As soon as they get one of their jellyfish tentacles on you, you’re a goner.” She paused for a moment. “I lost five amazing people that day.” Her voice shook. “Five people who shouldn’t have died, but they did because Telvas wouldn’t lift a single one of her well-manicured talons to help us.”
“Why didn’t you all just seek shelter?” I asked.
She glared at me. “It was run and hide or try to save our sanctuary’s food supply. You tell me what you would do.”
“I understand. I’m sorry.”
“Do you understand, though?” Yulia snapped.
“We’ve all lost someone important to us to the Void.” Sylus replied coolly. “We’ve all watched people we cared about be torn away from us. Perhaps it wasn’t as violent as being dissolved by ungolths, but everyone standing in this room right now has experienced loss.”
Yulia seemed to relax a bit. “I lost my fiance. He was a spawn.” She turned to Sylus. “Like you.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss.” Sylus bowed lightly.
She shook her head. “That was months ago now. You’d think with all this work I’d’ve moved on by now.” She scoffed. “But it still stings. It still feels so damn fresh. Their screams, the cries, the cleanup crew sucking up their remains in a vacuum…” She trailed off.
“We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” Sylus spoke softly.
“Good.” Yulia choked. “Because I need help down there. I can’t keep going like this.” She bit her lip as she choked back tears. “I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “It’s been rough.”
“I can only imagine.” It was a halfhearted reply, but it was all I could imagine.
She took a deep breath. “I suppose I should let you two get to work.” She motioned for us to follow her.
We passed through the curtain she’d come from. A short way back was the beginning of a narrow stairwell. I turned to Sylus who was already biting his lip. Yulia began making her way down and we followed. Slowly.
The stairs opened up to a sort of observation deck. Grated iron floor, metal walls, a series of consoles under what looked like a large shuttered window. Yulia approached the consoles. With a clunk, the shutters over the window began sliding upwards.
Artificial light rained down a massive expanse of farmland. On the right was row after row of greenhouse cubes. The coverings were translucent, but it was clear they were full of plant life. To the left was a large fenced-off area of grass. I could make out cows, pigs and chickens free roaming within the area. Far back in the distance was a lively waterfall pouring from stone.
Impressive was an understatement.
“We’ve been to so many Sanctuaries and none of them had anything like this.” I muttered aloud.
“And further back used to be the old mining shaft, but that’s been closed since the attack.” Yulia threw open a lever opening the access door to the farms.
We stepped out onto another metal mesh platform. The smell of soil and animals overwhelmed my senses. Memories of home came swimming back into my consciousness. I remembered going to different farms with my father to source our cooking supplies. I remembered waking up at the crack of dawn and piling into his blue pickup and setting out of our small town. Silent rides north as he wasn’t the type for small talk. Always to the point. Pops never beat around the bush. As a kid I thought he was mean, but as I grew I realized he was just firm. A stark contrast from my mother. I shook the memories away.
“This way.” Yulia slid down a ladder that hung off the platform.
I followed her while Sylus sent his tendrils down to the ground and lowered himself with them. I knew there was no way in hell he’d bother tacking a ladder of all things.
Yulia led us down a dirt road that divided the plants from the animals. Standing on ground level really emphasized how massive this expanse was.
“How was all this dug out?” I asked.
“Well it was a cave before we really got to it. When we were surveying our land we found out Stratica had sprung up over a natural cave system. We dug a way down and immediately began mining out all the resources.” She motioned around her. “Thereby opening up the farm.” She pointed toward the waterfall. “That was a big help in making it all happen. Back there around the left is the opening to the mines. Once we cleared this main area out, we slowed our process and did it right. But, like I said, the mines are currently closed.”
“Nothing’s ever come in through the mine?” I asked.
Yulia shook her head. “In the half century this sanctuary has stood, not once has a wild spawn set foot on any of our land.”
“Impressive.” I muttered as I made a few more notes.
“Not sure why, to be honest, but even our border lands are almost always clear.” She sighed. “I suppose it was inevitable that something like the crack was going to happen eventually. We really didn’t do our best work digging this area out. I suppose it was also a matter of time before we started having spawn trouble.”
It took several minutes to reach the end of the greenhouses. As we passed, I could tell some of them were getting overgrown. Between the last one and the waterfall was a substantial crack in the stone wall. Sylus immediately approached it while I stood back with Yulia.
“Have there been any sightings since-”
“No.” She answered sharply. “It’s been quiet for months. I’m sure the only reason Telvas got outsiders involved is because I couldn’t meet our supply demands.” She crossed her arms across her chest.
We watched as Sylus shoved his arm up the crack. He felt around a bit before removing his tendrils. It took them a brief moment to become an arm again.
“Multiple species contributed to the creation of this opening.” He explained. “I can find signs of manual and acid digging.”
Yulia raised a brow. “Spawns don’t work together like that, do they?”
“Not in the wild.” Sylus replied. “Different species tend to keep to themselves especially considering there’s traces of both predators and prey lining the entirety of the shaft.”
“So something’s making them work together?” Yulia asked.
“I wouldn’t put it like that. These creatures were likely somehow forced to do this.” Sylus stared at the opening.
“Yes. Jeron, put an ‘A’ down on your notes, would you?”
“An A?” I confirmed.
Sylus nodded. “I’ll explain later.”
“Is this something I should know about?” Yulia scoffed.
“Best you don’t.” Sylus returned to my side.
She threw her hands in the air as she started making her way back to the ladder. “Fine. Whatever. May as well stay in the dark, at this point.”
We followed her in silence.
“Anything else I can do for ya?” Yulia asked as we returned to the Shack. She sounded so tired and worn.
“That’s all we’re permitted to do at this time.” I replied.
She scoffed. “Fine.”
“This is all very impressive.” Sylus remarked as he motioned to the contents of the shack.
“Yeah.” Yulia’s demeanor softened a bit. “Friend of mine did it. This used to just be a changing station, but he got all kinds of excited about making it something interesting for the rest of Stratica. Something to celebrate and record our progress. A museum of sorts.” She motioned to the wall across from the counter. It was covered in maps. “Drew all those up by himself.”
“Sounds like an amazing guy.” I said.
“Yeah.” Yulia choked. “He was.”