[Mysteriousheartland.com] Leaves crunched beneath the Fallen’s feet as they trudged through the dense woods, while the rush of cars from the nearby highway partially obscured the sound of their movement. The quartet emerged into a clearing where the underbrush disappeared. Casey the Coydog panted excitedly and sniffed the ground.
Mike, Greg, Aurelia, and Emmet stood and faced what looked like a nondescript swamp, but what was, in reality, a wide moat. The moat ringed an island only visible from the air. Somewhere on that island, located several miles northeast of St. Louis, were the ruins of an old mansion known as Hartford Castle.
“It’s too bad Davin isn’t here to see this,” Emmet said.
“No it isn’t,” Greg replied. “That traitor—”
“That’s enough,” Mike said, interrupting his friend. “We’ve got more important things to worry about, like how we’re going to get across this moat.”
“Is there a way around?” Emmet asked.
Mike examined the area. For as far as his eyes could see, the water hugged the trunks of the trees. In some places, downed branches offered a ford, but it was doubtful whether they would hold a person’s weight.
Casey the Coydog barked and began to trot along the shoreline toward the sounds of traffic.
“Where’s she going?” Greg wondered aloud.
“Stupid mutt,” Mike grumbled. “A car is going to hit her.”
“Forget about it,” Emmet said. “How are we going to cross all this water?”
“We could build a bridge,” Greg suggested. “Look at the branches lying around. Mike, remember when our car died and stranded us in the woods, and we built a shelter out of whatever we could find? It’ll be easy to build a bridge.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Mike snapped. “This whole place is low ground—and flooded. It would take hours to build an improvised bridge. Crowley’s ass!”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Aurelia sighed. She shoved past Mike and Emmet and trudged straight into the water. Her boots sunk into the mud, and water poured over the top, soaking her socks and feet.
Emmet laughed. “What about us?” Mike, Greg, and Emmet all wore hiking shoes.
Greg shrugged. “For once I agree with Aura,” he said. “It’s the easiest way.” Without skipping a beat, he joined Aurelia in the moat and made his way to the dry land a few yards away.
Exchanging glances, Mike and Emmet cautiously entered the freezing water.
After a few minutes, the quartet found themselves on the opposite shore, feet soaked, but otherwise unaffected.
“Since I’m probably going to get pneumonia, please explain to me what was so darn important about coming here,” Emmet spat. “It better not have anything to do with imaginary beings, drunk high school kids, or that stupid astral portal.”
Mike coughed. “It does have to do with the astral portal,” he said. “According to legend, a guy from France built this mansion for his unnamed English bride. That alone is suspicious, but why did he build the mansion right here? And where did his vast fortune come from? Why did he leave suddenly? Why did the mansion mysteriously burn to the ground?”
“Maybe he was just a private guy,” Emmet said. “He left because his wife died and he got lonely. Why is everything a conspiracy?”
“Because sometimes it is a conspiracy,” Mike countered. “And in this case, I’m convinced he came to Illinois from Europe looking for the astral portal. I think he found it and hid directions to its location somewhere on this property. Maybe in a journal locked in a safe. I think he tried to open the portal and it destroyed his life—cursed him and his land.”
“So why do we want to find it?” Greg interjected.
Emmet ignored him. “What evidence do you have?” he demanded.
“If we find the Frenchman’s journal, we’ll have all the proof we need,” Mike said.
Emmet threw up his hands in disgust, but joined the group as they trekked toward the center of the triangle of land that made up the grounds of the former mansion. Suddenly, the quartet heard barking coming from somewhere off to their right. They broke into a run, dodging branches and underbrush, until they caught a glimpse of a group of five adults dressed in white suits standing near an old, crumbling gazebo.
“Damn it, I thought we got rid of those guys!” Mike exclaimed. In fact, they had not seen the sharply-dressed zealots in months.
“What are they doing here?” Emmet asked.
“I know what they’re doing here,” Mike said. “They’re here for the same reason we are. I told you I was onto something!”
“Just because several people believe a delusion, doesn’t make it any less delusional,” his friend countered.
As the two groups closed the distance between them, the Fallen saw that Casey the Coydog had somehow evaded the moat. Her mangy coat was dry, and she barked and growled at the dapper interlopers.
“Looks like you got here just in time!” Anneliese, the middle-aged, brown haired woman at the center of the group, laughed as the Fallen came within a dozen yards. She studied them and noticed they were soaking wet from the knee down. “What happened to you? Didn’t you know there’s a path around the moat?”
“Shut up!” Aurelia growled. “What are you doing here?”
Anneliese waved her hand and a balding, rotund man gave her a crumbling, stained book. His hand bore a ring with a six-pointed star embossed on its surface. “Oh, you mean this?” she teased. “The Frenchman’s journal, containing directions to the astral portal and how to open it?”
“Yeah, that,” Greg said, surprised.
“Give it to us!” Aurelia screamed and balled her hands into fists.
Anneliese shook her head, and two of her companions pulled small pistols from their pockets and pointed them at the Fallen. “I assure you, these guns are real,” she said. “I detest violence, of course, but even our gods were vengeful when necessary.”
For a moment, Aurelia looked as though she was ready to test the zealot’s resolve, but Mike took her firmly by the arm and began backing away. “We never pick fights we can’t win,” he whispered. “Trust me, it’s better this way.”
“If you only realized how ridiculous you all look,” Emmet said with a quick chuckle.
The zealots glared angrily at him, but wasted no time retreating down the overgrown path.
Aurelia waited until they were out of sight before she swore and struck at the air, while Greg whistled for Casey the Coydog and embraced her when she trotted over to his side.
“Good dog,” he whispered. “You did your best.” He then turned and addressed the group. “Well, that’s that, isn’t it? All this work for nothing. Congratulations.”
Mike stroked his prominent chin. “Not exactly,” he said. “I’m not a moron. I thought they might get here before we did, especially since they have help. What’s important now is that we stop them from opening that portal. Luckily for us, I think I figured out where it is without even looking at the Frenchman’s journal, but we have to act quickly. Time is running out.”
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