There were five of us. Me, Grey Gary the collector, Ashama Si the dreamcaster, and two Blink Street toughs the Bishop had hired to keep an eye on us. I didn't know their names so I just called them A and B.
Gary, Si, and me, we were a team. Or, maybe not a team, but we'd worked together before and didn't hate each other. At least, Gary didn't hate me. Si did hate me but I deserved it. She kept agreeing to the jobs I offered though, so, things couldn't be that bad.
The Bishop had a line on some temple way out in the woods. I don't usually go in for anything that vague. There's crap in holes all over the place out there, most of is just crap. I may be perpetually broke but I've been in this game a long time and I don't take jobs on faith and rumours anymore. I got standards, is what I'm saying. Bishop is a scumbag but he's a businessman and I knew he wouldn't send me outside the walls unless he had a good lead. Or he was gonna try and kill me. Either way.
Gary was easy enough to convince, he's not interested in the value of anything we pull up, he just wants to look at it. “How do you think they made this?” “What do you think this was for?” “What even IS this?” His house is full of garbage. Actual garbage, hanging off the walls, dripping from the ceilings. I don't go inside anymore I just talk to him through the door. Even then I can see the mountains of dusty crap looming over his shoulder.
Si was, well like I said Si was mad at me. I didn't know why she was mad at me, I wasn't even 100% sure she was mad at me, it was just safer to assume. Of the three of us, she's the only one with a steady job. Dreamcasters are rare on the lakeside so Si makes a pretty good living helping rich people sleep, calming down hysterical kids, even helping old folks shuffle off in their sleep. She was childhood deep in some fisherman who knocked his head, dropped his stuff, went into a coma. His employer needed to know what happened to his gear so they sent Si in to dig his memories up, try to retrieve the stuff. By the time she came out of it she'd lived his fears, past and present, including thinking he was going to drown. She wasn't happy to see me but I chalked that up to spending infinite time in a stranger's coma.
I pitched her the broad strokes. She told me Bishop was probably going to kill me. I agreed. I promised her riches. She gave me shit. For Si, it wasn't about the riches. It was about the memories.
The place Bishop had found was some old multistory trash heap three days from Ravenna. He didn't know exactly what it was but he knew what it wasn't, and he promised me it wasn't a fort or an armoury or anything that would attract The Progress and I, in my ever-foolish trust, took him at his word. Note to self.
Bishop's word got us to the City wall and his money got us over it. The swamps around the lake are thick and foggy and smell awful but at least it keeps the people away. We stayed away from the roads, our Strider hefty enough to carry any bounty we found but light on its feet to avoid sinking into the mire. We camped the first night in a squat stone building overrun with trees and neither A nor B slit my throat in my sleep so I considered that a win.
The second day went by fine too, other than a constant pissing rain that was just warm enough to be creepy. The bugs were bad too but the bugs were always bad, and there was a close call with some wolves but Gary fired off one of his noisemakers and spooked 'em.
I tried to make small talk with A & B but they wouldn't speak to me. They spoke some Plains patois that I couldn't decipher. On the outside, they were your standard street toughs, covered in salty old leather and topped with stupid haircuts. The City walls held in all the humidity and warmth of a thousand people shitting and fucking and living so Ravenna was pretty warm most of the time as long as you weren't right on the water. These guys weren't dressed for the swamp in the winter. On the second day, I took down a deer and made them each a simple blanket to throw over their cool rogue shit. B managed a 'thank you.' Man of the people, that's me.
We got to the temple just after dinnertime on the third day. There was the ghost of a road peeking out from the overgrowth that led to two stone cairns and a rusty gate. There was some writing on the gate's plaque but the rust made it impossible to read, even for Gary. Si tried to pull a memory out of it but no one had touched this thing in a long time. We climbed the hill and the forest got denser, started to crowd us, we instinctively fanned out into a delta formation to cover our sides and backs, even A & B knew how to do that, so I started to suspect they were former Flatlander military.
The temple itself was bigger than I'd imagined based on Bishop's description. Three stories tall, big steepled roof, two wings, huge cathedral door at the top of a long flight of stairs. Si didn't say anything but she tightened up her jacket. She does that when she's nervous. Gary was too fucking enamoured of the place to be nervous: “Look at these WINDOWS!” he said. A & B had stopped at the foot of the lot where the road ended and wouldn't get closer. I asked them if they wanted to get paid. They came closer.
The doors had been weakened by time and we managed to get in easily. It was dark inside, almost inky, but Si, Gary and I all had lights. The toughs didn't, of course, it was never dark in the city, but there was no way they were leaving our side anyway. They had both done a good job of keeping their cool in the swamp but this was obviously a shock to them. Can you get culture shock from a big spooky building? I guess so.
Si was breathing heavily, trying to keep herself calm. Even I could tell there were bad dreams in this place, a lot of them. She kept one hand on her light and then other squeezed around the little toy bear tucked into her belt. The whole place was a mess, soaked in rainwater and reclaimed by the swamp. It was a total garbage heap and I had no confidence we'd find anything of value. Gary was scuttling to and fro looking for treasure but even he wasn't finding anything that satisfied him. A&B stayed together, nearly back to back. I told them not to worry, the worst thing we'd find in here was a lost deer or wolf cub. And that's when we got attacked by a fucking ghost.
Now, I dunno, ghosts. Si is all about ghosts: “The physical manifestation of a traumatic event, dreams made real.” Whatever. I've seen a lot of traumatic events and a lot of dark old houses and I'd never been rushed by a half-see-through naked guy covered in his own puke until that day. Gary screamed, the twins froze, I already had my cleaver in hand and swung at it but that only made it mad. It reached out a thin hand and reached right through my chest to squeeze my heart. I felt sick and alone, I felt jealous of everyone I knew and even people I didn't know. The thing, the ghost, whatever, it made me feel helpless and I generally feel pretty capable.
Si saved me- don't tell her I said that. When the thing rushed us she slipped on a white satin glove and put her hand next to the thing... next to Jeremy's face. That was his name. Is his name. With that glove on, she could touch him and he could let her. They stared at each other for a second and he wandered off, whimpering, we heard him through the halls the rest of the time we were in there.
I was right, the place was a dump. I'm no archaeologist but I've been in a lot of old holes and I knew right away we weren't going to find anything in there. The rooms were mostly square and empty of worthwhile stuff. At least, they seemed empty to me. Gary was over the moon, pouring over knickknacks and those stupid little shiny black rectangles that seemed to be everywhere and didn't do anything. He stuffed his bag with old toys, little metal bracelets, dead crap from an old world.
Si was seeing shit, too. Bad memories and nightmares clung to the walls like mould and she sucked in bad mojo with every breath. She rotated through her charms with every different room, giving us clues as to who had lived there. The teddy bear meant kids, the dinner fork meant a married couple, she clutched hair elastics for teenagers and a small empty picture frame for grandmas. She didn't say anything. The only sound was the wailing of that ghost, Jeremy, we had seen in the lobby.
We eventually found ourselves heading down to the basement, which A&B were NOT okay with. They decided to stay upstairs, taking their chances with the ghost. Us three pressed on, Gary leading the way and stuffing whatever random crap he decided was worthy into his ever-growing sack. Si very reluctantly descended, she looked shakier than ever. She would press her hand against the cool rock wall of the stairs and then recoil away like the wall was freezing cold or burning hot. I tried to talk to her but she would only shake her head, sharply, and ignore me. I caught her walking with her eyes squeezed shut.
The rooms upstairs weren't spacious but you could see how people, whoever, had been able to live there. The downstairs rooms weren't even rooms. There was a weird, clear membrane separating rows of ten or twenty beds, the beds themselves just rusted old metal, the sheets all rotted away. Bones everywhere, of course, even more than upstairs. We could still hear the ghost wailing above and Si kept darting her eyes everywhere, seeing dreams we couldn't. Even Gary's gotta-grab-it-all fervour was dead down here. It smelled like dust and cabbage. I said maybe we should leave but Si kept moving, kept heading down. “There should be more dreams,” she said. I asked her where. “Everywhere,” she said. “The children in these beds. They didn't dream.”
I wanted to ask her what the hell that meant but I didn't. I was still looking for something worth pulling out of this hole, some treasure we could haul back to Revanna and drink out of and off of for a month or two before I had to take some merc job or another bodyguard gig. Gary was walking right by some really nice looking garbage and keeping his hands to himself. Blind curiosity seemed to be driving him, now, too.
Si led us, sleepwalking, to a big metal door buried in the stone floor of the bottom level. Her word “here” came out in a choke. She was squeezing that teddy bear so tight I thought she might pop its head off. I tried to make a joke but it died in my throat. Gary knew how to work the door and he opened it. A big rush of stale air, heavy with grey dust, blew into our faces when the door was opened. Si was standing too close to the door and the cloud of dust enveloped her. She gasped like she'd been slapped and vanished, then reappeared after a second, then vanished again. The third time she popped back into our reality I grabbed her face and looked in her eyes. I pressed a small bead into her hand and whispered to her “Sitting on the beach, no one around, nothing to do, the surf rolls over your feet and you laugh at something I can't hear, we're happy.” Our memory brings her back, pulls her out of the cloud of dreams that swirl in the cloud of ashes released by the vault door.
She caresses my face. She's back. Gary can't help himself, “What's down there?” He asks. “They burned them.” She says. She takes a breath. "Bring me something from down there."
I oblige. The vault is empty, to my eyes, but covered in a thin film of ashes. Human Dust. I pull a scarf over my face and root around in the ash until I find a small pin. I bring it up and Si takes it in her hands. She vanishes into a child's dream.
Gary and I wait by the vault, we set up camp, we start a fire. I go up to check on A&B but they've split, who knows where. The ghost wails in the hallways but he sure as shit won't come down here. I find drawings on the walls, writing, toys. Gary's interest is piqued, he ventures out to see what I've found, tells me a symbol I've seen before, several circles layered over each other in yellow and red. It means 'sickness.'
Middle of the night, Si comes back. Just pops back into our world. She's calm, her clothes are torn a little, her face is dirty and her hair is messed up. She's still holding the pin. I ask her if she's okay and she says yes. I ask her what happened to them. She says everyone was sick. She says this was a place for sick people. She says they burned everyone they couldn't cure. She drops the pin back into the vault and we drop the door closed.
We make it back to the city. I avoid The Bishop for a few days until he rounds me up and tosses me in a dark room. He lets me stew for a few hours then comes to check on me. He asks me what we found in there, why we didn't bring anything back with us. I tell him to go to hell.