Lord Blackwood and the Great Tarasque Hunt of '83
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May 14, 1883:

I received a most curious missive in the post this morning. It has been four months since I returned to England, having nearly lost my life in endeavouring to become the first man to reach the summit of the foreboding and deadly Mt. Everest. I have spent the time since in research and recovery here in London, nursing my wounds and documenting my memoirs of the harrowing trip up the mountain and my nearly-fatal encounter with the creature I found there - a tale which, I fear, may never be told outside these diaries - and I have not planned to embark again for distant shores until after summer has past. That has changed, I fear, as the result of today's letter. It was a formal affair, written in a folded card like a wedding invitation, sealed in the finest envelope, and I present it to you below;

To Lord Theodore Thomas Blackwood, CBE;

Col. Joseph D'Enfante, l'Armee de Terre of the Republic of France,

does hereby cordially invite you to participate in

A HUNT

of a great and terrible creature that threatens the lives of thousands.

THE TARASQUE,

a creature great and terrifying, of late believed to be legend,

has arisen and threatens the security of the land of Provence and of France itself.

Col. D'Enfante has been authorised by the President of the Republic

to pay a sum of

FIVE MILLION ENGLISH POUNDS

to the man or men who shall slay this infamous beast.

R.S.V.P. in care of Col. D'Enfante, No. 22, Kensington Road, Knightsbridge, London.

I immediately dashed off an acceptance and sent it out with the afternoon post. Though I have hunted foxes and elephants and every beast, great and small, in between, I had never heard of such a creature as the Tarasque, and certainly never had an opportunity to hunt one. I spent my afternoon in the study, pouring over encyclopediae and tomes of history and mythology, before I found the term in a collection of folk tales regarding St. Martha, sister to Mary Magdalene, who had supposedly calmed the beast with her song. The text described it as a vicious creature; a massive chimera, that breathed fire and whose scaly hide repelled every blade, that killed without remorse and seemed only to wreak chaos for its own enjoyment.

When the last delivery of the day came just before tea-time, I had received an address and directions to attend a briefing the day after tomorrow in the City. I have always been a firm believer in the proposition that even in the most preposterous of myths, there lies a kernel of truth. Whether an ancient behemoth that breathed fire was bringing ruination to the south of France, I knew not; but I knew that the army and the president themselves were concerned enough to seek out a man such as myself, and were willing to offer a bounty that would finance a score of proper expeditions for the killing of a single beast. On Wednesday, I will learn why.

May 16, 1883:

Today I attended Col. D'Enfante's meeting, held in a private room in the City, at the club owned by Messrs. Marshall, Carter, and Dark. (Lest the reader question my morality, I assure you that I am no member, dues-paying or otherwise, of that association; I find their stock in trade offensive and deplorable, and their clientele even more so.) But on this day, the windowless establishment was free of its usual throng of libertines and Bohemians, replaced by a handful of officers and men in the uniforms of the French, a handful of our own soldiers guarding the door. Servants and waiters, apparently relieved to be in our company rather than that of their usual employers, offered drinks and hors d'oeuvres to their guests.

Besides myself, there were three guests of honour at the meeting. There was an American, Mr. Roosevelt, a young man who had made for himself already quite a name as a hunter of big game in the American west. There was Mr. Dukov, a Russian I knew of by reputation as a scientist and historian. Lastly, there was another Englishman, the same Mr. Harris whom readers of these pages may recall as he whom I matched wits with on the banks of the Nile in 1855. I will spare the reader the excruciating details of our past intercourse; suffice it to say that Mr. Harris and I were schoolmates at Eton, that I regarded him then as little more than a common blackguard, and that what news I have heard of him since then has given me little reason to change my assessment of his personage.

Col. D'Enfante, a short and middle-aged man who bore signs of great fatigue and worry, spoke briefly and elaborated on his reasons for calling on the four of us. The being that his government had come to call the Tarasque, he said, had first appeared the Sunday after Easter near the village of Tarascon (named, most coincidentally, for the mythical beast itself) and had destroyed the town utterly, claiming several thousand souls in the process. The handful of survivors who escaped the devastation had described a great lizard, nimble and merciless, that had charged directly into the town square and destroyed everyone and everything in its path, crushing, smashing, and devouring people, livestock, and buildings alike. One man, a farmer whose wife and children had been ripped to shreds by the beast, claimed that it spoke to him, in plain French, and told him of them; "Ils étaient répugnants."

Since then, the Colonel said, three outlying villages and countless farms in Provence had fallen to the Tarasque. It attacked without mercy or reason, killed indiscriminately, and left only devastation in its wake. The army had sent men and horses and cavalry against it; there were few survivors, and those who lived claimed the beast had been struck directly by artillery and neither flagged nor missed a step, the hole in its chest seemingly knitting together as it charged their position. The entire region had been quarantined, citizens were being evacuated by the thousands, and the army and the press were passing stories of plagues and Prussian revanchists, but his government feared the worst would soon come to pass; Nimes, Avignon, and Arles were in danger if the beast continued to rage.

The four of us, the Colonel claimed, were the finest hunters and scientific minds available and known to his government. He knew not if we were capable of taking down such a monster, but between our expert knowledge and unique access to the finest tools and weapons known to science, he hoped we could succeed where his own forces had failed.

I left the meeting with a stack of papers; details of the army's knowledge of the Tarasque based on what reconnaissance they have to date endeavoured. On Saturday, the four of us will board a steamer across the Channel and travel to the epicenter of this pandemonium ourselves. Deeds, my loyal valet, has begun packing my bags, and is having the more "exotic" armaments in my arsenal prepared for shipping. I do not anticipate working with Mr. Harris any more than I anticipate shaking hands with the Devil, but Messrs. Roosevelt and Dukov appear to be of sound mind and fine spirit, and with luck, our motley quartet shall return to England with a fortune in our pockets and a story to tell.

May 20th, 1883:

We disembarked in Avignon after an uneventful trip by train from Calais. It may seem strange for a globe-trotter such as myself, but until this week-end I have never had occasion to travel to France; after all, it is a civilised place, lacking in the ancient mysteries and elusive game that is my passion (or so I would have thought). Mr. Roosevelt and I spent many hours sharing our tales of adventure; I find in him a true intellectual who understands what it means to be a naturalist. Mr. Dukov I found more difficult to talk to; he is a private man, who prefers the company of his books and his studies to that of his fellows. He proudly displayed a variety of his own inventions he intended to test against the Tarasque; a gun that fires beams of electricity, a jellied kerosene that burns without exploding, and what he described as his latest prototype - a large rifle on a tripod, fueled by refined pitchblende (which I suspect is not entirely different than Mr. Moth's destabilizing muskets, one of which I had brought myself.)

I did my best to avoid speaking to Mr. Harris during the trip. I intend during our expedition to be no less than a gentleman, but the man leaves a sour taste in my mouth. When we boarded the train at Calais, I watched as he had a large crate loaded onto the train, which he told us contained his "secret weapon". He refused to tell us what the box contained, but viewing it made me uncomfortable - the air seemed to chill as it was carried by. In any event, it is too large to fit in our wagon - for now, we shall be leaving it in a bank vault in Avignon.

Our weapons and provisions have been loaded onto a wagon and horses have been readied for us. Tomorrow, Colonel D'Enfante will escort us to the edge of the quarantine zone. From there, he says, the four of us shall be on our own - he can spare no more soldiers, lest the beast attack the fortifications directly and break loose.

May 21st, 1883:

I have seen the horrors of war often enough in my years. I saw the wrath of the British Empire first-hand when I lead troops in the Opium Wars. In Africa I have seen native tribes fight to the last man, destroying everything in their path. In the Crimea I barely escaped with my life as thousands of men fought and died and cities were laid bare. The destruction I saw there pales in comparison to what I have beheld in the Tarasque's wake.

Avignon itself looked like a city at war - soldiers patrolling the streets, barricades at the edge of town. Not far outside the city we reached the edge of the quarantine zone. Soldiers had been hard at work digging trenches, erecting fortifications. The young men keeping watch looked battle-scarred, as though they had seen indescribable horror. A constant stream of evacuees made their way out of the area - women and children, some with little more than the clothes on their back. Many looked confused and agitated, as if they had no clue why they were being removed from their homes. On the faces of others, there was no doubt. I asked on passing if any of them had yet seen the Tarasque. Only a few - the scouts and lookouts - had seen it from a distance, I was told, for nobody who had engaged the beast at close range was still alive. It had not yet dared to attack the perimeter the army had erected - but two days prior, a watchman told me, he had spotted it a mile from the front line, seemingly staring back at him. Mr. Harris grudgingly agreed to ride out alone and scout for the beast, while Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Dukov, and I followed the road to Tarascon to learn what we could of the nature of our quarry.

Tarascon itself was a scene of utter ruination. Bodies lay by the score in the streets where they had fallen. Much of the town had been consumed by fire; the town's famous castle, and other stone buildings, dashed to rubble and massive holes torn in the walls that remained standing. We saw not a living soul - no man or woman, no livestock, nor vermin, nor birds or beasts of the field. Even the greenery of the town seemed to have been destroyed. I began to feel pangs of doubt in my stomach as we surveyed the scene - could one creature have truly wreaked such destruction?

We set up camp on the edge of the dead town. Mr. Harris returned by evening and informed us he had spotted the Tarasque to the southwest, near the village of Bellegarde, in the act of destroying a farmhouse. Its route, he said, had not been difficult to trace, for a swath of barren land seemed to lay a trail; even the grass itself was not safe from the Tarasque's wrath. Tomorrow, we will follow the trail, and engage the beast.

May 22nd, 1883:

We have met the Tarasque this day, and we are lucky to have escaped with our lives.

We traveled southwest to Belleville, which we found in a state of destruction not unlike that of Tarascon itself. From there, we followed the creature's trail as it meandered south, then west, then northwest through the farmlands, drawing uncomfortably close to Nimes. Shortly after midday, we spotted the creature in the distance; it was stationary, seeming to nap in the afternoon sun. It was a massive thing, longer than a whale and taller than a giraffe, and it looked to outweigh either. Its scales glistened in the sun and its teeth, massive and shining, were bared as it rested among the chaos it had wrought. Had it wings, I would have called it a dragon.

With our weapons in tow we stealthily approached the beast to a range of less than a hundred feet. Mr. Dukov set up his pitchblende-gun, which he claimed would take some time to charge before it could be fired, while Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Harris prepared their elephant guns and I readied my particle destabilizer. Behind a short fence demarcating one of the now-abandoned farms, we drew straws and it was agreed I would take the first shot at the abomination. Steadying my gun against the fence, I took careful aim for the sleeping Tarasque's head, I held my breath, made my final adjustment, and fired.

The shot hit square and true, and we watched with delight as the top of the Tarasque's head was shorn clean off. The beast slumped to the ground and I breathed a sigh of relief. In one shot, the beast that had killed thousands and menaced a nation was dead. Mr. Harris let out a cheer - and the dead beast came to life. It rose to its feet and turned in our direction. Blood, brains, and gore oozed from its skull as a head missing an eye stared us down and let out a blood-curdling roar before it charged at us faster than a bull elephant. Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Harris barely had time to fire a round each at the beast before we were forced to scatter. Harris tossed aside his elephant gun for a smaller repeater he had been carrying and discharged a magazine into the Tarasque's flank - and we watched in horror as the wounds it took sealed themselves within seconds. Mr. Dukov was forced to shut down his pitchblende-gun before it could fully charge, and fired his electric rifle three times into the monster's open wound, stunning it for long enough for us to reach our horses. By the time we were on horseback, the beast was up again and charging us, and flesh and bone was knitting anew over the open cavity in its skull. I fired the particle destabilizer again at its foreleg and took it off entirely, hobbling it as it tried to chase us on three legs. We rode in four directions and agreed to meet behind the quarantine line. I saw the beast attempt to take off in pursuit of Mr. Roosevelt as the stump of its leg began to grow and take new form, but he was able to elude the goliath and by nightfall we were among the soldiers at the barricade, our prides injured but otherwise in good health.

May 28th, 1883:

Luck and providence have provided; thus far, the Tarasque has made no effort to escape the quarantine area, and has proven content to ravage the abandoned farms of Provence and feed liberally on the animals and plants left behind. After our second attempt to attack the Tarasque on the 23rd proved no more successful than the first, we have come to a conclusion that the beast cannot be killed simply by gunshot, or electrification, or setting it aflame, for the rate at which it heals its injuries is so great, and its tolerance for pain and mutilation so high, that even the mighty broadsides of the Royal Navy would have little chance of destroying it before it could take their lives in trade. To slay the Tarasque, we determined, we would have to immobilize it, and deal such destruction upon it that it would be utterly annihilated before it could free itself. We discussed for several hours how such a thing could be achieved, before an old sergeant who had been manning the night watch begged our ears. The sergeant had, he said, fought in Viet-Namh when the natives there attempted to rebel against the French in sixty-eight, and had seen them make use of a trap that was elegant, easily disguised, and deadly. Mr. Roosevelt and I talked over the fine points of the idea well into the night, and the next day the four of us traveled into the field to lay our trap.

We prepared our trap in the fields near Graveson, a village between Tarascon and Avignon that the Tarasque had yet to lay waste to, and where the water table was amenable to our task. By careful observation we had judged that the beast stood about nine feet at the shoulder, six feet wide, and thirty feet long. With the help of a few soldiers whom Col. D'Enfante had grudgingly conceded to parting with, we dug a long trench in the field wide and long enough to contain the beast, and deep enough to stop the beast climbing loose before the damage could be done. In the bottom of the pit we mounted steel rods, sharpened to a fine point, by the hundreds, each tipped with a noxious poison I had acquired in the Orient. Running lengthwise through the center of the pit, we built a wooden bridge, large and sturdy enough to accommodate a man on horseback, but not so sturdy that it would not break and shatter under the weight of the Tarasque. Four days we were involved in the earthwork; the digging done, we laid a net across the top and it was covered with grass and leaves. From a distance, it looked to all the world like an ordinary patch of open land - beneath which, laid doom.

Mr. Harris has spotted the Tarasque not two miles from our location, and tomorrow we will spring the trap. Mr. Roosevelt has agreed to act as bait - he will approach the Tarasque on horseback and attack it once with his elephant gun, and once it gives chase, he will lure it to the pit. He is to gallop across the bridge and lure the Tarasque to follow him - and when it attempts to do so, it will surely fall into the pit. Messrs. Dukov and Harris and I, lying in wait out of sight, will then join Mr. Roosevelt at the pit's edge and unleash the full fury of our armaments onto it - our rifles and shot-guns, the particle destabilizer, Mr. Dukov's electric rifle, and provided it has charged safely, he shall make his first firing of the pitchblende-gun. Once our armament has been exhausted, we shall pour four barrels of Mr. Dukov's jellied kerosene into the pit and ignite it - and, Providence withstanding, nothing shall be left of the creature but ash and bone by sundown tomorrow.

May 29th, 1883:

SUCCESS!

The plan went off without a hitch. It was afternoon before Mr. Roosevelt could coerce the Tarasque into pursuing him, but surely enough the reptilian behemoth fell into the pit, impaled upon the spikes, and was stuck while the four of us rained destruction from above. The monster let loose a screech from the pits of Damnation itself as bullets and explosives tore its flesh loose bit by bit, and jellied kerosene burned slowly and stopped it regrowing. Mr. Dukov warned us to avert our eyes when he finally fired the pitchblende-gun, and his warning was justified - the blast was bright enough to blind, and a massive plume of smoke and fire erupted from the pit after he had pulled the trigger, seeming to blossom into a mushroom above us. By the time the fires had died down, a charred skeleton was all that remained.

We have separated the beast's massive skull, blackened and perforated, from what remains of the monster, and a handful of soldiers who reported after the blast are hard at work filling in the pit with earth. Tomorrow we shall bring the skull back to Avignon and collect our reward.

May 30th, 1883:

DISASTER!

We were hailed as heroes by the army when we arrived in Avignon with our prize. In the morning light, the Tarasque's skull seemed whiter than it had the night before, and more charred flesh stuck to it than it had seemed when we dragged it from the pit, though surely it was little more than an illusion. The four of us posed for photographs, and Mr. Dukov asked to have his photograph taken with his head in between the massive jaws of our fallen prey.

Imagine our horror when the jaws snapped shut, severing Dukov's head neatly at the shoulders. The skull of the Tarasque rolled loose from its place on the stage and snapped again, taking another chunk of his body, and the soldiers screamed and fainted as it seemed to be growing a new coating of flesh and scales over its charred exterior. We watched, shocked, as the honor guards fired a volley at the skull. The chips it took off seemed to replace themselves instantly, and I was dumbfounded as sinew and muscle seemed to spread across the creature's bones and knit into shape. The jaws of the disembodied Tarasque opened and it shouted in French; "Vous me rendez malade".

From the other end of the plaza I heard more screams, and looked to see the impossible - the rest of the Tarasque! Covered in earth and grime, held together by a few lonely strands of muscle, the headless carcass lurched through the square with uncanny speed, trampling men in its path, ignoring gunshot and cannon fire as it made to rejoin its body. From the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Harris take off running. Mr. Roosevelt noted he was headed in the direction of the bank vault and his secret weapon; as the skull of the Tarasque seemed to be making its way towards where I stood, I gave Harris chase.

We found Mr. Harris having dragged the crate out of the vault into the lobby, hurriedly prying the boards loose. Soon the crate fell away, revealing a stone coffin that looked truly ancient. It felt as if all the heat fled the room when the sarcophagus was exposed, and I forced back a shudder as I beheld it. Three chains with massive locks held the lid in place, and the lid and casket itself were covered with hand-carved runes that looked to be Sumerian or Akkadian. I confess that I have not taken the time to learn the ancient languages of Mesopotamia; but I felt a distinct sense of wrongness emanating from the box as Mr. Harris drew a ring with three keys from his coat and began to unlock the seals, one by one. I begged with him to stop this madness and flee while we had a chance, and he insisted that once open, our victory would be secured. Mr. Harris pushed the lid aside and barely had a moment to regard his secret weapon, in the flesh, before an olive-toned arm, sword in hand, lashed out from within the box and sliced his head clean off.

In all my years of adventuring among the primitives and wild men of the world, I have never set eyes on a man who looked so savage, so elemental, so full of primal rage as the being that now climbed from the coffin; naked, sword in hand, its long black hair flowing behind it, its body covered head to toe in tattooes of eldritch imagery and ancient languages that resembled no script written by man. Sherman, the American general, is said to have told his enemies, begging for mercy, that they may as well appeal against the thunderstorm. What I beheld before me, I thought, was the very eidolon of the storm.

Mr. Roosevelt attempted to entreat with the man and beg its assistance; seeming to barely hear him, the god-man set his eyes on Roosevelt and lunged with his sword. Roosevelt parried with his rifle, the barrel cracking under its onslaught, and in surprise the god-man dropped the blade. Roosevelt picked it up and attempted to return the blow, and in an instant the god-man somehow held another sword in each hand. Mr. Roosevelt did his best to fend off his assailant's onslaught, but found himself cornered soon. Though I am loath to intervene in a fair fight between two honest men, I could not bear to see Mr. Roosevelt cut down in the midst of this pandemonium; I drew my pistol and emptied its cylinder, discharging five rounds into the god-man's head.

Though it should have been dead, the olive-skinned destroyer turned and stared me down. Like the Tarasque, even with half its face gone it seemed ready to kill. Dropping one of its blades, it moved its hand rapidly through the air and tossed something at me faster than I could react. In an instant, I could not move my arms. The man had somehow materialized a bola, a weapon used by the cow-men of South America to immobilize fleeing animals, and it had tied itself securely around my chest. Another flick and a second bola struck me around the legs, and I was down on the ground.He approached to land the killing blow, when behind me I saw the outer wall of the bank shudder and give way and heard that offensive roar - the cry of the Tarasque, nary a scratch upon it, as it entered the building in search of its would-be slayers.

The god-man caught sight of the Tarasque and lost interest entirely in Mr. Roosevelt and I. This, I thought, must be why poor Mr. Harris considered him his secret weapon; this avatar of rage lived to fight, and in the Tarasque, it had the ultimate rival. To describe the fight that ensued between those two unkillable titans would take a hundred pages or more; Mr. Roosevelt and I huddled in the safety of the bank vault, which alone seemed immune to the destruction the two rained upon each other. After the better part of an hour had passed, hundreds lay dead around them, the center of Avignon little more than rubble. The god-man was missing an arm and half a leg, an eye, and the better part of his brain, and his stomach had been cut open. In a state where most men would be long dead, it continued to fight, severing even its own entrails and making weapons of them. The Tarasque had suffered as badly; it was on the ground, recuperating, when I saw the god-man take notice of Mr. Dukov's pitchblende-gun, lying near what remained of the stage that an hour ago had been the site of such jubilation.

As we watched, the god-man removed the core of the pitchblende-gun with an uncanny precision. He made what seemed to be bombs and explosives appear, and it strapped them to the device's core, which he mounted on his chest. Lighting a fuse, it charged at the Tarasque as it readied itself to meet him. Having seen the fury of the pitchblende-gun in a controlled state, Mr. Roosevelt and I had no desire to see what happened next. We retreated into the vault as a blinding light filled the square and a blistering wind, mightier than the hurricanes of the Caribbean, slammed the door shut and sealed us within.

It is dark; the light from my electric torch has provided just enough luminescence by which to write this account. I know not for how long the air in this vault will last. Aside from the lifeless body of Mr. Harris, there is nothing in this vault that approximates food or water, and as Christians and gentlemen Mr. Roosevelt and myself have sworn not to pursue that dark path unless our lives themselves are on the line. I do not know if I will make it out of here alive; if I do not, let this diary be my last word and testament to the horrors that have befallen this corner of the world.

June 13th, 1883:

Providence smiled upon us after all, in the end; on the morning of the 1st, the vault door opened and I regarded a major of the army and a company of men searching for survivors. Mr. Roosevelt and I were dehydrated and beginning to suffer from pitchblende-fever; fortunately; I knew the address of one of my dear friend Henry's associates in Marseille, and upon being transported to hospital, he met us there and provided the treatments necessary to stave off the certain death that that malicious ague carries with it.

Colonel D'Enfante is dead, I have learned; and at least ten thousand others who were incinerated when Avignon was consumed by flame. Even those who had survived, I learned, have been burned or blinded, and pitchblende-fever will likely claim many of them in time. No sign has been seen of the Tarasque or the god-man since the explosion; nor, for that matter, of the icy sarcophagus in which he had apparently slept until the late Mr. Harris loosed him upon the city. It will take years, if not decades, to restore this ancient region to its former glory.

We were two of only a handful of witnesses to one of the greatest disasters to strike France in recent memory; and having been at the center of it all, the army regarded us with great suspicion. We were interrogated several times, first by soldiers, then by police, then by politicians. A man who looked English watched and took notes, but said not a word as we told our story. In the end we escaped transportation to Devil's Island, but the reward that had been promised was forfeit, and we were sternly warned that neither of us were welcome in France again so long as we lived. The explosion that claimed Avignon was seen for hundreds of miles, I learned, and the press from Paris to New York were heavily embroiled in speculation; everything from a falling star, to a German super-weapon, to the wrath of God Himself was being proposed as an explanation. We were warned not to share our personal knowledge of the event with others as we were sent on our way.

Mr. Roosevelt and I parted ways in Calais; he intends to return to America, he informed me, and pursue a political career. In that, I wish him well.

I returned to my house in London this afternoon, and was informed by Deeds that a post-card had arrived for me this morning. The handwriting in the brief, unsigned note within resembled that of the strange Englishman who had attended the questionings, whose notes I caught brief glimpses of from time to time. I present that message below;

To Lord Theodore Thomas Blackwood, CBE;

The Royal Foundation for the Security, Containment, and Protection of Anomalous Objects and Phantasmagoria requests a meeting for the purpose of negotiating an alliance favourable to both our parties. Please call any time (excepting Sundays) at No. 19 Marylebone Road, Westminster, and ask to speak to Doctor Thursday. Your discretion is requested in this matter.

I have not heard of this Foundation before, and I do not know if I intend to take them up on their mysterious overture. Perhaps I shall hear them out; but I have never been one to serve in one man's employ for very long, and I value my freedom as a naturalist and explorer above all else. We shall see.

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