The Adventure of the Dragon Manuscript

by Benjamin Welton

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Baron von Anrep-Eltz could tell that the crew did not like him. There was no single reason for this, but rather a multiplicity of factors. For one, the ship was on edge well before the Baltic nobleman even stepped aboard. Given the nature of the assignment, His Majesty had thought it best to have a mixed Russian and American crew. It sounded wonderful in theory, but it proved to be a nightmare in practice. The American sailors were durable, hard-working, and competent. They understood the Baron’s heavily accented English well enough, and unlike their Russian counterparts, they seemed to have no idea that they belonged to the international brotherhood of proletarians.

The Russians were mostly from Novgorod, a city famous for its fierce sense of independence. They regarded the Baron as just another Tsarist functionary. They would work for him well enough, so long as he kept his whip hand holstered.

Another cause for anxiety was the mission itself. The sailors had only received a rudimentary outline of their task. A submarine of the Baltic Fleet, the Grand Duchess Tatiana, had been deployed to Port Arthur as part of Admiral Rozhestvensky’s relief force. The ship was last seen in Asian waters, but had managed to disappear before the catastrophe at Tsushima.

The Baron had told the Russian sailors that the captain of the Grand Duchess Tatiana was not only wanted in Saint Petersburg for desertion and dereliction of duty, but also for theft. The mad captain had absconded with a precious Byzantine artifact that had once belonged to Sophia Palaiologina, the wife of Prince Ivan III and one of the last princesses of Constantinople. This semi-truth appeased the Russians; the Americans could not care less about ancient treasures.

The only people who knew the truth were the Baron and a shifty, furtive midshipman named Almqvist. The Baron and Almqvist hailed from the same noble milieu—the Baron was the descendant of German knights who had settled in Courland during the Prussian Crusade, while Almqvist hailed from the Swedish-speaking landowners of the Grand Duchy of Finland. When they wanted to talk in private, they would converse in either German or Swedish, two languages that none of the crew could translate.

However, the Baron made sure to keep his distance from the young officer. Almqvist showed an unnatural interest in the Baron and his business. During their longest discussion, which had happened over the samovar in the Baron’s cabin, Almqvist hinted that he knew all about the Baron’s reputation. Specifically, until the ship’s captain interrupted their chat, Almqvist had navigated the discussion towards the Baron’s recent activities in Turkestan. The Baron could sense that Almqvist wanted to get the older noble to divulge the true horror of Kashgar.

The Baron assumed that Almqvist probably thought that the he was the bloodthirsty Cossack that the Socialist-Revolutionary press had portrayed him as. He wanted to get the Baron to admit to gunning down innocent Mohammedans as a prelude to an imperial takeover. The truth of was far worse than that, no less because the Baron had indeed committed a massacre, but his victims were no men.

The Baron also suspected that Almqvist knew that the story about the Byzantine artifact was cover for something more sinister. Almqvist’s suppositions were correct; the Baron had been ordered by the Tsar himself to bring back the Dragon Manuscript, a vile medieval tome which the Tatiana’s captain had stolen on orders from the Secret Army of Olkoth.

The Baron found that staying silent was the best antidote to prying eyes and questions. He kept his words to an absolute minimum and only engaged with Almqvist and the rest of the crew when it was absolutely necessary.

The Baron’s policy of stoic indifference held until the night of the 20th. By that point, the polyglot ship had been hunting after the Tatiana for three weeks.

At approximately three o’clock in the morning, the ship’s captain, a stocky native of Smolensk with bright, intelligent eyes, roused the Baron from his slumber by violently shaking his shoulders.

“Baron, sir! We’ve seen her, sir. She just surfaced.”

The captain’s words propelled the Baron out his bed and into his velvet robe.

“Lead me to the bridge,” the Baron commanded.

The inside of the bridge was almost pitch black save for a few weak lights illuminating the ship’s wheel and charts. The helmsman and the officer of the watch were already inside.

“We spotted her right there,” the officer of the watch said while using his finger to indicate a spot just below the horizon.

“It was a submarine, no doubt about it.”

“Where are we right now?” The Baron asked all three men at once.

“We are coming up upon 41-degree North and 60-degrees West,” the helmsman said through partially gritted teeth.

“That means we’re close to land,” the captain added.

“What kind of land and where?” The Baron asked.

“Cape Cod, Massachusetts.”

“I’d wager that the Tatiana has already made landfall by now,” the helmsman added.

The captain directed the Baron towards the ship’s new radio system. After several calls, a Coast Guard station in Orleans answered.

“This is Lieutenant McSwain, United States Coast Guard. Come in Ostland, over.”

“This is the Ostland. We are following a submarine, the Grand Duchess Tatiana. Its home port is Kronstadt. Be advised that the ship is carrying contraband onboard, over.”

“What are you and that submarine doing in American waters, over?”

“We have a letter of marque from His Majesty Tsar Nicholas II to capture the Tatiana and transport its crew back to Saint Petersburg, over.”

“Has that letter of marque been approved by the President of the United States or the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?”

The lieutenant’s voice was a mix of defensive pride and confusion. He took exception to a foreign ship in his waters, but a “letter of marque” sounded serious, even if the lieutenant could not define it. The Baron decided to attack this vulnerability.

“We have American crew onboard, lieutenant, and I’m sure your people would rather have us take out the Tatiana and take it out of action quietly. If you impede us, then you’ll have to deal with fugitive Russian sailors on your streets, over.”

The lieutenant’s line went quiet for a minute. When it came back to life, the pride in the lieutenant’s voice was gone and confusion had been replaced by disquiet.

“Please be advised of Cimetière Island. Your vessel is approaching it.”

The island’s name meant nothing to anyone else except for the Baron. He knew that the island had earned its morbid designation back in 1620, when English Pilgrims had stumbled upon the bleached bones of Huguenot settlers who had died before reaching the mainland. The damaged and deeply scarred bones worried the Englishmen so much that they buried them in haste and only erected simple wooden crosses rather than more elaborate headstones. The Baron knew that since then the locals had maintained their distance from the supposedly haunted island.

“Captain, I believe it is necessary to wake the crew. We’ll need your best men for a landing party. Would you be so kind as to provide me with the key to the armory?”

The captain, helmsman, and officer of the watch all exchanged uncomfortable looks. The captain motioned for the Baron to follow him towards the quarterdeck, and from there to the armory. The ship’s total arsenal included six outdated Berdan rifles, two newer model Mosin-Nagants carbines, two Nagant revolvers, and one Cossack shashka. The Baron and the captain counted up all the ammunition. It was less than one hundred rounds.

“The bloody government wants me to do its dirty work with the smallest possible budget! Arming us with crucifixes would have been just as efficient.” The venom of the Baron’s words took the captain by surprise.

The Baron shook his head in disgust. He picked up the revolvers, handed one to the captain, and then picked up the curved sword. To the captain the Baron looked like a one-man army.

“Tell the men to meet me by the launch. I want everyone armed and ready to depart in five minutes.”

The captain saluted the Baron, then watched as the mysterious nobleman returned to his cabin.

Five minutes later, six men, including the Baron, pulled down the launch and dropped her into the rough Atlantic waves. The party included the Baron, three Americans, and two Russians. Almqvist, the captain, and the rest of the crew were ordered to remain onboard. The remainder of the weapons and ammunition were distributed among them as well.

The ride to the island was conducted in icy silence. The Baron kept his eyes trained forward, while he used his hands to guide the makeshift coxswain, a burly American named Stebbins. The fear hung over the launch like a cloud, and more than a few of the men nervously fingered their rifles in order to calm their minds.

The choppy waters surrounding the island made for a rough landing. One man, a Russian, was forced backwards into the surf. He came up wet and angry.

“Steady men. Keep your wits about you. We need to break into two sections. You and you, come with me,” the Baron said after selecting two men at random. He gave Stebbins command of the other group.

“From what I have read, this island is bigger than one would think. Therefore I suggest the simplest possible navigation: we will take the left, you lot take the right.”

Stebbins nodded his assent and waved his men onwards. The Baron took the point of his section and led men towards a copse of thick oak trees. Everyone jumped a little when a seagull screeched overhead and flew away back towards the endless ocean.

The moon guided the Baron and section forward. All kept quiet as the trees began to surround them. The strong oak smell gave courage to some of the men. The presence of the Baron—well-armed and resolute—provided the more apprehensive sailors with strength as well. This strength was needed during the silent march through the haunted island’s forest.

A sudden cry pierced the night.

“What’s that?” a frightened American sailor said after raising his Berdan.

“Owl,” replied his Russian peer.

The Baron turned to both men and told them to maintain silence. The American lowered his rifle but did not calm down. His rifle was once again in the air, but this time even the Baron was on high alert, for the new noise was unmistakably the pained cry of a man.

The Baron motioned for his section to perform an about-face. He started running back towards the launch and his men followed suit. They made it back in seconds rather than minutes, but the launch and the area around it was empty. The Baron took off to the right. By this point all of his men had their rifles at the ready. The Baron had the shashka in his left hand and the revolver in his right. Thanks to the night sky, his men could not see the sword waver and wobble. The Baron did not want them to see, and he did not want to admit, his terrible fear.

The pace continued to increase as the men went deeper into the island. The right flank of Cimetière proved to be much more flat and treeless, and yet the hard sand and rocks made for tough going. More worrisome still was the lack of cover. When the firefight that they all expected came, the men realized that they would have to strike first if they wanted any chance to make it off the island alive.

All of a sudden, the Baron held up his hand. The men stopped. A twirl from the Baron’s finger formed them up into a circle. The Baron had no time to appreciate the precision of these mostly untrained sailors because everyone felt an instant dislike of their position.

The Baron and his men were surrounded on all sides by semi-darkness. The moon’s rays, which had proven so valuable in the forest, cast only limp light among the dunes. The limited visibility was bad enough, but the Baron and his men dreaded the large rise that stood before them. It was not quite big enough to be termed a hill, but it was big enough to hide an ambush.

A new, even more pained cry reached the mens’ ears.

“My God in Heaven! They’re torturing Stebbins!” The anxious American sailor broke the circle and began running towards the terrible sound. The Baron called after him to stop.

The warning was far too late. As soon as the man began approached the rise, several guns opened fire on their position. Some of the shots came from the rise, while others came from unknown positions on the right and left. The Baron’s men returned fire, but had no targets to shoot at.

“Hold. We need a new position,” the Baron said in Russian to the sailor beside him.

When the two men began to move towards the coastline, the Baron noticed with a sinking feeling in his stomach that the other member of his section, the American, was neither firing nor moving. The Baron realized that he was most likely the victim of an enemy round. He told the Russian sailor to crouch as low as possible as they made their way around the rise.

It was the Baron who saw the men from the Tatiana first. Their dark blue uniforms camouflaged them well, but the eagle-eyed Baron saw the chestnut brown color of their Mosin-Nagant rifles well enough to take aim at where their bodies would be. The Baron fired his revolver at the man positioned directly behind the rise. The Russian sailor followed the direction of the Baron’s raised sword and fired northwest of the rise and into the darkness.

One of the Mosin-Nagants dropped to the earth. The Baron had hit his target. The Russian sailor reloaded his single-shot rifle. He could not be as certain as his leader. As he and the Baron moved forward towards the body behind the rise, the crack of a 7.62x54mmR round was heard at almost the same time that it made impact with the Russian sailor’s head. The Baron felt his hot, sticky blood drench the back of his neck and shoulders. Before he could fully turn around, one of the men from the Tatiana was on top of him.

The Baron could not see his face, but he could feel his wiry beard and smell his rancid breath. His attacker stunk like a corpse. The feel of his skin was awful as well, and not only because one of the man’s rough hands was wrapped around the Baron’s throat. The skin was cool to cold and felt desiccated like paper. The grip was powerful, and the Baron struggled to move his head as the man’s rifle butt tried to make contact with his forehead.

Throughout the struggle, the Baron could hear another rifle firing. The other man, the one to the right of the rise, was still firing in the hopes of connecting with the Baron. However, his wild, blind shooting came close to hitting his compatriot. The kick-up of sand and dirt temporarily blinded the Baron, but it also gave him the solution to his predicament.

The Baron counted down a few seconds, then used his knee and free arm to raise his attacker’s body. A bullet hit the man in his chest. The blood that exited the wound was mixed with a fine gray powder that looked to the Baron like ashes. The gray matter also proved to be the source of the atrocious smell, but the Baron did not have the time or luxury to investigate the matter at all. He stood up, then began running in series of odd angles as the unseen rifleman kept firing.

Few of the shots came close to hitting the nimble Baron. The Baron’s circling motions confused the rifleman, who stopped firing after failing to make contact. Realizing what the Baron was doing, the rifleman attempted to encircle his prey. The dance of death lasted until the Baron stopped circling and ran head-first in a straight line. His sword was raised and his revolver, which only had a few shots left, was kept tight to his waist.

The Baron’s maneuver brought him the rifleman’s flank, just as he desired. He waited until the seaman shifted his head slightly to get a better picture of his surroundings. Then, just as the rifleman dropped his Mosin-Nagant and relaxed his shoulders, the Baron attacked and slashed at the man’s head. The strike split the man’s skull in two pieces. His face was ruined in an instant.

The Baron forgot all about the earlier screams of the American. The hideous state of his now dead enemy demanded the nobleman’s attention. Beyond his head wound, the man’s flesh was as desiccated and gray as his compatriot’s. His body odor reeked of the grave. The worst of it all was the man’s teeth, which had been scattered all over the ground following the shashka’s blow. They were a kaleidoscope of colors—yellow, red, black, and gray. They were not healthy teeth, nor were they the normally stained teeth of a common peasant. Rather they showed evidence of an unholy diet, the type of diet known to possess all those who touched the Dragon Manuscript.

The Baron had to shake himself of the horror in order to move forward. His natural disposition towards melancholy convinced him that Stebbins and his party were quite dead, but the mission demanded that he carry on. He did so with a grim determination that ate time whole. It seemed like seconds, but in truth it took him minutes to reach the mission’s climax.

There, in a small circle of light made by an electric torch, the Baron found the captain of the Tatiana, a man known as Orloff, bending over the supine body of Stebbins. The American was dead, the victim of a gunshot wound to his forehead. The torch’s small circle of light proved large enough for the Baron to see two sets of unmoving boots. They were heel-down, toes-up in the universal position of dead men everywhere. Orloff, the Baron realized, had a feast on his hands.

Stebbins’s limp body moved each time Orloff made a cut with the surgeon’s scalpel that the captain had most likely pilfered from the Tatiana’s sick bay. It took the Baron time to steady the hand that held the revolver. This delay meant that the Baron had time to watch Orloff’s hateful dinner, which began with poor Stebbins’s entrails.

A single shot from the revolver forced Orloff backwards. The Baron immediately pounced on the wounded captain. The Nagant’s bullet had hit Orloff’s collarbone. The wound was not fatal, but it was painful enough that it made resistance difficult for the infected captain. The Baron said nothing to the bloodied man. He raised the Cossack sword and drove it home twice. Once Orloff was dead, the Baron removed his head. He carried the detached head by its long beard and tossed into the Atlantic. The Baron used the waters to clean his shashka.

A subsequent search of the Tatiana uncovered the Dragon Manuscript. The tome’s name derived not only from the large, satanic worm that decorated its first illuminated page, but also from its effects on all those who dared to touch it. Since the days of the Plague of Justinian, the Dragon Manuscript had caused men to go mad with lust for human flesh. The book had caused more than a few epidemics in Constantinople, Anatolia, and Syria. When Ivan III purchased the infamous book from a Novgorod merchant, he had it locked up in the bowels of Moscow’s Assumption Cathedral. In order to reduce the malefic power of the Dragon Manuscript, monks and priests preyed around the clock and doused the book with holy water.

Orloff, a longtime agent of the Secret Army of Olkoth, had passed himself off as a monk in order to steal the manuscript. The goal, the Baron knew, was to deposit the manuscript with one of the group’s agents in Boston. From there the manuscript would be sent to San Francisco, then to the army’s central headquarters in Harbin. The labyrinthine journey had been necessary in order to avoid the Okhrana.

It took the Baron an hour to perform all of the necessary rituals, prayers, and incantations to render the Dragon Manuscript harmless. The spell would only last for a finite amount of time, a fact that Orloff had forgotten. The Baron was forced to run again across the nighttime island and push off back towards the Ostland. By the time that he made it back to the small merchant ship, he was exhausted and thought only of rest.

The silence of the Ostland sent a shiver of warning down the Baron’s spine. Nobody came to greet the Baron after he used the ropes to climb aboard. He called out in Russian and English. He received no answer. With his sword raised, the Baron began searching the Ostland for signs of life. He found none.

The cause of the ship’s silence was apparent as soon as the Baron entered the bridge. Inside he found dead men bound and gagged. The captain, helmsmen, officer of the watch, and all the others lay scattered in the bridge. Blood lingered in stagnant pools everywhere. Every man had either been shot or stabbed. That is every man except for Almqvist. His body was not there. Another shiver raced down the Baron’s spine.

“Give me the book, Herr Baron.”

Almqvist stood behind the Baron with one of the Mosin-Nagants. The rifle was aimed squarely at the Baron’s heart. Spires of smoke were still coming off of the rifle’s barrel. If he flinched, Almqvist would have certainly killed the Baron. The Baron decided to give up the ghost. He handed the cursed book to the young lieutenant.

“You do realize what this book will do to you, right?”

“Sacrifices must be made, Herr Baron. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Not sacrifices done in the name of your group, Almqvist.”

The younger man let loose a crooked smile. His rifle remained zeroed-in on the Baron’s chest.

“How do you propose escaping? You killed the crew after all, and I can’t steer this blasted thing,” the Baron said.

“You forgot the ship’s radio. Isn’t progress wonderful?”

The Baron did not answer the question. He did not have time, for the sound of an approaching airship distracted him. The vessel dropped a stout, heavy piece of rope just behind Almqvist. He stepped backwards towards the rope all the while keeping his rifle on the Baron. It was obvious that the Baron’s reputation worried Almqvist and his organization. It had worried them so much that they had provided a second plan in case of Orloff’s failure.

The rope pulled Almqvist skywards. The Baron watched in horror as the man and manuscript disappeared inside of the flying hulk. The airship hovered for a second, then began slowly moving towards the west. As for the Baron, he was stuck onboard a floating graveyard with no idea how to get away other than returning to the launch and Cimetière Island. The only benefit to such an escape was that it would give the Baron time to think about who had betrayed his mission to the Secret Army of Olkoth and how the Baron was going to get the manuscript back.

The Baron, exhausted and weak, rowed the launch towards the island just as the sun crested above the horizon.

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Benjamin Welton

is a freelance writer based in Boston. He has been published in The American Conservative, Taki's Mag, The Atlantic, Listverse, Terror House Magazine, and others. He is the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood, available now on Amazon.