Alarms shrieked and a dozen warning lights flared to life in the tiny cockpit of the TSS Crockett. The pilot, Captain Alana Wilson, flicked switches and pulled back on the controls but it was no use. The scout ship was going dirtside and there was nothing she could do about it. She wasn't sure what had caused the problem, but suddenly as the ship was doing a routine mapping flyover of some barely habitable planet that didn't even have a name yet, something had knocked out the #3 engine and the left ventral control service was dead. She was going down and fast, the only thing she could do was make sure it was at least a partially controlled landing.
It was. Scouts for the Terran Commonwealth were expected to be top notch pilots and she was no exception. She wasn't even the best in her class, but she was good enough to put her tiny ship down one piece (mostly). But it took only a little bit of experimentation to determine the ship wasn't going to go back up again. Whatever had knocked her down plus the hard landing had seen to that. And she was unhurt, beyond a few bruises and the need to change the trousers on her uniform.
Captain William Edwards was helping transfer the bolts of cloth and sacks of sugar from the Spanish merchantman to his own ship, the Sea Hound, when one of his crew own came up to him with a small chest.
"Found this in the Captain's Quarters sir", the man said.
Edwards was intrigued. A small chest like this often had valuables in it. Sugar and cotton were all well and good, but even a small quantity of gold was always a welcome addition to a haul such as this.And this was just the sort of chest that a ship's fund would be carried in. He tried to flip the lid with his sword, but it didn't budge. Locked.
King Pellinore dismounted his horse because he felt that the questing beast was nearby. He literally felt it. Pellinore did not know how or why, but the creature somehow gave off this sensation, a sick feeling combined with the sensation of being covered in slime, whenever it was near. And that was exactly what Pellinore felt now. This wasn't the first time he had been close to the beast. He prayed, as he always did, that this time would be the last. It never was, but usually he only knew the beast had been in a place by it's grisly leavings long after it was gone. The mutilated corpse of animals or the occasional person was its usual calling card. But Pellinore had gotten close enough to see it before and he knew he was likely to see it again. He hoped against hope that this would be the last time.
The so-called questing beast was his family curse. The story he and his family would tell to others was that it was a family quest, passed down from father to son, to capture or kill it. But the true reason was that some ancestor had used foul magics to call the thing here, from where Pellinore did not know, and every generation felt it there responsibilty to send the foul thing back. So far, none had succeeded and many people had died painfully as a result. It had an appetite for human flesh
Pellinore strung his bow and moved forward to the woods where he was sure the beast was hidden. He wore only a simple leather cuirass and the clothes of a huntsman, rather than the mail and clothing that would befit his station, as he wished to be able to move stealthily. Sword drawn he moved toward the trees, quietly. The sickly sensation got worse as he crept ever closer. Then he saw it. It was hairless and the white of something that was never meant to live in sunlight. It had four clawed legs on a compact body, about the size of a large dog. And in place of a head, a single tentacle currently burrowed deep into the innards of a deer it had brought down. Terrible slurping sounds eminated from the corpse of the poor doe. Pellinore quietly pulled back the bow and...
Before he could loose the arrow, the "head" pulled out of the dear, it was covered in gore and sported a lamprey like mouth. The thing ran deeper into the trees and it was in full motion by the time he could let go of the arrow. The arrow landed in the dirt right behind it, but in a spot where it had been only a second before. Pellinore gave chase and ran deeper into the trees as well. But soon, he stopped. There was no sign of it. And the sickly feeling he got when it was around had left him. It was gone. And maybe next time it wouldn't be a deer it was feeding on when he found it.
Dejectedly, Pellinore returned to his horse. There would be no final victory against the beast. this day. Possibly never. As there had never been for his father and his father before him. He rode for the manor house of one of his loyal knights whom he knew to live very nearby, Sir Rhudven, where he intended to stay the night and decide how to approach the hunt on the morrow.
As he rode it began to rain, lightly at first but increasing to a steady downpour. It was almost as if the weather wanted to add to his miseries. It was dark as Pellinore apporached the manor of Sir Rhudven. And the lights from within the manor beckoned him as a shelter from the miserable downpour.
He was welcomed in by a servant and escorted to the table of Sir Rhudven, who was curently enjoying his evening meal along with his wife, children and Squire. Rhudven was a big man, barrel chested and going from muscle to fat as he approached his fiftieth year. Sir Rhudven got up and appraoched Pellinor, clapping his beefy hands on Pellinore's slim shoulders and saying "My Liege. This is an unexpected honor." Rhudven drew back and stroked his beard, "But from your mien, I take it you were...hunting...today and that it did not go well"
"Alas no." Was all that King Pellinore could say.
With that, Rhudven began shouting commands at servants, ordering them to bring the king some food and dry clothing and to prepare his own bedchamber for the Kings use, while RHudven himself would be staying in a smaller chamber. Pellinore smiled a weak smile and sat down to eat. Speaking little during the meal, until only Rhudven and Pellinore were in the great hall.
"You know, my lord, that I would accompany you in hunting for this beast. As would any of your knights, I'd warrant, if only you would ask", Rhudven said.
"I know, " Said Pellinore, "I have no doubts of your loyalty. But no. My grandfather learned early on that a huge entourage made hunting the thing impossible. Too many feet make too much noise. It is too quick and its senses too keen. Better to go alone, it's the only way that any of us have ever gotten near it"
Pellinore and Rhudven discussed the matter further. Pellinore discussed the various close calls that he and his ancestors had with the thing over the years. Rhudven, though his large frame and fearsome reputation painted him as a man more of muscle than brain, listened thoughtfully. Pellinore knew he was good man to discuss these matters with because Rhudven was, to the surprise of many, a cunning strategist. Perhaps he could give some good advice. And Rhudven, for his part, mostly listend, interrupting for only an occasional question or clarification.
When Pellinore had finished, ending with his most recent encounter, Rhudven leaned back in his chair and thought for a minute or so. Then he leaned back forward and said "My lord, you say that a strange feeling comes over you when you are near it, yes?"
"Indeed, it feels as if I am wrapped in a cold wet blanket and I often feel as if I am going to vomit", Pellinore replied.
"Is it possible, then, that it can feel you the same way. Was it not your ancestor that summoned the beast? Perhaps it can somehow sense the blood of he who called it here in your veins", Rhudven offered.
"I hadn't considered that. It is possible but..." Pellinore trailed off "that would just mean that things are hopeless and will always be so. If it can feel me, how can I ever catch it unawares?"
"That is a good question, my lord. One to which I have no answer. Let us retire for the evening and think on it. Perhaps an answer will come to one of us", Rhudven said.
The next day and many days after that came and went. Pellinore had other kingly duties to attend to beyond hunting his foe and had to return to his castle at Listenoise. But as always, he had eyes and ears throughout the kingdom, ready to give him any news of any strange deaths attributable to the beast.
It was nearly three months later, on a cold winter day with snow blowing across the ground, that Sir Rhudven appeared at Pellinore's castle. Pellinore suspected it might have to do with the beast, so he insisted on talking to Rhudven alone, in his audience chamber.
"I bring two pieces of grave news, my liege." Rhudven said as soon as they were alone.
"Aye. The first is that I have thought of little since our last meeting of what can be done if this creature can truly sense you as you sense it. And I have come to the conclusion that the answer to that is 'Nothing", Rhudven said gravely.
"I had expected as much. What then, is the other?"
"I think the beast has struck on my estate. One of my woodsmen disappeared. He was found a short distanced from my manor and his body had been gravely desecrated in a manner that suggests your beast"
Pellinore nodded. "I shall gather my gear and we shall depart." Pellinore spoke with confidence but he felt in his heart that this was going to be as fruitless as all the previous attempts.
"One more thing, my lord. I would ask to accompany you on this trip. I do not ask that you bring a full hunting party as your grandfather did. Only me. It was my man who was killed and I think that you need someone who is not of the blood of its summoner to kill it."
"But killing it is MY responsibility." Pellinore said, perhaps a bit more sharply than he meant to.
"Respectfully, my lord, I do not think you can. I think you are the person least likely to be able to, if my guess is correct. Please, oh king, let me accompany you."
Pellinore grumbled but he could not argue against Rhudven's logic. The most important thing was to kill the beast, even if it was at the hand of his loyal knight rather than his own. Pellinore and Rhudven set out.
They patrolled the woods around Rhudven's manor for days. Sleeping in the rough and eating little. They found the occasional mutilated deer corpse indicating it was still nearby, and once they found the body of one of Rhudven's peasants. Rhudven's eyes narrowed with rage when they made that discovery, but he said little except a few words over the woman's grave when they buried her.
Eventually, though, King Pellinore got that feeling in the pit of his stomach, the beast was near. Rhudven was an adept hunter and he found some odd tracks that led to a deeper, darker part of the woods. Pellinore began to ready his bow when Rhudven placed his hand on Pellinor's arm to stop him. "My lord", he said, "Please allow me. I have the best chance to get close enough to get off a shot"
Remembering their earlier conversation, and against every instinct, Pellinore nodded and relented. Rhudven crept deeper into the woods. "Come behind me", He whispered, "If God is with us. You will come across me and the body of the beast. You will know when to move"
Pellinore assented and waited. It was a short wait, because within a minute or two, it was broken by a scream. Pellinore rushed forward into the woods. He was soon greeted by the site of Sir Rhudven with the creatures tentacle head buried in his belly. Rhudven was bleeding from the mouth and clearly in excruciating pain, but he had the tentacle in a death grip so it could not retract and his massive bulk was like an anchor for the beast. Pellinore realized immediatly what Rhudven had done, sacrificed himself to give Pellinore this opportunity, and he struck. He charged, pulled his sword from his scabbard and plunged it deep into the creatures body. three times he stabbed it before it got it's tentavle free from Rhudven's death grip. The mouth was coming for Pellinore when, with a final slash, Pellinore cut the tentacle from the body.The sickly white body stumbled a bit before collapsing and the tentacle thrashed for a bit. Finally both were still and the sick feeling left Pellinore. He knew it was dead at last.
Pellinore's quest was finally at an end.
16 people were dead and only Jake Harrigan knew why. They had been murdered. Only the authorities didn't recognize them as murders. They didn't even know they were connected. So far as anyone but Jake was concerned, 16 people in 16 cities, most of them under 20, died under mysterious circumstance. 16 tragedies but nothing to make anyone suspect that anything was wrong. And that was just the 16 Jake knew about, there were almost certainly more.
It had started with a puzzle. A handful of people had come across a site on the so-called "Dark Web" where nothing was posted but a series of images. they started innocuously enough, a few pictures of someone with a fearful look on their face (later determined to be pics taken by a serial killer before he murdered the woman), then they slowly got more graphic, sanitized pics of the dead in a Civil War battlefield, pictures of slaughterhouses, the famous pic of the Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire, graphic crime scene photos, and so on. Eah worse than the last and displayed like a slide show. Each for just a few seconds. The URL seemed to have nothing to do with the content, and instead seemed to be a challenge. It was "findthekey.onion". Onion, in this case, being a domain extension that was common to sites that were only accessible from certain browsers and were a common feature in the world of the Deep Web.
People, being what they are, began obsessing over the site. A subreddit was formed dedicated to it, unlocking who it was that had created it and why. Was it a weird art project? Some sicko just trolling? And what did "Find the Key" even mean? Key to what?
Jake got into it, not because he had any particular interest in gore but because he loved puzzles. He was 19 and was working on a business degree at Michigan State. He wasn't looking forward to being a corporate drone for the rest of his life, but he was a practical young man and figured that was where the money was. So in his spare time, he threw himself into puzzles as a way to stretch his brain. Sudoko, crosswords, logic puzzles, you name it.
He had come across a few oblique references to the site on the normal web and was intrigued. He found the subreddit before he went to the actual site. There was a lot of back and forth on the site about possible meanings of the pics, who owned the domain, what it could possibly be and whether the whole thing about the key was or was not just an elaborate troll. There even seemed to be some confusion as to whether the site showed the same pics in the same order every time, with some people claiming that they had seen different sets every time and others claiming it was always the same.
James visited the site himself, of course, He watched it for about five minutes as the pics became increasingly graphic and ugly. It left him with an unsettled feeling and his sleep that night was plagued with the images he had watched.
But despite a bad nights sleep, he was hooked from that point on. He joined in on the analysis of the pics. Looked for hidden clues, finding originals and comparing the pictures on the site to those, looking for differences, finding none. The pictures filled his dreams at night, but he took that as just a side effect.
It was an April afternoon, while skimming the subreddit that he noticed something weird. A fellow member of the subreddit going by the user name of "MountainMike" had said several weeks earlier that he thought he was close to deciphering the secret, to finding the key. But after that, MountainMike had never posted again. Then opped he thought about it, several other posters with whom Jake had collaberated had, in recent months, also abruptly stopped posting. No flounces, no drama, they had just stopped. Some of them too had claimed to be close to an answer, but in this forum, EVERYONE was "Close to the answer" all the time. It had even become a bit of a running joke. And this was the internet, people stopped posting on forums and subs all the time. It was nothing new. But somehow, in a way that Jake couldn't put a finger on, it was all too abrupt for many of them. They were frequent and enthusiastic posters on one day, then nothing was ever heard from them again.
To Jake, this was a new puzzle, and as he was getting nowhere on the original, perhaps he might get somewhere on this one. So, despite his sense of ethics telling him otherwise, he began trying to piece together the real world identities of MountainMike and the others who had disappeared. He backtracked through their posts, piecing together little clues to what cities they were from, what jobs they had, anything that could identify them. He finally got a "hit" on a poster named "JingleBalls69". He foound that JingleBalls69 was a kid named "Larry Ball" who lived in Galen, Nebraska and worked at a chain store there. Larry Ball was dead. Jake found a newspaper article from Galen, about how Mr. Ball was struck down at the young age of 22 by a freak heart attack.
Weird, having a heart attack at 22, Jake thought. But stranger things had happened. And over the course of the next few weeks Jake uncovered three more of his missing compatriots, two strokes and a heart attack. All over the country and all dead at an age far younger than people usually died of such things. MountainMike was the next one that Jake found, a 38 year old man named Micheal Collins. Collins worked for Google in Mountain View California and had died the very night that he posted his final post, of "unknown causes".
This was all very strange. All in all, over the course of six months, he uncovered 16 mysterious deaths. All people from the subreddit researching the "findthekey" site. All dead of vague causes that left Jake with the suspicion that their deaths were being explained by doctors and medical examiners who had no idea how these people died, just that they did and there was no real reason.
The dreams got worse during this time. Sometimes, they were so bad that he couldn't sleep at all. If he so much as closed his eyes, he began seeing images from that damned website. It had become an obsession and Jake knew it. He didn't want to visit the site anymore, besides the fact that it was intruding into his every thought, he was just sick of it. He knew every image by heart, he had spent hours there and the number of pictures seemed vast and never ending, yet he had seen so much of it that he knew what the next picture would be every single time. He watched it over and over and over again, hoping to find some clue, SOMETHING that would explain the deaths. He wanted to stop, but he couldn't. He literally couldn't. Even as he began ignoring his coursework and failing in school, from spending so much time on the site and on the subreddit, he could not stop. It had its hooks into him as surely as a meth controlled a meth addict.
One day, around Christmas, Jake flew out to California to find out more about MountainMike. Maybe, he thought, maybe if he could find out what lead Mike had been working on he could take that same path and figure out the secret too.
And then what? Die like the others? Jake had no idea how, but somehow this secret was killing people who got to close to it, possibly solved it but Jake didn't care. He knew the only way out of this was through it.
Jake found pretenses to talk to Mike's family and co-workers. He found little unusual about the man. He was a hard worker, loved his job at Google but had been acting oddly in his final days. Mike's girlfriend told Jake that he had stopped sleeping altogether, citing bad dreams. He had become obsessed with "some weird website" and in his last few days didn't even seem to be eating. From Mike's Co-workers he found that he was noted as a brilliant software engineer, though in his last days, his work had begun to slip and he seemed to be under a lot of stress. Most importantly though, they told him that Mike had been an expert in Steganography, the art of hiding information in something else. Especially including images on the internet.
Steganography, this was the key. The images themselves were unimportant, but maybe one or more, maybe even all of them, hid something else. When Jake returned to Michigan, he began studying the subject and analyzing the photos from the site on a deeper level, looking for something WITHIN them. an out of place pixel here or there, something compressed to ultra tiny size and placed into the photograph. Anything like that.
And he found it. Occasional yellow pixels that were close to none of the other colors near them. Just a handful per photo, and something that would never be seen by the naked eye. So he ran the sequence of photos through a program designed to find these and record their positions on a grid the same size as the photos. Bit by bit, pixel by pixel, an image resolved itself. A yellow symbol that had no meaning of itself, but it hit someting inside of Jake on a subconcious level. That he couldn't describe. He understood now. He understood everything...
It was days before they found Jake's body. His roommates had been away, and when they came back they found him. Slumped in his chair. His laptop was open, but off, so no one ever saw the terrible yellow sign that had resolved itself on his screen. The authorities ruled his death a freak heart attack and no one but those who found the body and the paramedics who dragged his body off ever saw what he had written on a post it note next to his computer "I FOUND THE KEY"