Story by Tyler Auffhammer
Illustration by Carol Wellart
As Thomas ascended the snow-capped crest of a small hill, the waning rays of sunlight between puffy white clouds beamed across his person. The light danced about his body like sprites at play. All around him lay the vast expanse of the Arctic tundra, an inescapable blanket of whiteness. Jagged, gray rocks like teeth lined its jaws. A place of neither life nor death, the tundra’s enduring quality was that of stillness. Not the stillness of calm and serenity, but of cold, frigid death and bleakness. The tundra’s ice did not encase an impending doom, but a doom that was inching ever toward him. Thomas remembered this grim stillness, most of all.
It was hard to think it had been only eight months ago that Mack Fells approached him in The Golden Goose, a Dublin pub. According to Fells, that night—and the night was long, to say the least—his expedition was seeking a seasoned writer to accompany them on a journey into the vast unknown of the Arctic. Whatever discoveries they made in the North would need to be conveyed to the world upon their return. Thomas had agreed and shook hands with his destiny.
A whiff of snow dusted the air out of the corner of his eye and Thomas caught the back legs of a snow hare before it plunged into its winter burrow. It reminded him of the hare he had eaten yesterday. No…not yesterday. It must have been nearly two weeks ago now. Since then, the expedition had not tasted meat. Fresh meat, that is. Bits of scavenged horsehide and leather accoutrements sometimes found their way into the cooking pot at night. Whatever tack and potato soup that was left was all that they had for the foreseeable future. Captain did not distribute rations with generosity. After all, it was Captain he knew just how far they still had to go.
Captain Harry Ackerman. Even the sound of his name interested Thomas. It had been Ackerman’s name that interested him the first time he read Elliott’s Explorers of the Unknown as a boy. Now at twenty-four, Thomas did not find the stories as interesting as he once did. Even so, after so many years and so many blows from the dull fist of reality, the allure of Captain Ackerman persisted in Thomas’ mind. While the light of Ackerman flickered, it did not rage in Thomas as it had in the early days of the journey. After all, Ackerman is the reason the men were now pushed beyond exhaustion, starvation, and sanity.
A month and a half ago, Ackerman had made camp on the north-facing side of a shallow bluff. Mr. Fells, Ackerman’s right-hand man, opposed the decision. Fells feared the brute force of the nightly wind. However, Capt. Ackerman did not budge on his decision. He couldn’t. After all, in order to retain any semblance of leadership after so trying a mission was difficult for any man. For a man with pride, like Ackerman, it was unthinkable. The men knew that. Yet, it was clear to everyone that his decision-making had become compromised somewhere among the numerous folds of white slopes.
“We will make camp,” said Ackerman, his snow-powdered beard moving with each syllable, pointing to a clear spot on the bluff. Ackerman stepped on the brake of his dog sled and the team slowed to a stop. George Neubrander, one of the grunts of the expedition, called out to him: “Cap’n! Why not on the south slope? Surely that would make it much easier for us in the morning.” Captain did not respond. He had no need to respond to such insolence. Mr. Fells, always the good soldier, spoke out over the howling wind. “You heard Captain, Neubrander. When you’ve got thirteen expeditions under your belt and a bull’s wits, we’ll listen,” said Fells.
The next morning, the men found themselves nearly snowed-in. From inside their canvas tents, the men clawed their way to the surface for air and sunlight. Compared to the efficiency of the dogs in removing themselves from the snow, the men seemed like baby chicks emerging from a sticky egg. Even at the surface, they found that air was scarce and sunlight nonexistent. Captain did not comment on the situation, but simply sipped his cold coffee. Back on the crest of the hill, Thomas stared off toward the snow hare’s burrow. He wondered how easy it might be to snag it. After all, he had seen numerous fox catch hare with ease. He thought of pointing out the white blur to Rosie, the lead dog of his sled team, but decided against it. Once on the scent, the dog would continue and might, unknowingly, cross a fragile trail. Six months ago, Thomas would have been able to chase down the hare himself, on mere confidence. That was his first day on the expedition.
“Thurber? Hmmm,” muttered Captain Ackerman. He rubbed the faint markings of hair on his chin as if he was coaxing them to life. Thomas stood erect, in complete expedition gear—coat and all—in the back room of the Burgundy Mare, a pub in Yorkshire. He was sweating profusely. “Is that Norwegian?” Asked Captain. Mr. Fells, who was standing beside the captain, watched on with a stern look. Thomas perked up, “I’m English,” but then quietly pondered, “Uh, the origin of the name is somewhat unknown. Likely Swedish. My great-grand…” Captain Ackerman put up a hand, “That’ll do. Can you write? Well?” “Yes sir,” said Thomas, who began to pull out a notebook from the large satchel on his hip. It functioned as a secondary pack to the large duffel-style bag on his back. Captain Ackerman stopped Thomas before he could retrieve the notebook, “No need to prove it. There’ll be plenty of time for proving when we get there.”
He was right. Six days into the Arctic Circle and it was pure hell. Thomas’ pack was lost down a ravine and only the wits of Captain Ackerman had saved him from falling along with it. Two days prior, he had advised Thomas to cut small slits in his shoulder straps, just in case. When Thomas slipped and his pack began to fall, the weight ripped the straps and it plummeted to the icy, rock bottom.
With the sun now climbing up toward the pinnacle of the sky, it was able to break through the smaller cloud formations. Thomas felt its warmth on his few bits of exposed skin: forehead, nose. Behind him tailed Neubrander and his team. Ahead of him, Fells and Captain Ackerman marched on, their teams led by the best lead dogs on the expedition. A journey that had begun with seven men and nearly fifty dogs was now left with a lonely four and thirty-seven. The most men Captain Ackerman had ever lost on an expedition were two.
Last Spring, Captain Ackerman had trekked in the same locale. It was a four-man journey consisting of Ackerman and his young son Frank, Mr. Fells, and a Chechaquo named Harvey Steadman. Captain Ackerman and Mr. Fells had traveled together for nearly fifteen years. They trusted each other wholeheartedly and had a vast amount of experience between them. Harvey Steadman was a wealthy oil tycoon with a passion for experience, particularly the dangerous kind. The previous summer, he had spent three months in the Outback shooting dingoes and aborigines. Finally, there was young Frank, who was on his first—and last—expedition.
As the figures ahead of Thomas continued further down the slope toward the plateau of ice, he mushed his dogs further on and fell in line behind. The snow was well packed by noontime and some of the men even tried to melt, without success. When they rested the dogs, footing was fairly good, for the most part. Improper footing had caused almost every accident on the journey. For that reason, many of the men skipped resting their dogs. This led to an increase in exhaustion and injury among the teams. Captain now required the men to rest their dogs on schedule.
Far ahead of Thomas and Mr. Fells, whose team he followed, was Captain Ackerman. Ackerman was a man built for the tundra, one could say. At nearly fifty, he was still just as agile and strong as a man half his age. Plus, he had the experience of one double. Thomas didn’t know much about Captain’s past life in England. Several asserted he was a politician run out by enemies, some say an alcoholic driven out by debts. Still, others claim he was a ghost; never really anywhere, but everywhere at once.
Thomas knew what Captain Ackerman was, or so he thought when he first started following his footsteps months ago. He figured Ackerman was a mortal man, but one gifted by God with an intense curiosity and thrill for the unknown. Thomas admired Ackerman’s determination, skills, and reputation. If Fells was the reigns of the expedition, Ackerman was the whip. Only, it had slowly become obvious to many that he wasn’t the man he used to be.
The loss of his son, sixteen year-old Frank Ackerman, on last year’s expedition all but extinguished the great explorer’s fire for exploration. Apparently, Frank went for a relieving jaunt one night and did not return. The loss, especially one without any closure, nearly killed Ackerman. Had Fells not been present on the journey, Ackerman would have killed himself searching for young Frank. The papers barely mentioned the death.
Thomas had heard the story floating around the men at camp but never mentioned it, especially in the presence of Ackerman. None of the men did. None were so brave. Only Captain Ackerman was that brave, and he reminded himself of this defeat every minute of every day, often following his recollection with a swig from his flask.
As the teams neared the bottom of the plateau, Captain Ackerman stopped his dogs. Jumping off the sled, he knelt down and began brushing away snow in a revealing manner. Mr. Fells, then Thomas, and finally George Neubrander, gathered around Captain Ackerman. Thomas knelt down beside Captain and began digging, too. Their digging revealed two charred sticks iced over and stuck in the ground. Captain Ackerman picked one up and examined it. He looked up at Fells, who stared back grimly.
Without saying a word, Captain Ackerman dropped the stick and continued the expedition continued north. Thomas caught Neubrander’s skeptical glance, but, after a moment, they mounted their sleds and followed behind. After all, miles and miles from home, even the most cynical of men will follow a path of sure footing.
As Thomas rode behind his team, more time passed than he imagined. He thought of home. He had no woman waiting for him, yet the thought of his mother sitting in the foyer reading John Donne brought a slight smile to his frozen face. Thomas’ father had been a colonel in the British Royal Navy. His mother, an Irish woman, was the daughter of the mayor of Dublin. When they met some years ago, it was not love at first sight.
“I told your father,” she told Thomas as a boy, “If he can make Colonel, I will marry him within the week.” Thomas would glance at his elder brother, who was studying to become a soldier like their father, and then back up at his mother, “He did, right?”
She would smile and hold him close but never speak. Thomas’ father had made Colonel and claimed his wife. However, the elder Thurber’s real enemy lay within. Fever took him three years into the marriage. Years later, Thomas’ brother, who spent his life trying to become a perfect replica of their father, now served aboard a man o’ war somewhere in the South Pacific. They hadn’t spoken in several years.
By the time Thomas realized it, his team was upon Mr. Fells and his dogs could nearly nip at Fell’s heels. Mr. Fells turned back when he sensed impending danger, but then looked away. He was focused on the sights ahead. Thomas directed his team horizontally and watched as Captain Ackerman’s team traversed a narrow strip of ice. On either side was a void leading down into a dark chasm below. Where Ackerman’s team strode was the only visible path.
The men had two choices: turn back or go forward. Captain had already made his choice and was halfway across the ice bridge. Thomas and Fells stopped their teams before the chasm. Neubrander joined them at the edge of the precipice and looked over the edge.
“I don’t know about this. Surely there must be another way around,” said Neubrander, fishing for any sign of agreement.
Thomas thought Neubrander was somewhat cowardly, but rightly so. Men had already lost their lives on the expedition and not in any way close as overtly dangerous as this one. After a moment, it was clear that Captain Ackerman made it across, so Mr. Fells jumped aboard his sled and began his crossing. The sun was falling on their backs as they watched Fells navigate the bridge of the crevasse.
“C’mon, man! Think straight. That damned captain has your mind twisted up. This is suicide,” pleaded Neubrander, pointing into the dark abyss.
A few bits of ice gave way as the weight of Fells’ sled crossed the ice. Thomas wondered if Neubrander had a good point. After all, a story could not be written without someone holding the pen. He had already enough material to furnish an essay or two.
As Fells finally made it across and halted his team, Captain Ackerman shouted from across the chasm, “Thomas, just come on across. You’ll be alright if you take it slow and steady. Keep your lead dead in the sights.”
Accepting his fate, Thomas began across the bridge formation. Neubrander threw up his hands in disbelief and murmured an obscenity. Thomas’ feet, firmly placed on the sled, did not seem to be attached to his body. They had become somewhat numb from the cold. Ackerman and Fells watched him intently on the other side.
“Nice and easy, boy,” said Ackerman, watching Thomas’ every move. Just as Thomas’ team crossed the halfway point, Neubrander’s team began to cross close behind him. Immediately, the ice began cracking.
“Neubrander, stop!” Fells shouted out, but from his position, he could not back up his idol threats.
“Listen up, George,” shouted Captain Ackerman, who rarely called men by name; “You need to wait your turn.” In the dead quiet of the tundra, the men’s voices seem to carry for some distance.
Neubrander clamored a reply, “Screw you both! I’m not going to be left by myself on this side.”
Thomas, feeling a sudden movement beneath his sled, pulled the whip from its spot on the sled, let out a crack, and mushed his dogs hurriedly toward the other side, and safety. Neubrander, who had already been cracking his whip quite generously, used his tool with wild precision. Neubrander’s dogs, light of foot under the shadow of the whip, quickly gained on Thomas’ team.
“Stop it, now, dammit,” howled Captain Ackerman from across the bridge.
As Neubrander’s team came sled to sled with Thomas’, it was clear that the lack of warmth, food, of reality, had driven Neubrander to an instinctual madness. Thomas recognized it. He had seen it before, in Captain Ackerman’s eyes. Neubrander, in a fit of passion and survival instinct, leapt from his sled, grabbed Thomas in midair, and tackled him onto the hard-packed ice bridge. The two men hit the ice with a thud that sent a wave of cracking down the ephemeral overpass. After making sense of the shock of his landing, Thomas got on all fours and began dog crawling toward Ackerman and Fells on the other side.
Neubrander, on his feet behind Thomas, let out a guttural yell, not recognizing friend from foe. In his eyes blazed the will to survive at all cost and it was obvious he did not retain the assessment of risk that separates man from beast. Walking with determination and purpose, Neubrander grabbed Thomas’ leg and pulled him closer. He lifted Thomas to his feet, raised him overhead, and prepared to throw him into the dark chasm below.
Just as Thomas began to regret every decision he had ever made, the loud rapport of a pistol rang out, shocking the frigid hush of the tundra. Thomas fell hard onto the ice bridge with a thud that cracked the bridge down the middle. As Thomas pulled his pickaxe from his waist and stabbed it into the ice for support, Neubrander wobbled and dropped to the ground. His body slowly slid down the incline and disappeared over the edge.
Thomas rolled over onto his stomach, still clutching his pickaxe. He lifted his head and saw Captain Ackerman’s pistol funneling smoke from the barrel. The smoke quickly dissipated in the freezing wind and he holstered the pistol. Thomas lay motionless on the ice bridge. His knees and elbows took the brunt of his fall, but he was too cold to feel much of pain’s sharpness. He noticed a spot of bright, red blood where Neubrander’s body had been. George had once been a good man. They had shared stories, meals, and camaraderie. Now, he was gone, and no one would remember him.
After a moment, Thomas slowly slid himself the end of the bridge. Once across and onto solid ground, Mr. Fells helped him to his feet. For now, he thought, he was alive. Tomorrow was not so certain in his mind.
They all quickly mounted their sleds and continued on, hoping time and miles would stifle their memories. When they halted sometime later to rest the dogs, Thomas mustered the courage to speak.
“Captain, I don’t want to say anything about what happened back there. It is what it is. But, I need to know why we haven’t turned back in the wake of what’s happened.”
There was an unforeseen courage in Thomas’ voice. Facing the brink of death only to be pulled back by the scruff of his neck had awakened a new passion in his heart. It was the instinct to survive.
“We have to keep going,” Ackerman said plainly, as if answering a simple question. “Why? What’s out there? Surely we aren’t going to make some profound discovery way out here. There’s no life,” replied Thomas.
Before the Captain could respond, Fells butted in, “We don’t know that. There may be life yet.”
At that moment, Thomas knew. He knew why they had begun this perilous journey. He knew why men had died in the cold, stillness of the Arctic tundra. It was clear why they continued in the hangover of Neubrander’s death.
“We’re looking for Frank. We’re searching for your son, aren’t we?” asked Thomas; his mention of Frank stopping Captain Ackerman in his tracks.
The captain turned back and looked at Thomas. His face was stern, but now had a new expression, one Thomas hadn’t seen before. Sadness, deep and everlasting, covered the folds of his face. It seemed to permeate his being and radiate outwardly.
“Yes,” Ackerman said. Obvious to him that his response was not sufficient to Thomas, he continued. “My son was sixteen when he was lost out here last year. Now, he may be seventeen and lost out here. I have to look for him. I need to be sure he is gone.”
Thomas’ opinion of Ackerman shifted in that moment. No longer was he the reputable explorer who had defied Nature and overcome human ability. Now, Thomas viewed Ackerman more as a father who had lost everything. Yet, Ackerman’s instinct to explore remained. Only now he searched for a lost son, who was no doubt frozen stiff somewhere under a sheet of ice. The charred firewood had given him false hope of a successful search.
“We’ve lost men because of you,” said Thomas, “good men; men with families. You should know what that means.”
Mr. Fells scowled at Thomas. “You’re playing with our lives out here, Ackerman,” said Thomas. It was the first time anyone had referred to the captain by name.
Ackerman sternly walked toward Thomas, stopping only when he was close enough for Thomas to feel the warmth from his breath. Ackerman’s beard was covered in layers of snow and ice. His eyes were the grayish blue of a frozen trace of glacial water. Thomas stared into those eyes.
“If you don’t want to continue, turn back,” said Ackerman, “go, head on back the way you came. I will continue on, as any father would,” said Ackerman. He gritted his teeth, holding back tears.
Thomas felt pity for Ackerman in that moment, but it quickly faded to rage. The thought of his own potential doom forced adrenaline into Thomas’ veins. He clenched his fists and struck Ackerman. It was the first time he had ever hit someone.
The blow was glancing, but caught the captain in the jaw and sent him reeling backward. Ackerman caught himself and then dropped to one knee. Blood trickled from his lips and hit the snow. The dogs barked in excitement. Mr. Fells grabbed Thomas around the neck with both hands and shoved him to the ground, always the faithful servant.
“Stop!” shouted Ackerman, lifting himself to his feet. Mr. Fells backed off. Ackerman removed his pack and his heavy down jacket. Thomas did the same. He was nervous. He had never really fought a man before.
Ackerman lunged at Thomas, who sidestepped him, and sent Ackerman falling into the snow. Thomas could feel the anger in Ackerman’s maneuvers. Ackerman quickly jumped to his feet and the snow fell off his parka. He lunged at Thomas, who tried to sidestep again, but this time Ackerman anticipated Thomas’ move and, in one swift motion, grabbed Thomas by the neck with one hand and struck him plainly in the face with the other fist. Thomas fell back-first to the ground.
Removing his jacket and handing it to Fells, Ackerman mounted Thomas. With both fists, he began beating in the flesh on Thomas’ face with hard knuckles turned to steel by frigid air. The nerves on Thomas’ mouth suddenly burst back to life with sharp pain. Around them, dogs howled with delight at the carnal rage in the air. Thomas could feel warm blood oozing from between his teeth and from his nostrils. After a few more blows, Ackerman stopped. He raised himself off Thomas and shook his hands to relieve their aches.
Thomas lay on his back in the snow, staring into the mix of blue and white in the sky above. Everything in the tundra seemed to be slower, more still, because of the cold. Even the clouds seemed to move at half the normal pace. He coughed up a mouthful of blood and spit it into the snow. Ackerman grabbed his jacket from Fells, who had been holding his gear. As Ackerman placed his second arm into the jacket, the hammer of his pistol cocked back. He immediately reached for his holster at his hip, but it was empty. He turned and his eyes caught the barrel of the pistol.
Thomas has allowed himself to be beaten to a pulp in order to retrieve what he knew would be the most dangerous weapon: the pistol. He had managed to wrestle it free from the cold, leather holster, as his face became ground meat.
Standing erect and holding the pistol at arm’s length, he pointed it at Ackerman. Thomas figured he looked like the man his father had been and who is brother hoped to become: a man- killer. However, deep down, he knew he wasn’t that man. He was a better actor than killer. In this case, he would have to be.
“Put it down, Thomas,” pleaded Fells.
“No,” Ackerman said calmly, “let him do it.”
Thomas had not expected that. However, he knew if he spoke, even a single word, Ackerman would have won. He did the only thing he didn’t want to do, the only thing he could do: he pulled the trigger.
Only, Ackerman did not fall into the snow, bleeding profusely from some torn intestine or burst spleen. Instead, Fells dropped to the ground like a limp snow hare from the mouth of a fox. The faithful servant man had protected his captain to the last. Jumping in front of a bullet for Ackerman was the only way he could die.
Despite Fells’ years of service to him, Captain Ackerman was still shocked. He fell to both knees and gripped Fells’ jacket with both hands. He lowered his head for a moment, but then looked up at Thomas.
“You took my last friend from me, Thomas,” said Ackerman in his deep voice, “you don’t know how that feels. This man stood by my side while I wandered aimlessly for my son in this Godforsaken pit of hell. He pulled me back; gave me purpose.”
Cocking the pistol again, Thomas retorted, “Then he is as guilty as murder as you are. Sure, Neubrander had it coming, but the others? They died for your suicide mission. They had no idea this would be their end.”
“It’s no time for words, now, boy. I’m going to kill you,” said Ackerman, lifting to his feet, one last time. Thomas raised the pistol again at arm’s length, and pulled the trigger.
Ackerman kept walking toward him. Thomas pulled the trigger again, but no bullet ejected. The trigger clicked and clicked until Ackerman was close enough to swipe the pistol from Thomas’ hand and shove him back into the snow.
The empty pistol sank into the deep snow and Thomas crawled backward. Ackerman kicked Thomas in the legs and, after he rolled over, followed with another kick in the stomach. Thomas lifted himself up in one swift motion and smacked Ackerman across the chin. It wasn’t a deathblow, but it gave him enough time to escape.
Thomas ran as fast as he could, like a snow hare that had been spotted by the fox, but toward the sled and his wild dogs. Just as he stepped onto the sled, the ice beneath him began to crack and a large chunk fell into the earth to his right. Ackerman tackled Thomas from the sled and they rolled toward the yawning hole in the ice.
Just as they reached the edge, Thomas kicked Ackerman away and scuffled back toward the dogs. Ackerman haunted his footsteps. Ackerman let out a sadistic chuckle somewhere behind him. As Thomas grabbed the handle of the sled, another crack opened a larger expanse in front of them and the entire team disappeared beneath the ice. The collapsing ice followed a random pattern, but managed to scoop Ackerman and Neubrander’s team into the void.
Thomas could only watch as their sleds, dogs, and gear was whisked away into the unknown. An ice bridge was revealed between Thomas and Ackerman, who placed one boot on the bridge and the entire platform collapsed, sending huge chunks of ice and countless pounds of snow down into the chasm. Ackerman fell backward onto his rear but was safe on the other side.
Thomas laughed back at him, “I think you’d better watch your footing, Captain!” Ackerman stood, stared down into the chasm, and then backed up. Thomas didn’t think it possible that Ackerman would attempt to jump so far. For a second, Thomas felt worried. Not about himself, but Ackerman. Ackerman sprinted toward the ravine, placing his right boot right on the edge, and propelled himself across the chasm.
Ackerman’s momentum kept him from a grim fate, but his weight kept him from fully covering the expanse. His chest smacked against the edge of the precipice and he scrambled to grasp onto the ice. He found Thomas’ outstretched hand, which swiftly pulled him up onto the solid ground. Safely on the other side, Ackerman lay on his back on the cold, icy ground. He stared up at the blue above him.
After a moment, Ackerman stifled a response, “I know my son is dead. I’ve known this since the morning he went missing. Every man must pay his tribute to the land. I’m still here because there’s nothing left to take.”
Ackerman coughed, grabbing at his chest in pain. He continued, “I’m sorry for involving you and the others, but finding Frank was… is my sole purpose.”
Ackerman sat up and looked at Thomas with the same primal eyes that Neubrander once possessed. Within them held the will to survive. Thomas knew the captain would not give in. Thomas slowly lifted himself up. His cuts had frozen over already and the feeling of pain had subsided. Ackerman made it to his feet and the two men stared face-to-face, eye-to-eye, as two bears do before a fight. It was not the stare of fear or anger. It was one of mutual respect for the killing power within each man. It was the same respect that Ackerman had for the land; the same respect that Thomas once had for Ackerman.
Thomas began, “I’m sorry you—” but his words were cut short by Ackerman’s hands firmly clasped around his throat.
Thomas could feel the life leaving him. He could see the gloomy darkness that each man would someday face. He wasn’t afraid, and that scared him even more. In a moment, without thought, he thrust the front of his skull into Captain Ackerman’s face. The force sent blood flowing from Ackerman’s nose and made his legs wobble.
With his last ounce of strength, Thomas punched Ackerman across the face, driving him backward over the edge of the precipice and down into the dark gorge.
Thomas fell to his back and lay in his icy bed. He could taste dried blood and salt, feel nothing but numbness, and hear nothing but the hiss of the arctic wind.
Out of his right eye, the less swollen of the two, he could see faint rays of sunlight between the clouds. The rays reached down and covered his body. Around him lay the vast whiteness of the tundra and from across a multitude of fragile ice bridges, Thomas heard the yelps of Fell’s dog team, spared from the belly of the beast. As Thomas prepared to rouse himself from his frozen interlude, the jagged jaws of the tundra did not close in on him, for they were content with their plunder.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Ipthian Crystal (Part 2 of 3). By Jon Vassa, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
Next week be sure to catch Part 2 of “The Ipthian Crystal” by Jon Vassa. This story is a strange mix of pulp noir and fantasy. A private eye named Riley continues his search for the illusive crystal. In this second part of Vassa’s story, while continuing his quest, he runs into a former colleague…no love lost there. When he agreed to take the job, he had no idea how deep the rabbit hole would be.