“No sir, don’t take your mask off yet. It is really not safe until we get out of the enclosure. I have some things to help.”
“Thank you.” comes the muffled response.
The soldier leads the professor into the little shack and pulls out a chair, then produces a clothes brush to clean the dust from the old man’s face. Valeska drags his beret off his head, exposing his close cropped white hair now in little sweaty spikes; he grips the mask at its base and peels it up from his chin and over his head, then leans back in the chair and pulls in a deep breath, closes his eyes, and rests several minutes, savoring the deliciously sweet air.
“Sorry for the brusque behavior earlier, Sir! Dint know who you were and we have all kinds of lunatics come here, beg pardon again, Sir. A tube from the HQ came pheumatic about twenty minutes after you left. The regimental surgeon has provided instructions for you, Sir. It is important that you bathe as soon as possible, and you shouldn’t eat or smoke for the next several hours. And you’re not supposed to go back in for at least six months.”
“That will not be a concern, I never intend to return to this goddamed place,” the old man hisses before he takes his leave of the miserable gate and limps back to his room. He notices as he gets closer to the town, paying more attention now, that it is drab and shabby, not what he remembered of it in the morning, when was sunnier, and he was in more of a hurry. Even the few bright paintjobs are dull from drifting grit, the rest of Lestrade looked like an assembly of mud brick buildings.
The penzion is one of the few brick buildings about, next to a brick warehouse, a very secure quarter, he thinks. At the desk he inquires about the decontamination services and makes arrangements for his clothes to be picked up the next morning and a reasonable day suit be delivered to his room.
He turns to go upstairs and the receptionist chirps. “Why would anyone want to go into the black fields?”
“Do many go?”
“Not that I know’ve since six year ago. So why would you want to go?”
“I am a man of science, Ma’am, and I was collecting specimens‘..;”
“That do make sense.”
“… but what occurred six years ago?”
“O, well, about half a dozen religious joes and crazy people come here and go in. They had newspaper men and photographers wuz here and a crowd of strangers near washed the town’s folk out the streets,” she stops talking and stars at the clock across from her for a few moments.
“And what happened?”
“O, they were supposed to come back next day but dint. Soldiers went in and found two dead, never could find the rest. After that doan much people go down in there any more. And now they gots demons coming out of dere!”
“Yes, tall and black with horns, but pale faces. Lots of people seed ‘em.”
“Nah. Stay indoors all day, doan wanna see ‘em.”
His room has a view of the south, the dust above the cursed land boils like a thunderhead while to the southeast, in the direction of the center of the battle line, the air was clear and, apparently, still; birds could be seen flying effortlessly. The whole storm circles that giant crater like a hundred mile diameter hurricane dropping dust instead of rain and ash instead of sleet. He disrobes, throwing his dirty jacket, breeches, boots, beret and shirt by the door. Night shirted and barefoot he goes to the common bathroom for a scrub and a soak in a tub full of hot water in a bright blue and white tiled room with a stack of fresh enough towels, and he lets it sweep the memory of the grayscale Gotterdammerung . Tomorrow will search some local records and catch a night train North. Tomorrow is back to New Babbage.