After starting the day on a reconnaissance, by early afternoon the party were carrying a dangerous enemy back to their hideout at the docks. They’ve only had time to catch their breath before something has found them and was knocking on the back door.
“138…139…140…” Each number counted corresponded to the fall of a gold coin and the thunk as it joined its fellows in a small wooden chest, “ 141…142…” The golden claw motif on each coin caught the afternoon light filtering through the skylight above Rain as he collected the last handful of coins.
“I could count those crow coins faster if you want.” Algernon offered watching Rain monotonously drop each of a hoard of coins they found on Lightfeather.
“No…no… this is just my pace right now.” Rain replied, the image of misery. A bruise was blossoming redly over half his face, contrasting with dark rings under his eyes. Though the party had won a major victory, Rain looked like someone who’d lost the war.
Bloodied and worn out, Bruce was seemingly in a better mood. He walked out of the office rummaging through his backpack,
“Okay, who needs a little first aid?”
Any responses he may have expected were forgotten as all heads turned to a heavy wooden door to the back of the warehouse that had until that moment been ignored. Chained locked, it seemed as secure as the wall it was built into. Now, the scraping sound of metal against chain echoed faintly through the warehouse.
“Wha…oh…what was I up to?” Rain lost track of his count. He sadly dropped the last of the gold coins into the box as he turned to the others, “What is it?”
“A crowbar, “ Bruce replied, forgetting his first aid kit and pulling out his own well-worn weapon of choice, “They’re using it against the chain on the door.”
Peggy, already going for her hand crossbow, focused her thoughts on the door and asked the Strange who and how many were beyond the door. In response, she understood there were four beings, two of them were known to her. Her mind-link to Rain made him aware as well as he tucked away the box and started for the front door with the intent on getting eyes on the invaders.
I’ll let you know.
Noel and Maximillian were readying for battle. Noel was checking the weight of a falchion the party had collected, Maximilian disappearing into the office they shared, returning with a long-barrelled blunderbuss, complete with slowmatch which he now lit with a flint and steel.
Quickly leaving the warehouse via the front door, Rain snuck along the wall and peeked around the corner. At the far end of a small alley, he could see Toby Mutton-Chops of the giant sledgehammer, two other heavies breaking through the chain on the door and an aesthetic looking gentleman with a distinctive hooked nose. Caw Eh Carve was looking straight at Rain, black eyes glittering behind small round spectacles. Rain sighed heavily and stood, leaning tiredly on the corner of the warehouse as he let Peggy know who was breaking in.
“Ellis, Rowan pin that one down, Toby get through this door.” Caw Eh Carve ordered cooly and the two heavies left the door to Toby and started walking towards Rain.
Inside, the chain fell away from the door and clanged through the warehouse. Bruce moved quickly and wedged his crowbar against the door and the ground, firmly holding it closed for the time being.
“Shall we kill the prisoners?” Algernon asked, shrugging his crossbow off his shoulder and gesturing to Caw Eh Carve’s thugs in the other room, but the sentiment was extended to the unconscious Lightfeather as well.
“What? No, we need them to get to Londontown,” Bruce replied, leaning on the crowbar and holding the door firmly shut.
“But if Caw Eh Carve comes in now, they’d be better off dead.”
“They don’t deserve death just for following orders.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it.”
“I’m not worried because it’s not happening.”
“Maybe they’d go if we give them Lightfeather…” Peggy mused wondering if there was a way to bargain their way out, “…or maybe Noel?”
From outside they heard the roar of some beast then…THUD! The whole door shivered and cracked as something heavy hit it. Dust rained down on those nearest the wall, but the door held.
Outside, Toby swung his massive sledgehammer with a roar and smashed it square in the centre of the door as his boss turned to the wall directly opposite and pulled out a cypher. Tracing a rectangle onto the wall, the space inside shimmered creating a portal to another recursion. Rain didn’t get to see anymore before Ellis of the crowbar took up all his view. After a day of sneaking, dodging, fighting and being pummelled, Rain’s responses were all instinct. Moving aside and using Ellis’ own momentum, he pushed him into the warehouse wall. Rowan was one step behind his comrade, picking up the fallen chain and wrapping it around his fist. It was time to get out.
“Terra, Zeme, Aarde, Monde Jord!” Staring down the two thugs, Rain muttered a string of words from all over the world. Selling the idea of a powerful spell with his whole being, he crouched down, drawing his hands up as if pulling something heavy from deep down. With a yell, he completed the words and created an illusion of a huge monolith of stone rising out of the ground, showering the thugs with dust and broken pieces of earth. They never questioned the illusion stepping back, believing completely that the path out of the alley was now blocked. Rain didn’t waste any time and started running back to the front door.
“There’s a trapdoor to a sunken souq back in the office,” Noel supplied as a possible escape route from their current predicament, “Not exactly a secret but not out in the open either.”
“Sounds good, “ Peggy replied, “So, do we stay or go?”
“We stay,” Algernon loaded his crossbow and aimed at the door.
Outside the door, a blue flash of light caught everyone’s attention and it looked like the time for action had come. Bruce nodded and withdrew his crowbar from the door. From outside a roar forecast another attempt at the door. This time though, instead of the door holding, the door swung wide and Toby Muttonchops stumbled in behind his sledgehammer, surprised. The moment of surprise gave those ready inside the advantage. The blunderbuss went off, glancing against a metal plate sewn into Toby’s overalls and the shot ricochetted off. Bruce’s crowbar swung, in the dark of the warehouse, the metal created an arc of silver landing on Toby’s skulls. The impact was not meant to crush, but to shake and stun. Toby’s eyes crossed and he stumbled on the spot.
Peggy flung out a hand, and a plasma arc linked Toby to something through the portal, Toby taking the brunt of the damage. Now with the big man swaying on his feet, Noel reversed his hold on the falchion and brought the butt of the heavy sword down on Toby’s head. He crumpled into a mess of limbs in the doorway as Peggy scowled.
“Wrong end!” She complained to the nonplused Noel.
As attacks rained down on Toby behind him, Caw Eh Carve was running through a portal on the opposite wall. It led into another warehouse, similar to those in Celephais, though there seemed more boilers, more metal piping and working pistons. As the party watched a huge three-legged steam-powered machine stepped heavily out into the frame of the portal, driven by a red-haired man.
In the doorway, the two thugs Rowan and Ellis now were free to move in. Rowan with his chained hand swung out at Noel, clipping him in the head, making the explorer step back. Ellis put his crowbar to use against Bruce who blocked the attack with his own equally heavy bar.
Outside, Rain was almost back at the front door of the warehouse. He reached out his hand to grab the open door when wandering around the corner, the hulking shape of Theo flanked by four goons came full into view. Theo saw Rain at the same time, and Rain sighed, “I’m sorry we don’t have time for you at the moment. If you could come back in half an hour and we can compare schedules.” And taking firm hold of the door he slammed it shut and locking it,
Peggy, Theo and four goons at the front door, I think we need that escape plan.
“Theo’s out front, Rain’s ready to get out.” Peggy let the group at the back door know what was waiting at the other end of the warehouse.
“This is getting better, we just have to get out of their way,” Algernon said this time glancing at Lightfeather. Bruce followed his glance and for the first time since the ruins allowed himself to contemplate the cold-blooded dispatching of their dangerous enemy. A clang of heavy metal and the crunch of broken masonery refocused his thought back to the door where the walking machine was breaking down the wall between its recursion and Celephais. There was no time left.
“Okay, grab your stuff, time to go!” He said, positioning himself to protect the retreating group back to the trapdoor.
WHAMP! The front door slammed open as Theo kicked it aside and his goons rushed the front door. At the backdoor, Peggy launched another Plasma arc striking Rowan through his wrapped chain. Rain sprinted across the warehouse ready to leave and saw Bruce glance back at Lightfeather once more, a look of deep agitation clear on his face.
“Bruce!” Rain called across the warehouse, gaining his friends attention, “Let him go. We beat him once, we can do it again.” He watched as some unseen weight lifted off his friend’s shoulders and the expression cleared to one of determination. Bruce gave a nod and turned back to the thugs at the back door and Rain continued his scramble to the trapdoor, opening it ready to receive the party.
At the back door, Ellis and his crowbar and Rowan with his chain were also deflected by Bruce and Peggy respectively. Two goons from the front door made a beeline for Lightfeather, a third reached Maximillian and pulling out a wicked blade. It missed Maximillian, barely, as the blade struck the metal barrel of his blunderbuss. Noel moved in beside his companion, falchion against the heavy knife. The goon was no slouch and parried away the bigger blade adding to the clanging from the machine outside.
Algernon alone had plans of attack. As Theo’s goons reached Lighfeather’s side, he quickly levitated their leader and with a flick of a free hand sent him flying across the warehouse and through the back door landing just in front of the steam walking machine. The goons chased after their fallen leader but could not hope to cover the distance before he was crushed under the machine’s heavy foot. With a cool glee simmering to frustration, Algernon watched as the next foot rose, moved forward…and stopped. A clawed hand, more used to moving boilers than picking up people, descended and encased the fallen Lightfeather. With a look of triumph, the redheaded driver of the walking machine gently curled the claw around the unconscious Lightfeather and started turning his machine around, his prize secured.
Peggy and Bruce were both free, but Maximillian and Noel were still fighting enemies on both sides. Lightfeather’s surprise disappearance meant Theo and his goons ran through the battle at the back door. They eyed Algernon suspiciously as they went past and would not have stopped if Rowan and his chain had not lashed out at Theo trying to trip him up. Ellis, in support of his fellow English thug, clothelined another goon running behind with his crowbar and the fight between the two invaders was joined.
Maximilian and Noel broke free of the fighting and ran for the trapdoor, Bruce covering their flank.
“Bruce, go, “ Rain gestured to the hole in the floor as Bruce stopped to protest, “I’m going to make it look like an explosion went off, sealing the passage. Go!”
Without an argument, Bruce dropped down the hole with Rain following soon after. Seconds later, the sound of a huge explosion rocked the warehouse, for a moment all fighting was forgotten as it seemed the two offices, furniture, walls and floor rose into the air and collapsed over the trapdoor, sealing off the passage. The illusion lasted only a minute, but by that time, the fight had moved elsewhere and the party was long gone.
Sometime later, an out of breath Maximillian gestured for a break and everyone crouched in the tunnel. Ahead the quiet echoes of an underground market filtered through. Here was their last chance to plan in private before moving back out into public.
“I like what you did with the explosion, collapsing the roof on the tunnel like that.” Algernon effused to Rain.
“Go out with a bang, as they say.” Rain smiled weakly back, “but it won’t last, it just buys us a little time. Unlike that move with Lightfeather. I know it didn’t come off as you wanted, thankfully, but getting the two groups together was strategically very clever. I was impressed.”
Algernon straightened under the compliment, though noted the tone of disapproval for trying to make Lightfeather jam.
Bruce and Peggy were in discussions with Noel and Maximillain about where to go next. First stop was a safe place to translate from. Back to the bathhouse, the famous temple in town or somewhere else? Noel, it seemed, had another place in mind that was less public than the other two suggestions. Next was the problem of where to translate to next, and here there was a disagreement.
“You could come back with us to Seattle.” Bruce suggested, knowing the problems with just ‘inviting visitors’ into The Estate, but keeping them to himself for now.
“We really must report back, “Maximillian said adamantly, “Things are heating up and our superior need to know.”
“So do ours,” Bruce thought, “but…what if we came back with you to the Geographic Society first?” This suggestion was not received as well as the first.
Maximilian and Noel looked at each other, “Well…we think that may raise a few eyebrows amongst the more senior staff…” Noel confessed.
“Oh, it may raise a few eyebrows, oh we wouldn’t want that!” The comment only fired up Peggy’s thin skin when it came to Noel and his seeming indifference, “Well who needs you then?! Go on, fly back to your comfy libraries and just forget we ever existed, again!”
The commotion drew Algernon and Rain into the discussion. When it was clear that Maximillian and Noel wanted to break from the party, Rain interrupted.
“Gentleman, this is not an Estate issue or a Society issue but a global one. I think we’ve seen that both our respective issues are intertwined, we can’t work in isolation any longer. We have to work together. ”
Maximilian and Noel didn’t say a word, just looked at each other for a moment where an agreement was made.
“I have a small place we can take you.” Maximilian finally said to the group, “Not the IGS mind, but somewhere safe where you can rest and we can get in touch with our superiors on what to do next.”
Nods all round, except from Peggy.
They quickly moved through the souq to a room that looked like it was set aside for pray at other times, but right now was empty. Maximilian lead the translation away from the sun and dust of Celephais to the dank, fog filled air of London, but no London that Rain knew.
The room they found themselves in was a middle class 19th century apartment, complete with gas lamps, heavily sashed windows and leather, though worn and cracked, furniture. As soon as the vertigo of translation had subsided, Rain walked to the window and saw a cobbled alleyway leading to a busy London street filled with people, hansom cabs and delivery carts. The air was thick with coal soot and the smell of animals and people living in close proximity. The sky was a yellow-grey, the unique colour of industrial smog mixing with the natural fog off the Thames. A real pea-souper was rolling in. Recognising and feeling completely alien to all about him, Rain said nothing but stalked off to find a bathroom down the hall.
Peggy as silently as Rain, headed straight for a four poster bed set at one end of the apartment, only stopping to pull off her Doc Martens as she went.
Bruce shook of the last of the translation, “Right, we all sorely in need of rest. Us men will take the chairs and floor while Peggy can have the bed.” He looked around and discovered that no one had heard a word he’d said, “Right then…good.”
“Now as mentioned we need to get in touch with our superiors,” Maximilian informed Algernon and Bruce, “In the meantime, rest up here and we should be back in a few hours.”
The boys made themselves comfortable and were aware of how their clothes had morphed in the new recursion. Algernon had on a black suit with short waist-length coat, a black top hat and cane that marked him out as a public school boy, and someone of status, if not class. Bruce on the other hand was dressed in a straight thigh length leather coat, heavy cotton clothing, checkered cloth cap and tartan scarf. He ran his fingers through hair far longer than he’d normally allow, with muttonchop sideburns that he couldn’t help stratching. After an hour, Rain returned clean, well pressed in an appropriate morning suit, white flower in his buttonhole, and a moustache, neat tidy and thoroughly respectable. Having surveyed the room and his companions, he flopped down into a squeaky springed leather chair and fell asleep.
The party dozed as best they could after the day’s excitement and were soon awoken a little more refreshed by a knock at the door. Standing outside to be let in was an imposing middle aged gentleman bundled up against the dank chill air outside. Flanking him was Noel and Maximillian looking subdued and silent. The gentleman walked in stripping off his heavy coat, throwing it and his top hat and cane onto the bed. They woke Peggy with a start. Without a word she climbed out of bed and joined the others in the lounge, now dressed in a tartan walking suit, tailored, tasteful and very respectable. Her hair though, was its normal curly mess.
“My name is Sir Raymond Creswick, I am Quartermaster for the Implausible Geographic Society. I understand you are with The Estate.” The gentleman announced to the room as if he were speaking to a much larger group. His voice was deep with an authoritative rasp that spoke of a man who was not used to having to raise his voice to be heard. His tone was clipped and to the point, with a hint of distain at the phrase, “The Estate.”
“They pay.” Rain replied, not sure if he wanted to be known as anyone’s man. Bruce glowered at him, their disagreements of old showing. Sir Raymond didn’t seem to care either way and continued.
“I hear you have stumbled onto the same investigation as Maximillian and Mr Hagan.” It wasn’t said as a question and Rain didn’t see a need to reply to it as such.
“We find we are investigating the same thing…from the other direction.” He qualified confidently, making sure to catch and keep the eye of Sir Raymond.
“Indeed.” Sir Raymond returned the look with interest, “What can you tell me about The Estate?”
“The same as you can tell us about the Geographic Society, Sir Raymond,” Rain relaxed a little feeling comfortable with the polite banter so close to that he’d grown up with, “But that doesn’t mean we can work together on this issue.”
Sir Raymond’s mouth twitched into something that could have been a smile and barked a sound that in some other face could have been a laugh.
“Very well then, “ Sir Raymond rocked back once on his heals spoke, “As you know we have been following James Moriarty and his crime syndicate’s trade in Bywandine for sometime. We always knew there were other groups, but had no evidence to tell us who they were or where they worked from. From a string of clues uncovered by us led us fortunately to finding Mr Hagan here, “ He gestured to Noel who was standing uncomfortably to one side, “Unfortunately, the criminals destroyed all the evidence before we got a chance to investigate for ourselves.”
“What?” Peggy said standing at the news, breaking the silence that Sir Raymond had commanded, “you mean the dig site…the temple…?”
“It was deliberate.” Rain said quietly as Sir Raymond continued and as she sunk back into her chair, “We’re lucky you weren’t killed.”
“Bywandine, “ Sir Raymond said as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “ Of course a herb native to the Dreamland laced with opium creating very vivid dreams. Recently, the trade has extended to that of white slave trade as a new additive has the effect of capturing users for unknown purposes.”
“Excuse me sir, “Peggy took to the floor again and Sir Raymond had no alternative but to allow her to speak, “As mentioned we came to Bywandine through unusual means and have not had a chance to do any experimentation comparing Bywandine and Spiral Dust. We know they have similar effects, though from our human trials, “ She gestured to Rain who found himself working hard to keep a neutral expression, “Spiral dust users seem to have little or no control over where they go, in comparison to the Dreamwalkers of Bywandine.”
“If you can provide laboratory space I would like to see if the two have anything in common.”
Slowly Sir Raymond breathed in, assessing the young woman in front of him. He turned to Noel, not taking his eyes off Peggy who looked like she was presenting a thesis to a funding body, “This is the Doctor Martin you spoke of when you first came to us?”
Noel nodded, “Yes, Sir Raymond.”
“I think that could be arranged, “ Sir Raymond said now turning to Maximillian, “Could you accompany the young lady.” Again, it wasn’t a question but a command and Maximillian quickly complied.
Now Rain stood and held the floor. He filled in their side of the investigation into Spiral dust, how it had led them to a distribution network that was spread all over the world and seemed all to flow through Crows Hollow.
“We know of two groups out of Crows Hollow for certain, the Droods and the Cornaro families. There’s a possibly third depending where Elvin Lightfeather’s loyalies lie, what dubious information we have says he’s in the Drood camp.”
“I can confirm that information. We know about Crows Hollow and its mafia-style crime syndicates, but you are saying they are involved in both Bywandine and Spiral Dust trades?”
“Indeed. For certain the Droods are.” Rain, as was his habit, fell into the speaking style of the culture he found himself in, “As far as our information goes, the Cornaro are involved only in Spiral Dust, but their’s was the most extensive of networks we’ve seen so far.”
There was a pause as Sir Raymond digested the information. Algernon, stood and moved up beside him.
“Sir, I have to tell you I have been very impressed with your operatives in the field.” He said to the bemusement of Sir Raymond.
“Yes, especially Maximillian. He has been very helpful in understanding the Society and your investigation.”
“Yes sir, in fact I was wondering how one would go about joining the society?”
Sir Raymond turned to take in the young man in front of him, his voice low and cool, “You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest?”
“Not in my mind.” Algernon replied innocently and Rain had to agree.
Sir Raymond drew himself up to his full height, not as tall as Bruce but well above both Algernon and Rain, “Membership to the IGS is strictly by invitation only.”
Several hours later, Peggy returned alone and with the results of her experimentation.
“Bywandine is a plant derivative with active ingredients that affect users as they dream by connecting them to the Strange, but it seems only to Dreamland. Spiral dust is still…unknown origin with a completely different active ingredient. On the surface it seems to have a similar effect but does not connect them to Dreamland just The Strange. They are completely unrelated.” She informed the group with a look of defeat about her, “We still have two complete sources so I guess it makes sense that we continue to investigate Spiral Dust while the Geographic society follows Bywandine.”
“Well, thank you doctor, I think that was a worthy task, “Sir Raymond straightened seemingly pleased with Peggy’s conclusion, “I concur with your reasoning, the Society will continue to follow the Bywandine and The Estate can follow your Spiral Dust lines of investigation.” …and neither the two shall meet… his face said as Sir Raymond gave a short bow, placed his top hat on his head and made for the door, “Mr Hagan?”
Giving the party one last look, Noel walked past on his way to the door, Peggy grabbed his arm.
“Meet me at Berkley…at the University Cafe…a week from today.” She said fervently before quickly turning away.
Now alone and still exhausted from two running battles back to back, the party settled down for a full rest as the city bustles around them unheeded.
The next morning, Algernon and Rain were sufficiently rested to now desire the next two basic needs after shelter and security, coffee and bacon.
“Do they have bacon in London?” Algernon asked as he followed Rain down through the apartment building to the street where Rain was already hailing a hansom.
“Do they? My dear, Bacon is the staple of a standard English breakfast and for the young man on the go there is the sacred bacon-buttie, British cuisine at its finest.” Rain extolled catching the eye of a cab driver who turned his horse’s head to the curb.
“I think I like this place.” Algernon jumped into the cab and Rain asked to be driven to the best nearest coffee house.
“Yes, to a young man with a little ready cash, such as ourselves, there are few better places to be than Victorian London.”
“A second home.”
The two of them spent the morning at Verrey’s Coffee house on the corner of Hanover and Regent streets eating one of the greasiest most delicious fry-ups of egg, sausage, bacon, bubble and squeak with coffee. Rain sent a young runner to enquire about Thermos flasks so to take coffee back for Bruce and Peggy and was told by the same young boy that such a thing couldn’t be had.
Fuller and feeling more themselves, they returned to the apartment and for the planning of what to do next.
“Not much reason to go now,” Peggy said sitting on the bed, “Moriarty is not selling Spiral Dust. But, the taking of Lightfeather by his thugs was interesting, I wonder what he wants with him?”
“How about Crows Hollow? “ Rain retrieved the coin they found on Theo that had been identified by Peggy as a key.
“I’m scared stiff of going to Crow’s Hollow,” Algernon confessed clutching his bony elbows as he perched in one of the leather chairs.
“Yeah? I’m looking forward to seeing what I look like as a crow.” Rain replied, leaning on Algernon’s chair.
“Remember, they won’t be all Lightfeathers and Theos.” Bruce added when Algernon looked unconvinced by Rain’s spin, “ We’ve been unlucky in meeting some of their highly skilled fighters, most of the community will not be so skilled. Still, there’s a lot to be said for just going back to The Estate first, checking in, find out what news they have before making a decision.”
“Yes, I do want to do a little research at the archive.” Rain looked meaningfully at Algernon who didn’t know if it would be good or bad.
In the end, with no clear cut destination in mind, the group formed a circle and once more translated back to Earth and Peggy’s lab at The Estate. On first arriving , Rain tried making his mini sun to no avail, that ability was tied to Dreamland and not available in mundane Earth. Without a word he followed Bruce and the other to Katherine Manner’s office and waited for a moment to report. Though technically, Lawrence Keaton was Rain’s and Algernon’s direct supervisor, reporting to him always seemed at the least a waste of time at the worst a waste of breath. Instead they filled Katherine in on all their investigations and trips through recursions. She had nothing new to offer in the way of information, but she was interested in being a sounding board for their next plans.
“And how confident do you feel about going to Crow’s Hollow?” She asked when the location was brought up.
“We need to know. Everything at the moment is leading to Crow’s Hollow, the Droods and the Cornaros. They are the only ones dealing in Sprial Dust and have an extensive network already in place.” Rain said, adamant that now was the best direction.
“That’s a thought, what is the importance of that arrangement of dealers all over the world?” Peggy mused outloud as she put the question to The Strange itself. A one word reply run through her mind.
“Resonance?… Oh god…”
“The Earth is a giant becon?” Bruce articulated, “By who and for what purpose?”
Rain said nothing, just watched as Algernon expression grew grim and pale.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but young Algernon and I have an appointment with the Archives.” He said, springing from his seat and turning to Algernon. Without a word Algernon followed and the two made their way to the library. There Rain instructed Algernon to identify everything he studied on the creatures of The Strange. Then Rain asked the Archivist for a list of all the materials Algernon had requested on The Strange and compare the two lists.
Peggy also excused herself and went back to her lab to “blow stuff up”, her way of letting off steam. When she arrived Hertzfeld was excited to demonstrate his latest developments in the phasing glove. No longer just a glove, but half a suit (two arms and a lower body) that could phase through a solid surface and bring things back through.
“I’m thinking that the technology could be expanded to a vehicle that could be driven through solid objects, but that’s still a long way off as the energy requirements are far too high.” Hertzfeld explained happily.
This left Bruce alone with Katherine.
“You look like you have something to say, Bruce, “She said after Bruce ensured they were alone and closed the office door, “ Something you don’t want the others to hear?”
Bruce looked at his hands for a long moment, collecting his thoughts before finally speaking, “What are we when we go to those other places? What do we become when we’re there?”
“It’s all theoretical mind, “ She replied coolly, leaning back in her chair to remember the gist of many long lectures from the senior scientific staff, “But when we appear in a recursion it’s in new bodies made by the recursion, suitable and reflecting the nature of the place as well as your own nature.”
“My own nature…” Bruce seemed to take no comfort from that statement, in fact his expression darkened to that of deep concern.
“What is it that’s worrying you, Bruce?”
“In Halloween, one of the smaller recursions, it seemed….it felt like I was being…taken over.”
Katherine nodded and when it was clear Bruce wouldn’t articulate it further, she replied, “Yes, sometimes the recursions have a way of…amplifying parts of your…personality. Usually it’s for the best, we discover parts of ourselves that go beyond what we thought was possible…then sometimes…”
“Well, this one was a real self-righteous bastard.” Bruce added with a smirk, then grew serious again, “It didn’t feel like me.”
“That would have been disturbing, “ She acknowledged, coming around from her behind her desk and took one of the empty seats beside Bruce, “If you ever find yourself in that situation again I want you to remember two things. Firstly, it is only temporary, no matter how uncomfortable or disturbing. As soon as you leave that recursion, that identity will also be left behind. Secondly, here at The Estate we will always try to send you out to new recursions as part of a team. Though the recursion is completely alien, you will not be alone.”
Bruce sat still staring at his two strong hands and nodded silently. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he was the strong one, the one that could be relied on, was relied on. To be the one in need of help disturbed him more than another change in personality. Eventually he couldn’t think about the problem anymore and just changed the subject.
“So, if we’re going to Crow’s Hollow, can I put in that request for heavy armour?”
Katherine nodded more annimatedly than was required and returned to her desk, “Yes, I believe that this time you are right.” And she pulled out a requisition form and filled it out.
Back at the library, discoveries were being made. Rain was scanning documents while fiddling idlely with his puzzlebox. He’d just come across a group of reports and stories on creatures of The Strange that were so massive that they literally ate recursions. Naturally, called plantvoires very little was known about them, but their presence in The Strange was without question. He turned the small wad of documents over to Algernon sitting beside him.
“Why didn’t you ever mention these before? When Peggy was talking about creatures of the Strange that coud be linked to the Spiral Dust? Or when I asked you if there were others in The Strange we could talk to?”
“What…?” Algernon said just as Rain’s puzzlebox, uncharacteristically tumbled from his fingers.
“What…?” Rain said at the same moment as Algernon. Snatching the box out of the air before it fell to the ground, but not before the last compartment opened revealing a card.
Rain stared in shocked silence as the seconds ticked by, first at the open compartment and then at the card and what it said.
“But, that’s….that’s…how??” He stammered, words all of a sudden becoming stumbling blocks.
“Maybe the old man that gave you the box put it there.” Algernon suggested remembering the story Rain had told them of his first Christmas in England.
Rain shook his head in disbelief, “I …don’t think so, he…had never made it past the first compartment…I’m also certain.” Though Rain was anything but certain. It had been a long time ago, could he be so sure of old Mr Joseph’s true intentions as a seven year old? He read through the card again three more times before he leapt to his feet as if electrcuted and scrambled for his phone.
“Bruce, where is Bruce?”
Bruce was just leaving Katherine’s office when his phone started buzzing with a call. Before he could unlock the phone the person hung up and a message came through, and another, and a third. Bruce read the first.
Where are you? From Rain’s phone. Before he could reply to the message, the phone rang again, this time he was ready.
“Rain, what? I’m just leaving…”
“Where are you… I have to show you…I have a…no wait, where are you??”
“As I said, I’m on my way to the dorms…”
“Okay, okay, okay… don’t go anywhere.” And Rain hung up.
Bruce was used to Rain’s excitable nature, but he was also used to the conman being able to put a sentence together. Bruce quickened his step, sure whatever it was, would be big.
They made it to the dorms at about the same time, which was no mean feat as the Administration block was only one building up from the dormitories, and the library was right across the otherside of campus.
Without a word, which was appropriate as both Rain and Algernon were breathing heavily, Rain thrust his puzzle box into Bruce’s hand. He’d only ever handled the box once before, out in the wastelands of that first recursion. Now he could see that its arrangement had changed, a new compartment was open and inside a small card.
“Tobias, “He read out loud, “The Found Gentlemen would like to meet you. Enquire Within. Oh!”
“Yes!” Rain said and seemed to be waiting for something more.
“This is new?”
Bruce handed back the box, “And this had been in your puzzlebox all along?”
“Yes….maybe….I don’t know….” Rain dithered
“Enquire within. Does that mean it’s a key?”
Rain’s thought visibly shifted from the course that had brought him to find Bruce to what had just been said, “Key? Algernon?” Rain turned on Algernon now handing him the box to examine.
“Ur…Peggy would be better at telling than me.”
“Peggy!” Rain said and ran back out the door, the puzzlebox clutched in two hands.
Keeping up with Rain’s frantic pace they made it to Peggy’s lab door. The red light was spinning in it’s casing signifying that potentially dangerous experiments were underway. Bruce knocked on the door, Rain walked straight in.
“What is it now, didn’t you see the light?” She asked as Rain ran straight up to her, his puzzlebox open.
“Is it a key?” He panted handing her the box. She examined the box, allowing her normal sight to go out of focus so she could more clearly see the aura coming from it.
“As I’ve noted before, there is something of the Strange about this box but nothing very extraordinary,” She looked at the card and nodded, “The card on the other hand is no doubt a key. Whose Tobias?”
This single question to stun Rain back to sense who stepped back. It allowing him a moment to gain control once more, “Me! At least I was known as Tobias when I received this box. I told you in the ghoul camp.”
Peggy had still been deeply disturbed by events in the ruins of Sarkomand when the party stayed the night with the ghoul. It was then that Rain had shared the story of his box and the name he had used for much of his life. Taking a deep breath to calm his thought, Rain gave Peggy a summary of that story.
“Well, then it seems to me that the old man must have put that card there for you.”
“Possibly…” He was coming around to the fact that possibly the kindly old man had been more than what he seemed.
“Well naturally, the box was only a test, a way of finding those worthy to join.” Algernon added his theory.
“When I was seven? How would he have known? It wasn’t just for anyone, it had my name on it.”
“Maybe it’s not always been there, maybe it’s only been there recently.”
“For…now?” Rain tried to make sense of the Algernon’s thought processes, “But it has a name on it I haven’t been able to use in more than ten years.”
“Who are the Lost Gentlemen?” Peggy asked pointing to the card. Suddenly Rain remembered why he’d wanted Bruce in the first place.
“Bruce, it links to Bruce?” He swung around to a confused Bruce,
“That’s why I showed you?!” Rain almost cried in frustration, “It was the group the military man was joining. The one who sold your father’s journal!”
Now Algernon and Peggy were confused. Though they vaguely remembered Bruce buying a book in Celephais, he’d never mentioned that it was his Father’s journal. It was now Bruce’s turn to give them a summary of what he knew about the journal, the man who sold it and where it had come from.
“But that’s a personal thing, I don’t think it or Railsea have much to do with where we’re heading next.”
“Are you so sure?”Algernon said thinking, “What are the odds of you finding that book in Dreamland? Actually, I could probably work that out, do you want to see the figures?”
“Exactly!” Rain interrupted, “Just what I’ve said from the beginning. We’ve been told from the beginning that the gifted are rare, and yet here we are, some of the most powerful beings I’ve ever seen right here in this room, thrown together on a rainy night off a highway outside New Orleans.”
“I know that something brought us together, “ Bruce stood pacing the floor, “I”m not a good church man, but there is a god and he’s in control.” Now he turned to Rain, “If something is guiding us, take one of those crow coins and flip it. Let it decide where we go next.”
A shadow flickered over Rain’s face for a moment, but quickly past as he made a heavy gold coin appear and danced it across his fingers.
“Sure,” Was all he said as he flipped it high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.
To be continued…