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43. The Great Egg Hunt

After finding out Dona Ilsa of Crow Hollow was trading in Spiral Dust in the hope of reclaiming her kidnapped eggs, the party travelled to Ardeyn.  Through the Mouth of Swords into the Vaults where traps, puzzles and creatures wait.  The party have found two eggs and now realise they will have to search the whole complex to find all five.


Leaving the forgotten room of empty shelves, the group notices the golem attacking spirits has now disappeared.  They wound their way past the room of the metal plates, past the statue of the riddle and back to the main chamber.  There the hulking mass of the golem stood, silent and still.  It faced the copper vessel, the flame-licked up in front of the golem encompassing the creature in its red glow.

“Hello there, I say.  Excuse me,” Tobias called to the creature. It half-turned to the noise, a fathomless black eye focused on the qephilim.

“Hi!  Do you speak at all?”

“I speak,” Came a voice deep and tired, full of the ages that the vaults represented.

“Excellent, who are you?”

“I am Rimush.”
“Very pleased to meet you. I’m Tobias.  What do you do here?”

“I clean up.” And the words were said with such finality that Tobias was sure that it was this creature that dealt with the corpses of failed adventurers and decorated the mouth with their swords.

“Do you mind if we go through to the next door?”

“I have no care,” Rimush stated and turned back to the fire.

“Excellent, I can work with apathy,” Tobias said to himself and turned to the others who had been discussing which door to visit next, “Choose your door, Gentlemen.”

Around the flaming urn, four more doors lay closed, all engraved with a qephilim in a different setting.  One had a qephilim holding a finger to their mouth for silence and one in full plate holding a curved sword, a Talwar. One was holding a chest overflowing with riches and one with a long scroll wound around their feet.  On the premise that it is the last place you look for something, Bruce picked the fourth door and pushed it open.

As with other doors, the first room held a statue similar to that on the door.  A female qephilim read from a long scroll surrounded by spiralling black tiles with gold highlights. More interested in the room than the statue, Tobias and Bruce step in, searching for left items of secret doors. As soon as they stepped in front of the figure, however, it spoke.

” Recite the seven act against Ardeyn that are considered sins.”

Bruce looked to Tobias, “Do you know?”

Wide-eyed shaking his head, he replied, “Not for Ardeyn.  If they were to ask me about Crow Hollow laws, I’m your guy…in Crow Hollow.” 

They both looked to Algernon, who seemed decidedly shifty under their gaze.


“What do you remember of the seven acts against Ardeyn that are considered sins?”

“Ur…well assisting….Logan whats-his-face…I would assume,” He fumbled around for answers, “Wearing green, blue and pink in a uniform…?”

“That should be a law everywhere…except for those who know how to carry it off.” Tobias walked back to Algernon and sent a jolt of the Strange rocketing to his brain, “Does that help the old memory banks?”

Instantly, the list of seven sins and the seven qephilim kindred with all interconnectedness to the society and culture of Ardeyn became clear in Algernon’s mind.

“Desire, giving a Stranger or Lotanist access to Ardeyn.  Commerce, the collection of obscene wealth in the face of poverty.  War, cowardice that betrays a trust.  Lore, lies that harm another.  Law, theft of another’s livelihood.  Silence, failure to aid another.  Death, murder.” Algernon recited flawlessly.  On the word ‘murder’, the door at the far end of the room clicked open.

“Thank goodness for nerds who pay attention in class.” Tobias praised Algernon, who was still contemplating the sins.

“Murder.  What’s murder?  Was what we did to the keeper murder?”  He seemed more curious than distraught about the thought.

“I don’t think that it was ever alive so…no,” Tobias replied, responding from what he’d noticed of the wispy, mechanical nature of The keeper.

“Do we assume everyone here in Ardeyn is a mannikin?”

This subject preyed on Tobias’ mind from time to time.  Killing soulless clones in Ruk was one thing, but Tobias had wondered about those lives in Railsea who they’d help kill.  How many of those were constructs of their recursion, and how many had the true spark of life.  He then remembered the henchmen of Lightfinger and Caw Ek Carve they’d injured in Celephais. They would have travelled the recursion. They would have at least held the spark of life.  It gave him a cold shiver.

“We can’t tell the mannikin from the people. That’s the problem.”

By this time, Bruce had already stepped through the door and found a chilled room holding three chests.  On the wall, a shining blue scabbard held a long sword of unusual make.  

“Maybe it will talk to us,” Algernon said around Bruce’s side, “Everything else around here has.”

“Hello?”  Bruce said to the sword.  The sword did not respond.  Taking that as a good sign, he pulled the sword from the scabbard. Instantly the air seemed a little warmer to everyone in the vicinity.  With an appraising look, Bruce took the sword out of the treasure room and placed it against the wall for Peggy to look at when she got a chance.  He then returned to the chests.  Locked.  

“So which one of you sneaky sorts is going to try and open these?”  

Algernon and Tobias looked at each other.  Both had their thieve tools out ready, but in the end, Tobias shook his head and stepped aside. 

“I can encourage you,” Sending a tiny spark of The Strange to Algernon through his words, “I can’t encourage myself.”

“O-kay, so which one first?”

“How’d the old story go.  Goldilocks used Big Bears stuff first, so go for the big chest ,” Said Bruce sagely.

“Good thief was she? This Goldilocks?” Algernon asked.

“Famous for break and enter, but she was only ever done for misdemeanours,” Tobias replied straight-faced as he waited to see what lay in the chests.

The big chest clicked open, revealing a fabulously feathered dragon marionette.  Tobias instantly snatched up the puppet and, once its strings were untangled, started it walking the prancing around the room.  The feathers gave the puppet extra movement, and it all seemed uncannily alive.  Algernon looked at it with distaste, the talk of mannikins fresh in his mind.  When Tobias finally made the creature of paper mache, string and feathers beg in front of him, Algernon had to protest.

“I don’t like it, Rain, put it away!”

Tobias pulled the doll up to his shoulder and soothed it like a pet or unhappy baby.  Algernon went back to the chests.  The second chest stopped all the frivolity.  Nestled in the cushioning lining of the middle chest lay a large blue speckled egg, the third of five. Algernon carefully transferred the egg from the chest to the carrying box where two of its siblings already lay.  After finding the egg, the third chest’s discovery of three clay pots was anticlimatic, and they were perfunctorily placed in Algernon’s bag.

“Told you so,” Said Bruce looking pleased with himself, “Said there’d be an egg in the last room.”

They left the cold room and faced the brightly shining sword waiting for them.

“That’s a cool sword,” Punned Tobias as Bruce picked up the sword once more, “Wouldn’t you like to wield it?”

Bruce handed the sword to Algernon to examine and shook his head, “I smash things, I don’t slash things.”

Algernon’s eyes grew wide as he discovered the nature of the sword through the Strange.

“A soul sword, it’s really powerful. But, if it runs out of energy, it will suck the soul of the last victim or, if it can’t do that, it’s wielder.” 

“Well, that’s certainly not my thing, “ Tobias said, thinking the soul-sucking was cool but passing on the sword.

“Nor mine,” Algernon agreed.

“We could trade it for some…boomsticks?” Tobias said, remembering the dynamite Algernon had been keen on in Crow Hollow.”

“There’s no telling whose hands such a weapon will end up in there.  No, we don’t have to steal everything from this place.”

“I wonder if Peggy would like it?” Algernon mused.

That was enough for Bruce, who took the sword and returned it to the frozen wall where it had come from.

“So the wall is cold, not the sword,” Algernon realised, “So if we stuck Peggy up against the wall…”

Bruce slapped him behind the head in a very Peggy manner.

Before leaving the fourth door for good, Bruce did one last check of the room, with an extra push of the Strange from Tobias. In a seeming natural rock wall, Bruce found a notch that stuck out a little further.  When he pressed the button, the whole wall slid aside to reveal a long narrow corridor.  At the far end, a pile of crowns, the gold coins of Ardeyn, and one or two unopened chests lay twinkling in the firelight of torches.  Wary of traps, Tobias threw a knife down the corridor and made it twang into the wood of one chest.  Inside, the coins rattled and clinked, but nothing else.  No traps, no vicious box monster, nothing.  Algernon walked down the hall and put a coin of the local currency on the pile.  Nothing happened. He opened a closed chest and found it full of more coins, maybe 4000 crowns in total. He used a thin probe to check for hidden compartments on the chests, and still, the coins seemed to be the only things of value.  With a snort, Algernon walked away.

“Interesting, I thought you liked power.” Bruce commented as Algernon walked by, “Riches are a significant power in the world.”

“Too transitory,” 

“Youtube celebrity?” Tobias joked.

Algernon made a face, “No…that’s more your thing.”  He glanced back at the cold room, “You guys go ahead. I’ll close up behind us.”

“I’ll help you,” Bruce replied, having noticed the glance and moved between Algernon and the sword.

“Oh, I meant to the gold chamber,” Algernon sidled sideways to close that door.  As Bruce went to help there, Algernon levitated the sword off the wall and into his hands.  By the time Bruce had closed both doors and was ready to leave, the sword was strapped to Algernon’s back with his crossbow.

“Look, even a good person could do great harm with that sword,” Bruce said to a self-satisfied Algernon as they walked out of the fourth door.

“Well, we’ll make sure not to give it to a good person then.”

The fifth door was the qephilim in full-plate armour, the curved talwar ending in a point up over his head.  Beyond it, another door with a heavy lock stood open. Tobias stood back as this room was opened to reveal a huge statue of the same qephilim.

“Yeah, this is not my room at all.”

Along two walls, wooden racks of gleaming weapons stood attracting everyone’s eye, including the skittish Tobias.  His fascination with throwing blades drew him to the line of shining metal as Bruce and Algernon wedged the door with the lock open with a bolt shaft.

“I don’t trust this place, “Bruce rumbled in his baritone and spotted Tobias petting his marionette dragon.

“Don’t touch any of the weapons. They’re probably rigged to set off the statue or something,” He said before turning to enter the next room. 

“Did we hear something?” Tobias said to the dragon puppet whose head he flipped up to give him a look, “ Yeah, I guess we did, damn it!” He sighed and made a note to ask Algernon to levitate one of the daggers on their way out.

The next room was immense, easily the largest space beside the main hall. In the centre, a twenty-foot tall four stepped pyramid rose to the ceiling.  On each tier, runes were carved. Peggy and Tobias worked out they were the markers of other heroes who had attempted some combat and where they reached on the pyramid.

Gradnog the brave reached tier two before being slain by an arrow.  

Nyrod, the impervious, died here on tier three after being rent limb from limb.

“Yeah, we’re not going to want anything to do with that,” Tobias said as Bruce looked to the summit.  At the peak, a bronze altar shone.

“Peggy, could I borrow your shield generator?”
“Why?” She asked.  Though it was not always on, Peggy had come to rely on her force shield generator when combat was inevitable.

“Well, how much do you want to see Bruce with holes?” Tobias asked

“Not at all. I’m very aware of human anatomy.  Qephilim, on the other hand…” She let her thought hang in the air for Tobias to catch. 

“I have a hole. The unicorn’s work’s not completely healed,” He grumbled and lifted a hand to protect the shoulder.

“You two can keep discussing qephilim anatomy. Can I just please borrow the generator?” Peggy unclasped it from her belt and handed it over to Bruce.  

“Would you like the wings?” Tobias offered.

“Ah….no thank you, Algernon can levitate me up there.”
“Like a widdle baby…” Algernon mumbled loud enough for everyone to hear, and Tobias noted Bruces reticence, but said nothing. 

Regardless, Bruce insisted Algernon lift him to the top of the pyramid.  On the ground Peggy and
Tobias started walking around the pyramid.

Expertly landed at the top tier, Bruce scanned the seemingly empty altar.  The only adornment was a plate featuring three images and a dial.  The dial was currently pointed to the image, very much like the stepped pyramid.

“It looks like it can change shape,” Bruce called down to the others describing the dial, “I’ll flip it left and see what happens,”    He set himself to leap away if he had to, and with his free left hand, turned the dial to the left.

The top step dropped away into nothing.  Bruce felt the drop and leapt, grabbing hold of the third tier and rolled away from the now gaping hole beside him. He looked down into the hole that had been the top tier and could just see the altar far below.  Within seconds, the tier started rising again and within the minute was back in place at the top of the pyramid.  Bruce was now on the fourth tier. Five feet of rock wall was between him and the top tier.  With no interest in being on the movable tier for the next experiment, he called down to Algernon.

“Can you come up here?”

With a thought, Algernon flew up to stand on Bruce’s shoulders. Together, they flipped the switch to the right.

Down on the ground, near the other two, the door clicked and swung open. Levitating down, Algernon and Bruce lead the way into the third room.  Deja vu.  It looked almost the same as the first, including the statue of the armoured qephilim.  Here, however, three mummified bodies lay discarded against the wall.  It looked like they may have died of starvation.  Scratch marks on the inside of the door confirmed that these adventurers had tripped the security of this third room.  Across the room, three chests lay locked and ready to investigate.  Algernon had them picked and opened, revealing three bottles of 600-year-old wine, the head of a maul engraved with the legend, Grandfather’s Maul, and a fourth egg!  One more to find.

Algernon gently placed the egg in with its siblings, and the party turned to the other objects packed away for safekeeping.  Tobias started pulling out the bottles of wine.

“We don’t need to steal everything,” Bruce complained again as Tobias foisted the bottles onto Algernon to carry.  He found places amongst the eggs.

“It’s not robbing when you’re an adventurer. It’s looting.”

Under the egg, three cyphers were also hidden.  Bruce didn’t have any qualms about taking cyphers and passed them to Peggy for identification.  Curious to discover if the maul head had any interesting powers, Algernon levitated it out of its box.  Surprised by its weight, he hefted it up to eye level and studied it for signs of The Strange.  Nothing.  It was a huge chunk of metal that someone’s grandfather had seemed fond of.  He teleported it back into its box with disgust and closed the lid.

Leaving the chest room, crossing the pyramid room and finally filing out of the armoury, Tobias pointed out the dagger of this delight to Algernon. Algernon stepped through the doorway and drew the weapon to him.  As soon as it hit his hand, he disappeared, and the doors at both end of the first room began closing.  Bruce charged for the door, running to stop it from shutting. He would not have made it if not for the bolt jammed in the locking mechanism, preventing them from closing.  

“Challenge accepted!”  

Algernon was on the second tier of the pyramid alone with only a dagger in his hand. He put on his armour of atrocity and readied for an attack.  An arrow came from behind him, higher on the pyramid and struck the armour, bouncing off.  Turning, a creature with horns and holding a shortbow took cold damage from his armour.  Another arrow from below did the same.  Looking around, he could see five of the small devilish creatures, all with bows, all seeming ineffective against his armour.

Good, He thought, drawing his jawbone crossbow,  Target practice.

Bruce and Peggy strained against the door, pulling it inch by inch away and widening the gap.  As soon as it was wide enough, Tobias flew in over their heads towards Algernon on the pyramid, Bruce hot on his heels.  Pulling out her spellbook, Peggy found the page with the summoning for the umber wolf.  This time she focused her thoughts on controlling the creature before she released it into the room.  It bounded out, racing after Bruce for the pyramid.

Algernon aimed his weapon, hitting an archer.  The devils, seeing they could make no impact on Algernon, now tried for easier targets.  Arrows fell in Bruce and Peggy. One drew a bead on Tobias.

“Heads up, Rain!” Bruce shouted, vaulted up the first tier of the pyramid, rolling to his feet and pulling himself up the second.  Rain ducked, the arrow flying overhead instead of hitting.  The umber wolf bounded up the first two tiers and launched itself at an archer, but the archers weren’t without skill and stepped aside.  

Bruce was now facing a devil Algernon had previously shot. Pulling back his crowbar, he shouted into the room, “Fore!”  The creature (or what was left of it) flew through the air to land in front of Peggy. Bruce flexed, taking a classical archer’s pose in victory.

“I have no doubt you could take these guys on alone,” Tobias said, hovering above Algernon’s head. The Strange flowed, and Algernon felt it sharpen his senses. Another bolt hit true.  Peggy on the ground examined the devil creature that was now a meat shield as her umber wolf continued to tear into its compatriot above.  Beside it, a shortbow that she now took up, ready to use if need be.  Instead, she summoned a new and terrible creature. Something small, fluffy and white.  It leapt into the battle, going straight for the throat of the nearest devil.  Peggy chuckled as the killer rabbit of Caerbannog did its bloody work.  

Hovering above Algernon, Tobias kept out of the battle when he was clawed from above by one of the devil creatures with wings.

“Incoming!” He cried, looping up above the creature’s head and sending Avel out to scream.  Stunned, it fell to the ground beside Peggy.

“I don’t need anatomy examples that are still living,” She complained and turned her attention to it as it got groggily to its feet.

Bruce climbed to the third tier beside another of Algeron’s target practice dummy’s.  Already injured and with nowhere to go, it too went splat.

Things looked dire for the creatures now as they didn’t seem to be able to land a blow, though the group’s attacks were either debilitating or devastating. Bruce climbed back to the fourth tier and smashed one who was still fresh.  He took the blow and prepared his claws for attack.  On the ground, the devil knocked from the air, was up on its feet and advancing on Peggy.  She stepped back in preparation for the attack. 

“Avel, please take over that body down there and protect my friend,” Tobias asked the now unclothed spirit.  Creepily, the broken body that Bruce had flung there from ten feet up stirred and stood.  With uncoordinated limbs, it threw itself at the flying devil.  On the pyramid, Bruce called Algernon, ”Turn the dial!” He yelled, gesturing with his hands to drop the platform.  His eagle-sharp eyes caught the fight on the ground and recognised the devil as the one he’d knocked off the pyramid.  The disjointed movements, the viciousness of the attack gave him pause.  

What in the hell was Rain playing with?

He had little time to dwell on it as Algernon reached out with levitate and flipped the dial.  He was ready, stepping down as the platform disappeared. The creature wasn’t.  There was a clear crunch as the body hit the platform at the bottom of the drop.  Swinging his crowbar, he waited for its return.

Algernon filled the air with bolts, killing a creature the umber wolf had prone as the killer rabbit took out another.  The umber wolf, now free to attack another, was sent after the shambling monster being puppeted by Avel.

“That’s my Mother!” Exclaimed Tobias and quickly withdrew Avel from the body and the fight.  She returned to the tattoo, her warmth instantly making him clutch his chest protectively. The umber wolf’s target now collapsed again to the ground, it leapt for the winged devil and killed it.  One left, Bruce stood patiently as the platform rose.  The shaken devil stood for his attack. 


On the rise of the top tier, a new line of runes appeared.  Tobias flew down beside Algernon and read it out loud,” Mighty Algernon and friends reached tier four.”

Peggy sent the killer rabbit up the pyramid and, with its teeth, scratched a new set of runes just above.

“What do they say, Rain?” Algernon asked as the rabbit completed its last task and disappeared.

Peggy had written the runes for ‘short’ between ‘Mighty’ and ‘Algernon’.

“Ur…Noble.  The Mighty Noble Algernon,” He lied.

“That’s not very apt,” Algernon mused to himself.

“What should it say?” 

“Hmmm, superior in every way,” He finally settled on.

“I’d suspect that’s too long to fit in the space,”

They shared a look, and Algernon handed Tobias the dagger.  

“Cheers,” he said and slipped it into the holder on his forearm. Bruce jumped down from the tier above, glanced at the newly chiselled runes and rounded on Tobias.

“You, don’t follow the lights!” He said, pointing with his crimson streak crowbar.

Tobias blinked, “Fair,” He replied, knowing full well the Lord of the Ring’s reference to the mire of the dead from the last great war. However, he wasn’t sure if it referred to acquiring the dagger or Avel and her terrifying abilities.  Neither said anything more.  Bruce handed back the shield generator to Peggy, and they all returned to the main hall and the urn. 

Rimush was still there, staring at the fire.

“What are you waiting for?” Algernon asked the golem, who didn’t bother turning his head to answer.

“The Mythkeeper. He opens the doors for me to clear up,” The golem replied, reminiscent of Marvin the robot.

“I can do that,” Algernon replied, lifting his hand and the ring,” Which door would you like opened?”

“I care not,” 

Algernon looked to the last two doors, one with a qephilim with a finger pressed to its lips and the other holding a chest full of gold coins. Algernon opened the latter, and without a word, the golem slowly made its way through the door. 

“Happy clearing up!” Algernon waved before turning to Tobias, “Do you want to go in there while he’s clearing up?”

“No,” Tobias shuddered.

“No, let’s go to the other one.” And he twisted his ring.  The flame in the cauldron spun around, and the door clicked open.

Bruce had been busy with his first aid kit on Peggy.  He’d been able to soothe her injuries a little, but not with any great success.  He now turned to Algernon, and Tobias sent a shock of  The Strange through Bruce, hoping it would aid the treatment.  The healing did nothing, and disgruntled Bruce packed up his potions and ointments.

Refreshed, if not healed, the group entered the doors of the silent monitor.  It was clear as they passed the massive door that this was not like the other spaces.  Clean and well lit, the other spaces gave a sense of opulence and grandeur.  This winding corridor heading downwards was dark, unused and ill-kempt.  As they wound down the snaking corridor the dust accumulated grew heavier, and the mythlights of the qephilim grew brighter against the darkness.  Everywhere Tobias read the same runes of spirit warding, stopping unclothed spirits from entering The Vaults from this direction.

“I don’t know if this is where we belong,” Algernon said first.  Tobias said nothing and kept walking.  Eventually, the long corridor ended in a door marked with runes.

Journey not into the Night Vault.

Tobias and Peggy both looked at each other.

“That was one of the myths of Ardeyn,” Algernon said, referring back to his studies with The Estate, “The Night Vault is where you go when you die.”

“What? Hell? What are we supposed to do? Go down and fight Satan?”  Bruce exclaimed, sure he shouldn’t be anywhere near such a place.

“More like Hades of the Greek tradition,” Tobias added, now feeling drawn to what lay beyond the door, “What if there’s an egg down there?  Don’t we have to try at least?”

Bruce had to agree if an egg was down there, they would have to go as well.  He pushed it open, and Tobias jumped back as another unicorn statue reared up silently in front of them.  This one’s horn was made of metal and shone dully in the mythlight.  

“I’ll get this one,” Algernon said, climbing up the side of the unicorn. Not getting in front of this one, Tobias walked around the statue to Algernon’s side. Climbing up a leg and along the statue’s flanks, Algernon edged towards the head and tried the horn.

“It turns,” Algernon said.  

Bruce was checking the seemingly empty room for secrets when he spotted the subtle outline of a door at the far end, “Hey guys, there’s a…” Was all Bruce got to say as Algernon turned the horn to the right and a piercing scream emanated from the statue.  It echoed endlessly around the room making all of them clutch their ears and throwing Tobias to the ground.  When the screaming ceased, blood could be seen trickling from his ears as he held his head in his hands.  Bruce rushed over to see how he was and found the cuts the flying devil had inflicted in the pyramid room.

“Why didn’t you get this healed up before?” He asked.

“It was more important you healed the others.  Even with The Strange’s help, it didn’t seem to be working.  I just wanted to finish this place and leave.”  He confessed as Bruce helped him back to his feet.

At the same time, Algernon turned the horn to the left and a click was heard from the secret door.  Following the other, Tobias wobbled after, down a new passage.

This passage seemed even more abandoned and forgotten than the previous.  Steps lead further and further down, but no longer curved and wound, instead headed due east and away from The Vaults.  A breeze up the passage brought the sound of umber wolf howls.

“I don’t think this is safe,” Algernon said from the head of the group.

“No, the living should not be here,” Tobias swayed like a psychic at a seance adding to the creepiness of the space.

“Doctor Peggy, could you ask The Strange if this is a good way to go?”  Algernon turned to Peggy who closed her eyes and posed the question to the energies of The Strange.

This way is only taking you away from anything of value, Peggy heard her voice reply.

The decision made, the party started back up the stairs.  Tobias stood for a moment wondering what besides umber wolves they may have found further down the path.  He wasn’t sure if it was the qephilim body he inhabited or something else, but he felt drawn towards whatever lay at the end of the passage.  In the end, feeling unwell and longing for a rest, he too turned and trudged back up the winding passage that eventually led back to the main room.

There were no arguments from anyone when they returned to the warmth and temporary safety of the urn for a rest.  They spent an hour recharging, looking over their finds and catnapping before tackling the last door, the one with the chest of gold.  

A short corridor led to a new door that opened up onto a room holding a large glass vessel.  Frosty plumes of fog rolled off the glass and condensation dripped down iron tripod legs.  

Feeling better for his nap, Tobias walked up to the vessel and waved away the mist, but besides the bitter cold emanating from it, he could see or feel nothing.  Peggy cast a spell protecting her from the ferocity of the cold and placed her hand on the glass.  

Roar! Someone said.  It was so curious, Peggy didn’t flinch away but stood, hand on the glass, a look of surprise on her face.


Who are you?

A traveller and a scientist.  And you?

None of your business.  This is my home, what do you want?

We’re on a mission of discovery and adventure.  I do ask your pardon for our intrusion.  Are you willing to talk at all?

There was general mutterings but no outright statement yes or no.  Peggy continued, I do apologise for the intrusion.

“Is it imprisoned in there?” Algernon asked from outside the fog of cold.

Is this your willing adobe? She asked.

What’s it to you?

Not much, your situation need not change, but if you were unfairly placed in this vessel I could be persuaded to let you out.

Look, I am stuck in here, but I like it.  I’m safe and I  usually don’t get bothered by nosy intruders! The voice rose in irritation and volume.

Well, pardon.  Enjoy your next eternity, And Peggy released the glass with a snort of frustration.

Another door and an empty hallway ran off this room.  Runes moved in loops on the flooring tiles. At the far end, another door on the right-hand side and darkened archway to nowhere were clearly visible. From the doorway, Bruce used a darkvision cypher to peer down the hallway and beyond.  The cypher did nothing to dispel the darkness beyond the archway.  He stepped into the hallway.

It seemed an ordinary sort of hallway, nothing as flash as the ones they’d come to expect from The Vaults.  The runes moving down the hallway were disconcerting.  Algernon asked Tobias what they said.  

“Ah, Bruce?  The darkness hungers!”   

He took another step and the world flipped.  Gravity, instead of pointing down to his feet, pointed down to the dark archway at the end of the hallway.  His feet slipped away from under him as he felt inextricably drawn in the dark maw, now below. Instinctively, Bruce threw out an arm and caught the door frame.  He climbed up out of the doorway like climbing out of a hole. Normal gravity reasserted itself once he was mostly past the door frame and he rolled back into the room with the glass vessel.

Algernon stood outside the doorway.  He pulled a bolt from his quiver and sent it down the hallway supported by levitation. Once again, the gravity shifted and he had to adjust his hold on the bolt to keep it from falling to the archway.  He let it float all the way to the door on the right-hand side noting the gravity did not change again. It seemed once past the door the hallway just became a shaft.

“Ropes, we can lower someone down to that door on the side at the very least,” Bruce started rummaging through the group’s supplies and found rope enough to make the hallway.  Now it was only to find someone willing to ride the rope down. 

“I’ll do it,” Algernon volunteered.  He was an obvious choice.  Light enough that Bruce would be able to hold his weight, able to levitate himself if need be.  He tied the rope securely around his waist and walked into the hallway.

As before the gravity shifted, but this time he was ready and caught himself with levitate.  Slowly he hovered down to the door, as an unusual rhythmic sound could be heard echoing up to the doorway.

Do  Do  Do-Do

Do  Do  Do-Do…

The door opened to reveal a sculpture studio.  Statues from the very large to the tiny tokens were on tables and benches in various states of completion. Under one bench five iron pails held various useful objects, including extra irons sword ready to decorate the Mouth of Swords.  Papers lay on every flat surface containing illustrations of figures, past and future works as well as notes.  Above a work desk full of clay tokens a bright red light glowed  Amongst all the half-finished statues, another figure stood, still and silent.  

“Rimush, what are you doing?”  Algernon asked from the door.

“I don’t understand the question?” Rimush moaned.

“Fair enough, what are you doing here?” 

“This is my workshop,”

“Can I come in?”

“If you wish.”

Algernon levitated in, was caught by the shift in gravity for a moment and fell to the floor, sliding in the stone dust and clay dust of the floor.  He untied the rope and started looking around at the sculptures and papers.

Above the rope went slack. They’d seen Algernon presumably talking to Rimush and enter in the doorway.  Bruce wedged the rope into the door frame by tying a knot and slipping it over the door, allowing the rope to trail down the hallway.  Checking to see if the rope would hold, he then started climbing down to join Algernon.

Tobias left in the glass with Peggy and focused on his phylactery still with Algernon.  He took Peggy’s hand and shared the link.

Algernon was investigating the red light, trying not to stare directly into it.  Below, new little clay figures like the two in his pockets lay in various states of completion.  Beside them, pages containing a humanoid figure in robes.

“Rimush, do you make these?” Algernon asked, picking up a token.

“When I have the time, the Mythkeeper uses them.”

“And these images, “ He pointed to the man in robes, “Whose this?”

“The Dustman, I hate him. I hate him, I would kill him if I could.” Rimush said with no more urgency in his voice than usual, but the words themselves were full of menace.  Algernon made the connection between the man (not a man) covered in blue dust that brought the eggs to The Vaults.

“So why don’t you?”

“The Mythkeeper forbids it, otherwise I would have killed him.”

“Why? Why do you hate him so much?”

“He is a stranger and not of Ardeyn, and I hate him.”

“Rimush, the Dustman stole some stuff, and he brought them here. Would you know where they would be?”

“The Mythkeeper handles storage.”

“How often has The Dustman been here?”
“He has visited four times.  First with a q.  I did not see her again, and I did not get her name. “  

“We are looking for the Dustman.  He stored something here that did not belong to him.  Would you know where it is?”

“No, the Mythkeeper deals with storage.”

“Would you know where the Dustman is?”

“No, but if I did, I would kill him.  I have a device.  A device of ultimate sorcerers that will kill a Stranger, you know.”

“What if I told you that we want to kill the Dustman?”

For the first time, Rimush seemed to show any interest,” You wish to kill the Dustman too? Oh…if you swear…swear on the Maker to kill him, I will give you the Device.”

“I swear Rimush, on the Maker of Ardeyn to kill the Dustman,” Algernon said, and Rimush gave him a cypher.  He identified it as a Stranger slayer, a weapon uniquely designed to hurt creatures of The Strange.

“Thank you, Rimush.  Can I ask you one more question?”

“If you wish?” 

“What is the red light?”

“It is my working light. I make the figures.”

That much was clear from Algernon’s original investigation.  He poked around a little more, finding polishing sand, bolts, ink and quills.

Outside the hall, Peggy was drawing on her knowledge of The Strange to find the last egg.  She wondered if a spell to draw an item to her would find the egg.

“I think it will take a lot to use this ability.  I wouldn’t be good for much else afterwards, so we’d want to leave straight away.”

“Well then, maybe I need to have a chat with Mr Grumpy now before you try,” Tobias nodded and letting go of his view of Algernon and Bruce in Rimush’s workshop. He walked back over to the glass vessel.  Peggy cast the shield spell to resist the cold, and Tobias touched the glass.

Oh, what do you want now!  The voice said gruffly.

My names Tobias, I won’t disturb you long, but I wondered if you’ve seen a large egg in your time within The Vaults.  A Cro egg? 

Hmmm…  The voice took on a new quality, one that didn’t so much mind the disturbance, What’s in it for me?

Tobias was on firmer ground now and smiled, Well, we’ve seen a few things while here.  Do you have anything in mind?

Silence for a moment as the being in the glass vessel thought.

I like good wine.  I haven’t had good wine in ….well, I don’t remember. The voice said.

Tobias’ smile broadened, This is your lucky day as we just so happened to come across a very old bottle of wine a few rooms back.

Oh!  I could trade the egg for that then, No longer grumpy, the voice was eager, even excited.

Tobias dropped the contact and walked back to the hallway.  

“Hey Algernon, Grumpy has the last egg, but we need the wine,” He called to the workshop.

Inside, Algernon was drawing a map of the Vaults they’d explored.  When he thought it was accurate, he showed it to Rimush.

“Have we missed anywhere in this place?”

“You have not,” Rimush declared 

“Hey Algernon, Grumpy has the last egg, but we need the wine,” Came Tobias’ call from up the hall.

Algernon took one more piece of paper and made a copy of Rimush’s Dustman sketch.  When he was satisfied that he had the likeness, he left Rimush to his workshop and headed back up the hallway.  Bruce had also been investigating the workshop.  As he left, he looked down into the dark archway.  Even with the aid of the dark vision goggles, Bruce could see nothing in the darkness beyond the archway.  He climbed the rope and back into the room where Tobias was making a trade for the egg.

“That darkness is magically resistant.  Can you feel anything Strange in there?” He asked Peggy.  

She looked down the hallway and through the arch.  She let her focus drift to things of the Strange.  There was something.  She sent a ball of fire down into the archway to try and light the next space along.  The darkness swallowed the ball of fire, and when she looked again, the strange thing was still there, hidden in its cloak of black.

“Oh, that’s a lovely bottle of wine,” The voice was now eager and genial as Tobias gently handed off the last Cro egg to Algernon to be safely put away, “Do you have any more of those?”

“I may,” Tobias smelt the sell, “I was looking forward to it myself.  What’s in it for me?”

“I have one or two items in here that you may find of use.  I have a spirit slaying gadget that could be of use.”

Tobias blanched thinking of that thing used against Avel.  Algernon looked keen and described how it could also be used against individuals out of phase. He made the deal, and the bottle and cypher were exchanged.  Just as Tobias was about to farewell the being in the glass, they made one more deal.

“I have a lovely soul gem here, great for soul sorcerers like yourself,” It said, now getting into the patter of the sale, “One spirit can be safely stored inside indefinitely.”

Tobias stopped himself from talking.  This was the answer to his concerns for Avel once they returned to Earth or any recursion that did not support his soul sorcery ability. He was deeply aware she had spent more than twenty years voiceless and seemingly alone.  He didn’t want that fate to befall her again.  Taking a breath, he sighed and seemingly bored with the exchange, he replied

“I suppose I could find a use for it.”

And so the last bottle of six hundred-year-old Ardeyn wine was exchanged for a gem hanging from a chain that he quickly made disappear somewhere on his person.

The five eggs found the group did not waste any more time in The Vault.  Leaving through the broken teeth of the Mouth of Swords, they gathered outside and translated back to Crow Hollow.

42. Welcome to the Vaults

On the back of very scant evidence, the group have travelled to Ardeyn to find Dona Ilsa’s five missing eggs.  Purported to be hidden in the Mouth of Swords, a forbidding place out on the plains of Ardeyn.  The party don’t know what to expect from the Mouth of Swords, but its name and appearance do not strike them as encouraging.


On the plains of Ardeyn, far from the highlands, was a plateau the size of a small town.  On its southern side lay an entrance to a cavern decorated with broken and rusty swords.  The Mouth of Swords is well named.  Standing before it, the cave looks like the mouth of a giant predatory worm frozen in mid-attack.  Nothing could be seen beyond the points of the blades beckoning adventurers in.

Bruce pulled a log of the breakfast fire and threw it past the blades to light a corridor.  The sword blades continued further down the corridor to a set of stairs shrouded in darkness.

“Why has no one knocked off all these pointy bits?  They’re a hazard, aren’t they?” He said, looking around the group.   

Peggy examined a headless statue by the mouth of the cave while Algernon tried to scan the plateau’s top from the ground. Tobias was off to one side. His slender Qephilim arms wrapped tightly around his torso, seemingly in his own world.

“I would have thought that was the point,” He said suddenly and without his usual good humour. 

“Can anyone see this statue’s head? I want to see what he looked like,” Peggy asked, and Bruce found it behind a bush not far from the statue’s feet.  

Lifting the heavy marble into place, the statue began to speak,

“Enter here and die!

The swords that adorn the mouth

Were taken from those who failed

To heed my prophecy.”

“But we don’t have swords,” Tobias replied absently, flicking on his mythlight and passing it beyond the first rows of swords into the cavern. 

“Is that so,” Bruce said to the statue.  

It didn’t reply.  

“So, are we suppose to knock his head off again?”

Still, no reply. 

He tried taking the head off. It was now stuck in place.

Tobias sighed and sidled past the blades and into the cavern.

“Oi!  Dammit, Rain!” Bruce called as he realised the sorcerer had gone ahead.  Inside he could see Tobias at the foot of the steps brushing his hands across a set of engravings.

“Careful when you come it,” He said, not looking up from the carvings, “The path through the blades narrows.”

“What have you got there?” Bruce followed in after Tobias and looked over his shoulder at the faintly glowing runes lining the steps.

“They form a barrier to unclothed spirits from reaching further into the complex.”

“Unclothed?” Bruce was not enjoying Tobias’ newfound fascination with soul magic.  Spirit possession and magic did not sit well with his southern baptist upbringing.

“Like Avel,” Tobias replied, “But inside me, she’s safe.” 


Outside, Algernon walked past the statue, and the statue spoke a second time. He made a blindfold from an old rag and tied it across the statues face before walking past once more. It remained mute.

Peggy walked in front of the statue, and again the figure spoke.“Maybe it detects that it has already given you the message,” 

Bored of the statue, Algernon refocused his attention on the top of the plateau. Approximately forty metres above them, he could just see the tops of trees.  With a thought, he pushed off the ground and levitated himself into the air.  As he breached the lip of the cliff, he saw a large winged creature basking itself on a low flat rock in a clearing of trees.  His movement drew the creature’s attention to him as it swivelled its huge Qephilim head in his direction. Its lion’s body responded to the new stimuli flying towards it.  With the chance of a meal hovering nearby, the creature leapt into the air and charged. 

“I evoke the Armour of Atrocity!” Algernon called and his gambeson frosted over as the creature’s claws struck.  The blow knocked the wind out of Algernon and sent a blast of cold damage through the monster’s claws.  The beast roared and dived back towards the plateau, throwing Algernon into a tree.  The armour took the blow this time.  He was on his feet when the beast landed not far away and stared at the intruder.

“I’m sure I’ve seen a documentary about creatures like you,” Algernon said to the beast before bowing formally, “Do you understand my talk?”  

Surprised, the creature’s head shot up, tilting to one side as it tried to get a better view of Algernon.  When the bow wasn’t received as he expected, Algernon read the creature’s mind.

Odd food.  How hurt me when touched? Touch again?

Before the beast could make good its last thought, Algernon brought around his crossbow and shot. The shot went wide, the creature sprung on Algernon, claws this time not making it through the armour, though the cold seeped into the creature’s limbs.  From point-blank range, Algernon shot once more, and this time the bolt flew true, straight for the creature’s heart.  A claw poised to strike fell.  The whole beast collapsed into a heap of fur and feathers.

Algernon withdrew his hunting knife, a souvenir from the group’s first recursion into the Wastelands. He hacked and slashed at the muscle tendons and bone that held the large qephilim’s head to the lion’s body.  Once free, he smeared its blood in lines down his face, warpaint for the victor. The wild space on the plateau was now quiet.  Algernon took no more notice of it, he picked up his trophy and levitated back to the ground in front of the Mouth of Swords.  

Bruce had been busy breaking away swordpoints from one side of the passage when Algernon arrived back battered and covered in blood.

“Are you all right?  Is that your blood?” He said, dropping his crowbar to check Algernon for wounds. 

“Some of it,” Algernon replied, pointing out areas where the creature’s claws had broken through his armour.

“But what happened?  Last time I saw you, you were fooling with the statue.”

“It just attacked me,” Algernon replied, holding up the head without the less noble details of flying off without letting anyone know.

Bruce sat Algernon down and soon had all the small punctures and scrapes cleaned up. 

“Hey, you can heal!” Algernon said as he got up, feeling better for the first aid treatment, “Thanks, Mr Bruce.”

“Now go clean up. You’re going to stink after a while with all that blood on you.”

“But I like it,” Algernon pouted, revelling in the gore of his victory.

“You can keep your warpaint, just clean off the other mess from your butchering job.”

“No,” Algernon replied and entered the cavern.  The head of the creature floating along behind him.

“Urgh! I can’t look at you!” Tobias had been sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting for the others.  When Algernon walked through the gloom of the passageway covered in blood, the sharp metallic tang rose in Tobias’ mouth, and he had to turn away.  Avel moved to soothe him, and he leaned back into her embrace, his arms once more wrapped tightly around himself.

“So you can take the rat mauler out of Railsea, but you can’t take Railsea out of the rat mauler,” He said dryly as Algernon stepped past him and up the stairs.

“Seems like it,” Algernon glowed and led the way up to the next chamber. 

A large open plaza-like chamber lit by a single fire burning in a copper vessel lay at the top of the stairs. The flame flickered and guttered but never went out and without a breath of wind to disturb it. Around the outside of the plaza, seven massive stone doors stood, all decorated with the images of Qephilim in different poses and scenes. A mosaic tiled floor spiralled out from the copper vessel that held a flickering flame.   Standing alone and out of place among all the opulence was the figure of a man in tattered robes. As the group approached, he spoke in a low monotone,

“What treasure have you brought for me to keep?”

Tobias scrambled to find a treasure to offer.  This was a depository, a place for keeping valuable items safe.  With a treasured item, they could follow the keeper and see what else the vaults had stored. Unfortunately, he’d handed his cards to Dona Ilsa and his very last possession, the puzzlebox, to Algernon. Algernon had a solution, though, and held up the creature’s severed head, still dripping blood.

The figure looked at the head, “Fifty gold,” It said and held out its hand.  Algernon paid, and the man also took the head.  

“Can we go and see where it will be placed?” Tobias asked.

“I will see that it is stored carefully,” The figure replied in its monotone voice.  Tobias looked closely at the figure and noted a transparency to its outer edges, a lack of spark in its voice.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t alive and may never have been.

Opening his robes, he cast a spell and somehow pushed the head and gold through himself into another space.  Certainly, the head was gone, and in its place, a small stone statue of a Qephilim was presented to Algernon.  Over Algernon’s shoulder, Peggy examined the statue.

“It’s not magical, no matter how it was made,” She confirmed.

“Is there something else you wish for me to keep?” The figure asked again. This time Algernon tried to read its mind. All he heard were whispers and the voice of the figure coming over clearly through what it had for a mind.

“We’re here for eggs,” Tobias confronted the keeper, “About this big, blue with white speckles. We want to make sure they’re safe.”

The keeper held out his hand for the token.  The group looked at each other and wondered if they’d left Crow Hollow a little too soon.

“Do you think we’re meant to fight through?” Algernon asked the group.

“Do I ever try to fight through?” Replied Tobias, stumped for ideas.  There was no persuading a construct.

Algernon wandered over and watched the fire.  Flames roared out of a copper vessel as if battered by unseen gusts, but the air wasn’t stirring.  The flame seemed to be pointing towards the first of the seven doors, clockwise from the staircase.

“What if the treasure did not belong to those who brought it?” Bruce said to the keeper.  The keeper did not answer.  Such a morally ambiguous question was beyond its bounds of understanding.  Instead, Bruce tried a simpler question, “Who brought the eggs?”

“A creature shaped of man, but never was.  Robes like mine stained with blue dust.”

“Well done, Bruce.  The one behind the kidnapping was also linked to Spiral Dust.” Shame it doesn’t get us any further with this thing.” Tobias dismissed the keeper from his thought and concentrated on Avel and what she could do to help.

“I’d like to withdraw the eggs.” Bruce persisted though, and the keeper focused their attention on him.

“You have the token?”


“Nothing can be withdrawn without a token.”

Bruce changed the subject, “What’s behind the doors?”

“The many vaults.”

“But, what’s behind that door?” Algernon asked from across the room, pointing at the door the flame was indicating.  

Now drawn to his attention, Bruce could see a stone door maybe eight times his height with the relief of a Qephilim surrounded by wispy spirits. He started towards it when Peggy turned abruptly to the Keeper.

“I need protection,” Peggy and all eyes turned to her.

“No, Peggy…” Tobias said.  She touched his shoulder, and he understood her plan.  Bowing his head, he remained silent.

“You wish to be kept?” The keeper asked, now focusing its attention on her.

“Yes, I don’t feel safe…or I certainly won’t until you come and find me,” She said the latter to the group with a nervous smirk.

The keeper thought for a moment, “One hundred and fifty crowns,” It finally said and held out its hand for the payment.

“I’ll pay it,” Tobias offered the requested coins, and the keeper opened his robes for Peggy to walk through.

“I’m going to need that token ahead of time to ensure I can be properly returned…if need be,” Peggy said, no sign of fear or trepidation.  The token was provided, and without another look back, Peggy walked into the keeper and disappeared.

Tobias noticed the Keeper was getting agitated at the group’s attempts to get past their security.  So was he.  With Peggy trapped, who knew where Algernon’s suggestion was sounding better every minute.

“I think it is time for you to leave,” The keeper said to no one in particular.

“No,” Tobias rounded on the keeper, determined to get Peggy back as soon as possible.

“What is your purpose here?” The keeper asked in their insistent monotone.  

Tobias wasn’t one to lose patience with bureaucracy.  The grinding pedantic nature of systems were usually something he enjoyed subverting.  But, something about the location, his current mental state, and Peggy’s loss all had their effect.

“We’re here for the eggs, and we won’t leave without them,” He said more directly than he meant to.  

The keeper flicked out their tattered robes with an arcane gesture, attacked.  Their mouth and eyes filled with a bright white light.  Tobias and Algernon were able to look aside in time to avoid looking at the light. Bruce, who was setting up his first attack on the Keeper, was staring at his target’s eyes.  The light bore into his soul, draining life and energy from his very being.  The attack staggered him and gave Tobias a moment to reach out and touch his bigger companion. The Strange flowed through Bruce’s body and mind, reinvigorating his attack.  Bruce went for the head and hit!  The Keeper’s light faded to a pilot light, ready to strike again if the group let it.  Algernon moved around behind the Keeper, putting them between him and Bruce.  Concentrating on the Keeper, he twisted reality in that spot and Warped world, making it harder for the Keeper to attack. 

The keeper would not be intimidated.  A skeletal hand wreathed in cold smoking vapour reached out from under the robes and towards Bruce. He batted away the hand with his crowbar, sensing the intense cold of the attack as it brushed past.

“Cool!” He punned, pleased with himself.

Peggy was in the dark.  Her mythlight showed a stone surface right in front of her face, and she could feel the cold stone to her sides and back.  She was in a sarcophagus deep in the vaults. She reached out to Tobias, who she had created a mind link before stepping through.

Rain, I’m in a coffin.  Feel free to come and find me now. 

Oh god, He swore, unusually for him, We will find you, Peggy.  I may have started a fight with the Keeper, though, so we may be a little while.


“Well, I guess I’ll have to save myself,” She said out loud in the enclosed space of the stone box and thought back to the spells she had learnt so far from her book. There was one, she was sure, that would be very useful in this situation.  Recalling the words and gestures required for the summoning, she cast the spell.  A tiny dragon head the size of a large fist appeared in the sarcophagus above her.  With a thought, it pushed up and popped the stone lid away as if it were made of cardboard.  It crashed and smashed to one side and onto the ground beside her resting place, giving her the first view inside a vault. 

In the main chamber, Bruce received another boost from Tobias before smashing his crowbar into the Keeper’s body. Algernon shot the keeper in the back, and the tattered robes dissipated, a plain gold ring dropping to the mosaic floor. At the door marked by the cauldron fire across the room, a metallic clang could be heard. 

Was that you, Peggy? Tobias asked as all three looked towards the door.

The room was opulent.  Ivory carvings decorated marble walls that intersected with rock crystal tiled floors.  The room held five sarcophagi, including Peggy’s own. To one side, an iron urn stood that constantly issuing smoke into the atmosphere of the enclosed space.  On the side of the urn, the words Breath of Lotan were engraved. 

The oddest feature was the ceiling.  It rippled and quaked like the surface of a pond.  The more Peggy looked at it, the more she realised it was a layer of water somehow defying gravity across the ceiling.  Nearby there was a clang as a huge metal plate crashed down in front of the door to the room, followed by the sound of water trickling.  She could see it now, making rivulets down the walls. The water from the ceiling was filling the room. 

Ah, I’m going to need finding before I drown. She thought and climbed out of her sarcophagus. Oh, and any thoughts about Lotan?  I seem to remember that name.

“Drowning?” Tobias repeated to the others, “We have to find Peggy now!  Anyone remember Lotan?”

“Lotan, I remember that name from the mythology of Ardeyn,” Algernon said out loud, “I’m sure he was some good guy, a hero…”  He didn’t sound very sure to Tobias, who relayed that information back to Peggy.

Peggy had had a moment while climbing up onto her sarcophagus to remember that Lotan was the enemy of the Maker and had been imprisoned in Ardeyn for all eternity.  There was no way she was getting closer to the fumes from the urn than she had to.  Still, the water was getting closer to her and was already spilling into her empty sarcophagus.

Bruce had been contemplating how heavy a stone eight times taller than he would weigh.  He then decided that knowing would not help to get it open, so he just pushed against it instead.  Dust shifted out of the cracks around the door as it ground against the floor. Algernon and Tobias came to help, but by that time, a decent gap was made, and they could all squeeze through into the next room.

 Ahead, the statue of a horse with a single horn on its head reared up in front of them.  The statue was worn and looked like it had been the victim of some vandalism in its time. Beside it, a doorway leading to a hallway lined with twelve alcoves of marble and bronze greeted them. In each of the alcoves stoppered ceramic urns rested.  

“Tell Peggy to make a noise,” Algernon said as they entered the silent hallway.  Tobias repeated the message and they waited until they heard a crash from the other end of the hall. 

Okay, we hear you.  We’re on our way. Tobias sent more confidently than he felt.

The water was now up to Peggy’s waist and rising.  She had been amusing herself by lifting the lids on the other four sarcophaguses with her Dragon maw conjuration. She had so far found a beautiful statue of a woman, a set of mouldy leather bags, two small pots and many intriguing cyphers that she had yet to put her mind to identifying.  

We’re past the first door.  Algernon suggested you make a noise for us to hone in on. She received from Tobias.

“Nothing simpler, “ She said out loud and commanded the Dragon Maw to pick up the lid of her sarcophagus and throw it at the metal door.  The clang that resulted made the floor and ceiling water ripple, and Peggy clutching her ears.

Okay, we hear you.  We’re on our way.

“I should hope you do!” She replied to herself and continued her tomb raiding while she waited.

Algernon was first to the door at the other end of the hall.  It looked very much like the first, with an engraved Qephilim surrounded by spirits.  Touching the stone, he sent the energy of the Strange between the particles and molecules of the stone.  The dense material disintegrated into sand, then dust and eventually nothing.  Water started pouring out the hole he’d made and then, reverse, withdrawing again. 

Inside, Peggy was surprised to see not just the metal plate in front of the door but also the water start receding up the walls and back to the ceiling. She collected the items she’d discovered so far and prepared to leave her tomb as the door itself opened.  On the other side, the smugly pleased Algernon, stoic Bruce, and relieved Tobias stood looking back at her.

“Don’t just stand there. Help me with this stuff,” She said, handing out the pouches and pots while keeping the cyphers for herself.  Two green potions seemed to be for healing, a condition remover for addictive substances and a speed boost amongst the cyphers.  Algernon found a small gold statue in the first pouch, a work of art but nothing more.  It meant nothing to him, so he opened the second thoughtlessly. Inside, though, a large round egg the size of a small melon rolled out, blue with white speckles. The first of the Cro eggs.

“So, they’re scattered all over the vaults?  Great!” Bruce exclaimed, “We’ll be here for years!”

“The keeper will probably spawn before then, and we’ll have to fight him again,” Algernon added as Peggy flipped open the last of the sarcophagus.  Suddenly the door and the water started falling once more.  She put the lid back on, and the door rose back into the ceiling.  She took the hint and left the room for the relative safety of the hallway.

“Say, we can put those ominous pots from the hall in here and try opening one,” Algernon suggested, “If something happens, we can trip a sarcophagus lid and shut whatever in.

“I don’t think I want to play with the pots,” Tobias said, drawn toward the unicorn statue down the hallway.  He could see something curious about the horn and went to check it out.

Algernon disregarded Tobias’ words and picked up the nearest pot with his levitate.  It wasn’t like Algernon to drop an item he levitated.  Maybe he’d got cocky from his victories that day.  Maybe there was something about the pot that wasn’t meant to stay still. Certainly, when it hit the marble tiles, instead of cracking, the cork popped out, and a flickering green light spilled out.  Moaning wails echoed down the hall as, one by one, each of the other eleven pots started popping their corks.


The group raced the pots to the door and slammed it shut as something started coiling from each of the unstoppered lips.

“Messing with things you shouldn’t touch,” Murmured Tobias as he climbed the statue. He was sure the horn was made of another substance than the statue.  He twisted the horn and found it was loose in its socket.  There was also an audible click, and something other than the statue was now connected to the horn.  Something not altogether alive and breathing.  A spectral horse made of the same ghost stuff as the keeper reared up and charged.  It plunging the horn through Tobias before pinning him to the opposite wall.

Peggy acted first, throwing her Dragon Maw at the unicorn, hoping to push it off Tobias and get him free.  The unicorn held its ground as the Dragon Maw missed.  Circling the creature, Bruce created a distraction as Algernon cried.

“It’s a unicorn, and I’m a virgin!” He placed a calming hand on its flanks in the hopes of stopping the fight.  A hoof in the chest sent him flying backwards, winded and wary.

Let me help you, Avel said to Tobias through the fog of pain and shock,  I can make you strong.

Strong…? How? Avel? His thoughts were disjointed, and he found it hard to focus, If you think you can help…

As soon as he said those words, he felt her take over.  She was strong, stronger than him. She soon found the link to Peggy and also took possession of her as well.  A wail of despair, pain and rage echoed through the halls.  Lost in the raw emotion that was Avel, Tobias flicked out a dagger and stabbed the unicorn’s neck, and  Peggy pulled out a hand crossbow and pointed it towards Bruce. 

The sudden shift in the battle put Bruce off his attack, and his feint failed.  Sprawled behind the spectral unicorn after being kicked, Algernon caught his breath and stood up.  This creature was more dangerous than he realised and would need a new strategy.  He stepped back out of the way of the flailing hooves as the beast returned its attentions to Tobias.  A fire burned in Tobias’ eyes as the front hooves gored at him again and again. He lashed out with the dagger and missed, the second wind of Avel starting to wain.  

“NO!” Peggy said out loud and shook her head, surprised to find her crossbow out.  She quickly put it away and sent the Dragon maw once more to hit the unicorn. Right behind, Bruce charged in, his crowbar ready!  He struck the creature’s side, and the crowbar went straight through, the spectral unicorn dissipating at the final blow.  A set of saddlebags appeared out of nowhere, and the horn remained, embedded in Tobias’ shoulder. He dropped to the ground, his knife still firmly held in his hand.

“Come on, let’s get that thing out of you…” Bruce said, moving to help Tobias up.  The Qephilim turned on him, the eyes menacing, their colour now hazel instead of Tobias’ usual violet.  The knife hand moved into an attacking position before the Qephilim swayed and blinked.  The eyes returned to their regular colour, and Tobias cringed as he realised the knife was in his hand.  With a clatter of steel, the knife dropped to the marble floor, soon followed by its owner.

“What was that?” Bruce asked, his crowbar still poised to defend against a surprise attack, “What happened?”

“I…I let Avel take control…” Tobias panted as he took hold of the horn still lodged in his shoulder and braced yanking it free. Algernon stood silently by, holding out one of the healing potions they’d only just acquired. Tobias took it thankfully in shaking hands.

“Next time, check that someone else isn’t already linked to your crazy head!” Peggy roared, ”I nearly shot Bruce!”

“Next time…I’m attacked by a unicorn…I’ll remember…” The words were jesting, but his expression was contrite, “I’m sorry,  I couldn’t…I’m sorry.”

As Tobias threaded the unicorn horn through his Qephilim belt, the others examined the saddlebags and found even more cyphers.  They were reaching the limit on cyphers each of them could carry.  Tobias used a displacement cypher he’d been carrying for a while to make room for something else.  His form now shimmered, making it hard to focus on him.  Beaten but not defeated, the group left the first vault behind and returned to the main chamber.  

Looking grey and tired, Algernon sat down near the copper urn, the fire roaring above his head.  He pulled out the ring he’d collected off the keeper and now took the time to examine it carefully. The rest collected around Algernon in the light of the fire and took stock.  No one was in the mood to jump into the next round of whatever this madhouse had to offer, but if the five eggs were scattered throughout the complex, they would have to scour each vault for hidden secrets if they hoped to find them all.   

Algernon was still revealing secrets. The ring, cold when he first picked it up, was still cold to the touch.  As he rested against the warm side of the copper urn, he noted the images on the ring matched those that encircled his resting place.  

Seven symbols, seven different Qephilim on seven doors.  

He put it on.  The fire moved to the next door along, and a heavy ‘clunk’ rang through the chamber.  This door was decorated with the lovely form of a female Qephilim in a provocative pose.  

When they felt rested enough to continue, Bruce pushed open the second door to reveal a circular chamber built around a statue of the Qephilim from the door.  She was a piece of fine art, a sculpture of stone that somehow captured its subject’s movement and life.  As they walked in, Peggy and Algernon noticed three figures sitting in the shadow at the back of the room.  

“Hello?” Peggy called into the room, hoping to catch one of the figure’s attention.

Tobias and Bruce could see nothing but the wonder of the statue.  It was as if neither had recognised true beauty before that moment.  As they neared, all they could do was to gaze in awe of the lady.  Peggy and Algernon also edged into the room with a lot more caution.  As Peggy brought her mythlight within range of the three figures, it was clear that none of them would answer their greeting.  In rusted chain mail, sitting slumped against each other, three mummified humans sat, their backs against the wall, their last actions to fix their dead eyes on the statue.

Peggy didn’t hesitate, swung a hand back and slapped Tobias in the face.

“Ooow!  I guess I deserved that, somehow…” He said, coming to his senses.  

Algernon, a wicked little grin forming on his face, jumped up and whacked Bruce in the back of the head.

“Oomph!  Oh, how embarrassing,” Bruce quickly turned from the statue, now the fascination had lifted.

“You think?” Tobias asked, rubbing where Peggy had hit him, “At least you don’t have your mother watching.”

Amongst the dead adventurers of times past, a partial map of the vaults was found.  Unfortunately, it was mostly the parts they had already explored, but did show that the vaults were occasionally sacked by others and reset themselves over time. 

“For them to be here, they must have fought and defeated the keeper, “Bruce surmised, “Algernon was right. We may yet face the Keeper again.”

“I hope so,” Algernon said, pulling out his stone token, “I want my griffin head back.” The thought gave him an idea, and he walked back out into the main hall and threw the figure into the fire. Nothing happened.  That experiment done, he plucked it out of the flames with his levitate and returned it to his pocket for later.

While he was gone, the others opened a small door off the lady’s alcove.  Inside were three statues.  One, muscles rippling, was throwing a hammer.  The second was of a lighter build and was athletically leaping out of the way to dodge a pendulum.  The third was bent over a hefty tome.  The three characteristics of humanoid life: Might, Speed and Intellect.

Peggy moved up to the statue for Intellect, and the stone of the arm moved, reaching out as in offering, a gesture of good faith.  Peggy took the hand and was rocked by a bolt of energy that left her mind and senses reeling.  As she yanked her hand away, a small chest filled the open hand—a gift for a gift.  

Bruce bounded up to the Statue of Strength which offered out a burly arm.  He took it and felt weakened by a draining force through the touch.  In return, a present materialised on the statue’s hand, the severed head of Algernon’s monster.  Tobias stepped up to the statue of Speed.  Before the statue could respond to him, however, Bruce pushed him out of the way and received the shock and the gift of the second Cro egg.

“Why did you push me aside?” Tobias asked as Bruce put the egg away in their cushioned box.

“Because I could take it?”

“What?  But I could clearly do that one too.  I was there. You didn’t have to push me out of the way?”

“Look, face it, I heal quicker than you.  Say thanks, build and bridge and move on.”

While the other bickered, Algernon searched the first room and found a small secret door made of crystal tile.  Behind it was an old stone token, just like the one he’s received for his monster head, though older and cruder.  “Algernon, help me with this?” Peggy called, and he quickly tucked away his new-old token and went to see what Peggy had found.

Her little box was locked, and after a brief examination by Algernon, he confirmed trapped. Bypassing the trap with a stimulate for Tobias, they opened the box to reveal and an artifact, the Spellbook of the Amber Mage. Peggy snapped up the tome greedily and started pawing over its pages.

When traps were cleared, rooms checked, and the last statue grappled, the group returned once more to the main room, and Algernon advanced the fire to the next door. 

Bruce looked at his young charge warily. Though they had taken a short break , Algernon was still grey and favouring his side.

“You don’t look so good, maybe you should take a break before opening another door.”

“Something will happen. The Keeper or something else,” Algernon fussed with a bag he kept his cyphers in. He’d also used one to make room for the new acquisitions and Bruce wondered if the cypher’s timer was a deciding factor.

 “Not if you stop fiddling with everything,” Bruce replied gruffly. Algernon had always been curious, but had he been so cavalier with himself before now? Regardless, Algernon turned back to the door as if to open it himself and Bruce grimaced silently and stood beside him as they pushed the door.

This one was a Qephilim with a tome.  Inside, another statue awaited the group. As soon as it detected movement, it opened its mouth and started telling a story:

A spirit wished to escape the court of sleep but did not know the rules to the trials for that day.  It hid in the shadows and listened to a few other spirits answers as the Umber Judge questioned them.

“The judge said, “Twelve,” and the first soul answered, “six.”  They were granted their leave.

The judge said, “Six,” and the second soul answered, “three.” They, too, were released.

The lost spirit, sensing a pattern, approached the Umber Judge and asked for their freedom.

The judge said, “Ten, “ and the lost soul replied, “five”, for it believed the answer was half the original number.  It was incorrect.  The judge was furious that the spirit would try to escape and instead consigned the lost spirit to the Umber wolves where the soul was torn to pieces.”

“Now,” The statue said, and the group felt its attention shift to them, “What was the correct answer?”

A knife appeared in Tobias’ hand, and he quickly scratched the clues into a nearby tile.

“Okay, so it has nothing to do with halving the numbers.  Is there any other pattern 12, 6 and 3 fit?” 

“They’re all on a clock, “ Algernon suggested, and Tobias quickly sketched a clock face with 12, 6 and 3, adding the 10 and shared it with the others.

“A line from 12 to 6 is half a clock face, and 6 to 3 is a quarter of a clock face,”

“So, from ten an eighth of a clock face takes us to eight?  Does that sound right?”

“Seems too complicated to me,”Bruce said over Algernon and Tobias’ shoulders, “Usually the answer to a puzzle is simple, just hidden or said differently to how you expect. Maybe you should look at the puzzle another way. This is a word puzzle. Look at the numbers as words and see what you get.”

“So, for a third time, Tobias found a clean tile and scratch,”

This time the answer was clear to everyone.

“Six letters in the word ‘twelve’, three letters in the word ‘six’ three is the correct answer as there are only three letters in the word ‘ten’.  Three!” They sais together, and a door at the far end of the room unlocked.

In the next room, a silver altar with a deep green jade leaver on the front stood before them.  To either side stood deep alcoves with shallow metallic dishes embedded in the floor.

Algernon, who had been pleased to get his head back, levitated it over to the left-hand plate and flicked the switch to the right.  The switch clicked, but nothing more.  

“Maybe you need something on both plates, something that approximately balances,” Peggy offered as a suggestion. As Algernon wasn’t keen to put himself on the machine and all three of the others would be needed to balance out Bruce, it was decided that Peggy and Tobias would stand on a plate each while the lever was flipped.

“This is insane,” Tobias grumbled, then thought of the eggs and gritted his teeth.

Algernon flipped the jade switch, and both of them felt a tidal pull, their minds being drawn away.  By force of will, they held onto the consciousnesses and behind them heard a click.  

“Did you pass a test, or was something supposed to happen?” Algernon asked.

“Yes,”  Both Peggy and Tobias answered together.  Whatever it was, it was better than teleported into sarcophaguses or being skewered by a horn, and both were happy when the next door was opened.

In this seemingly forgotten room, a tableau was unfolding.  A stone golem swung a huge mallet left and right, trying to force away a group of spirits haunting him.  So caught up in his ghost-busting, he failed to notice the small group sneak through one door and into another at the far end of the room. 

Like the last, this was a forgotten room.  Either past raiders had failed to get this far or never thought it worth their while.  The only thing waiting on dusty shelves was a thick wad of paper documents inside a small metallic box.  The documents were line drawings of different races native to Ardeyn, including a Qephilim and human.  Along with the drawings was another piece of paper with one question written on it.

Seven Soul gems?

No egg.

Bitterly disappointed and knowing they weren’t even halfway through the vaults, the group headed back to the main room to try their luck on another door.

To be continued…

41. An interview with the Dona

The group had finally made it to Crow Hollow to follow up the Spiral Dust trail.  Having made a contact in a local called Paco Derois, they were attacked by henchmen of Don Wycliff and the Drood family.  Out of thankfulness, Paco promises to make an appointment with Dona Ilsa as soon as he could.  But the goons have found them again.  This time the party are ready.


At the table, all eyes focused on the bolt quivering in front of them until the two words resolved themselves into one clear message.

Will Robinson!

“Will Robinson!” Tobias yelled, “Avel, quick! Do your shout!” And out of the tattoo, a wisp of something flew across the cupola at the four Cro goons.  From inside the bar, they could see very little of the attack.  A terrifying scream of anguish and terror was all they could hear. The Cro goons, they’d come to call Pushkin and Mauley, and a third looked disturbed and thoroughly spooked.  Algernon witnessed Avel’s true form from behind the goons, that of a very familiar-looking human woman, her face distorted in fury, screaming and spitting in a language he couldn’t understand.  

Back in the bar, Tobias cringed at the foul language and ducked under the table as Bruce pulled out his guns.  Three rapid shots at Mauley, and the two as yet unnamed Cro.  Their guns flew from their hands and into the crowd of shoppers desperately tried to escape the violence. Algernon spotted his favourite, Pushkin, closer to the end of the branch than the others. Pushkin sailed out away from the market with a sudden and violent push, leaving his gun behind.  Now all four Cro goons were disarmed. It was Peggy’s turn.  With a word from her book and a flick of a wrist, she sent a ball of fire at Mauley, singeing what was left of the feathers on his shoulders, neck and chest.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce spotted the movement as three more thickset Cro rose from their seats around a table in the bar.  Ready for more trouble from a new quarter, Bruce spun his pistols on his fingers.  Once the group had their say, however the new goons looked at each other and sat back down and returned to their drinks. It seemed they weren’t fussed that four of Don Wycliffe’s boys were being roughed up. 

It was the goons’ turn.  The three remaining didn’t hesitate.  They picked up their guns and ran back the way they’d come, leaving Pushkin’s gun behind.  Algernon picked it as he followed their disturbance through the market.

“That was amazing!” Came Tobias’ voice from under the table.

“Yes, well, that worked,” Bruce said more to himself as he turned back to the table and looked underneath.  Tobias’ eyes closed, was patting his chest tattoo cheerfully, “Thanks, Avel!”

“Did you do that?” Bruce asked, and Tobias’ eyes flicked open and found Bruce’s.


“The…spooky fear thing?”

“That was Avel,” Tobias’ replied proudly, “She’s amazing.  Terrible potty mouth though, did you hear her?”

“Didn’t understand it, but I don’t hold with no cussin’”, Bruce drawled as Tobias crawled out from under the table.  Spotting the bolt, he pulled it from the wooden support and took it out to Algernon, still watching the goons.

“Great idea,” He handed the bolt back to Algernon, who accepted it and the praise with a nod of his head.  

“The sneaking around thing, also good.  But, I think I have something that might help,” And Tobias reached into a hidden pocket and produced his puzzle box.

“While this is on you, I can hear and see everything around you.  So, while I concentrate, we can still keep in touch…at least one way,” Tobias went to hand the puzzle box to Algernon before pulling back, “Now this is precious to me, more so now as…I think my soul is in it.  Nice to know I have one.” He laughed nervously at the thought and offered the box to Algernon, “Just keep it safe. I know you will.”

“Are you saying that you possess that box?” Bruce said, trying to make sense of what was going on.

“Yes. Avel possessed me, and I guess you can say, I possess the box,”

“What if it breaks or is lost?”

“Lost…?” Tobias thought, concentrated on the box.  He could see them all standing around it, “I think I could find it.  If it’s broken?” At that thought, his whole being seemed to pale, and he shivered, “Bad things for me.”

“Thanks, Rain,” Algernon tucked the puzzlebox away carefully.  “I’m going to follow those guys. I’ll be right back.”  With that, Algernon slipping into the crowd and disappeared.  

Tobias focused on his box and could see Algernon gliding through the shoppers, always keeping contact with the goons ahead.  He watched them head towards a hollow in the next branch up, guarded by Cro goons with guns.  Words exchanged, they disappeared inside.

“I’ve just seen them enter a hollow.  I’ll head back now,” Algernon murmured, and Tobias passed on the message to Bruce standing beside him.

Bruce scowled, unhappy with the whole possession situation. He looked from Tobias beside him up into the market where Algernon had disappeared.  

“Tobias, you may want to talk to those three big guys back in the bar,” He bent down and murmured to the distracted con man.

“Hmm?” Tobias glanced around, not letting his eyes stop at the table groaning with feathered muscle,” Hmmm…good pick.” Sauntering back into the bar, he went straight back to Paco, quietly still drinking his drink as nothing had happened.

“See, you’re in good hands,” He smirked, patting his chest where Avel had returned, warm and reassuring.

“It seems so,”

“Say, what do you know of the three heavies across the way?” Tobias leaned out of the way to allow Paco to see around him at the goons.

“I’ve seen at least one of them around.  They work for Dona Ilsa, I think,” Paco replied, and Tobias’ grin broadened.  A quick word to the barman and the exchange of two crow coins later, and he was standing in front of the three Cro offering fresh drinks.

“Gentlemen, it seems we have a mutual friend,” Tobias gestured to Paco, “As you witnessed, we helped him out of a spot of trouble.”

“What, so is he yours now?” Asked the centre goon who by size alone seemed to be their leader.
The thought of running a protection racket in Crow Hollow made Tobias shiver, and he ruffled his feathers dramatically.

“On the contrary,” He stepped back, allowing the three of them a view of the bar and what they had just witnessed, “ I want a word with the Dona, at her earliest convenience.”

The three goons look at each other once more, downed their new drinks in one and stood.

“Wait here,”

“Wouldn’t think of being anywhere else.”

“Who should we say you are?”

“Tobias Cudo and associates,” Tobias nodded and watch the Cro’s leave the bar and head back up the tree.

Algernon had arrived back by that time and joined the others at their table.  A fluttering sound and the shimmer of golden wings caught his eye.  A moment later, there was a plop! And something landed in his drink. Slowly, without drawing attention to the glass, he slipped it under the table and fished out of the liquor a set of keys.  Motorbike keys.

The Motobike’s keys.

The keys carefully stowed away into his pocket, he smiled in remembrance of the tiny fairies and their desire to pay back a favour.

Now, how was he going to get that bike back to Earth?

“Um…I’ll be back in a bit,” He said, suddenly remembering something else he’d seen on a stall.

“Where ya going, kid?” Bruce asked, casually sipping his drink. Algernon was a highly competent agent with many wins behind him, but to Bruce, he always looked suspicious when up to no good.

“I saw something in the markets. I won’t be long,” Algernon replied as casually he could and rose from the table.

“Well, don’t be. We don’t know when those goons will be back,” Bruce admonished, and Algernon nodded his agreement before disappearing once more into the crowds of shoppers.  

Without a word, Tobias focused on his puzzlebox. He watched as Algernon made his way back to the stalls they had visited earlier that day, particularly one with several weapons on display, including a bound stack of dynamite. Just from the way Algernon’s eyes kept darting to the pile and away showed Tobias that the dynamite was the aim of this expedition.

At the stall, Algernon allowed his eyes to fall on a number of interesting items.  A glove that seemed to be some sort of Strange touched artefact, a brain bug cypher and of course, the dynamite.  There were fourteen sticks of nitroglycerin and clay, all with inserted detonation chords.  He was trying to work out how much damage that sizable stack would do when he was interrupted by the stall owner.

“Interested in the dynamite, then?” Asked the Cro without interest.

“Possibly,” He replied, “How much is it?”

“Twenty crow coin.”

Algernon nearly choked.  That was twice as much as he had.

“So, what’s it good for?” He asked as if only remotely interested.

“Mining,” The Cro replied tersely.  

“I have ten coins for half?” 

But the Cro was only interested in selling the whole bundle and not parts.

“I think I need more?  Where can I get more?”

“You were just talking about half a moment ago. Now you want more?”

“Miscalculation, can you get more?”

“This is all I have and it for twenty,” The Cro repeated, sticking out his feathered hand to complete the sale.

“I don’t have enough, but I do want it.” Algernon waivered.  If only he’d thought to ask for a little extra cash from Rain.

The Cro looked him over, “You look like your good for it, shake my hand, and the dynamite is your,” He said in a tone that suggested that more than just the few coins he had would be part of the transaction.

“Urr…no, thank you,” Algernon kept his hands to himself and walked away from the stall.

At another stall, he found a group of Earth tech and went over to examine them.  With the shopkeeper’s keen eye on him, he started up an old laptop, and a primary coloured black-bordered window on a cloudy blue sky filled the screen.  Passworded, he figured he could get around the security…until he couldn’t and locked the computer instead.

“What did you do? You’ve broken it!  That’s worth fourteen crow coins. Hand them over!” The owner cawed sharply.

“I assure you, I can fix this.  Please, let me try again,” Algernon said, sure if he could bypass Ni’Challan’s systems he could get passed this machine’s security.  Grudgingly, the shopkeeper allowed him to try and within a few keystrokes, he had returned the computer to its former state. With that little excitement under his belt, he started back for the bar where the other waited. 

It was odd for Tobias to see himself from Algernon’s point of view as his friend stopped a hundred metres out from the bar and watched the crowd.  Tobias waived and saw himself waive.  Algernon nodded back, a small gesture of acknowledgement.

“He’s back, watching,” Tobias told the others, still sitting around the table, “ What are you all up to?”

Paco seemed to be drinking himself into a quiet stupor. Peggy was working out complicated mathematics related to the Angels by the images she sketched on the back of a napkin.  Bruce was just people watching, keeping an eye out for anyone who was taking a little too much interest in them.  Avel was a comfortable warmth on Tobias’ chest and he held his hand there for a moment enjoying the feeling when a movement from Algernon alerted him to the goon’s return.

“Where’s the other one?  Weren’t there four of you?” Said the big goon, he certainly thought himself the boss of this trio.

“Just there, didn’t you see him as you came in?” Tobias asked politely of the goon while giving a wink as Algernon stepped out of the crowd and stood behind the Dona’s heavies.  With a start, the realised the young Cro had snuck up on them.

“Ur…The Dona will see you now,” Said the leader. 

Giving their farewells to the now inebriated Paco, the group followed the goons through three levels of the tree.  As each level passed, the markets and stalls slowly gave way to buildings of more prominent and grander proportions.  Eventually, they reached a branch reinforced with massive metal bands. Cables as thick as Algernon or Tobias around connected the bands to other branches further around the tree, creating a latticework of support.  In the centre of the spider’s web was a mansion, suspended in thin air.  A white spiral staircase led up from the branch to a roof garden, complete with a gazebo. 

In the shade of a white flowering climbing rose, the lady sat like a Queen at court.  Dressed in an elegant black evening dress, rings, and jewellery flashing in the bright sunlight, only found this high in the canopy.  As they walked up Tobias paid close attention to her posture (rigidly upright), her arm and legs (quiet and seemingly relaxed in a studied way) how the light flashed off the gems on her jewelled fingers (they fidgeted and moved to show agitation that the rest of the body didn’t) and he watched her eyes (flicking between each of the group trying to gauge them as well).  She was hiding it well, but there was something very wrong with the Lady’s world, and she was wondering if these were the ones to help.  

Tobias lifted his head, did his best to smile with a beak, and gave the lady a short bow.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this meeting, Dona,” He said respectfully, not just for her rank but because he found her a woman worthy of respect.

“Oh, how so?” She asked imperiously.

“It has been almost a year since we met your mutual friend, Lydia Lance.”

It had been during the Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland when the party had almost caught the Dona making a delivery of Spiral Dust Rock to Lydia Lance’s store, The Dreaming Crystal. 

“Oh yeah, the basement,” Peggy said, remembering how long they’d fought and planned to create a trap only to have it fail because of their own stupidity.

“What the hell, Peggy?” Tobias turned on Peggy, his standard London accent slipping to a rough cockney. This was his moment to make an impression on the Dona, and Peggy reminded her that she was dealing with a group of thugs and pranksters.

“That was your doing?” Dona Ilsa asked, her beak in the air as if she could once more spell the bitter smell of spider parts and alkaloids.  

“It wasn’t how I would have wanted it, but there it is.  Even then I knew we were dealing with someone who wasn’t afraid of the dirty work, who didn’t palm it off to underlings but saw them through themselves.  I knew I wanted to meet that person.” 

“And now?”

Tobias thought for a moment.  He looked around the garden and noted several of her henchmen, possibly loyal but who knew. With a thought his card appeared in his hands and he shuffled them absently, “Can I tell you a small story?” He fanned the deck revealing all the cards faces to the Dona, “Do you know Earth playing cards?”

Her head dipped and something within her expression relaxed, “I’ve counted a few,” 

“A woman of my own heart, “He replied, drawing the cards back into a deck to then fan them out again, this time only revealing the Kings and Queens of every suit.

“Four noble couples, eight powerful people throughout history, mythology and religion.  King David from ancient Judea, Charlemagne who united Europe under Rome, Pallas, a goddess and queen, Judith and Rachel saviours to their people,” Each time he mentioned a name the card would rise out of the fanned deck before sinking back into the whole. He went through the spades, hearts and diamonds before folding the deck back on itself again,

“All except one.  One who stands out, “ He gestured to a wine glass that sat on a small table by the Dona’s chair. In the glass was a card, the Queen of clubs, “She is sometimes called Regina, which only means Queen, “She alone is nameless, she alone rules alone.”  Tobias tapped his cards and made an apologetic gesture.

“Of course, this is where my story falls apart because “He once more gestured to the glass.  Tucked in behind the Queen of clubs was the King of clubs, only just peeking over the edge of the card,” There is a King, but I can’t see him.  He manipulates the Queen to do his bidding, but how?  For what purpose? I can’t tell.  It is, for this reason, I am here today.  Good Dona, do you have the answers I seek?”

What Dona Ilsa thought of the story, she didn’t say, but something in it made an impression. Her imperious self-control slipped, and she revealed the worried woman below her facade.

“To save my children,” She said quietly and instantly Tobias took a knee before the Dona.

“Dona, in this, we are engaged in your service.  You have heard of our power? Our deeds today have gone ahead of us to you?  Your children will be found,” He bowed his head and smirked a small victory smirk.  She was who he thought she was, “Only tell us how this all came to be?”

“A year ago, my five eggs were stolen.  Cro eggs are viable for years unincubated, so I held out hope for their safe retrieval.  But, money was demanded, money I had to find. Then a business proposal was offered, sell the blue dust to the humans, it seemed an answer I hadn’t dare hope for.”

Now that the story was out and the diplomacy had done its best, the others started to ask questions.

“Do you know who would have your eggs, how they got access?” 

“No.  All I have were the vague recollections from a traveller from Ardeyn.  They seemed to think that Cro eggs were taken to the Mouth of Swords.”

She gestured to one of her guards and spoke to them in a voice too low to hear. The guard left and returned sometime later with a hand-drawn map of Ardeyn with the Mouth of Swords circled.

“No more details?  Could we speak to this traveller?”

“Long gone, but I believe their story, I have to.”

“What do the eggs look like?  Is there any special treatment?”

“Each fits within your hands thus,” She held out her feathered hands and made a cup with both indicating the size of a small melon or grapefruit, “They are blue with white speckles. As to care, they are eggs and are fragile, but if you are gentle…?”
“We go through ungentle places, do you have something in which to keep them safe?”

Again, the guard was ushered over and they returned with a handled box, padded with cushions to keep the eggs safe.  This was handed to Tobias, who quickly indicated that Bruce was the best to keep the little ones from harm.

“Do you have any aids, ciphers and artefacts that could help?”

A third time the guard was sent. This time they returned with three ciphers, a force screen projector, friction reduction gel and a psychic communicator that could speak across recursions.

“Do you know what we are likely to meet in this Mouth of Swords?  What being holds sway or claims ownership?”
“I do not know.  I have had no one who can go there, no one who I could turn to for this.” She looked around the group and returned back to Tobias, still kneeling in front of her.

“For my children, I will tell you what you want to know.” 

“It will be done.” He replied, with such finality, it was like she had spoken a prayer, and he’d given his Amen. 

 He stood and joined the group.  Beside Dona Ilsa on the small table was a stack of playing cards.

“One last thing, Dona?  You do not think that Don Wycliffe would be behind the kidnapping of your children?”
“Why?  Of what purpose would they be to the Droods?” She replied in all sincerity.

“You compete with him over the Spiral Dust?”

“The Don was only angry with our house after we started the trade into Spiral dust.” The Dona acknowledged the feud between the great houses.

“Thank you, Dona.  We will not take up any more of your time.” Tobias bowed his head, never dropping his eyes from hers until he turned to leave with the others.

“I could have got to the point of our visit more hygienically,” Peggy grumbled as the group walked away from the mansion and back into the Glittering market. 

“ A little diplomacy costs nothing,” Tobias replied, “We don’t know the politics.  That the Droods and Cornaro’s have only had issues since the Spiral Dust was news.”

“So, Ardeyn.  Do we know how to get there?” Algernon asked.  It seemed that in The Estate Orientation sessions he had been the only one to pay attention to the history of Ardeyn and knew how to get there.  Bruce had listened, but it had lacked practical application and had slipped out the way it had slipped in.  Peggy had been far more interested in The Strange’s science than the actual locations, and Tobias had bunked off the classes as soon as he’d been able. 

“So are we going now?”

“Sure, I guess…” Tobias said before stopping mid-walk and clutching his chest, “No, I can’t leave yet.  Oh no, this is bad.  I can’t leave her behind.”

“What? Who?” Bruce asked, everyone was there.  For a moment, he thought maybe Ish-Ma-El, but it didn’t seem likely and said nothing.

“Avel!  She’s been wonderful.  She was all alone before we came, I couldn’t leave her behind now.”

“Ah, Rain…” Algernon tried to interject, but Tobias was too caught up in his thoughts to listen.

“Avel,” He said out loud for the group to hear, “ You are part of us now and I won’t leave you behind.”

Behind?  I don’t understand, She replied and hugged Tobias.  The embrace that seemed so warm, so familiar… Tobias’ heart sank in his chest.

“She doesn’t understand about us leaving.  She doesn’t know.  She’s a manikin,” 

“Rain, I don’t think she’s a manikin.” Algernon said, and Tobias clutched hold of the lifeline he offered.

“Of course, she isn’t!  She’s special, we all saw it! That’s why she had to go with us!” He prattled on, hoping someone could make sense of what was going on. 

“She’s not from around here,” Algernon persisted, and somehow, his words got through.

“No?”  Tobias stopped and thought, “ Of course, she spoke Slavic. She must be from Earth.  But now I’m confused…” Tobias sank onto his haunches, sitting on the branch in a very bird-like way.

“She’s not from here, because you brought her.  I…I think you’ve been dragging her around.”

“Dragging…wha…?” Reaching up to where he could feel Avel’s hand on his cheek, “What do you mean?  How do you know?”

“Well, she may not be related…?” Algernon said, trying to be helpful without saying what he thought he saw during the attack.

“Related…what do you know?”

Algernon squirmed under the cross examination, ” I saw her. There’s a resemblance…to you…not that looking like someone means anything.”

That wasn’t true.  Tobias knew it.  She was too familiar, her touch too comforting, her presence too calming.

“Well, are we going?” Bruce asked again, not unkindly.

“We have to go. You’ll have to translate us,” Finally Tobias said in monotone before drawing his arms around himself (and her).  He had no concept of the others adding him to their circle or the travel through the Strange. 

The first thing he was aware of was Avel, settling herself back into her tattoo on his chest.  He looked down not to see the white scarred Cro feathers or even his new yellow suit and shirt but a dark violet coloured exoskeleton and the tattoo now an inlaid crystalline design in the carapace.  He breathed out, thankful Avel had not been lost in the translation and looked around.

Bruce and Algernon looked as usual, though Bruce’s crowbar was still made of some fine-grained hardwood. His armour was heavy fabric with hundred of metal plates riveted into scaled brigandine. Algernon still had his crossbow on his back over the top of a thick gabeson, all in natural colours.  On top, they both wore heavy woolen cloaks and where Algeron wore a close-fitting hood around his head and shoulders, Bruce has a shiny metal bascinet over a chainmail coif.

Peggy and Tobias were something else again.  Thin and dark-skinned, the creatures seemed to be based on someone’s idea of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god.  Unlike Algernon and Bruce, these creatures didn’t seem to need a lot of clothing, decorating themselves in tinkling crystals and the barest essentials for modesty.  

On her dog-like face, Peggy had a curious look aimed at Tobias.  A slender dark hand reached out and touched the tattoo mark on Tobias’s chest.  

She screamed as her mind was swamped by anguish and terror that she had no defence for.  She was blind, deaf and dumb to everything except the mind-numbing grief and loss.  For a moment, Peggy strained against the emotion and felt too, underpinning it all, the terrible strength of protective love.  Eventually, when she felt she could take no more, she disconnected the link and slid ungracefully to the ground. Her first breath was a scream, and it didn’t abate until there was no breath left.  Her next breaths were uncontrollable sobs, the grief was too much, and it poured out of her like an overfilled vessel.  Tobias sat down next to her and reached out a hand in comfort.


“Don’t…touch! Not…just yet.” Was all she could say as she pulled away.

She wept unrestrainedly until either by exhaustion or the last remnant of the link disappeared, and she was able to gain a little control of herself again.

“I can’t describe that, not yet,” She said in a husky whisper, her throat now hoarse from screaming.

“I don’t think you need to, not with me,” Tobias replied just as quietly, his throat tight with emotion.  She had heard the screaming, but she had not connected to him.

Silently Bruce wandered off and came back sometime later with a large steaming teapot and mugs.

“Here, I think you both need a good strong cup of tea,” He handed each of the Peggy and Tobias creatures hot mugs and they all stood or sat drinking the bitter brew as reality reasserted itself.

They were in Ardeyn.

It was early morning, and the air was chill and damp.

It was market day in Citadel Hazurrium and people were staring.

They were not human.

Peggy had heard the voices… and not from Tobias.

Avel was…

“You live with that?” She finally asked, the practical Peggy reinforced by the hot bitter brew.

“It’s not always so…unrelenting, not for me, not since…well, not for a while,” Tobias stumbled over his words.  He felt numb and stupid and just wanted to curl up in a corner and sleep.  To sleep and dream of Avel.

“How long for?” 

“As… far back as I remember,”

“She’s…very aware of you…and protective.”

“And I’ve been dragging….her…? She’s been with me…” It was just too much to comprehend.

“Well, if you two are ready we need to purchase equipment and get moving,” It was Bruce. His words were enough to get the two creatures on their feet again.

“What are we?” Tobias finally asked Algernon who looked relieved to have an answer to that question.

“Qephilim, the original inhabitants of Ardeyn and the servants to the Maker.”
“Avel is here,” Tobias wrapped his arms around his chest and felt her warmth there, “So, there’s that.”

“Yes, what are we going to do about this parasite on Rain?” Peggy asked the group.  Tobias winced and shied away protectively.

“It’s not a parasite,” Bruce replied gently as neither Peggy nor Tobias looked up for much at that time, “It’s Rain’s Mama.”

“What?” She asked, stunned.

“It’s my m…” Tobias started to say but the word caught and eventually, he just gave up. 

“Come on, let’s start moving and see what we can find, hey?” Urged Bruce and the group  trudged together through the market, stopping every now and then for supplies, camping equipment, horses, tack and fodder.  Algernon remembered to buy a decent map and was given a detailed one of the whole of Ardeyn.  With it and the horses he worked out, the Mouth of Swords was a two days trip.

Horses were a revelation.  Tobias had never grown up around animals of any sort especially nothing as large and imposing as a horse. While the others put away their kits and saddled their horses, he stood and watched his, paying attention as he did a human he wanted to understand.  The horse looked back warily, a one-eyed stare over its big lippy face.  It spoke of fearfulness of the strangers and a tentative acceptance of new members of the herd.  The ideas were simple and appealed to Tobias at that moment.  He stood beside his beast and leaned into its warm side.  It turned its huge head and huffed in his face.  He breathed in its horsiness and breathed it out again for the horse to accept in return.  A handful of oats from the travel rations and a sprinkle of Spinner’s ideal and the horse soon relaxed and was resting its head on his shoulder.

“Calliope, that’s your name, isn’t it?” He asked her quietly and there was a tension of recognition. He soaked in its warmth and smell until the others asked if he was ready to go.

The day warmed as they travelled through the rolling hills of Ardeyn.  Very little was said, and soon, Algernon got bored of the constantly dull scenery.  He pulled out the puzzlebox and started fiddling with it, pushing sections this way and that, trying to find the part that moved to reveal the next step.  He wasn’t having a lot of luck when Bruce’s eagle eyes spotted what he was doing.

“Should you be doing that?” Bruce asked quietly so Tobias especially wouldn’t hear.

“Nobody said not to,” Algernon replied innocently.

“Which usually means you don’t,” 

“I guess,” Algernon signed and put the puzzlebox safely away.

They rode throughout the day until they found a suitable camping site. By the light of the fire, Algernon bound pieces of goose feather to a  thin sapling trimmed down to size.  On the other end, he glued a bodkin head of cast iron bought from the market  and checked it’s straightness by lining the whole arrow up with his eye.  Bruce watched until he was too tired and asked Algernon to keep an eye out while he slept. Across the campfire, both Peggy and Tobias has collapsed into bedrolls too exhausted to even eat.  As Tobias lay looking out into the darkness beyond the campfire, the sound of a lullaby drifted through the air around him.  Bruce and Algernon looked up from what they were doing and listened to the gentle song, in a language they could not understand.  Over the dark mound that was Tobias, a feint figure hovered.

Algernon didn’t understand the purpose or benefit of the song and worried that it might draw enemies to their camp. In the end he recognised the music itself was not maliciously intended and at such a low volume was not going to draw anything dangerous.

“That’s a mighty lovely tune.  Where’s that from?” Bruce said conversationally remembering it from their trip through the caverns under Dreamland.  Tobias himself had hummed the tune to his echo in the cavern and then sung harmony with himself.  It was as eerily beautiful as it had been back then.

Avel ignored the question.  Avel sung in Bosnia for only one and stroked his cheek.  

“Hush my little one, close your eyes,

The tears of day have all ceased.

Your cries are stilled and your tears have dried,

Hush, my darling one, sleep.”

The tune and the gentle hand were so exceedingly comforting to the restless Tobias that all pretence of sleep was soon given up for the real thing. 

The following day Bruce and Algernon went out hunting, testing out Algernon’s new arrow. They returned to companions refreshed and ready for the days travel and ready too for the feast of wild foods and game the foragers had found.  That day’s travel was as uneventful as the previous days and they made it to the Mouth of Swords before nightfall.   The camp was located and made a little way off from the foreboding portal.