With all five eggs in hand, the group return to Crow Hollow with the expectation of learning a little more about the Spiral Dust network from Dona Ilsa.
“Maybe we should sell them to the highest bidder,” Algernon mused as the group settled themselves back into their Cro forms after translation from Ardeyn. Behind him, Bruce gave the young man a scowl that would have made him take back his thought, if he’d seen it.
“I thought money was a transitory power, not worth your time?” Tobias asked as he threw the chain of the necklace around his overside bird head and hid the soul gem amongst the white feathers on his chest. The heavy stone nestled above his heart, cool and present.
“Let’s just get to Dona Ilsa and find out what she knows,” Peggy yawned, exhausted from their ordeals in the Vaults.
They hadn’t bothered to rest, leaving Ardeyn as soon as they cleared the Mouth of Swords and the entrance to the Vault. Though now in new bodies that hadn’t endured the security and traps of The Vaults, some of the group were exhausted. But, the end was in sight, and they went without tending to injuries to see the eggs safely delivered.
Once they climbed through the canopy of the great tree to the Conaro mansion, they were ushered straight into the great woman’s presence, a sitting room, genteel and refined. Few words were wasted. Tobias let Bruce lead with the box as he stood aside to watch as Dona Ilsa was reunited with her lost eggs.
A relaxation of the shoulders and posture was all there was to see as Dona Ilsa opened the box and the five eggs were presented to her. She picked them up, one by one, examining them in detail before moving to the next. With each egg, a feeling of genuine happiness and relief suffused the lady, transforming her before their eyes, from the hard edge businesswoman and leader of a family dynasty to a mother.
“Thank you for returning my eggs to me,” She said simply, putting the box to one side, a protective hand on them at all times.
Tobias had to drag his attention away, deeply moved by the sight of a mother’s love. Clearing his throat, he opened the conversation.
“Lady, we have proven ourselves true to our word. We have an agreement. Tell us what you know of the Spiral Dust trade.”
“Yes,” Instantly, the image of a doting mother was gone, the businesswoman returned, “He calls himself The Dustman though what he is…I can’t say. His supplies originally came through Ruk, from a business called Whole Body Grafts.”
“Algernon, do you know anything about that place,” Tobias asked, giving up a little push of The Strange to help the memory.
“It’s one of many body modification stores. Nothing exciting,” He replied, remembering their advertisements on the Allsong.
“So you met with the Dustman? “ Returning to the Dona.
“From time to time. He doesn’t come anymore, just sends the stock.”
Tobias looked at Algernon, who had his hand on his backpack. Both knew inside was a picture of the Dustman drawn by the golem of The Vault, Rimush. There was no particular benefit in showing her the image of the being who had stolen her eggs. She’d confirmed they were after the same person already, so Tobias said nothing and eventually, Algernon dropped his hand.
“Dustman? Wasn’t he one who took the eggs to The Vault?” Bruce said, oblivious of the non-verbal interaction between the other two.
“What? I should have known!” The Dona pounded her fist on the arm of the lounge chair she was sitting in.
“Yes,” Tobias sighed. He admired the Dona, and he hated being the bearer of bad news,” So our contacts in Ardeyn told us. I’m sorry, you were played.”
“What a fool I am!” She fumed, “When he came to me with the proposal, all I thought of was the chance to make a little extra money to find my eggs. It never occurred to me he had arranged the whole damn thing!”
“I have had reason recently to see how far a parent will go for their children. It can make you blind, I think.” Tobias said quietly, and the Lady turned to face him, all mask of authority gone.
She nodded, accepting his words, but the fire was lit. She fumed silently where she sat.
“Dona, what would you like us to do?” He asked, hoping to soothe her, give her a moment to stop and think.
“End him,” She said, her voice and posture full of venom.
“Which end?” Bruce replied.
“The very end. I want him and everything he is destroyed.”
That was certainly clear. Tobias changed the subject.
“Dona, do you know anything about the Drood side of the Spiral Dust trade?”
“Only that their arrangement was made at about the same time as mine.”
“Would you be able to provide an introduction to Don Wyclif?” Bruce asked.
She laughed humourlessly, “Only to getting shot. We exchange nothing but gunfire these days.”
“Possibly we could go in as mediators between your two houses?”
“Only for your own executions, I’m afraid.”
“Dona, what does he like?” Algernon asked
“The Don likes power, power and fear over others.” Was all she would say, and in the end group were floundering for more questions to ask. Algernon had at least one that was important to him.
“Dona, do you have an inapposite gate?”
“No, I do not.”
“Do you know the location of one?”
“I’ve heard the Drood might have one,” She said with a sigh. It was clear it was all they were going to get from the Lady, for now, so Tobias made their farewells, and they left.
“Could we demolish his house, do you think?” Algernon was musing as they walked back into the crowds of the branches of the tree.
“Oh yes, we need to see about getting that dynamite for you,” Tobias replied, only half attentive to the conversation.
“No, we do not,” Bruce interjected, “Are you sure that blowing up the Drood mansion isn’t more for your enjoyment?”
“I can’t help if I enjoy my work!” Retorted Algernon, “Say, what if I turned the metal wires holding the house to plastic?”
“We’re in a market,” Tobias was still bumbling along on his thoughts, “I wonder if there’s anything like the rumour markets here? We could do with more information about the Droods and their organisation.”
“I could watch the Droods, maybe that back entrance, you know who comes in and out,” Algernon suggested.
“We have a disguise cypher. One of us could go in and scope out the place,” Bruce added as Tobias yawned, swaying on his feet as he nodded agreement to Bruce’s idea.
“You’re still hurt. Let me heal you up a little, at least before we go on with our plans,” Bruce offered, and Tobias stopped him with a wave.
“It takes effort for you even to try and heal us. I need your good right arm strong, don’t short yourself trying to patch me up,” Tobias looked around the buildings and businesses nearby, “Maybe I should just find us a place to rest.”
They continued to move down the tree. Tobias did find an inn and arranged accommodation for the night. While waiting, Bruce and Algernon spotted two Cro talking at a market stall. They stood out as one had a shock of bright red feathers sticking out the top of his head. The second was a large Cro, with a sledgehammer strapped across his back. His grey feathers seemed groomed to stick out each side of his beaky face.
“Say, doesn’t that one look like Muttonchops from Dreamland?” Algernon asked, subtly pointing the two out to Tobias walking back, now lighter of all his Crow coins.
“Toby Walsham…well, and that must be Old Firetop himself, Rodney Dodd. Now, what do you suppose they’re doing here?”
“Moriarty wanted in on the Spiral Dust trade,” Bruce reminded him,” Seems he still does.”
Without seeing the group’s attention on them, Rodney and Toby moved further into the market. Algernon gestured he would follow and, with a push from Tobias, started moving through the crowd. Grabbing hold of Bruce’s armoured arm, Tobias focused on his phylactery, and they started following at a distance.
Firetop and Muttonchops visited several stalls, all asking their questions and moving through the crowd as if native to it. It wasn’t until Rodney turned to glance through the crowd that he saw Algernon watching. Their eyes locked, and Algernon knew he’d been made. Rodney said something to Toby, who started pushing through the crowd towards Algernon. A whistle from Rodney also brought another Cro, looking at rifles at an adjoining stall, and all three started circling Algernon.
“He’s in trouble. Dodd’s seen him,” Tobias whispered to Bruce, who moved them through the crowd.
Algernon stiffened, and like a deer, sprung away from the encroaching thugs. He knew the others were behind him. Even as a Cro, Bruce was very identifiably Bruce, and these men had fought him twice before. With this thought in mind, he started moving away from their direction.
From within the crowd, Bruce noted Algernon wasn’t moving through the crowd as smoothly as he had. People seemed to be getting in his way , slowing him down and then finally, he fell as Mutton Chops reached him.
“He’s caught!” Tobias cried, almost fighting against the bulk of Bruce in front of him.
“Yeah, I think the kid meant to be. Let’s just hang back and watch a bit.”
“Well, what ‘ave we got ‘ere?” Said Toby of the Muttonchops, lifting Algernon off his feet to face Rodney.
“Thank you, sir,” He bluffed, nervously smiling at Muttonchops.
“For helping me up.” Large black bird eyes looked innocently from Toby to Rodney and back as if an evil thought had never entered their head.
“What are you up to?” Rodney said, his red feathers swaying like flames as he moved.
“Oh! Lovely red feathers, sir. I was just shopping, sir.”
“Thanks,” Rodney eyed Algernon suspicious as Toby put him down. If he could just show them he could be clever…Algernon shot a hand out to pickpocket Rodney, but the thug was ready for that game.
“What are you playin’ at?”
“I work for you now, sir. Now.”
“Now? Who before?”
“No one, in particular, sir,” Algernon looked downcast, as if life had been very unfair up to that point, “But I can be useful.”
Toby growled and pushed Algernon close to Rodney, “Talk to the boss.”
“So, you want employment?” Rodney finally said, looking down on the small non-descript Cro.
“Yes, sir. I can be very useful.”
Algernon thought a moment, “Pickpocketing occasionally, I’m pretty stealthy…blowing things up…”
Rodney did a doubletake, his red feathers swinging back and forwards like a wildfire.
“Tell you what. A friend of ours has things we would like…back.”
“Recovery mission. Where would you like me to go?”
“His place, we’ll show you. ”
“And pay, sir? For this job?”
Rodney smirked, “Very little, and on completion.”
“How…little would that be?” Algernon asked timidly.
‘Oh, I think five crow coins would be little enough.”
“Bringing something back is surely worth…ten?”
At this, Rodney laughed out loud, “You come back, I’ll make it ten.”
“What do you want me to recover?
“Hmmm, our friend is not willing to share. We need something that will…encourage him to share.”
“Something to inspire sharing.”
The thugs gave him the directions to the second-largest house in the whole Great tree. Algernon guessed correctly that this was the home of the Droods and Don Wyclif.
“And where can I find you afterwards, sir?”
Rodney named an inn further down the tree, “Ask for Clovis Miller.”
“I’m on my way!” Algernon almost saluted and ran off in the direction of the house.
Bruce stood to one side and watched the murder of thugs. They followed the kid with their eyes, bemused expressions on their faces. They chatted for a moment or two. The third guy went back to the stall of rifles.
“Algernon’s just said we should probably regroup,” Tobias said, tugging on Bruce’s feathers.
“Yeah, just what I was thinking.” And, leading Tobias, moved back towards the inn they had booked for the night.
In the small but comfortable room, the group met and prepared to rest. Not taking no for an answer, Bruce prepared to do what healing he could for the two most injured in the party, Tobias and Algernon. His first aid worked well on Tobias, who relaxed a little easier into a chair. For Algernon, he failed to make an impact.
“Is there a psychological reason you don’t heal me?” Algernon asked the frustrated Bruce, who made him sit down again. This time, the healing took, and he was able to rest well.
The next morning, Peggy, Bruce and Algernon were all up before Tobias, who was still looking poorly and not moving with his usual speed. It couldn’t be helped. At least the day held nothing more strenuous than talking. They breakfasted and headed out into the market to each of their assigned tasks for the day. Algernon found a good vantage spot to watch the back door of the Drood mansion and noted those coming in and out, how they were received and what was required for entry. Two thugs were on guard at all time, and they seemed to expect a password from fellow security and generic house staff alike. Unfortunately, his hiding position was too far away from the guard to pick up a stray password from their minds.
Bruce was further away again, perched on a branch that overlooked Algernon’s hideout and the entrance. Too far away to hear or see anything at the door, he was still within distance if Algernon got into trouble. Peggy moved through the stalls keeping close contact with Tobias, who was gathering information. Tobias was out talking to stallholders, especially those the Moriarty gang members had spoken to the day before. He started by trying to sell the dragon marionette he had carefully brought back from Ardeyn. He felt lousy and knew he looked it as he failed to gain the interest for the marionette he expected.
“It’s nice. I’ll give you twenty-five crow coin for it,” The Stallholder said. Tobias almost kept it at that price, having grown fond of the thing, but he needed the information more.
“Tell you what. I’ll sell it for ten if you tell me what the gentlemen yesterday wanted.”
The Storeholder looked around the crowd for anyone listening as he exchanged coins for the marionette, ”They wanted to know about the Droods.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“Wyclif has been busy focusing his attention on a special trade. He’s fuming about the loss of his favourite lieutenant into the hands of an enemy.”
“So if the Don lost this second, whose taken up that role at the moment?”
“The younger brother, Terilis Lightfeather.”
“What sort of character is he?”
“He’s a mean one. Real vicious. He brings out the worst in the boss. He used to sit in his big brother’s shadow, but no more. I’ve heard some wish for the good old days of Elvin Lightfeather. He was tough, but you knew where you stood with him. His brother is wild and can go off at nothing…”
The shopkeeper went quiet and looking past Tobias. Tobias could feel a presence behind him, and something like a static shock ran through his body. He knew this situation of old. Stepping aside, he looked at the new arrivals through his feathers. Five big Cro had walked through the markets and now stood in front of the market stall. One was a little taller than the others and seemed to be their leader. Feathers matted down each side of his beak make this Cro look scruffy, not that anyone would have told him that to his face. On each hand, he carried a large metal claw that flashed in the morning light.
“I hear people have been asking about me?” The Cro asked the stallholder. Tobias could feel the stallholder’s eyes on him already. Focussing on a calm like the one Dona had presented to them, he squared his shoulders and faced the goons.
“Ah, yes. That would be me. Not just me, of course.” He said, with seeming ease, all the while thoughts were churning.
“You?” The Cro said, turning to take in the small, dapper Cro in front of him, “What about this red-feathered guy…?”
“That’s the one. Goes by the name Rodney Dodd and works for…hmm, have you heard of the Professor?”
The Cro cracked his neck menacingly and, without warning, punched the tree branch they were all standing on with this metal clawed fist. The violence of the action set Tobias’ heart racing as he realised the quality of the Cro in front of him. He’d suspected this was the infamous Terilis Lightfeather and now knew that the stories were true. Suddenly he was back in New York once more working for the organised crime syndicate run by Louis Astra. It was a life that he had run from, fleeing blindly to New Orleans in the hope of something better. It seemed a cruel irony that having come so far, he was right back where he started.
“Moriarty?” Peggy added, honestly inserting herself into the conversation, “What a jerk!”
“Yes, that’s the one. He has your brother,” Tobias confessed, knowing that right now, the difference between life and death may hinge on Terilis’ interest in his brother’s welfare.
“Go on,” The Cro said, brushing his long oily feathers out of his eyes.
“I wanted to talk to you. That’s why I was asking around. I can be useful. Can we talk?” Tobias was aware he sounded like Algernon. His words came out at the speed his heart was racing.
Tobias looked around the market place as the stallowner had, checking for others listening and took a moment to centre himself. Didn’t they want inside the house?
“Here? In the markets?”
Terilis nodded, “Take him.” Suddenly the other four surrounded Tobias, and the panic in his chest spiked.
It’s okay. Peggy will tell the others. You’re not alone anymore, remember. You don’t have to do this alone. He said to himself as the group started moving away.
“Excuse me, where do you think you are going with him?” Came Peggy’s voice from behind, and Tobias almost wept.
“And what’s it to you?” He heard Terilis say.
“I look after him. Where he goes, I go.” Peggy pushed through the group and stood beside Tobias. He could feel her solid presence, the warmth of her beside him and felt that everything would be fine if she would just stay close.
At the same time, he knew the others had no idea where they were or what was happening. She needed to let them know. With a wrench, he touched Peggy’s arm.
You have to tell Bruce and Algernon what happened, He said within the mind link. Outside so all could hear, he turned and smiled indulgently at her, “Get out of here. We have business to discuss.” He looked to Terilis and ruffled his own feather to cover his discomfit, “She doesn’t need to be involved.”
“Scram, don’t you hear you’re not wanted,” Terilis added gruffly, and Tobias had to stop himself from contradicting him.
Why? You need me. She replied telepathically, though externally it was almost the same message. “No, I won’t.”
Please, go. He pleaded in her mind as he said out loud, “Go on, go find your brother.”
Because they don’t know where we are, He was going to add the truth, that she was right. He couldn’t do this without them but was sure that would keep her from leaving. In the end, Peggy agreed grudgingly.
“Fine, fine!” She complained and pushing her way through the goons, and stormed off. The Cro thugs laughed at the sight of her climbing higher through the tree. Tobias watched her receding back until she was lost in the crowds. He closed his eyes and could still feel the link between them. Her quietly fuming as she found new words for idiot.
No, these weren’t the bad old days at all.
A slight shove in the small of his back told him it was time to move.
It had been a very dull morning. Algernon had thought that spy work would be more of the infiltration, stealth missions and secret codes. All he’d done since coming to Crow Hollow was follow and watch. Now he was watching. He was in a good enough spot between stalls to get a good view of the door, the guards and those who came in and out but not close enough to hear what they were saying. High above, within gliding distance, he could just make out Bruce’s bulky shadow. He wished he had some way of talking to the others, or at least Bruce at this moment. It would have helped fill the time.
Suddenly a rustle of feather and a harrumph, Peggy was beside him, taking up all the space in his tiny hidey-hole and making a scene.
“Budge over. I don’t fit.”
“No, you don’t. Why aren’t you with Rain?”
“Rain got himself caught. He sent me to let you know.”
“O-kay,” Algernon looked up to Bruce’s nest. He was no longer there.
“What’s going on? Our canary’s being marched up the tree surrounded by heavies,” Bruce’s deep bass came up behind both Peggy and Algernon.
“Terilis Lightfeather, Elvin’s little brother, is now Don Wyclif’s right hand. He caught Rain asking stallholders questions. Rain sent me to tell you, and I’ve done that now,” Peggy replied and pushed past Bruce and was soon lost in the crowd of market-goers.
It wasn’t until the marching group of goons were within sight of the back door that Tobias realised they might see Peggy talking to Algernon and suspect something. In a panic, he looked around for a distraction, something to stall the group so Peggy and Algernon would have time to clear the door. He saw the market stall Algernon had been interested in before the trip to Ardeyn.
“Oh, my good man!” He exclaimed, pointing to the bundle of dynamite on the stall and aiming his suggestion square for the stallholder, “Can I suggest to you that dynamite is weeping nitro-glycerine and is highly volatile!”
The Cro grabbed the dynamite and, in a blind panic, threw it out of the tree. It sailed away into the crowds of shoppers and stalls far below and was lost from sight. The whole transaction took less than a few seconds and didn’t even slow the marching group down. Tobias chided himself, remembering Peggy’s link.
You’ll have to get out of the way. We’re following you.
Why? Came the same stubborn insistence for facts.
The goons want to use their back door.
Doesn’t everyone? He could almost hear her roll her eyes.
Exactly! And I’d rather they don’t see you lurking around.
Oh, they’ll see me, She said through the link.
He almost groaned. What could that mean? Tobias glanced around the crowds. With a determined look on her face, Peggy marched in from the right. She barged her way through the knot of thugs and stood beside him.
“I’m coming with you,”
Thank god! He said via the link, Thank you. He took her hand in his cold, shaking one.
Peggy blinked, surprised. Not so much for the physical contact, but from the force of his need.
Idiot, She responded automatically, unsure how to react to the intense emotion, We’re a group. We look after each other, don’t we?
It’s not a concept I will ever tire, I assure you.
Besides, I’m not leaving you alone with the bully brother of Lightfeather. The image of Elvin Lightfeather throwing his murderously accurate dagger in a narrow alley of Bollons, Railsea, was shared.
Tobias’ grip on Peggy’s hand tightened. Together then?
No other option.
“What? You again?” Terilis growled, oblivious to all that had been said in the moment she’d pushed through. Peggy paid Terilis no attention.
“You’re an idiot, and I’m coming,”
Tobias turned to Terilis, “Little sisters, they think they own you.”
Without another word, they was pushed through the door. They were bundled quickly down a narrow hallway, a door was opened, and they all entered the small private space.
“Okay, so talk,” Terilis barked, taking a seat behind a simple wooden table. There were no other chairs, and the other four goons loomed over Peggy and Tobias. Never letting go of Peggy’s hand, Tobias slipped into a new persona, one he hadn’t needed for a long time. Dropping his head to define the change, his usual polite transatlantic accent was gone. When he next spoke, replaced with a broader cockney.
“Right, I’ll come clean wi’d you gents. Moriarty is a thorn in me side. Dat’s my patch, that London, and ‘e don’t seem ta think there’s room to share. So, when I found out ‘bout your brotha, I figured we ‘ad a mutual enemy.”
You sound like an idiot, Peggy said via the link, I’m glad you don’t go around sounding like that.
Terilis nodded, this was something he could understand,” And what do you want from me?”
“He’s all gun-ho ‘bout dis Spiral Dust trade. I want in before ‘e does. I want ta cut ‘im out, know what I mean?”
Algernon and Bruce moved into the crowd and watched silently as Tobias and Peggy were marched up to the door by five Cro. The guards snapped to attention, and though no password was given, they were let in. Algernon skimmed the mind of the nearest guard and found the password.
“Usually, the guards give the password,” Algernon murmured to Bruce as they finalised their plans to follow, “I can probably pass myself off as staff…”
“And I’ll use the disguise cypher,” Added Bruce, who had made a note of a Cro about his size leaving for down the tree earlier. Algernon handed over his crossbow to Bruce and made himself look neat, presentable and unnoteworthy. Bruce used the Cypher and seemingly didn’t change much, remaining a larger than average Cro, now with a crossbow on his back. Together they walked up to the door, and Bruce gave the password. The Cro on guard said nothing, and they were let in without a question. Now, to find the other two.
A long hallway lined with doors faced them. At the far end, a set of stairs led seemingly up to the main house. Nearby a set of stairs led down into darkness. Algernon went to work looking for a trail, a blood smear path, anything that would give them a clue as to where Peggy and Tobias had been taken. He didn’t find anything, as there was nothing to see. Bruce stopped and listened. Faintly he could hear a conversation being held behind one of the doors. Drawing Algernon’s attention to it, they crept down the hallway, listening to doors until they could discern a higher voice in London accent amongst the deeper vocalisations from behind one of them. Bruce rolled his eyes, they’d found their room all right. Getting down on one knee, Bruce looked through the keyhole.
“So, you want into the Spiral Dust trade for your London in exchange for…what, my brother?” Terilis summarised, looking through his shaggy mess of feathers at Tobias across the table.
I wonder what makes his feathers all straggly like that? Peggy thought via the link, Do you think it’s intentional or some sort of scalp condition…
“Sum fink like dat. ‘Cept I was thinking a little bigger. This universe is big, a lot bigger if ya get my meanin’. D’ere no need ta step on each other’s toes,” Tobias paused, seeming for effect, but mostly to give himself time to figure out what he wanted from this conversation. What information do they have on the Dustman? What were the Dustman’s intentions? “If we go into for a partnership I want a bigger slice. Say, I run my London and…Earth?”
I wonder if Cro’s suffer male pattern baldness? I’ll have to ask someone when we get out of this stuffy room. Haven’t they heard of ventilation?
Terilis scoffed and gestured to one of his goons. With a look and a sign, the goon crossed the room and opened the door.
Bruce peered through the keyhole. At one moment, he was looking into a room filled with Cro, Tobias’ yellow suit clearly visible amongst the black. The next moment, the scene was blocked by a body, and the door opened. Instinctually, he grabbed the Cro by the throat with one hand and yanked him out of the doorway, throwing him across the hall. That the Cro did not hit the wall was Algernon snapping him out of the air. Controlled for the moment, Bruce quietly closed the door. Peggy, wide-eyed, the only witness.
With a single gesture, Algernon threw the Cro down the hall towards the stair heading down. The Cro tumbled out of sight as both Bruce and Algernon moved quietly as possible down the hallway. The Cro was stunned, sprawled on a landing half way down. Levitating his crossbow off Bruce’s back, Algernon shot him almost point-blank as soon as the goon was in sight. Bruce closed the stairwell door, but no amount of wood was going to muffle the sound of gunfire as the goon pulled out his gun and shot. It missed Bruce by inches. Pulling out his crowbar, Bruce lept from down the flight of stairs, landing full weight on the Cro. There was a crunch and Bruce felt the body of the Cro give way beneath him. Standing, the Cro slumped down to the bottom of the stair, very much dead.
The gunshot was clear from inside the room, and Tobias instinctually flinched. He stopped his sales pitch to Terilis as all Cro heads turned to the door.
“Go see what’s happening out there,” Terilis ordered, and another of the four opened the door.
Just Bruce and Algernon as usual. Do you think they’ve ever heard of subtle?
“Everything okay?” The goon called down the hallway. There was a sound of a door opening.
“Yeah, boss,” Came a voice, distinctly Bruce’s for those who knew it.
Yeah, playing with guns again.
“We heard a gunshot.”
“Yeah, sorry accidental discharge.”
Terilis slammed his metal claw into the table, the blades slinking through the wood, the fist leaving an impression on the surface.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Said the goon, translating his bosses body language and closed the door.
“Where did we find these idiots!” Terilis bellowed.
“They’re all over, gov,” Tobias sympathised, and Terilis focused his attention back on him.
“Here’s my idea, “Terilis said, straightening up and retracting his clawed fist from the tabletop,” You get my brother and one more thing. I want the head of a traitor that left our organisation and joined Moriarty.”
A flash of Caw Ek Carve directing crossbow fire from on top of a warehouse room sprung to Tobias’ mind.
“Oh yeah, new bloke. Sharp, but officious,” He mimed Caw Ek Carves wireframe spectacles, and Terilis nodded.
“That’s a lot of work, close to Moriarty. Not saying it can’t be done, but that’s tipping my ‘and,” Tobias looked up as if collecting his thoughts. “ I was thinking more of a trap. Moriarty’s safe in London, within his network like a spider, in ‘is web. I can get information to Moriarty about your Spiral Dust contact’s location. It would have to be legit, Moriarty’s smart. He’d see through any porky pies. We lay an ambush the other end and nab him outside of London and all his protections. Later, I can sweep in collect your brotha, find this traitor of yours and make London me own.”
Terilis seemed to warm to this plan for a moment. He leaned back in his chair and watched Tobias, who fixed all his thoughts on just keeping up the mask and not crumbling into a shuddering wreck. After a moment or two, Terlis shook his head.
“No good, the Dustman doesn’t tell us where it comes from.”
“Could we contact this Dustman, arrange somfin’? It’s in his best interests that someone like Moriarty is not involved in his business.”
Again, the head shook, sending the dangling feathers drifting back and forward, “He stays out of things. He won’t get involved.”
If Terilis knew more than Dona Ilsa about the Spiral Dust, he was doing an excellent job of keeping it close. Frustrated now, Tobias realised it was time to leave. The hard part was getting Terilis to think so too.
“Hmm, so your brotha and this traitor and what, I become a junior partner is dis Spiral dust?”
“That’s how I see it?”
“Yeah, right, I’ll be in touch,” He gestured to the door, and the goons looked to Terilis.
“See them out, boys.”
With a shove from one of the two goons behind them, Peggy and Tobias were marched out the room and back through the rear door.
Bruce dragged the body of the Cro down the stair and along another corridor as Algernon went ahead checking rooms. So far, they seemed to be storerooms or currently unused workrooms. Algernon had grabbed six grenades out of an armoury.
“I could probably bring down half the tree if I could find its weak points,” Algernon said as he tucked the grenades under his wing.
“I’m sure you could, but right now, I’d like if you could find a spot to put this one before someone finds us,” Complained Bruce. Algernon closed the armoury and opened another door. It was a large workroom set up with two stations. One for processing Spiral Dust and the other Bywandine. There were even separate tools to avoid cross-contamination. Algernon took a few samples of each and handed them to Bruce before closing that door too.
“We need somewhere they’re not likely to go for a while.”
The next-door offered them a better solution. It was a general storeroom, complete with mops, cleaning products standard, handyman tools. With a little luck, the unlucky Cro goon wouldn’t be found until the cleaners arrived the next morning. Propping him up in a corner, they close the door and started back down the hallway. Now, which way should they go out? The rear exit was closest, but as they’d just come through there, it could look suspicious, and they wouldn’t get to see any more of the house.
They climbed the stairs from the storeroom, through the door at the top to the first corridor. At the other end, the second staircase beckoned. They were almost there when Terilis Lightfeather walked out of the room flanked by one of his bodyguards.
“You! Are you the new guys setting off guns in the house?” He fixed both Bruce, hidden in his disguise and Algernon with a gaze that seemed to look right through them.
“Ah, yeah. Sorry boss,” Bruce replied as Algernon silently tried his best not to be there.
The clawed fist slammed into the wall beside Bruce’s head, and snow of gyprock landed on his shoulder.
“Don’t do it again. I don’t need more idiots, but all we seem to do is lose good hands and find idiots,” He said more to himself than to Bruce or Algernon, “Well, hasn’t Salvin got a job for you? Get going!”
“Yes, sir,” Bruce replied smartly, and both he and Algernon walked on and opened a random door.
It was a kitchen. The staff looked like they were preparing for a midday meal and had little time for security staff not where they should be.
“Ur…sorry, do you know where Salvin is?” Asked Algernon of one of the junior staff, peeling vegetables.
“Wouldn’t he be down in the market somewhere?” Replied the kitchen hand who thought he’d found someone lower ranking than himself and wasn’t afraid to show their disdain. It was utterly wasted on Algernon. He knew the vegetable peeling Cro was beneath him and was content to let him fall with the house when he got around the destroying it.
They waited thirty seconds to let the hallway clear before heading out again. Climbing the stairs to the main house, they got a feel for the layout and where Don Wyclif would be further up in the building. By now, they had pushed their luck as far as they were willing to go. They made their exit through the open front door and left the Drood residence for the genteel part of town.
To be continued….
After starting the day on a reconnaissance, by early afternoon the party were carrying a dangerous enemy back to their hideout at the docks. They’ve only had time to catch their breath before something has found them and was knocking on the back door.
“138…139…140…” Each number counted corresponded to the fall of a gold coin and the thunk as it joined its fellows in a small wooden chest, “ 141…142…” The golden claw motif on each coin caught the afternoon light filtering through the skylight above Rain as he collected the last handful of coins.
“I could count those crow coins faster if you want.” Algernon offered watching Rain monotonously drop each of a hoard of coins they found on Lightfeather.
“No…no… this is just my pace right now.” Rain replied, the image of misery. A bruise was blossoming redly over half his face, contrasting with dark rings under his eyes. Though the party had won a major victory, Rain looked like someone who’d lost the war.
Bloodied and worn out, Bruce was seemingly in a better mood. He walked out of the office rummaging through his backpack,
“Okay, who needs a little first aid?”
Any responses he may have expected were forgotten as all heads turned to a heavy wooden door to the back of the warehouse that had until that moment been ignored. Chained locked, it seemed as secure as the wall it was built into. Now, the scraping sound of metal against chain echoed faintly through the warehouse.
“Wha…oh…what was I up to?” Rain lost track of his count. He sadly dropped the last of the gold coins into the box as he turned to the others, “What is it?”
“A crowbar, “ Bruce replied, forgetting his first aid kit and pulling out his own well-worn weapon of choice, “They’re using it against the chain on the door.”
Peggy, already going for her hand crossbow, focused her thoughts on the door and asked the Strange who and how many were beyond the door. In response, she understood there were four beings, two of them were known to her. Her mind-link to Rain made him aware as well as he tucked away the box and started for the front door with the intent on getting eyes on the invaders.
I’ll let you know.
Noel and Maximillian were readying for battle. Noel was checking the weight of a falchion the party had collected, Maximilian disappearing into the office they shared, returning with a long-barrelled blunderbuss, complete with slowmatch which he now lit with a flint and steel.
Quickly leaving the warehouse via the front door, Rain snuck along the wall and peeked around the corner. At the far end of a small alley, he could see Toby Mutton-Chops of the giant sledgehammer, two other heavies breaking through the chain on the door and an aesthetic looking gentleman with a distinctive hooked nose. Caw Eh Carve was looking straight at Rain, black eyes glittering behind small round spectacles. Rain sighed heavily and stood, leaning tiredly on the corner of the warehouse as he let Peggy know who was breaking in.
“Ellis, Rowan pin that one down, Toby get through this door.” Caw Eh Carve ordered cooly and the two heavies left the door to Toby and started walking towards Rain.
Inside, the chain fell away from the door and clanged through the warehouse. Bruce moved quickly and wedged his crowbar against the door and the ground, firmly holding it closed for the time being.
“Shall we kill the prisoners?” Algernon asked, shrugging his crossbow off his shoulder and gesturing to Caw Eh Carve’s thugs in the other room, but the sentiment was extended to the unconscious Lightfeather as well.
“What? No, we need them to get to Londontown,” Bruce replied, leaning on the crowbar and holding the door firmly shut.
“But if Caw Eh Carve comes in now, they’d be better off dead.”
“They don’t deserve death just for following orders.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it.”
“I’m not worried because it’s not happening.”
“Maybe they’d go if we give them Lightfeather…” Peggy mused wondering if there was a way to bargain their way out, “…or maybe Noel?”
From outside they heard the roar of some beast then…THUD! The whole door shivered and cracked as something heavy hit it. Dust rained down on those nearest the wall, but the door held.
Outside, Toby swung his massive sledgehammer with a roar and smashed it square in the centre of the door as his boss turned to the wall directly opposite and pulled out a cypher. Tracing a rectangle onto the wall, the space inside shimmered creating a portal to another recursion. Rain didn’t get to see anymore before Ellis of the crowbar took up all his view. After a day of sneaking, dodging, fighting and being pummelled, Rain’s responses were all instinct. Moving aside and using Ellis’ own momentum, he pushed him into the warehouse wall. Rowan was one step behind his comrade, picking up the fallen chain and wrapping it around his fist. It was time to get out.
“Terra, Zeme, Aarde, Monde Jord!” Staring down the two thugs, Rain muttered a string of words from all over the world. Selling the idea of a powerful spell with his whole being, he crouched down, drawing his hands up as if pulling something heavy from deep down. With a yell, he completed the words and created an illusion of a huge monolith of stone rising out of the ground, showering the thugs with dust and broken pieces of earth. They never questioned the illusion stepping back, believing completely that the path out of the alley was now blocked. Rain didn’t waste any time and started running back to the front door.
“There’s a trapdoor to a sunken souq back in the office,” Noel supplied as a possible escape route from their current predicament, “Not exactly a secret but not out in the open either.”
“Sounds good, “ Peggy replied, “So, do we stay or go?”
“We stay,” Algernon loaded his crossbow and aimed at the door.
Outside the door, a blue flash of light caught everyone’s attention and it looked like the time for action had come. Bruce nodded and withdrew his crowbar from the door. From outside a roar forecast another attempt at the door. This time though, instead of the door holding, the door swung wide and Toby Muttonchops stumbled in behind his sledgehammer, surprised. The moment of surprise gave those ready inside the advantage. The blunderbuss went off, glancing against a metal plate sewn into Toby’s overalls and the shot ricochetted off. Bruce’s crowbar swung, in the dark of the warehouse, the metal created an arc of silver landing on Toby’s skulls. The impact was not meant to crush, but to shake and stun. Toby’s eyes crossed and he stumbled on the spot.
Peggy flung out a hand, and a plasma arc linked Toby to something through the portal, Toby taking the brunt of the damage. Now with the big man swaying on his feet, Noel reversed his hold on the falchion and brought the butt of the heavy sword down on Toby’s head. He crumpled into a mess of limbs in the doorway as Peggy scowled.
“Wrong end!” She complained to the nonplused Noel.
As attacks rained down on Toby behind him, Caw Eh Carve was running through a portal on the opposite wall. It led into another warehouse, similar to those in Celephais, though there seemed more boilers, more metal piping and working pistons. As the party watched a huge three-legged steam-powered machine stepped heavily out into the frame of the portal, driven by a red-haired man.
In the doorway, the two thugs Rowan and Ellis now were free to move in. Rowan with his chained hand swung out at Noel, clipping him in the head, making the explorer step back. Ellis put his crowbar to use against Bruce who blocked the attack with his own equally heavy bar.
Outside, Rain was almost back at the front door of the warehouse. He reached out his hand to grab the open door when wandering around the corner, the hulking shape of Theo flanked by four goons came full into view. Theo saw Rain at the same time, and Rain sighed, “I’m sorry we don’t have time for you at the moment. If you could come back in half an hour and we can compare schedules.” And taking firm hold of the door he slammed it shut and locking it,
Peggy, Theo and four goons at the front door, I think we need that escape plan.
“Theo’s out front, Rain’s ready to get out.” Peggy let the group at the back door know what was waiting at the other end of the warehouse.
“This is getting better, we just have to get out of their way,” Algernon said this time glancing at Lightfeather. Bruce followed his glance and for the first time since the ruins allowed himself to contemplate the cold-blooded dispatching of their dangerous enemy. A clang of heavy metal and the crunch of broken masonery refocused his thought back to the door where the walking machine was breaking down the wall between its recursion and Celephais. There was no time left.
“Okay, grab your stuff, time to go!” He said, positioning himself to protect the retreating group back to the trapdoor.
WHAMP! The front door slammed open as Theo kicked it aside and his goons rushed the front door. At the backdoor, Peggy launched another Plasma arc striking Rowan through his wrapped chain. Rain sprinted across the warehouse ready to leave and saw Bruce glance back at Lightfeather once more, a look of deep agitation clear on his face.
“Bruce!” Rain called across the warehouse, gaining his friends attention, “Let him go. We beat him once, we can do it again.” He watched as some unseen weight lifted off his friend’s shoulders and the expression cleared to one of determination. Bruce gave a nod and turned back to the thugs at the back door and Rain continued his scramble to the trapdoor, opening it ready to receive the party.
At the back door, Ellis and his crowbar and Rowan with his chain were also deflected by Bruce and Peggy respectively. Two goons from the front door made a beeline for Lightfeather, a third reached Maximillian and pulling out a wicked blade. It missed Maximillian, barely, as the blade struck the metal barrel of his blunderbuss. Noel moved in beside his companion, falchion against the heavy knife. The goon was no slouch and parried away the bigger blade adding to the clanging from the machine outside.
Algernon alone had plans of attack. As Theo’s goons reached Lighfeather’s side, he quickly levitated their leader and with a flick of a free hand sent him flying across the warehouse and through the back door landing just in front of the steam walking machine. The goons chased after their fallen leader but could not hope to cover the distance before he was crushed under the machine’s heavy foot. With a cool glee simmering to frustration, Algernon watched as the next foot rose, moved forward…and stopped. A clawed hand, more used to moving boilers than picking up people, descended and encased the fallen Lightfeather. With a look of triumph, the redheaded driver of the walking machine gently curled the claw around the unconscious Lightfeather and started turning his machine around, his prize secured.
Peggy and Bruce were both free, but Maximillian and Noel were still fighting enemies on both sides. Lightfeather’s surprise disappearance meant Theo and his goons ran through the battle at the back door. They eyed Algernon suspiciously as they went past and would not have stopped if Rowan and his chain had not lashed out at Theo trying to trip him up. Ellis, in support of his fellow English thug, clothelined another goon running behind with his crowbar and the fight between the two invaders was joined.
Maximilian and Noel broke free of the fighting and ran for the trapdoor, Bruce covering their flank.
“Bruce, go, “ Rain gestured to the hole in the floor as Bruce stopped to protest, “I’m going to make it look like an explosion went off, sealing the passage. Go!”
Without an argument, Bruce dropped down the hole with Rain following soon after. Seconds later, the sound of a huge explosion rocked the warehouse, for a moment all fighting was forgotten as it seemed the two offices, furniture, walls and floor rose into the air and collapsed over the trapdoor, sealing off the passage. The illusion lasted only a minute, but by that time, the fight had moved elsewhere and the party was long gone.
Sometime later, an out of breath Maximillian gestured for a break and everyone crouched in the tunnel. Ahead the quiet echoes of an underground market filtered through. Here was their last chance to plan in private before moving back out into public.
“I like what you did with the explosion, collapsing the roof on the tunnel like that.” Algernon effused to Rain.
“Go out with a bang, as they say.” Rain smiled weakly back, “but it won’t last, it just buys us a little time. Unlike that move with Lightfeather. I know it didn’t come off as you wanted, thankfully, but getting the two groups together was strategically very clever. I was impressed.”
Algernon straightened under the compliment, though noted the tone of disapproval for trying to make Lightfeather jam.
Bruce and Peggy were in discussions with Noel and Maximillain about where to go next. First stop was a safe place to translate from. Back to the bathhouse, the famous temple in town or somewhere else? Noel, it seemed, had another place in mind that was less public than the other two suggestions. Next was the problem of where to translate to next, and here there was a disagreement.
“You could come back with us to Seattle.” Bruce suggested, knowing the problems with just ‘inviting visitors’ into The Estate, but keeping them to himself for now.
“We really must report back, “Maximillian said adamantly, “Things are heating up and our superior need to know.”
“So do ours,” Bruce thought, “but…what if we came back with you to the Geographic Society first?” This suggestion was not received as well as the first.
Maximilian and Noel looked at each other, “Well…we think that may raise a few eyebrows amongst the more senior staff…” Noel confessed.
“Oh, it may raise a few eyebrows, oh we wouldn’t want that!” The comment only fired up Peggy’s thin skin when it came to Noel and his seeming indifference, “Well who needs you then?! Go on, fly back to your comfy libraries and just forget we ever existed, again!”
The commotion drew Algernon and Rain into the discussion. When it was clear that Maximillian and Noel wanted to break from the party, Rain interrupted.
“Gentleman, this is not an Estate issue or a Society issue but a global one. I think we’ve seen that both our respective issues are intertwined, we can’t work in isolation any longer. We have to work together. ”
Maximilian and Noel didn’t say a word, just looked at each other for a moment where an agreement was made.
“I have a small place we can take you.” Maximilian finally said to the group, “Not the IGS mind, but somewhere safe where you can rest and we can get in touch with our superiors on what to do next.”
Nods all round, except from Peggy.
They quickly moved through the souq to a room that looked like it was set aside for pray at other times, but right now was empty. Maximilian lead the translation away from the sun and dust of Celephais to the dank, fog filled air of London, but no London that Rain knew.
The room they found themselves in was a middle class 19th century apartment, complete with gas lamps, heavily sashed windows and leather, though worn and cracked, furniture. As soon as the vertigo of translation had subsided, Rain walked to the window and saw a cobbled alleyway leading to a busy London street filled with people, hansom cabs and delivery carts. The air was thick with coal soot and the smell of animals and people living in close proximity. The sky was a yellow-grey, the unique colour of industrial smog mixing with the natural fog off the Thames. A real pea-souper was rolling in. Recognising and feeling completely alien to all about him, Rain said nothing but stalked off to find a bathroom down the hall.
Peggy as silently as Rain, headed straight for a four poster bed set at one end of the apartment, only stopping to pull off her Doc Martens as she went.
Bruce shook of the last of the translation, “Right, we all sorely in need of rest. Us men will take the chairs and floor while Peggy can have the bed.” He looked around and discovered that no one had heard a word he’d said, “Right then…good.”
“Now as mentioned we need to get in touch with our superiors,” Maximilian informed Algernon and Bruce, “In the meantime, rest up here and we should be back in a few hours.”
The boys made themselves comfortable and were aware of how their clothes had morphed in the new recursion. Algernon had on a black suit with short waist-length coat, a black top hat and cane that marked him out as a public school boy, and someone of status, if not class. Bruce on the other hand was dressed in a straight thigh length leather coat, heavy cotton clothing, checkered cloth cap and tartan scarf. He ran his fingers through hair far longer than he’d normally allow, with muttonchop sideburns that he couldn’t help stratching. After an hour, Rain returned clean, well pressed in an appropriate morning suit, white flower in his buttonhole, and a moustache, neat tidy and thoroughly respectable. Having surveyed the room and his companions, he flopped down into a squeaky springed leather chair and fell asleep.
The party dozed as best they could after the day’s excitement and were soon awoken a little more refreshed by a knock at the door. Standing outside to be let in was an imposing middle aged gentleman bundled up against the dank chill air outside. Flanking him was Noel and Maximillian looking subdued and silent. The gentleman walked in stripping off his heavy coat, throwing it and his top hat and cane onto the bed. They woke Peggy with a start. Without a word she climbed out of bed and joined the others in the lounge, now dressed in a tartan walking suit, tailored, tasteful and very respectable. Her hair though, was its normal curly mess.
“My name is Sir Raymond Creswick, I am Quartermaster for the Implausible Geographic Society. I understand you are with The Estate.” The gentleman announced to the room as if he were speaking to a much larger group. His voice was deep with an authoritative rasp that spoke of a man who was not used to having to raise his voice to be heard. His tone was clipped and to the point, with a hint of distain at the phrase, “The Estate.”
“They pay.” Rain replied, not sure if he wanted to be known as anyone’s man. Bruce glowered at him, their disagreements of old showing. Sir Raymond didn’t seem to care either way and continued.
“I hear you have stumbled onto the same investigation as Maximillian and Mr Hagan.” It wasn’t said as a question and Rain didn’t see a need to reply to it as such.
“We find we are investigating the same thing…from the other direction.” He qualified confidently, making sure to catch and keep the eye of Sir Raymond.
“Indeed.” Sir Raymond returned the look with interest, “What can you tell me about The Estate?”
“The same as you can tell us about the Geographic Society, Sir Raymond,” Rain relaxed a little feeling comfortable with the polite banter so close to that he’d grown up with, “But that doesn’t mean we can work together on this issue.”
Sir Raymond’s mouth twitched into something that could have been a smile and barked a sound that in some other face could have been a laugh.
“Very well then, “ Sir Raymond rocked back once on his heals spoke, “As you know we have been following James Moriarty and his crime syndicate’s trade in Bywandine for sometime. We always knew there were other groups, but had no evidence to tell us who they were or where they worked from. From a string of clues uncovered by us led us fortunately to finding Mr Hagan here, “ He gestured to Noel who was standing uncomfortably to one side, “Unfortunately, the criminals destroyed all the evidence before we got a chance to investigate for ourselves.”
“What?” Peggy said standing at the news, breaking the silence that Sir Raymond had commanded, “you mean the dig site…the temple…?”
“It was deliberate.” Rain said quietly as Sir Raymond continued and as she sunk back into her chair, “We’re lucky you weren’t killed.”
“Bywandine, “ Sir Raymond said as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “ Of course a herb native to the Dreamland laced with opium creating very vivid dreams. Recently, the trade has extended to that of white slave trade as a new additive has the effect of capturing users for unknown purposes.”
“Excuse me sir, “Peggy took to the floor again and Sir Raymond had no alternative but to allow her to speak, “As mentioned we came to Bywandine through unusual means and have not had a chance to do any experimentation comparing Bywandine and Spiral Dust. We know they have similar effects, though from our human trials, “ She gestured to Rain who found himself working hard to keep a neutral expression, “Spiral dust users seem to have little or no control over where they go, in comparison to the Dreamwalkers of Bywandine.”
“If you can provide laboratory space I would like to see if the two have anything in common.”
Slowly Sir Raymond breathed in, assessing the young woman in front of him. He turned to Noel, not taking his eyes off Peggy who looked like she was presenting a thesis to a funding body, “This is the Doctor Martin you spoke of when you first came to us?”
Noel nodded, “Yes, Sir Raymond.”
“I think that could be arranged, “ Sir Raymond said now turning to Maximillian, “Could you accompany the young lady.” Again, it wasn’t a question but a command and Maximillian quickly complied.
Now Rain stood and held the floor. He filled in their side of the investigation into Spiral dust, how it had led them to a distribution network that was spread all over the world and seemed all to flow through Crows Hollow.
“We know of two groups out of Crows Hollow for certain, the Droods and the Cornaro families. There’s a possibly third depending where Elvin Lightfeather’s loyalies lie, what dubious information we have says he’s in the Drood camp.”
“I can confirm that information. We know about Crows Hollow and its mafia-style crime syndicates, but you are saying they are involved in both Bywandine and Spiral Dust trades?”
“Indeed. For certain the Droods are.” Rain, as was his habit, fell into the speaking style of the culture he found himself in, “As far as our information goes, the Cornaro are involved only in Spiral Dust, but their’s was the most extensive of networks we’ve seen so far.”
There was a pause as Sir Raymond digested the information. Algernon, stood and moved up beside him.
“Sir, I have to tell you I have been very impressed with your operatives in the field.” He said to the bemusement of Sir Raymond.
“Yes, especially Maximillian. He has been very helpful in understanding the Society and your investigation.”
“Yes sir, in fact I was wondering how one would go about joining the society?”
Sir Raymond turned to take in the young man in front of him, his voice low and cool, “You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest?”
“Not in my mind.” Algernon replied innocently and Rain had to agree.
Sir Raymond drew himself up to his full height, not as tall as Bruce but well above both Algernon and Rain, “Membership to the IGS is strictly by invitation only.”
Several hours later, Peggy returned alone and with the results of her experimentation.
“Bywandine is a plant derivative with active ingredients that affect users as they dream by connecting them to the Strange, but it seems only to Dreamland. Spiral dust is still…unknown origin with a completely different active ingredient. On the surface it seems to have a similar effect but does not connect them to Dreamland just The Strange. They are completely unrelated.” She informed the group with a look of defeat about her, “We still have two complete sources so I guess it makes sense that we continue to investigate Spiral Dust while the Geographic society follows Bywandine.”
“Well, thank you doctor, I think that was a worthy task, “Sir Raymond straightened seemingly pleased with Peggy’s conclusion, “I concur with your reasoning, the Society will continue to follow the Bywandine and The Estate can follow your Spiral Dust lines of investigation.” …and neither the two shall meet… his face said as Sir Raymond gave a short bow, placed his top hat on his head and made for the door, “Mr Hagan?”
Giving the party one last look, Noel walked past on his way to the door, Peggy grabbed his arm.
“Meet me at Berkley…at the University Cafe…a week from today.” She said fervently before quickly turning away.
Now alone and still exhausted from two running battles back to back, the party settled down for a full rest as the city bustles around them unheeded.
The next morning, Algernon and Rain were sufficiently rested to now desire the next two basic needs after shelter and security, coffee and bacon.
“Do they have bacon in London?” Algernon asked as he followed Rain down through the apartment building to the street where Rain was already hailing a hansom.
“Do they? My dear, Bacon is the staple of a standard English breakfast and for the young man on the go there is the sacred bacon-buttie, British cuisine at its finest.” Rain extolled catching the eye of a cab driver who turned his horse’s head to the curb.
“I think I like this place.” Algernon jumped into the cab and Rain asked to be driven to the best nearest coffee house.
“Yes, to a young man with a little ready cash, such as ourselves, there are few better places to be than Victorian London.”
“A second home.”
The two of them spent the morning at Verrey’s Coffee house on the corner of Hanover and Regent streets eating one of the greasiest most delicious fry-ups of egg, sausage, bacon, bubble and squeak with coffee. Rain sent a young runner to enquire about Thermos flasks so to take coffee back for Bruce and Peggy and was told by the same young boy that such a thing couldn’t be had.
Fuller and feeling more themselves, they returned to the apartment and for the planning of what to do next.
“Not much reason to go now,” Peggy said sitting on the bed, “Moriarty is not selling Spiral Dust. But, the taking of Lightfeather by his thugs was interesting, I wonder what he wants with him?”
“How about Crows Hollow? “ Rain retrieved the coin they found on Theo that had been identified by Peggy as a key.
“I’m scared stiff of going to Crow’s Hollow,” Algernon confessed clutching his bony elbows as he perched in one of the leather chairs.
“Yeah? I’m looking forward to seeing what I look like as a crow.” Rain replied, leaning on Algernon’s chair.
“Remember, they won’t be all Lightfeathers and Theos.” Bruce added when Algernon looked unconvinced by Rain’s spin, “ We’ve been unlucky in meeting some of their highly skilled fighters, most of the community will not be so skilled. Still, there’s a lot to be said for just going back to The Estate first, checking in, find out what news they have before making a decision.”
“Yes, I do want to do a little research at the archive.” Rain looked meaningfully at Algernon who didn’t know if it would be good or bad.
In the end, with no clear cut destination in mind, the group formed a circle and once more translated back to Earth and Peggy’s lab at The Estate. On first arriving , Rain tried making his mini sun to no avail, that ability was tied to Dreamland and not available in mundane Earth. Without a word he followed Bruce and the other to Katherine Manner’s office and waited for a moment to report. Though technically, Lawrence Keaton was Rain’s and Algernon’s direct supervisor, reporting to him always seemed at the least a waste of time at the worst a waste of breath. Instead they filled Katherine in on all their investigations and trips through recursions. She had nothing new to offer in the way of information, but she was interested in being a sounding board for their next plans.
“And how confident do you feel about going to Crow’s Hollow?” She asked when the location was brought up.
“We need to know. Everything at the moment is leading to Crow’s Hollow, the Droods and the Cornaros. They are the only ones dealing in Sprial Dust and have an extensive network already in place.” Rain said, adamant that now was the best direction.
“That’s a thought, what is the importance of that arrangement of dealers all over the world?” Peggy mused outloud as she put the question to The Strange itself. A one word reply run through her mind.
“Resonance?… Oh god…”
“The Earth is a giant becon?” Bruce articulated, “By who and for what purpose?”
Rain said nothing, just watched as Algernon expression grew grim and pale.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but young Algernon and I have an appointment with the Archives.” He said, springing from his seat and turning to Algernon. Without a word Algernon followed and the two made their way to the library. There Rain instructed Algernon to identify everything he studied on the creatures of The Strange. Then Rain asked the Archivist for a list of all the materials Algernon had requested on The Strange and compare the two lists.
Peggy also excused herself and went back to her lab to “blow stuff up”, her way of letting off steam. When she arrived Hertzfeld was excited to demonstrate his latest developments in the phasing glove. No longer just a glove, but half a suit (two arms and a lower body) that could phase through a solid surface and bring things back through.
“I’m thinking that the technology could be expanded to a vehicle that could be driven through solid objects, but that’s still a long way off as the energy requirements are far too high.” Hertzfeld explained happily.
This left Bruce alone with Katherine.
“You look like you have something to say, Bruce, “She said after Bruce ensured they were alone and closed the office door, “ Something you don’t want the others to hear?”
Bruce looked at his hands for a long moment, collecting his thoughts before finally speaking, “What are we when we go to those other places? What do we become when we’re there?”
“It’s all theoretical mind, “ She replied coolly, leaning back in her chair to remember the gist of many long lectures from the senior scientific staff, “But when we appear in a recursion it’s in new bodies made by the recursion, suitable and reflecting the nature of the place as well as your own nature.”
“My own nature…” Bruce seemed to take no comfort from that statement, in fact his expression darkened to that of deep concern.
“What is it that’s worrying you, Bruce?”
“In Halloween, one of the smaller recursions, it seemed….it felt like I was being…taken over.”
Katherine nodded and when it was clear Bruce wouldn’t articulate it further, she replied, “Yes, sometimes the recursions have a way of…amplifying parts of your…personality. Usually it’s for the best, we discover parts of ourselves that go beyond what we thought was possible…then sometimes…”
“Well, this one was a real self-righteous bastard.” Bruce added with a smirk, then grew serious again, “It didn’t feel like me.”
“That would have been disturbing, “ She acknowledged, coming around from her behind her desk and took one of the empty seats beside Bruce, “If you ever find yourself in that situation again I want you to remember two things. Firstly, it is only temporary, no matter how uncomfortable or disturbing. As soon as you leave that recursion, that identity will also be left behind. Secondly, here at The Estate we will always try to send you out to new recursions as part of a team. Though the recursion is completely alien, you will not be alone.”
Bruce sat still staring at his two strong hands and nodded silently. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he was the strong one, the one that could be relied on, was relied on. To be the one in need of help disturbed him more than another change in personality. Eventually he couldn’t think about the problem anymore and just changed the subject.
“So, if we’re going to Crow’s Hollow, can I put in that request for heavy armour?”
Katherine nodded more annimatedly than was required and returned to her desk, “Yes, I believe that this time you are right.” And she pulled out a requisition form and filled it out.
Back at the library, discoveries were being made. Rain was scanning documents while fiddling idlely with his puzzlebox. He’d just come across a group of reports and stories on creatures of The Strange that were so massive that they literally ate recursions. Naturally, called plantvoires very little was known about them, but their presence in The Strange was without question. He turned the small wad of documents over to Algernon sitting beside him.
“Why didn’t you ever mention these before? When Peggy was talking about creatures of the Strange that coud be linked to the Spiral Dust? Or when I asked you if there were others in The Strange we could talk to?”
“What…?” Algernon said just as Rain’s puzzlebox, uncharacteristically tumbled from his fingers.
“What…?” Rain said at the same moment as Algernon. Snatching the box out of the air before it fell to the ground, but not before the last compartment opened revealing a card.
Rain stared in shocked silence as the seconds ticked by, first at the open compartment and then at the card and what it said.
“But, that’s….that’s…how??” He stammered, words all of a sudden becoming stumbling blocks.
“Maybe the old man that gave you the box put it there.” Algernon suggested remembering the story Rain had told them of his first Christmas in England.
Rain shook his head in disbelief, “I …don’t think so, he…had never made it past the first compartment…I’m also certain.” Though Rain was anything but certain. It had been a long time ago, could he be so sure of old Mr Joseph’s true intentions as a seven year old? He read through the card again three more times before he leapt to his feet as if electrcuted and scrambled for his phone.
“Bruce, where is Bruce?”
Bruce was just leaving Katherine’s office when his phone started buzzing with a call. Before he could unlock the phone the person hung up and a message came through, and another, and a third. Bruce read the first.
Where are you? From Rain’s phone. Before he could reply to the message, the phone rang again, this time he was ready.
“Rain, what? I’m just leaving…”
“Where are you… I have to show you…I have a…no wait, where are you??”
“As I said, I’m on my way to the dorms…”
“Okay, okay, okay… don’t go anywhere.” And Rain hung up.
Bruce was used to Rain’s excitable nature, but he was also used to the conman being able to put a sentence together. Bruce quickened his step, sure whatever it was, would be big.
They made it to the dorms at about the same time, which was no mean feat as the Administration block was only one building up from the dormitories, and the library was right across the otherside of campus.
Without a word, which was appropriate as both Rain and Algernon were breathing heavily, Rain thrust his puzzle box into Bruce’s hand. He’d only ever handled the box once before, out in the wastelands of that first recursion. Now he could see that its arrangement had changed, a new compartment was open and inside a small card.
“Tobias, “He read out loud, “The Found Gentlemen would like to meet you. Enquire Within. Oh!”
“Yes!” Rain said and seemed to be waiting for something more.
“This is new?”
Bruce handed back the box, “And this had been in your puzzlebox all along?”
“Yes….maybe….I don’t know….” Rain dithered
“Enquire within. Does that mean it’s a key?”
Rain’s thought visibly shifted from the course that had brought him to find Bruce to what had just been said, “Key? Algernon?” Rain turned on Algernon now handing him the box to examine.
“Ur…Peggy would be better at telling than me.”
“Peggy!” Rain said and ran back out the door, the puzzlebox clutched in two hands.
Keeping up with Rain’s frantic pace they made it to Peggy’s lab door. The red light was spinning in it’s casing signifying that potentially dangerous experiments were underway. Bruce knocked on the door, Rain walked straight in.
“What is it now, didn’t you see the light?” She asked as Rain ran straight up to her, his puzzlebox open.
“Is it a key?” He panted handing her the box. She examined the box, allowing her normal sight to go out of focus so she could more clearly see the aura coming from it.
“As I’ve noted before, there is something of the Strange about this box but nothing very extraordinary,” She looked at the card and nodded, “The card on the other hand is no doubt a key. Whose Tobias?”
This single question to stun Rain back to sense who stepped back. It allowing him a moment to gain control once more, “Me! At least I was known as Tobias when I received this box. I told you in the ghoul camp.”
Peggy had still been deeply disturbed by events in the ruins of Sarkomand when the party stayed the night with the ghoul. It was then that Rain had shared the story of his box and the name he had used for much of his life. Taking a deep breath to calm his thought, Rain gave Peggy a summary of that story.
“Well, then it seems to me that the old man must have put that card there for you.”
“Possibly…” He was coming around to the fact that possibly the kindly old man had been more than what he seemed.
“Well naturally, the box was only a test, a way of finding those worthy to join.” Algernon added his theory.
“When I was seven? How would he have known? It wasn’t just for anyone, it had my name on it.”
“Maybe it’s not always been there, maybe it’s only been there recently.”
“For…now?” Rain tried to make sense of the Algernon’s thought processes, “But it has a name on it I haven’t been able to use in more than ten years.”
“Who are the Lost Gentlemen?” Peggy asked pointing to the card. Suddenly Rain remembered why he’d wanted Bruce in the first place.
“Bruce, it links to Bruce?” He swung around to a confused Bruce,
“That’s why I showed you?!” Rain almost cried in frustration, “It was the group the military man was joining. The one who sold your father’s journal!”
Now Algernon and Peggy were confused. Though they vaguely remembered Bruce buying a book in Celephais, he’d never mentioned that it was his Father’s journal. It was now Bruce’s turn to give them a summary of what he knew about the journal, the man who sold it and where it had come from.
“But that’s a personal thing, I don’t think it or Railsea have much to do with where we’re heading next.”
“Are you so sure?”Algernon said thinking, “What are the odds of you finding that book in Dreamland? Actually, I could probably work that out, do you want to see the figures?”
“Exactly!” Rain interrupted, “Just what I’ve said from the beginning. We’ve been told from the beginning that the gifted are rare, and yet here we are, some of the most powerful beings I’ve ever seen right here in this room, thrown together on a rainy night off a highway outside New Orleans.”
“I know that something brought us together, “ Bruce stood pacing the floor, “I”m not a good church man, but there is a god and he’s in control.” Now he turned to Rain, “If something is guiding us, take one of those crow coins and flip it. Let it decide where we go next.”
A shadow flickered over Rain’s face for a moment, but quickly past as he made a heavy gold coin appear and danced it across his fingers.
“Sure,” Was all he said as he flipped it high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.
To be continued…
The afternoon crowds through Celephais had thinned considerably from the time we’d slunk through with Mr…no...Lightfeather in a ‘crate’. Knowing that Theo was probably still about looking for his boss, I didn’t want to be out in public too long. We’d won a big victory for us by taking …Lightfeather, I didn’t want to mess it up by being caught only hours later. Besides, I wasn’t feeling so great after the day’s adventures, Theo had really rattled my loaf.
But there are things sometimes more important than a little discomfort. Traditions give us purpose and meaning, especially when they’re my traditions.
I remembered seeing a flower seller not far from the stalls full of fresh fruit and vegetables and hoped they hadn’t sold out or left for the day. I slipped through the crowd as if I belonged, and after two days I was almost indistinguishable from the locals around me. I didn’t draw attention to myself and only nod to those who recognised me and waved. I was on a mission and would not be distracted.
As remembered, the stall was there, but due to the lateness of the day, they have precious little on offer. Not that I’m particularly fussy. Over the years I have taken roses, poppies and even strawberry flowers. One grim year I reluctantly picked onion weed growing in an unkempt corner of a city cemetery. As long as the petals are white and the centre is green, or close enough. Unfortunately, Celephais’ flowers, like their people, were a riot of colours that would brighten any home, but were not suitable for my purposes.
“Excuse me mother, “ I called to the stallkeeper, an elderly woman packing up her last remaining blooms with the help of a strapping young grandson, “I find myself in need to a particular flower, do you know where I could find it?” I described the flower and watched her expression change from late-in-the-day irritation, to interest to…sympathy?
“I see your need, young man. Death does not wait for our convenience.” She gestured to the flowers around her and being loaded into a handcard, “But as you see, my blooms are for the living, I keep none for the dead, not in the Eternal city. You should try the gentler slopes of Mount Aran,” And she pointed over my shoulder to an imposing snow-clad mountain that rose above the shining brass spires of the city, “That land is…inspired by another place I think. There you will find the flowers you seek.”
I turned to look up at the mountain. Its snowy peaks were menacingly steep, and the lower slopes were treeless and craggy. It was not a friendly sight so late on a very long and exhausting day. But there was no help for it. I asked for advice for the best places to look from the old women and thanked her with a small gem before cutting across town to the nearest gate to the mountain.
Through an immaculately whitewashed city arch, a path of broken chalk lead up and around the mountain’s lower slopes in the direction of the sea. At first, I only focused on the task at hand, I didn’t notice the landscape around me as I slipped further and further away from civilisation. Eventually, my mind wandered and I became aware of the white chalk giving away to grey spines of granite. The sound of waves crashing around algae encrusted outcroppings, that protecting white sandy beaches could be heard before seen over the edge of a steep cliff and slowly I became aware that I knew this place.
Thousands of miles and decades in the past, I walked slopes just like these on a rare trip to the sea for the foster children of the Morris household. Without a thought, I found my box in my hand, the compartment open and the shell I had found on that trip in my right hand. A small, now white scallop shell that had survived the decades and miles by being once hidden away in a puzzle box by a small boy.
On a nearby rock, I found a seat and took in the view as the sun slowly sank into the waves, the moon following. This was the Cornwall of my childhood, or a small slice of it, transplanted into an alien recursion. The mix of past and present was dizzying (probably exacerbated by a knock to the head earlier) and for a moment, I could do nothing but take in the view, my mind focused on the moment.
That day, so many years ago had been a very good memory. There had been a lot of darkness in between, much of it embodied in Lightfeather himself. Today, right now was another good day and as I breathed out I felt the release of …a knot of tension, a burden I didn’t know I’d been carrying. It left me to swirl around in the sea air before being carried off by the freshening off-shore breeze.
Eventually, like waking up, I took another breath and noticed a patch of ox-eyed daisies just like the ones we’d made daisy chains out of on that trip. Placing the scallop shell down on the rock, I slowly stood and took seven of the best blooms. One I held up to the breeze letting it slowly slip from my fingers before it too was carried out over the cliff edge to the rocks below.
“In remembrance,” I whispered, the words even lost to me as a gust swept past and took those as well.
The sun was low now, the moon dominated the darkening sky as I realised I was cold. Carefully, I wrapped the other six bloom in a handkerchief and started the walk back to town. The path back was faster, as these things often are, and I was soon back at the warehouse, comforted by Bruce’s lecture about leaving the group.
“You didn’t even say where you were going? Theo or Caw Eh Carve’s men could have found you and we would have been none the wiser.”
I must admit I’d forgotten about Caw Eh Carve, he just didn’t seem to matter in the enormity of the day’s events. I didn’t answer Bruce, just smiled and placed a bloom in a buttonhole of his tunic.
“What’s this?” He looked down at the flower suspiciously.
“When I looked at my notes this morning, I realised that today was 11th July.”
“What of it?”
“Well,” I took a breath, but the usual bittersweet tightness I usually felt at this question was not present, “I celebrate the 11 July as my birthday.”
“I thought you didn’t know…” Algernon said, having sidled over to hear my explanation. I pulled another flower out and tucked it behind his ear.
“I don’t,” I replied knowing that he’d look it up at his earliest convenience.
“Er…Thanks.” Bruce fingering the flower as he felt the weight of the gesture, “But don’t go out alone again.”
I shook my head, “I just follow the path, Bruce. But I know I don’t follow it alone.”
I found Peggy watching Eldin as he stirred in his bonds. The old thrill of fear was still there, but it was muted as if coming from far away. I got Peggy’s attention before I started to place a flower in her dark curls. She stiffened, and with a silent smile, I placed it in her hand instead.
“You went out for this?” She picked up the flower by the stem and spun it between her fingers.
I hunted a moment for the right words. Falling back on that feeling of release, I answered, “Somethings need remembering, but they don’t need to be remembered with pain and…” I looked at Eldin, under our control, “they don’t need to define us.”
A small smile slipped out the side of her mouth as she placed the flower in her own hair.
“Happy Birthday.” She said.
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”Neil Gaiman, Coraline
The group, finding themselves in the deserts of Railsea, walk towards black smoke on the horizon and are rescued by The Limness, a moling train out of Bollons. Things are looking up as their target, Caw Eh Carve, is a valued passenger aboard. After giving directions to a fabulous black mole, the Captain welcomes the group to the Limness.
* * *
Algernon spotted Captain Alavanti’s cabin boy and introduces himself. Desperate not to let Algernon out of his sights and keen to learn the language of this new place, Rain follows along quietly.
Peggy followed the sounds of the engine down ladders into the darkened interior of the engine itself. Black smoke meant leaking oil or insufficient burning of the fuel, either was inefficient and detrimental to other systems.
Bruce found himself alone on the top deck with the Captain wondering where everyone had gone.
“Captain, need anything wrecked?” Bruce asked hesitantly, unsure of the roleplay and lies the party had agreed.
The Captain looked the big man over and nodded sagely,
“Let me introduce you to someone.”
Leading the way, Captain Alavanti walked back along the engine and down a ladder to the lower deck of the crew sleeping quarters. Here the night shift were trying to sleep as others like the Captain and Bruce used the carriage as convenient passage to the rest of the train. From the second to the third carriage and up another ladder to stand on top of the currently stationary train. Bruce looked around for the usual safety equipment he was familiar with from working on construction. Scaffolding, harness or something for the inevitable fall. Nothing but a wielded railing that looked like it could just about hold Algernon in place. Walking along the top of the third carriage Bruce couldn’t help but hum the James Bond theme. Though the carriage roof was not flat but round and still swayed even when the train was still, he felt perfectly at ease and matched the Captain’s confident gait. They passed by two large crossbows that he was informed were ballistae. Each was crewed by two heavily built characters whose job it would be to train their harpoon ladened ballista on whatever creature the Captain chose to pursuit. Right now, it was the Dreaming Sable.
The third ballista was crewed by only one strongly built woman with arms that rivaled Bruce’s own, covered in fine black tattoos.
“We lost someone a few days ago. This is Taki, you’ll be with her while you’re on board. Taki, this is Bruce. Show him the ropes.”
This is useless being parked up here – this is not the job we’re here to do. Bruce thought to himself. He looked at the contraption, a mix of metal, wood, rope and sinew and internally sighed.
“So, what do we shoot?”
“The …Mole.” The Captain replied simply and left Bruce and Taki to get to it
Peggy had found the engine, a huge block of metal surrounded by two sets of stairs that lead down either side and in turn, were surrounded by a metal housing that was all that was visible from the outside. It was twice her height and three times her length and accessed via attached running ladders on both sides.Here she found the engineer, a greasy runt of a man with an immaculately trimmed handlebar moustache.
“Engine burning low, why?” She blurted out, her phrasing truncated from exhaustion from days of travel.
“You’re wasting twenty percent of your fuel as black smoke, I followed it for six miles across this mole infested place.”
The engineer shrugged,
“Diesels are smokey.” This response did nothing to improve her mood.
“Who are you?” She demanded as she walked the engine taking note of everything that needed doing. When she reached the front of the engine, she stopped and closed her eyes, just listening to the engine as it idled on the spot. The little engineer, not use to the technobable, slouch along behind cowed.
Through the constant and unceasing clack and growl of the engine she could hear the irregular rhythm of the engine as each piston pumped in sequence. There was a timing issue with one of the pistons. It would need a tuneup and that would mean turning off the engine completely.
“Follow me, apprentice.” She beckoned and the engineer complied.
“Make a list. Get permission for an overhaul, a day minimum. Replace all oil and resump. Replace this….” she said pointing to something streaked with residue from broken seals.
“Replace with what?” he replied looking completely dumbfounded, “Do the Captain look like he’s made of money?”
“Right, well then we’ll just do what we can.” She turned back to the engine and contemplated her next move.
“Hi, Elvin El Fawhl, is the name, “ said the young man about Algernon’s age extending a grimy hand, “welcome aboard The Limness.”
“Thank you Elvin.” Algernon replied politely then steered Elvin away from the rest of the crew, “How long have you travelled with the Limness?”
“Oh, this is just my first trip out of Bollons, just a few months now. What happened to your train?”
“It fell through some weak rail a ways back, “ Algernon replied falling into a similar pattern of speaking as Elvin. “The crew were attacked by mole rats, we were the only ones to survive.”
“Mole rats! We get our fair share of moles too. Caught ourselves a smaller great southern only just last month, plenty of meat in the chiller carriage. What was your train?”
“Um…er…merchant, “ Algernon was starting adlib now in earnest as he tried to fill in the gaps of their lie. “Yeah, we had a load of fine costumes.”
“Fine costumes? Who’d want that?”
Algernon shrugged, “Someone with money.”
“I bet they’d be going to Manikiki, that’s where all the money is.” Elvin nodded sagely now the expert in this conversation.
As the two talked, Elvin good naturedly gave a guided tour of the train from engine to the third carriage looking back onto the fourth and last in the train.
“We stays clear of the fourth carriage unless we really need to.”
“Dunno, before my time. Er, fancy a meal? Mess will be open ‘bout now.”
As they walked back Algernon had got to the heart of the matter,
“So as cabin boy, what are your duties?”
“Stuff for the Captain, sometimes the trains Doctor, sometimes for the passenger.”
“If I’m to help you maybe I should be introduced to the passenger, what’s his name?”
“Er…sure, he’s Mr Caw Eh Carve, nice enough, keeps to himself mind.”
“Does he disembark much when you get to town?”
“No, not really. Mostly just stays on board. That is when we’re not picking him up or dropping him off at his tiny island in the middle of the Railsea.” Elvin dangled out that tidbit of gossip like some sensational secret.
Caw Eh Carve was in the mess, sitting alone when the three of them arrived and Elvin pointed him out. He was a thin gentleman with an impressive hooked nose made even more prominent by the addition of a pince nez. He wore a waistcoat and long sleeve button up shirt and looked nothing like the Cowboy as confirmed by Kamn Sharn. If anything he looked something like a fussy business man on an enforced holiday.
Algernon steps up to Caw Eh Carve’s table,
“My name is Algernon, I’m here to be your cabin boy. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Rain gave an audible groan. He’d had a plan for confronting Caw Eh Carve and now he was seeing the result of not sharing that plan. With a defeated look, he sat down with a group of train’s crew and with his newly acquired Railcreole chatted to the like a native.
Bruce on the top deck of the third carriage was wondering how long until break.
“What do you do for a meal or a drink up here?” he asked Taki who, he had found out, was a woman of few words. She opened up a small compartment meant to for storing rope, spare bolts or harpoons and tools for the ballista. Here she had stowed a bottle of warm cloudy-water and a few snacks from the mess. Bruce eyed the water, figured it was no worse than he’d had on other building sites and took a swig. It tasted of barrel but otherwise hit the spot. Now he realised there were other bodily needs that were pressing.
“How about the facilities?”
She replied with a gesture to a patch of the roof where the railing was missing and a sturdy pole had been welded. It seemed that the pole was a safety feature.
“Right.” Bruce nodded and sat back down.
Rain was feeling better about chatting with the crew. Once he’d opened them up, the crew were full of gossip about their infamous passenger. It seemed that Caw was a regular on the Limness and the Captain often called in at the little rock island of his to drop him off with a load of cargo or to pick him up empty handed. Though the crew were clear that moling was good money, they were sure that it wasn’t enough for the sort of travelling the Captain could afford and gossiped about whether the Captain was in on whatever Caw was. They were also very informative as to why no one travelled on the fourth carriage.
“Ah well, see the Captain makes Eh Carve put his luggage there don’t he.” said one of the master butchers hired by the Limness to deal with the molemeat and make it ready for sale. “After last time, hey boys?”
There was general laughter and they all fell over each other to tell the tale how the Captains philosophy, the Dreaming Sable, was particularly fond of whatever is in Caw Eh Carve luggage and nearly wiped out the whole train trying to get access.
“Now we leaves it at the back of the train, less likely to derail the whole thing if the talpa gets a hankering.”
They also had a lot to say about almost anything. Rain, by training, was a good listener and encourage talk on all subjects including the myths and legends, the gods and above all the Godsquabble that had created the Railsea. Two gods particular caught Rain’s attention as they were described. The first and greatest of the gods was That Apt Ohn, a fat man dressed in black with a chimney stack for a hat. The other was Rail-Hater Beeching. As the two gods were introduced, Rain smile widened as he realised the first was a clear description of the Fat controller from the Thomas the Tank Engine books he’d read as a child. The other was a real person who had been infamous for closing down a lot of smaller lines all throughout Great Britain in an attempt to nationalise the Rail. Instantly Rain burst into a ditty:
Silence followed his song as it sunk in that the new chap has just called one of their gods a ‘naughty man’. Taking the hint, Rain left the table and join Algernon with Caw Eh Carve. Algernon applauded loudly at this sudden and surprising little song from his friend. It was the first time he’d heard live music and encouraged Rain to continue.
“Play it again!” he said as Rain slunk into the seat beside him.
“Maybe later.” Rain replied sotto voce, before turning to Eh Carve now all business.
“I see you’ve been talking to my associate, that’s good Mr Eh Carve, because we have quite a few things in common.” From his coat pocket, Rain pulled out his puzzle box and opened it to the only compartment that he could. It was full to the brim was a sparkling blue dust.
“So. You didn’t get that off me.” Eh Carve bluffed.
“Sure we did, Kamn Sharn was so very helpful. You see we took all that was left, and we took over the warehouse and we now own the other side of your little venture.” Rain gestured to the dust and put it away, the impression made.
“You come here threatening me…” Caw Eh Carve started shouting getting the attention of the crew still in the mess. Rain held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“Never threaten, not I. I want to give you…advice. My Earth does not need this stuff and so my advice to you is that you move on and pursue…other markets. You are a well travelled gentleman, you must know of other places?”
His words had the desired effect and Caw Eh Carve seemed to deflate a little where he sat. Now it was his turn to be conciliatory.
“Be reasonable. Surely we can come to some arrangement. I have a person I need to keep happy.”
Rain zeroed in on this. Another person, someone bad enough to scare Eh Carve?
“What if that person wasn’t a problem. We are also pursuing a murderer. Now I believe, Mr Eh Carve, that is not you.”
Caw licked his lips nervously as he weighed up what he had been told in the last few minutes.
“I don’t think you realise what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Maybe, but surely that is up to myself and my associates to decide?” Rain leaned back, he had his fish was just reeling him in. “Rest assured, Mr Eh Carve, we control the globe and the skull, you will no longer be doing business in my Earth.”
The silence between the two of them was physical. Rain held the other man’s gaze with the full confidence of someone who had no idea of the consequences. Eventually, Caw Eh Carve relented, taking off his pince nez to clean them on his sleeve.
“Don Whitecliff at Crows Hollow. But I didn’t tell you.” He finally whispered low and painfully, like pulling a thorn from a deep wound.
“And Crows Hollow, where is it? Here or…” he left it hanging unsure what talk of different worlds would mean to the crew. Caw Eh Carve said nothing, but gave a withering expression to show that whatever Railsea was, it was not where people that frighten Caw Eh Carve lived.
“No, not here. Very well Mr Eh Carve. I knew you could be a reasonable man.” Rain got up to leave Eh Carve when a cry echoed across the train.
“MOLE BREECH!” The cry filled the whole train and was repeated from mouth to mouth along its length. The mole had been spotted! It’s breached! All hands on deck!”
Taki jumped up from her resting place leaning against the ballista and searched the sand either side of the track ahead. Bruce stood up too in time to see the massive mountain of beast fall from breech to crash into the sand one side of the line, dive under and pop back up the other side. It was in line with the train now and moving fast. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Bruce could see along the creatures flanks a line of harpoons broken, spears and trailing rope from previous altercations.
“How often have you shot this thing?” Bruce asked trying to determine the best spot to hit the beast to have the most effect.
“A few. One time he pulled a ballista clear off the train.” Taki tapped the bolts and metal plate holding the ballista in place. “But the Captain, must have his philosophy.”
“I took you for a seasoned hand. First time on the rails? Sheltered life? The beast that gives the Captain’s life purpose.”
“Star’b!” A call from the Captain rang out over the ship and the train clattered across the switched in pursuit of the Dreaming Sable.
“Maybe we should aim for a soft target, like the face or maybe an eye.” Bruce mused as the creature leaped once more out of the sand 100 yards off beside the train. It was heading straight for the last carriage. From his view on the third, Bruce couldn’t see the face, but another soft target was presenting itself.
Between the two of them, Bruce and Taki moved the ballista around until it lined up with the creatures behind.
“Come on you bastard, I want to take your temperature!” Bruce roared as the ratchet was released and the limbs threw the harpoon straight and true.
“Bullseye!” Burce cheered followed similar cries all over the train. The beast was harpooned!
In response, the mole arched skywards. As it fell it brought its entire weight down on the last carriage. The train shuddered and rolled and the squeal of tearing metal could be heard. Tossed sideways, Bruce lost footing on the carriage roof and was saved from being thrown off completely by grabbing the piss-poll. Tika stumbled but also righted herself as she looked back to Bruce.
“Yeeha!” Bruce cried again, swinging back on the carriage as the train tacked again.
“Port! Port!” Came the cries over the train, once more the clatter of switches and the harpoons were back in range again. None too soon as the ballista assembly groaned and yawed sideways under the strain of the beast and finally…
SNAP! Like a gunshot the metal gave way and the harpoon and its ballista sailed through the air towards the monster.
Like a flash Bruce ran back up the train to the next ballista. Its crew had difficulties in bringing the ballista to bear the first time the beast was in range. Now, with four of them, they pulled it into place . The sable now free of the line rummaged in the fourth carriage for the luggage as Bruce released the ratchet. The aim this time was a little off. The harpoon penetrated the skin on the flank but couldn’t burrow deep into flesh to hold and was quickly broken off. The line dropped and the talpa, its prize of crates in its mouth, flipped and dove directly down, back into the depth.
Inside the train, the few crew and the train’s passengers picked themselves up and assessed their bruises. No one was badly injured, though from the look on Caw Eh Carve face, he had taken a fatal blow. He looked out blankly at what was left of the last carriage as the train pulled up alongside.
“I guess that’s where your stock was kept, Mr Eh Carve.” Rain commented making the connections.
“What makes you say that?” Eh Carve vainly tried to bluff again the con man, more out of habit.
“Something the crew said. The mole has a taste for your wares, this venture was not going to last long with those sort of loses. You need us to deal with… your employer, if only to give you a chance to find another business.”
Caw Eh Carve said nothing but stare at the passive faced little man and then back at the ruin of this spiral dust empire.
While the last carriage was assessed and hauled back onto the rail, news of Peggy working on the now silent engines had started spreading through the crew. Opinions were mixed, but it was said the bullied engineer was abusing her name and praising her knowledge in a single breath which impressed many that heard him.
“Should we let Doc Peggy work on the engine?” Algernon pulled Rain aside as the crew made themselves busy getting the Limness train-shape for travel.
“I don’t know anything about engines, better her…” Rain shrugged, just glad to have a moment to talk to his young associate.
“But we’ll end up going through a portal!”
“I don’t think that’s likely here,“ he smiled relieved that Algernon’s fears were all the old reliable ones. He changed the subject, “While I have your attention, when were you going to tell your bro’ about all these powers?”
Rain may have dropped the subject for the sake of survival, but he’d not forgotten that everyone in the party, to the exclusion of himself, had only the day before manifested superhuman powers. It particularly galled him that Algernon, what he considered his partner against bureaucracy and mediocrity, had not once mentioned his theories.
“Like I know the word brother couldn’t possibly mean the same to you as it does to…”
“I wanted to…”
“And you talk to Peggy first? You? I should at least be happy it wasn’t Bruce!”
“I was hoping she could help me work it out my theory.”
“Well, when we get back, we’re going to work it out.” Rain looked pointedly at Algernon who nodded wholeheartedly.
“It’s part of what we all do, even you.” Algernon insisted, but was only acknowledged by the slow sad shake of Rain’s head.
“No, no Algernon.” he held up his slender clever hands as if to demonstrate, “Nothing, nada. It’s very nice of you to say, but don’t think I haven’t tried?”
The exploits of the new ballista crew member swept through the train as was the fact that the Captain himself was very pleased with the skill and commitment the recently trainwrecked, Bruce had shown in the hunt. While the train lay idle on the tracks as part of Peggy’s stellar repairs, the Captain welcomed Bruce and Peggy, as well as their other associated to his dinner table that night. It was a small affair, the Captain, the four companions and Caw Eh Carve, quiet and withdrawn over his meal.
“With all your good work on the engine we’ll be ready to limp back to Bollons by the morning, eh Engineer Peggy?” Captain Alavanti tried drawing the preoccupied scientist into conversation.
“Hmmm, yes. I was wondering if you wouldn’t be interested in a duel engine system for future travel. Crew could do repairs as required while still maintaining at least half power.” Peggy had been putting her sizable brains to the problem of keeping a training moving while also keeping up her heavy maintenance schedule.
“Duel engines! Why I never…” the Captain replied flabbergasted. And that was the problem, there were very few people in this world that ever thought outside of their preprogrammed existence. It made Rain think of the difference between those with the spark who could travel The Strange, and those without. He turned to speak quietly to Eh Carve.
“You are well travelled man, I wonder what do you know about the awakened?”
“Not much. The awakened are more myth than fact.”
“So you’d have no information on spiral dust and its effects on the awakened?”
Caw Eh Carve looked up at Rain silently reassessing the little man.
“Toast. To a brilliant shot and may there be many more until that black rogue is finally caught!” the Captain stood and raised his glass of rum. The rest of the party did likewise.
“I bet he’ll feel that one in the morning.” Bruce added enjoying his new found celebrity.
“What we need sir is a stronger cable, maybe chain?” the Captain mused as they sat back down, now talking about his favourite subject.
“With all due respect sir, it wasn’t the line that gave way, but the wielding holding the ballista to the carriage. What we need is to figure out some way of hurting it.”
Rain handed Bruce the Spying grenade,
“That has an explosive. Not much, but get it in the right place…”
“What about that other cipher, the freezing one.” Bruce looked to Algernon who pulled out a small cipher that when connected to ammunition caused a cold effect.
“We could freeze it’s nuts off with that.” Bruce proclaimed making the Captain laugh.
“When the beast comes at us head on, you won’t know what to shoot, sir.” Which made the table laugh, except for Eh Carve who silently drank his rum.
“Excuse me Captain,” Algernon interrupted, “the crew mentioned this was not the first time the Dreaming Sable had gone for the cargo.”
The Captain lost his jolly glow and glanced at Caw Eh Carve nervously.
“Ah, that is correct. We needed to move the goods to protect the train.”
“Does the creature hang around the source?”
Now the Captain looked perplexed,
Rain made an intuitive leap,
“Another recursion?” he suggested to Caw Eh Carve who replied with two words.
“You speak plainly enough, but I can not make sense of your meaning.” the Captain said and Rain turned back to the Captain, topping up both Eh Carve’s and the Captains rum.
“As I said when we first met Captain, fortune was indeed smiling on both me and Mr Eh Carve when you stopped to pick us up, we have much in common.”
Eh Carve scoffed and drained his glass.
Algernon also swigging down the rum was almost bursting with an idea and once again engaged with the Captain.
“Sir, on the …island I come from we attach large hooks to chains, baited with meat. These we throw out into the sands and draw back, in the hopes of attracting a mole to our line. This we also call moling. If we were to scale up the process, possibly use some of Mr Eh Carve product as bait…?”
“What and interesting thought! What do you say Caw, how much would it cost to get some of your stock?”
“Cost is not the issue sir, it is getting new supplies.” Eh Carve replied now more than a little drunk.
“Eh-Carve, are you really going back to Crows Hollow?” Rain asked again quietly once the talk moved back to the mechanics of fishing for the Dreaming Sable.
“I’m thinking of looking for another place.”
“Probably wise. Your key, could I take it off your hands?”
Caw Eh Carve shook his head in disbelief and laughed,
“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into but, sure you can have the key.”
The limping trip to Bollons took less than a week in which the companions entrench themselves into life on the Limness. Peggy spent her time on the engine for which she was showing her usual focus and ingenuity. Algernon spent time on the top deck of the carriages in crossbow practice, shooting and whatever he could spot. Sometimes Rain would hang out here and at those time Algernon noted that the conman did not show any of his nervousness around the crossbow as he did with the gun. As for Rain, he spent a lot of time with the crew learning and teaching railshanties. His Beeching ditty had taken on a notoriety among the crew who were not as strictly religious and they were keen to learn more.
(Bound for Botany Bay)
Alavanti, is our gracious Captain,
There’s the first mate and all the train’s crew
There’s Eh Carve and any train passengers
What will us poor trainwrecks go through.
Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak
Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Shrae
Sh-rash-shaa, Sh-rash-shaa Ras-kaba-tak
We follow the molin’ rail.
Dreamin’ Sable, the Captain’s philosophy,
Will make all the Limness Crew proud.
When they catch it and take it back westward,
To ac-o-lades and great renown.
Miss Peggy she works on the engine,
Making it work smooth and slick.
She won’t care a toss for your favours,
And she knows how to land a good kick.
Algie’s a crack shot on crossbow,
And Bruce smashes giant rats blind.
Havel can chat up wholesalers,
Gaining best deals for mole meat you’ll find.
Bruce alone seemed the only one not content with life on the rails. There were constant discussions of translating back to The Estate, which all lead to the inevitable problem of the globe being many miles behind them. After days of being the “…train wreck survivor that hit the Dreaming Sable…”, Bruce was growing tired of telling the tale. He found satisfaction in helping Peggy in engineering, though mostly it just felt hot and crowded. When Algernon and Rain were on the top deck he sought them out trying to build a rapport. The rest of his time was spent on top of third carriage with Taki in companionable silence. Here he could exercise himself to exhaustion, practice with his crowbar and keep his deeper thoughts at bay.
On the sixth day after rescue, his keen eyes first glance land ahead even before the lookout at the bow of the train. A long stretch of plateau covered in tiny buildings rising from docks down at the sandfront up to larger stone fronted buildings on the higher ground. Bollon’s was a city of 50,000 souls and was the home of the Limness and much of its crew.
The group, first off the train, followed Caw Eh Carve through the crowd of dock workers and family waiting for the Limness. He lead them confidently through the main streets and thoroughfares as they made their way to his home in Bollons, a dingy one room apartment only just off the docks. It consisted of a bed and a small kitchen and a window opposite the only door. As the group waited, Eh Carve pulled items out of his kitchen cupboard to reveal a false back. The back was removed to reveal…nothing, the space was empty.
“Ur…who has access to this place?” Rain asked as someone knocked on the door.
Algernon’s crossbow came up and ready. Bruce’s crowbar the same. Rain got the door.
“Yes…?” Rain stopped as present and past crashed together on the other side of the door. Two men one tall and thin the other stocky, both in bowler hats. Rain’s eyes were only for the thin man with the cold stare. He clearly remembered numerous occasions when the gentleman before him was respectfully, almost reverently welcomed by Rain’s boss at the time, a gangster by the name of Louis Astra.
“Ah…Mr Lightfeather, what a surprise.” Rain said very politely almost bowing. The thin man started at being recognised.
“It’s nice when my reputation precedes me,” Mr LIghtfeather now focused on Rain who clutched at door for support. “How do you know me?”
“I worked for Mr Astra at The Last Shot, sir. We were very impressed with your work.”
As Rain stumbled over his own racing thoughts, Algernon turned to Caw El Carve who looked desperate to find a way out.
“If you were to run, what would your key look like?”
“What? Er…it’s a coin, with a crow.”
“Do you need to run?”
“That sounds like a good idea, yes.” Eh Carve agreed as Algernon put down his crossbow and opened the window.
“We’re here for Caw Eh Carve, give him to us and we won’t say any more.” Mr Lightfeather said from the doorway as Rain recognise the telltale bulges of hidden knives in his sleeves. He turned to look at Algernon as the window opened and a silent decision was made. Rain slammed the door shut in Lightfeather’s face and locked it.
“I shut the door on Lightfeather! Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.”
Caw Eh Carve dove through the window followed by Algernon as Rain bounded across the room. Bruce and Peggy looking dumbfounded between them.
“What’s going on, why aren’t we fighting them? Why were you all weird and polite all of a sudden?” Demanded Bruce, as Rain climbs out the window.
“Later speak, now run!” was the only reply as Rain dropped out of sight outside.
The party all follow Eh Carve out the window and down the alley between two buildings towards the busier main road ahead. Behind, Lightfeather and his brawy companion, gave chase. Bruce and Rain were only just behind Eh Carve, Rain clumsily keeping up as he lept over mounds of waste and crates.
“Use to be good at this, I’ve got rusty at running away.” Rain thought, “Damn, Bruce was right, I need more practice!” Two cries from behind made him and Bruce stop in their tracks.
Both Peggy and Algernon were caught each by their arm by the thick set man who was whipping them around to face his boss. Peggy gave one of her piercing screams that rocked the thug on his heels, leaving him stunned. She then kicked him expertly between the legs before both she and Algernon continued to run down the alley.
Faster than most could see, Lightfeather threw two daggers one towards Algernon and the other at Peggy. Horrified, Rain and Bruce could only looked on as Algernon dodge his, Peggy screamed in pain and stumbled. Again Lightfeather threw two daggers. This time Rain tried to deflect Peggy’s with his own, but Lightfeather’s daggers were too fast and both found their marks. Peggy stumbles again, only just keeping on her feet. Algernon puts his hands up in surrender.
Desperate and searching around, Rain was surprised when Caw Eh Carve came to the rescue. Pulling a device from his jacket Eh Carve threw it and a thick cloud of smoke settled on the area. Beside Rain, Bruce looks down at him and smiled grimly before hefting his crowbar and running into the battle. Lightfeather had by this time caught up with Peggy as Bruce rushed in, bringing down the crowbar in what would normally be a devastating blow. Lightfeather brushed the attack aside, but it was enough time for Peggy to get away and around the corner out of sight of Lightfeather and his daggers.
The Bruiser dragged himself off the ground and squared up to Bruce swinging with a haymaker that would have taken Bruce’s head off his he hadn’t dodged it in time. As it is, a fist the size of Rain’s head whistles past Bruce’s own making it very clear how uneven the match was.
Lightfeather’s daggers flew once more. Algernon and Rain dodged and together they ran up the alley to Peggy.
“Love your work Bruce, but the better part of valour and all that!” Rain calls to Bruce. Peggy screams once more focusing her thoughts on the man who caused her so much pain. Lightfeather’s hands went numb and the dagger he had poised to throw fell to the ground as he was physically rocked by her attack. While Lightfeather was distracted, Bruce made his escape and the party, now sans Eh Carve, ran out into the busy streets of Bollons.
“I think we’ve provided sufficient cover for Eh-Carve to get away.” Algernon said moments later as the group slowed and collected, trying their best to patch wounds on the move.
“Who the hell was that!” Bruce demanded again of Rain. This time the smaller man obliged.
“His name is Elvin Lightfeather. When I worked in a nightclub owned by a man named Louis Astra, Mr Lightfeather would occasionally come by and see him.”
“And…what was all that ‘love your work, sir’ stuff?”
“Look he scared my boss and Louis Astra didn’t take shit from anyone!” Rain exclaimed, hoping to end the conversation. Bruce stared at him silently, the steely gaze more gripping than any bowler hatted thug’s.
“Alright. Louis Astra, he liked to call himself King of the Stars…” when there was no obvious response from that revelation he took a deep breath, “…he was a mob boss. He had a lot of scary people who worked for him but everyone was polite to Elvin Lightfeather, even Louis Astra.”
“So, why didn’t we kill him?” Peggy complained holding her wounded side. Blood seeped slowly through her fingers and her face was deathly pale.
“We just tried to do that, “ Algernon retorted just as testily, “I don’t think we have a chance.”
“I can’t even comprehend the thought of fighting Elvin Lightfeather.” Rain said his face as pale as Peggy’s though he was uninjured, “These are people you run away from, not face off against in dark alleys.”
“But why did he attack.” Bruce wanted to know and Rain could only shrug.
“We got between them and Eh Carve.” Algernon supplied.
“No we weren’t, the door was open.” Peggy retorted as Rain moaned in horrible realisation.
“And I shut it in his face!” If it was at all possible, Rain went even whiter, “What did I do?”
“I don’t know why you didn’t go on one of your stabby-stabby attacks.” she rounded on Algernon ignoring the cowering Rain.
“I don’t know what you mean?” Algernon replied wanting the discussion to end. Rain looked from Algernon to Peggy now aware of his companions fighting.
“You know, the way you did with that mannequin in the wasteland.”
“I didn’t!” Algernon exclaimed harassed and…was that a little guilty? Rain decided to step in.
“Now Peggy, you only say such things when you’re poorly. Let’s get you somewhere quiet to rest.”
“No I don’t. I always speak my mind.” she barked back noticeably swaying on her feet.
“Exactly.” He replied as he looked around for a place for the group to hide, heal and rebuild.
To be continued….