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48. See Each Other Plain

In the literal guts of the worm Nakarand, the group are torn by what to do next?  With Uentaru in tow, do the group try destroying the worm from where they are now or continue and see how far the hole leads?


“Guys, do what you can on the outside if you like,” Tobias stopped struggling against Algernon’s telekinesis and turned to his companions, “Best to get rid of that part of Nakarand in Ruk anyway.  But isn’t it obvious that there’s more to Nakarand than a slimy fat worm? Look where we are.”

He gestured to the space around the now twenty metres wide and increasing in size, many times larger than the worm on Floor 199.  The soft blue glow emanated from the walls themselves, so everything was lit by the dull blue light. The bubbles of pale blue liquid were starting to increase in numbers, and they were becoming increasingly more difficult to dodge.  Now Tobias has stopped trying to pull away, Algernon used his telekinesis to push bubbles away.

“Thank you, Algernon.  Nakarand is an intelligence and a place, and that’s where I want to go.”

“I think we’re there,” Algernon replied as a bubble he moved crashed into another and burst over Bruce’s arm.  The armour silently steamed.

“This is Nakarand!” Bruce protested, pointing to the pockmarks.  He glided over to the slowly pulsating walls and mimed the wall sucking him in, “Look, it’s eating me.” 

Behind him, the wall secreted more blue liquid.  As he shimmied unawares, the bubble burst, splashing him with more of the liquid.  He yelped as exposed skin at his neck started burning and turned to see something metallic leave the wall.  A warm bronzy coloured cylinder only about as wide as his hand slithered out to hang in space in front of him. Looking at it carefully, he recognised the item as a cypher and pocketed the very useful electrical null field.

“Can we please finish playing with this creature’s digestive tract and find out what’s at the other end?” Tobias complained, before Bruce pulled one of his Glocks, “Nothing personal, Bruce!”

“I just want to try something,” Bruce replied and levelled the gun at the oozing wall in front of him.  

Blam. Blam. The sound of the gunfire was oddly muffled.  A small chunk of the wall broke away, exposing raw tissue with more secreted white fluid now dribbling out.

“Algernon, stick a bubble in the hole,” Bruce pointed with his gun, and Algernon shrugged and did as he was asked.  The bubble broke and splattered on the surface.  The hole started closing up and healing before their eyes.

“Are you quite finished making stomach ulcers?” Tobias complained petulantly.  He brushed blue dust off his clothes and hair, only to have half a dozen other bubbles make more burning patches somewhere else.

“We can burn away at this thing!” Bruce crowed his short-lived triumph at the creature.

“Yes, you could kill it…really slowly.  In the meantime, you’re digested.” 

As Bruce and Tobias bickered, the wall started producing more bubbles of fluid in response to the contact.  Another cypher tough enough to survive inside the walls of Nakarand slithered out, and once more, Bruce grabbed it.  A purple blob of nutrition gel, three days worth of food for an average person. Knowing where it had come from, it was unlikely anyone present would want to use that particular cypher.

Algernon pulled Bruce away from the wall as bubbles popped against bubbles sending a shower of blue fluid in their direction.

“It’s making more bubbles,” Bruce noted quizzically, fascinated with the natural process going on in front of them.

“Yes, they have food in their stomach. Let’s not stick around to become tomorrow’s waste!” Tobias complained, annoyed by the situation and Bruce’s preoccupation with the basic biology of the place.

Bruce pulled out his crowbar.  He was desperate for an obvious enemy to smack.  When it was clear none were going to appear and that the wall was virtually impervious to what mere mortals could do to it, he floated away and started following Tobias and the others down the worm tunnel.

The walls were starting to close in on the group with no sight of any ‘place’ or ‘being’.  Tobias searched for signs of other individuals passing that way.  They knew hundreds of Venom workers and troopers had been sent into Nakarand from Ruk alone.  But, it seemed floating bodies made little impression on the systems of a giant worm, and he found nothing.

“People aren’t passing through Nakarand,” Bruce quipped, pleased to see the cocky Tobias struggle, “ Nakarand is passing them.”
“Hey, however it works, man,” Grumbled Tobias and continued.

The walls continued to contract until they were no more than twelve metres apart.  Around a corner, a new landscape opened up, a field of what looked like yellow ferns. The fronds stretched out into the tunnel from all walls, floor and ceiling, filling the passage and making it unpassable without touching.

“What do you think it is, some sort of trap?” Algernon took out a piece of random equipment and pushed it into one of the ferns. The fronds recoiled and withdrew into a node on the wall. “Maybe it’s like a Venus flytrap. You have to touch a few times for it to spring.”

Bruce now pulled out his crowbar and started tapping fronds.  They all shied away, hiding in the walls of the tunnel.

“I wonder if the metal is what they don’t like,” Tobias pulled out one of his silk scarves and wafted it towards a frond. Where it touched, the frond moved away, avoiding contact. 

“Ha! Whack a mole,” Bruce laughed and started bopping fronds to make a path through the tunnel for the group.

“I wonder,” Peggy said out loud and allowed her metal body to glance off one of the ferns. As expected, the frond recoiled, but not before giving Peggy a boost, a jolt of vitality that sent shivers down her frame, “Oh! What a buzz!” She tried again to get a sample, this time, she did not feel the jolt, and the frond sample, once taken, withered and browned in her test vial.

“Hey, be careful,” Bruce said.  When he saw her response, he stretched out a finger to touch the nearest frond.  Algernon and Tobias themselves stooding clear of the reaching fronds , but did not try to stop him.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?” Bruce asked, sure that someone should.

“Hey man, you do you,” Tobias replied, surrendering Bruce to his fate.

“Bruce, what if they control your mind,” Algernon added as the frond made contact with Bruce’s finger.  He shivered as the jolt course through him.

“That was gooood!” He said and tried again with another finger.  This time, as with Peggy, the jolt did not come.  He looked disappointedly at his fingers, wondering what he’d done differently.

“Would you like me to chop your finger off for examination at a later date?” Peggy asked, her scalpel ready.

“Not really. I’m very attached to it.”

“Shame,” The scalpel retracted.

Tobias, too did his experimentation as the group drifted along the tunnel .  He had thought them out in The Strange unconnected to any recursion except possible that of Nakarand themselves.  If that was true, why were they still in the same forms they took in Ruk?  Was the worm an inapposite gate?  He reached out and could hear the Allsong, a constant hubbub of information in the back of his mind.  That meant they were still technically in Ruk.  He tried to discover the undoing of Nakarand from the inside, using what he saw around him as a reference to his query.  All he got back was a cryptic answer, more at home in one of Peggy’s questions to the Strange, Nothing more than me.  A world within.

Yes, He thought to himself, the physical world of Nakarand.  I’m thoroughly sick of it. Can we continue to the recursion of Nakarand?

They continued down the ever constricting passage .  The ferns started to thin and eventually gave way completely. As it narrowed, the group became aware of a current as the bubbles were being pulled along.  It wasn’t strong, and they could hold their position against it with ease, though it meant suffered the wrath of bubbles coming up from behind.  Up ahead, the tunnel pinched in tight, and the bubbles formed a roiled spinning vortex down some unseen plughole ahead.  Down the centre a clear passage of air, the eye of the storm.  Bruce went to hold his crowbar against the flow, hoping to disturb the spin enough for everyone to pass.  Before he could, Tobias lept passed, spinning effortlessly through the centre to the far side, without touching a bubble.  

Seeing Tobias graceful attempt, he followed, not quite as gracefully, but in a workman-like fashion.  Peggy had pulled a rope in an attempt to tie one end to Bruce so he could pull her through.  Having lost her chance she offered the rope end to Algernon.

“That doesn’t look easy,” She said, the rope unmentioned between them.

“Allow me to help,” He replied, and with his telekinesis, threw her through the Vortex.  Rope trailing behind and completely out of control, she plowed into the wall of bubbles.  She made it through to Tobias and Bruce more pitted than when she started, but mostly whole.  Algernon jumped through next, relying on his levitate and his balancing skills in flight.  Unfortunately, it all did him no good as he slipped sideways into the vortex was churned around like a rag in a washing machine.  Spat out the other end,  Algernon steamed from chemical burns, and his head spinning from the battering against the walls of the tunnel.  To add insult to injury, Peggy zapped him with her spark from her probe.

“Youch!  I’m not feeling so well,” He said as Peggy took the opportunity of a stationary  Algernon to take a few tissue samples.  She then tried to scrape a few off her own metal shell, tearing a hole in one side where the metal had grown thin.  A small piece of duck tape was applied to the hole, and Peggy was ready to move on. 

“I think,” Tobias said quietly to Algernon as Peggy patch herself up, “the scariest thing in all the recursions is Peggy.” 

And to that, Algernon had to agree.

The last to ride the vortex was Uentaru.  She aimed and flung herself through the tunnel with impressive grace.  Bruce rolled his eyes, mumbling something about showing off.  Tobias sighed in admiration.

From the vortex, the tunnel started widening again appreciably.  Within metres, it had expanded from three to fifty metres wide and was still expanding. Suddenly, after what felt like hours in the confining tunnels, the passage opened up into a massive vault stretching away for kilometres in all directions.  Seemingly below them, a small blue and white mottled planetoid approximately 2 kilometres in diameter sat comfortably in the space.  From a wall over their left shoulders, a long umbilical cord sinuously stretched out into the void. Where the cord touched the planetoid, a blocky metal building sat, looking oddly out of place amongst all the organic skin and organs. 

Tobias basked in his own cleverness.  This, or something like it, was what he’d been looking for. The centre of the being the reason for everything, and he couldn’t wait to see what was down on the surface.  Popping out his wings for the first time that trip, he soared around the open space taking it all in. Bruce stood just inside chasm, gawping, his crowbar slack in his hands.  The faint gravity, merely a suggestion of weight, tugged innocently at the group, and Bruce scrambled back for the entrance.

“I can’t fly!  How am I going to get down.” He said, staring dumbfounded at the small world below.

“What do you mean you can’t fly? You’ve been doing it for hours,” Algernon protested, zooming past the entrance.

“Not for much longer, though, when that thing starts pulling me down!”

“You could climb down the umbilical if you want,” Algernon suggested, pointing out the twenty-metre wide rope attached to both the wall and planet.

“That makes sense,” Bruce agreed and floated over, without hindrance from gravity.  

It was what you expect from a planet-sized umbilical cord.  Thick sinew and other tissues made up the body of the cord.  Translucent villi carried creamy blue bubbles not towards but away from the planet.  It seemed Nakarand was feeding off whatever was down on that planetoid.  Peggy was sure this massive structure was natural to the creature that was Nakarand, though the shiny metal building certainly was out of place in the organic surroundings.

“If we break the umbilical cord away from the planet, can we starve Nakarand to death, do you think?” Algernon surmised after Peggy had shared her findings.

“Probably, but too slowly for our purposes,” She replied, turning to their quiet companion, “Uentaru, what do you think?”

What Uentaru thought was never heard as their view of the surface became clearer. Besides the small metal building, every piece of the planetoid was covered in bodies.  Around the planet, like veins, pipes pumped the creamy blue fluid around and between the bodies.  Sometimes the bodies floated in the liquid. Sometimes they were mottled, the natural skin colour disappearing as the fluid replaced it.  Some bodies were blue statues of solid minerals. Venom workers moved through the bodies, pulling out the solid blue, leaving any mottled bodies behind.  Like the bodies, the workers were also mottled blue, also being digested by Nakarand.

“It’s people.  Spiral Dust is people,” Peggy whispered, shocked at the magnitude of what she was witnessing.

Considering the size of the planetoid and the average surface area of a person, she and Algernon guesstimated that there could be as many as thirteen million people on the planetoid, and that was if the bodies were only one layer deep.

Almost none of this got through to Tobias, who had ceased flying and hung petrified above the surface.  He didn’t see the planetoid, the umbilical cord and the warehouse building as memories of another time flooded back in a nauseous wave of sensation.  

Choking white dust covered a pit of bodies, mottling their skins, turning them slowly into white statues.  All around him, a broiling river of bodies silently waited.  He tried to swim towards land, but arms, heads and torsos engulfed him. It turned him around until he didn’t know which was up or down. The bodies slithered against each other, threatening to crush him.  Everywhere he moved his head, there were faces, armpits, legs and torsos. And it was getting hard to breathe.  He grasped limbs slick with blood, sweat, and worse and pulled himself back up to the surface. Breaking through, he took a breath of clean air before slipping and falling back again into the darkness surrounded by death. 

A shout from the shore, “Hier! Ik zag iets bewegen. Kijken!”

“O mijn God! Er leeft nog iemand daarbinnen!” Another voice, closer, “Help me daar beneden!”

“Je gaat toch niet naar binnen?”

“Heb je een ander idee?”

The river moved.  Ripples left the shore. It made the bodies slither and settle against each other. A body rolled over, pinning him in place.  Stuck fast, he couldn’t reach the surface again.

“Zwaai met je hand! Maak een beweging zodat ik je kan vinden!”

He didn’t understand the words, but they sounded compelling, urgent. Standing on the back of someone below, he stretched as tall as he could and drove his hand through the river to the surface.

“O mijn God! O mijn God! Zie je het?”

Now he could hear as well as feel the movement.  A grunting, spitting retching as someone swam out to him, riding the wave of bodies towards him.

“Geef mij je hand…Geef mij je hand…” A voice, choking and panting said over and over again.

A rough, heavy hand took his and pulled him forward.

“Je hebt ons hier gebracht. Je gaat!”

“Give me your hand, Rain,” Said another voice, tinny and metallic but full of calm compassion.

“You hear me, Rain!  You brought us here. You’re going!”

“Don’t, Bruce…he’s…we’ll be along…”

“Oh no.  This is what he wanted. Here it is!”

Tobias clasped his fingers around the metal claw, the fingers turning white with the pressure.

“Hier ben ik…” He whispered under his breath.  

“I said leave it, Bruce! He just needs a moment.”

Tobias blinked…and blinked again. Peggy and Bruce were beside him, Peggy’s gentle metal claw holding his left hand, Bruce pulling at his right.  When the planetoid came back into focus he instinctually, pulled away from both before realising finally what had to be done.  

“Just…find a place…to land…” He gasped, exhaling and inhaled greedy gulps of air. Closing his eyes, he let the giddy relief suffuse him. He relaxed, and between Bruce and Peggy, they guided Tobias down to the warehouse.

Inside, a dozen venom workers filtered in and out, stacking up bodies like planks of wood at one end of the warehouse.  Others were processing the stiff blue statues, breaking them into smaller lumps and shovelling them into piles. If there had been any doubt over the origins of Spiral Dust, the proof was collected in large piles all around the warehouse. Venting pent up anger at what he was seeing, Bruce swung away on one of the statues nearby, and it smashed into dust and chunks before his eyes.

“Is this why you brought us here?” He rounded on Tobias, who had sunk to his knees trying to breathe, “Do you want more of this stuff?”

“No,” He sobbed. Melissa Romero and all the other people lost to Spiral Dust. No, this was far from what he’d wanted.

From off the left, behind piles of blue rock, a movement caught Bruce, Peggy and Algernon’s attention.  Slinking around, trying not to be seen, a woman covered in blue dust hid from the venom workers. In one sudden movement, Bruce was on her, his crowbar held high. He threatened the woman who could do nothing but cower.

“Who are you?!” He demanded before noticing the red ring on her hand.  The missing Whole Body Grafts scientist, Dram-Shara, in whose footsteps they’d been following.  Peggy projected the hologram she’d made of Dram-Shara off the security footage from Dram-Shara’s apartment.  Apart from the layer of blue dust, she was the same woman.

“You know what’s happening here? Your company was part of all this.  What’s going on?” 

“Please, believe me, very few of us knew what was going on in the Nakarand project,” The woman put up her hands in surrender.

“What did you think was going on?” Peggy asked, floating beside Bruce.

“Ur-Dust paid the company well, no questions asked.  But the tissue samples, so radically different from anything we’d seen.  I had to know.”

“How long has the company been studying the creature?”

“I think only Bel-Tamar knew about the creature.  I didn’t until I went and looked for myself.  As for how long, I couldn’t say…years.”  There was a resignation to her gestures, “And now I’m stuck down here with no way back.”

“You could translate out,” Algernon suggested, and she shook her head.

“I’ve tried.  I even brought a cypher down here to create a portal back to Ruk. The only thing is I think we’re still in Ruk..somehow.”

“Do you want to stop it?” Bruce asked, getting back on task.

“If it means getting out of here, count me in!” Dram-Shara replied adamantly.

“So, how do they get people out of here?”

“Ur-Dust comes every once in a while and translates out with broken up bodies and dust.”
“And you’re okay with that?”

“No, but what am I supposed to do?”
“What about the cannon?” Peggy suggested, gesturing to a wall almost two kilometres away.

“Great toy, but a one-shot.  Let’s face it. It won’t kill this thing.”

Just as Bruce lamented the flaws in the Stranger Killer, he noticed Uentaru stiffen and draw her weapon. She turned, sweeping a wide arch until she stopped at a darker shadow, a purple haze that shifted as the group drew their attention to it.

“Uentaru, have you brought these intruders to my stomach for us to destroy together?” Whispered a voice in all their minds.  Without hesitation, Uentaru shot at the shadow, but it merely moved on unharmed.

“We weren’t forced to come. We came to learn and understand,” Peggy called out to the shadow, but the voice ignored her, focusing it on Uen-Taru.

“We have worked together a while, have we not, Uentaru?  In all that time I watched your plans and schemes. You searched The Strange for a thousand-year until you finally found the progenitor, Earth and the Aleph component buried deep in its crust.  I admit, for much of that time, I had no idea what you were up to.  If I had known, I would have stopped you sooner…”
“Liar!” Uentaru shouted, firing her gun a second time.  The dust just moved away as before.

Algernon, forgotten in the background of the drama swirling through the warehouse, tried to read the surface thoughts of Uentaru.  Instead of the jumble of thoughts and impressions, Uentaru was blank. Either there were no thoughts to read, or she was better at covering them up than most.

“The Aleph component,” The voice seemed to direct its attention to the group now, “Is what makes Earth special.  It is part of the machine that first created the Strange billions of years ago.  When it crashed into your barely formed proto world, it formed the moon, all the quickened and all the recursions. So you can see it is not such a small thing.”

“Show yourself, Dust, so I can finally rid the universe of you and your murderous plots,” Uentaru yelled out into the warehouse.  Turning to Peggy, Bruce and Algernon, she argued her defence, “ Nakarand is the vile worm of a thing that eats humans. It would do anything to keep control over that resource.”

“Now, now Uentaru.  Have you not told them about your tragic past?  The loss of your Mycaeum to a planetvoir? She knows that if she can power the component, she can create a recursion in the likeness of that world, isn’t that right?” The voice of the Dustman insinuated, “I finally realised why you wanted to help me so badly, my dust, spread all over the Earth, awakening the minds of millions.”  

“But why?” Tobias croaked, shakily standing to address the voice or maybe Uentaru, “Why go to all the trouble with the dust? Why save us in the graveyard?” His thoughts came out a jumble of ideas that made little sense that confused his friends.

“That’s how it eats, Rain. The dust translates them here,” Peggy explained quietly.

Tobias shook his head and looked up at Uentaru for the first time since entering this cavern. He saw worry, that was to be expected, but he saw surprise and…betrayal.  She was surprised that Nakarand had worked it out.  He rethought her words, her actions since the shadow of the Dustman appeared and realised she’d been vamping, scrambling to recover what she saw as a betrayal by Nakarand.  She’d done a marvellous job of convincing them…him, of her sincerity.  Did he ever question her motive?  One healing cypher in the middle of a battle, and he’d been blinded.

Looking up, Tobias signed to Algernon to read his mind.  Misinterpreting, Algernon signed back he’d tried but couldn’t get through.  Tobias shook his head sadly and repeated, Mind link, me.  This Algernon nodded, and as simply as he could, Tobias laid out his deductions.  Algernon nodded and confronted Uentaru.

“Uentaru, what I don’t understand is why the network?  Why did Nakarand have the spiral dust sellers spread out all over the world in a pattern?”
“What network?  I don’t know what you’re talking about?” Uentaru replied, but by that time, it was hard to believe anything she was saying.  Tobias walked over to Peggy and touched her metal box, sharing with her what he’d discovered.

Of course, Nakarand had the answer, “Yes, Uentaru, that confused me for a long while too.  But the dust does more than feed me, drawing users to me. All those minds alive and connected to the Strange all over the Earth.  They would also power the Aleph component, wouldn’t they Uentaru.”

With his back to Uentaru, Tobias faced Bruce and quietly told him what he’d worked out.

“Yeah, I figured,” Bruce replied, not taking his eyes offUentaru.

“Will you shoot her with the cannon?” Tobias asked resignedly.

Bruce shook his head, “We made a promise to use it on the Dustman.”

Three metres away, the shadow settled and started to thicken, coalescing into a shape.  Once more, the voice of Nakarand appealed to the group.  Peggy withdrew the battery rod they’d recovered from Gwendyn Wurtz’ home. Bruce palmed the electrical null field, and Algernon did the same with a small force field projector.

“I suggest a new proposal, humans.  The Aleph component is already waking. I don’t know if it will give Uentaru the power over reality to resurrect her world. But I know one thing. When it is triggered to do her bidding, the Earth and its recursions will shatter. Of course, these are my hunting grounds, I don’t want to see Earth and the recursion destroyed.  If you or someone in your organisation can reach the Aleph component buried beneath the Earth’s mantle, I have something that might shut it down. Though, of course,  it may already be past the point of no return.”

The body of the Dustman formed and shaped before them. Bruce stepped up, watching as Uentaru levelled her gun.  As the arc of time-space energy left the muzzle, Bruce shot the Dustman with the Stranger Killer and ran in, Crowbar held high.  The Dustman recoiled, his form wavering from the impact.  From deep in his form, a purple light glowed. The light intensified as the Dustman held out his hands, and an object, the size and shape of a football, appeared.  He held out the object to Bruce.  Uentaru sent out another shot hitting the Dustman, his essence scattered.  The purple ball dropped into Bruce’s outstretched arms.  

The Dustman seemingly gone, Algernon’s armour bristles with ice crystals ready for the fight. Instead, he saw the determined look Uentaru’s face as she raised her gun again, this time on Bruce.  Algernon threw the cypher in his hand between Uentaru and Bruce.  Uentaru jumped in surprise as the light shield formed itself in front of Bruce and the object.

“Drop it! You don’t know what it is!” She yelled, looking down her gun at Bruce.  So intent on Bruce, she did not sense Peggy floating up behind her.  Down plunged the battery rod like a dagger in Uentaru’s back.  Uentaru yelled, her arms thrust wide in surprise and shock.  Bruce ran around the shield, passed off the item to  Algernon before swinging at Uentaru.  Even with the battery draining her energy, Uentaru was still faster than Bruce and dodged away from his attack.  

She stepped back from Bruce’s swing, brought up her gun to shoot him at point-blank range. But the unwieldiness of her long rifle made it hard to bring to bear, and Bruce dodged the shot.  Peggy stabbed again, siphoning off even more energy.

Behind them all, Tobias pulled out a cypher he’d kept for just this moment.  Drawing the power of The Strange trapped in the device, he focused his thoughts on one word.  In that word, he weaved the power of The Strange, and reached out to touch the mind of Uentaru.

“Help,” He said as the cypher disintegrated to dust and blew away, “Help me.”

All the external fight went out of Uentaru as she fought an internal battle to control her mind.  

“Help me save my world.  Help me create your world, but not at the expense of all the lives on Earth and in the shoals, please, Uentaru.”

Taking his chance, Bruce swung up to hit Uentaru.  Tobias smoothly stepped between them and looked up at Bruce. Bruce’s swing went wide as he tried to miss Tobias, and the crowbar failed to connect.

“She has to pay!  She would have, still could, destroy the world.  She can’t kill billions because of her sorrow, Rain!” Bruce yelled in frustration, but Tobias stood his ground, ready to take the next blow. It never came.  Bruce lowered his Crowbar, still fuming and snatched Uentaru’s gun from her hands.  

“We can’t live in the past, Uentaru,” Tobias said over his shoulder as Uentaru finally succumbed to the word of command, “I appreciate you wanting to rebuild your world, but not at the expense of other’s futures.”

“Why are we talking to her!  Humanity is not a plaything for these people!” Bruce continued his rant at Tobias, who said nothing but accepted his friend’s anger.

“You can save your world,” Uentaru said through gritted teeth, gesturing to Algernon and the device, “That’s an Entropic seed, a computational singularity that can splinter the rules of a recursion.  If used on a prime world like Earth, it will splinter reality on all its linked recursions as well.”

“But it could be used to remove your…thing from the Earth,” Bruce asked.

“Possibly…yes.” Uentaru agreed grudgingly, and all that remained was a deep sorrow as all her dreams and plans crumbled like the dust at her feet.

A few strides away behind the force field, Algernon examined the purple glowing object.  He’d heard of such things, almost legendary devices that could bend reality to a user’s will.  It seemed Nakarand had spoken the truth, they had a device that could save the Earth.  Or it could destroy the Earth and all the recursions with it.  

“How can we save the Earth?” Peggy said, realising the enormity of the task, “Even if we have a magical wish device, how are we going to get to this Aleph component in the Earth’s mantle?  What sort of transport could go through solid rock?”

The image of Hertzfeld and his phasing invention appeared in everyone’s mind at the same time.

“Didn’t Hertzfeld say he only needed an energy source for his contraption?” Tobias asked, pointing at the battery in Peggy’s hands. 

“Oh yes!” She exclaimed, “I can charge this thing up on the umbilical cord!”

Now that the umbilical cord had been drawn to their attention, Bruce discovered a new recipient for his righteous anger.  As soon as Peggy had filled the battery, he started hacking away at the cord with his crowbar.

“Hey, little help here,” He called, and Algernon turned to Uentaru.

“Can you help us break this connection?” 

Uentaru picked up her forgotten rifle with a silent nod and started blasting a line through the cord.  

He watched the duo slice and hack through the umbilical cord as the blue -white liquid continued to find other channels to Nakarand. Regardless what they did here, Nakarand would find a way of fixing the damage and contine on as usual. His biochemical training led Algernon down a well trodden path to poison.

Poison…No, I don’t know what would be poisonous to a giant space worm. Acid…better… delivered directly into the digestive system. He looked around the planetoid and his mind boggled at the enormity of the task.

“I think I can help too,” Algernon contemplated a moment, “I can change the laws of this place and replace the white fluid with acid.” 

“You can do that? ” Tobias asked incredulous, “A whole inter-spacial parasite?”

“I was thinking of starting smaller; with a planetoid,” Algernon replied more casually than he felt.

He had an idea what the chemical structure of the blue fluid was, he’d seen Peggy’s tests on Sprial Dust and knew it affects while fresh. In his mind he saw the chemical structures, the molecules and their base elements. He pulled a few a part like Lego pieces and put them back together forming a new chemical, a highly reactive and crossive acid.

In his mind, he dropped his first molecule back into the streams and rivers of digestive fluid that flowed all over the planetoid. From far behind him, a hole into Strange space appeared. Engery flowed from fractal space , through him and into the the molecule of acid. Like a nuclear chain reaction, all the other molecules around it exploded, setting off still others. The atoms reformed into the acid and slowly started replacing the digestive liquid.

Outside the reaction, veins on the surface of the planetoid turned from creamy blue to a sickly yellow-green.  The colour change was soon picked up by the umbilical cord and sent up into Nakarand itself.  Along with the colour change, there was a deep rumble from the planetoid as the ground began to buckle and crack.  Where the acid rose through the umbilical cord, it shrivelled and twisted.

Good, now just to turn off the power, He thought to himself as he focused his efforts on closing the passage to the Strange. Creating the chemical to destroy Nakarand had been a simple mind exercise in comparrison to fighting the force of the Strange. Like flood gates, the Strange poured through him, washing away his resolve and drowning his sense of self. With a mental push that would have sent Bruce flying into the nearest wall a kilometre away, he slamed the shut the doors on reality.

“Anyone for getting out of here?” He heard Peggy say as the ground beneath them shuddered. Algernon couldn’t tell if it was the ground or him that was shaking. He wanted to run and hide and rest somewhere safe.

“We can’t go now. We’re having an effect!” Bruce swung at the umbilical cord.  It was cutting, though slowly.  A fissure opened up under Bruce’s feet. He stepped away quickly, avoid the fall and doubled his efforts on the umbilical.

“I have a grenade?” Algernon offered groggily, reaching into his backpack without thought.

“Algernon, do you still have your dynamite?” Tobias asked.

“Oh yeah!” He replied with genuine surprise and returned to his backpack, pulling out the stack of six sticks.

As everyone pulled back from the planetoid’s surface, Bruce hacked holes, and Algernon laid his dynamite.  Those waiting could see the walls of the chamber were shrinking in on the planetoid.  Brown mottled patches showed where the acid had reached the body of Nakarand.  Algernon was last to leave the planetoid, and for a moment, he floated and watched with the others as the whole surface withered under the influence of his power.

“With great power comes great responsibility, “ Tobias whispered to Algernon, awed at the destruction his friend had wrought.

“Spiderman, right?  I remember those documentaries.” Algernon replied.

“And you.”

“And me, “ He acknowledged, as he realised he was the scary one. He threw the grenade and with the last of his will, guided it to where the explosives lay.  A pop was quickly followed by a larger bang!  A cloud of blue dust and the umbilical cord whipped away from the surface out into the cavern.  A roar of triumph rose from Bruce.  Forgetting gravity for the moment, he spun in the air, elated with the defeat of the worm.  Meanwhile, the cavern was still shrinking.  Convulsions rippled through the walls setting everything, even the air, to shiver.

“Time to go,” Tobias touched Peggy and sent the last of The Strange flowing through her. The group, including Dram-Shara and Uen-Taru, formed a circle, and Peggy led the translation. As the others waited for Peggy to make the connection, the other watched the walls collapse in. They pressed around the planetoid, crushing it like a rotten walnut and driving them closer to the same oblivion. As the walls reached them, the translation took hold, and they were all swept away, the walls falling in on the space they had occupied.

They returned to Peggy’s lab, where Hertzfeld was pacing, seemingly waiting for them.

“Thank goodness you’re back. Something is coming out of the Earth crust!” Then he saw Dram-Shara and Uen-Taru, the latter having her rifled once more confiscated by Bruce. “Who have you brought back this time?”

“Hello Hertzfeld, yes we know.  Can you get some security down here?” She pointed to Uen-Taru, “This one needs to be searched and restrained. She’s trying to destroy the world. The other needs an escort back to Ruk.”

Hertzfeld did a double-take but quickly called for security.  As the guards restrained and took Uentaru away, Bruce thought to look at her through his glasses.

Name: Uentaru

Origin: Mycaeum (lost to plantvoir)

Occupation:  Chaos Templar (founder).  A group of survivors from shattered prime worlds. In response, pledge themselves to the killing of planetvoirs.

“Peggy, what is going on?”  Hertzfeld asked as the guard’s left with Uentaru. 

“There’s a device in the mantle of the planet.  With it, she intended to reseed her own lost world. The only thing is, it would have destroyed the Earth and any connected recursion with it.  It still may if we don’t do something about it.”

“I’ve been working on my transport. It still needs an energy source and a time to plan…”

“Energy source we have, time we don’t.  Show me your lab.” Peggy displayed the fully charged battery rod and followed Hertzfeld out of her lab.

Tobias hadn’t moved from where he’d watched the guard take Uentaru away.  Bruce now saw this as his opportunity.

“What were you thinking!  I don’t care who she is. Grief is no excuse for evil, and what she planned was evil of the worst degree.”

Coated in blue dust, streaked where sweat and tears had washed it away, Tobias looked tiredly up at his noble friend, ”I’m glad you can take the high moral ground.”

“What? Don’t say you empathise with her?  You’ve had more than your reason to hurt people with your grief, but you haven’t.”

“Haven’t I?  I guess not since meeting you.  I don’t know Bruce,” He wiped his face, and the exhaustion was drawn through the lines on his face, “ I can’t shake the feeling that if I’d known part of what she did…had the opportunity she did… I just can’t see everything as black and white as you.”

“Hey, I’ve got a lot of ‘grey’ for those who were just caught up with the wrong circumstance.  They just need options and a nudge.  We all need nudges and reminders to keep us working towards betterment.  Where it’s not intrinsic to the being’s very purpose and existence, well… judge the sin not the sinner.”

Algernon, too hadn’t moved. He still held the Entropic seed in his arms like a precious newborn. And precious it was.  With it, they hoped to save a planet or doomed it, the recursions and themselves to oblivion.

No pressure.

47. Face to face

Their preparations made, their plan put into action, the group stand on the doorstep of Whole Body Grafts for their confrontation with Nakarand.


“I have to go shopping,” Tobias veered off as he spotted the shopping mall.  The shopping district was a brightly lit open area of tiled mall under the massive skyscraper.    It was here that Tobias headed, the group following close behind.

“What now?!  When’s the appointment?” Bruce looked up at the tower soaring two hundred floors above their heads.  As thick as the biggest hardwood trees, six supporting columns held up the entire building above their heads. Algernon wandered off to examine one of the supporting columns with a thoughtful look.

“I’m the Social Media officer. If I’m to be good stage dressing for you and Algernon, I need a camera,” He said distractedly as several cyphers attracted his eye, “It will do us no good to turn up on time and not do our best to manipulate the situation to our favour.”

A small drone camera floating on magnetic repulsion was an obvious purchase, but a compact surveillance set, spying grenade, a sleep-inducing injectable were also tantalising.  Bruce’s protests were forgotten as he spotted a pair of information lenses, glasses that would tell you basic information about whoever you looked at.

“We need these,” Bruce pointed out the glasses and they were placed with the drone.

“Algernon, would you like any of this stuff,” Tobias turned to Algernon, who was knocking the column, following it with his eyes until it disappeared in the building ten metres above.


“Nevermind,” Tobias replied and placed the syringe in the pile of purchases.

As they moved away from the store, Algernon drew the group close, “I think I can bring down this building, or at least the top part where Nakarand is.”

“I do like your thinking,” Bruce nodded with approval as Tobias looked around at the hundreds of shoppers going about their business.

“And where would this building fall with its two hundred floors of  innocents?”

“I was thinking the market square behind,” Algernon pointed out an open area of market stalls and crowds of shoppers looking for bargains, and Tobias shook his head.

“I appreciate your openness in sharing, Algernon.  I commend the thought you’ve put into this and your ingenuity,” Algernon physically swelled with pride under the praise before… “However, we’re not here to start a war between Ruk and Earth.  Can you put your ingenuity and godlike abilities into destroying our real enemy on floor 199?  For one thing, we have no idea if Nakarand could survive such an event.  They may be able to teleport themselves out of Ruk altogether at the first sign of danger.  We need more information.”

“That’s where the glasses come in,” Bruce said, tapping his new acquisition. 

“And for those, we need to get close.”

“But is it safe?” Algernon said, falling back on his old fears.  No one answered him. They all knew this may well be a one-way trip. 

“Still, I don’t think it’s as powerful as you think,” Bruce commented by way of changing the subject, “Why go to all the trouble of having only one avatar and getting others to do its work for them.  Why wouldn’t it make a bunch of Avatars and do it all?”

“Why go to the difficulty of being involved in everything and spreading yourself thin when you can just get others to do your work for you?”  Tobias argued from his own point of view, “Why do the miracles yourself when you can get your disciples to do them.  Besides, we know that Nakarand can control several people at once. They did that in Nederland with the spiral eyes.”

“So can you,” Bruce countered, bringing Tobias up short.

“Not across recursion….not yet, at least.”

“Regardless, I think we have to go and see what it is, study it before we destroy it,” Peggy said as they started for the lifts to floor 191, the Showrooms of Whole Body Grafts. 

“Please, never ‘it’,” Tobias complained nervously now that their destination was in sight, “By its name or them or even he or she if you prefer.  It presumed Nakarand is a thing.  As it is, we’re already assuming they’re not as powerful as we thought.  This creature has intelligence and is motivated by needs and wants we don’t understand. So please, don’t underestimate them.”

“I’m not, “ Barked back Peggy, “I’m not assuming gender either.”

“What has sex got to do with it?” Tobias asked as the group spotted a tall, tastefully dressed woman in the latest of Ruk corporate fashion.  Uen-Taru was waiting for them at the lifts with a small smile of recognition lighting her face.

“Uen-Taru!  I’m so please you could join us,” Tobias, forgetting the argument for the impressive woman who had saved his life. He rushed over to welcome her into the group, then once close he leant in, “I was surprised to see your name on our website.  How long have you been watching us?”

“What I want to know is how has she been watching us?” Algernon commented under his breath.

“I’ve had cause to take an interest in this place for some time,” She replied cryptically as the lift was called, “When I saw your interest, I thought I might be needed here.”

Peggy’s crystalline box shifted form uncomfortably. “And what is your interest in all this? Why are you here?” 

“I certainly know why I’m here,” Tobias bantered, very aware of Peggy’s suspicion at anyone from outside the group, “ And I know that Algernon wonders why he’s here.”

Algernon nodded in agreement.

“I’ve had my concerns over Whole Body Graft for some time, especially some of their recent advances.”

On the ride up to the 191st floor, Tobias quietly informed Uen-Taru about what they had discovered from Dram-Shara’s diary about using a creature of the Strange to make new products. By way of interference, Algernon hummed The Girl from Ipanema. 

“A creature from the Strange, that would explain it.”

The elevator doors opened up onto a glittering double-height space the entire width of the building.  Everywhere they looked were models highlighted by overhead lighting displaying what Whole Body Grafts could offer.  One body with tiger-like stripes had wings like that of a butterfly.  Another was a bodybuilders dream. A top-heavy body of cut muscle supported by legs looked spindly in comparison.  Bruce, fully dressed in his ablative Ruk armour, compared his physique to that of the model.  Though not as large or as cut as the model, he was sure that the artificially created muscle couldn’t perform as well as his work-hardened body.

“I could take him,” He said, satisfied as Tobias tossed the drone into the air and started a preamble about their visit,” Did you get permission for video recordings?”
Tobias smiled smugly at the question, “Of course not. It was all part of the plan.”

Several sales staff wandered the large space.  One started towards the group.  Tobias was ready with a brush-off when a man in a severe business suit stepped in and turned the sales assistant aside. Then, directing his attention to Peggy, he introduced himself.

“You would be Peg-Margret of Strange Cybernetics?” He asked with a slight bow.

Algernon noticed the red ring on his right hand straight away.  A look at the gentleman’s surface thought confirmed who he was.

“Ah, you’d be the security chief, Mu-Duggan?” He asked, informing the other of his discovery at the same time.

“I am,” Mu-Duggan looked surprised.

“We like to know who we’re dealing with,” Peggy added.

“Of course,” Mu-Duggan recovered and now turned to Bruce,” Your security can remain here, I can assure you, your safe with us.”

Tobias took this as his prompt to intervene,” Bar-Karow is Security for the whole of Strange Cybernetics.  He has input into the final form that Peg-Margret and Alga-Nune select and as such is vital to this process.”

Mu-Duggan looked uncomfortable with the idea of another security specialist in his space, especially an armed one. But, eventually, he led the way through a set of double doors into a meeting room with a gesture.  

Designed to impress, this room was dominated by a massive board table with an inbuilt holographic display.  Already waiting for the group were two individuals wearing white and green rings. Mu-Duggan introduced them as Teb-Shara, the white ring bearer of sales and Cara-Tem, a surgeon and green ring wearer.  

Introductions made, Mu-Duggan left them to it, much to Bruce’s disappointment.  Peggy now started up her part in the plan, distraction, and presented her list of demands to the representatives of Whole Body Grafts.  

Instantly Algernon and Bruce started prowling the room looking for security, access points to the computer network and panic buttons.  Bruce was frustrated that Mu-Duggan had left the room. He had planned to lock the door silently against them and then strike, taking down the three Whole Body graft staff members and stealing their rings. With Mu-Duggan gone, that left only a white and green ring, not high enough level to get through to floor 199 and Nakarand.

“I build intricate machines,” Peggy said, projecting several crazy and complicated machines with her hologram, “In a new body, I was looking for double-jointed long thin fingers.  Vision able to be magnified would be highly useful for the same reason.  Radiation and impact resistance almost essential….”

The surgeon was in a fever trying to add all of Peggy’s demands to the holographic model.  In the meantime, Tobias drew the sales representative, Teb-Shara, aside getting the camera between him and whatever Bruce and Algernon were up to.

“Is the camera really necessary?” Asked Teb-Shara as it fixed at a point beside Tobias’ head, a staring black eye into nothing.

“We’re a small company, but we’re influential.  We have quite the Allsong following, and I would think that Whole Body Grafts would appreciate that kind of exposure,” Tobias suggested and weaved into his words the thought that it was vital to the company’s welfare to get this group up to see the chief’s of Research and Development.

Peggy was doing the same with the surgeon. Her intelligence and knowledge allowed her to follow along, even provide positive suggestions on how the cloning and surgeries could be achieved. 

“Ah, I know our R&D are working on such ideas…” Said the surgeon as he started to flounder in the theoretical propositions she was putting forward.

“Exactly my thoughts too,” Said Teb-Shara excitedly, Tobias smiling proudly behind him, “It’s essential they talk to R&D.”

“Well, we pride ourselves for being on the bleeding cutting-edge of technology,” Algernon added. Tobias nodded quietly behind him in admiration. The kid was learning.

Cara-Tem, the surgeon, looked from his associate to the collected executives of Strange Cybernetics, unsure of what he should do next. He was focused on helping Peggy, but there must be some company security protocol they were stepping over that Mu-Duggan would have disliked. Tobias reached out a hand with a casual gesture and touched Peggy, sending a jolt of The Strange.  If she was their focus, she was the one that would have to tip the balance.

“Is there anything else you can show us?” Peggy added, showing the first note of boredom.  It was a subtle communication quite unlike Peggy’s usual blunt commands.  It suggested that Whole Body Grafts may not be the partners Strange Cybernetics were looking for.

It did the trick.  Cara-Tem stood and gestured for the group to follow him. As one, they walked out of the meeting room, through to the back of the showroom to the elevators.  Mu-Duggan was patrolling the showroom as the group moved past.  A silent look from Mu-Duggan, a question as to what was going on.  Cara-Tem nodded that he was fine, and the group filed onto the lift.  

Floor 195 and the Research and Development labs.  When they’d first made their plans, the group had never dreamed that they would be invited up so high in the building.  Giddy with their achievement so far, they quietly followed Cara-Tem through a security checkpoint, past a group of patrolling venom troopers, down a hall marked with warning signs for Biohazards, Radioactivity, and Poisons before entering another meeting room.

This room was more every day, a place that regularly saw all night planning and development sessions.  In the centre of the table was a holographic projector, but also a set of cups, spoons, jugs of hot liquid, and snacks of various types.  At the table surrounded by tablets, another man waited, looking curiously up at Cara-Tem.

“Iphur-Kishi, may I introduce to you the executives of Strange Cybernetics.  Iphur-Kishi is our Chief of Cybernetic Enhancements.  He’s currently working on something very similar to what you’re asking for.”  The whole group nodded to Iphur-Kishi, and one by one, noted the red ring on his right hand.  

“Cybernetics, oh no, if I wanted to be cybernetic, I would have made it myself.  No, no, no,” Peggy crystal box zoomed up into Cara-Tem’s face.  Bruce used the moment’s distraction to jam the door shut with spoons off the table.

“Yes, a cyberneticist seems out of date,” Tobias added as Algernon noted the one camera in the room, “What about your brilliant chemist, Dram-Shara?”

Iphur-Kishi now looked uncomfortable, “I’m afraid Dram-Shara is not available. She’s on leave.”

“No, not cybernetics as such,” Cara-Tem agreed nervously, getting back to his reasons for being there, “Subdermal plating. Iphur-Kishi, if you could show Peg-Margret what you’ve been working on?” 

Iphur-Kishi did just that as Cara-Tem and the sale executive, Teb-Shara, gathered around.  Peggy and Tobias planted themselves as distractions for Algernon and Bruce as they went about securing the room.  

Algernon eyed the snacks on the table.  Selecting one of the stickier ones, he used his telepathy to lift the snack up towards the camera, pressing it into the lens where it stuck firmly.  Bruce followed electrical lines to panic buttons and silently cut them.  Even Uen-Taru, who had said and done nothing so far, fished from her jacket a cypher and twirled it casually around her finger. 

The three executives were oblivious.  Peggy pummelled them with scientific questions, theories and ideas, drawing out more and more of their very latest prototype research. This was her field, and Iphur-Kishi was engrossed in the concepts Peggy was putting forward while having to defend the resilience and durability of his cybernetics.

Now the security was disabled, Algernon watched Iphur-Kishi to determine the best way to take out the executive.  He had the sleep-inducing cypher and, after a moment’s careful study, decided it would work well against him. He carefully palmed the syringe to Bruce and nodded at Iphur-Kishi.  On his next lap of the space, Bruce leant forward and injected the cypher into Cybernetics chief.

“As you can see, our subdermal implants are invisible until required, de…deploying…instant…” Iphur-Kishi stuttered, slowed and eventually face-planted onto the tabletop. Bruce’s movements had been so smooth and quick, Cara-Tem and Teb-Shara didn’t suspect a thing.

“Oh, um…must be working too hard,” Teb-Shara said, moving towards the door, “I’ll just go find some…”

“I suggest you not bother.  Sit down.  Relax,” Tobias said from beside Iphur-Kishi, where he’d only just pocketed the red ring. The Strange weaved through his words and  Teb-Shara swayed where he stood.  

“You have it covered,” Teb-Shara agreed amicably as he slumped into a chair by the door.

Noticing his companions unusual change of mind, Cara-Tem backed up now alert, “Hey, what’s going on here,” He backed up right into Bruce, who brought his crowbar down on the surgeons head with a crack.  Cara-Tem slumped unconsciously to the floor.

“What did you do that for?” Teb-Shara asked groggily.  

“A small misunderstanding,” Uen-Taru stepped up and clicked a button on her cypher.  Instantly Teb-Sharu was fixated with the device.  His eyes cross, and eventually, with a flutter of eyelids, he too fell unconscious.

“Nice!” Tobias celebrated, snatching up the other two rings and distributing them amongst the group.  To Algernon, he gave the red, to Bruce the green, and he kept the white.  At the same time, Bruce was propping the executives up in chairs and binding them into the place with gaffer tape.  Algernon arranged the chairs, so they looked away from the camera, their faces and hands obscured. 

“Straight to Nakarand?” Peggy asked as Algernon replaced the sticky snack in front of the camera lens with a piece of paper held only by telekinetics.

“Yes,” Both Bruce and Tobias said in unison.

“But is it safe?” Algernon asked.

 Bruce unjammed and latched the door to lock as they left, a grim expression on his face, “Not from us!”

The door shut, and the room was silent except for the falling paper revealing the room once more and the three executives deep in conversation.

Heading back the way they’d come was pretty easy.  They met no one who questioned them about being unchaperoned until they reached the checkpoint.  Here Tobias stopped the group and went ahead.

“You know it’s just occurred to me that I’ve not once got to know the everyday worker of this wonderful establishment.” He said, walking up the security desk and turning his camera on the guard, “You sir, I was wondering if you’d leaned me a moment of your precious time. I promise I won’t keep you long.”

“Are we on camera? Is this going on the Allsong?” The guard looked up excitedly, straightening out the wrinkles in his uniform.

“If that’s okay…”  Tobias smiled and gestured for the others to casually walked past and call for a lift.  He kept the guard busy chatting until the lift arrived and the group piled on.  A wave from the lift and his concluded the interview.

“I appreciate you talking to me today.  Keep an eye out on the Allsong.  We upload new content every week.”

Floor 199, the first of the four mysterious unlisted floors and the one they expected to find Nakarand.  The lift doors opened onto an ordinary-looking foyer, though the air did hold a strong briny smell of the sea.  At a desk, three workers in disposable coveralls stood watching as the group left the lift. At one end of the foyer, double doors, at the other a single door.  Bruce started for the double doors as Peggy went to intercept the workers.

“I’m sorry, are you suppose to be up here?”

“We’re here to see Dram-Shara. I understand she can be found on this level. We’ve been given access by Iphur -Kishi.”

Through the double doors, vat after glass vat was bubbling with pink fluid.  A man checking read-outs on the vats stood to look at Bruce, his red ring visible.

“Bel-Tamar?” Bruce guessed and stepped forward as if he belonged.

“And you are?” Bel-Tamar replied before Bruce’s crowbar slammed down on his skull, and he collapsed into a heap knocked out cold.

Outside, the maintenance group were getting interested in what Bruce was doing.

“Look, our boss is with your boss. We’ll go join him.” Tobias said, leading Peggy back to see what Bruce had found.  They walked in to hear Algernon ask, “ Has anyone yoinked his ring yet?”

“I assume that privilege is all yours,” Tobias replied as Peggy examined the vats.  

“Cloning tanks,” She said, said finding a tablet that Bel-Tamar had dropped“ Six Venom troopers and six Venom workers.  With this setup, they could churn them out.” 

While Tobias and Bruce gaffer taped Bel-Tamar and hid him in a corner, Algernon hacked the tablet, and  Peggy started fiddling with the vats.  Not so much that they’d notice a problem, but enough that this group would be useless to Nakarand. The tablet was a font of information, including invoices for vats, modification to venom workers and production logs that stated, “All mature product was sent into Nakaranad.”

“So, Nakarand is a place now?” Bruce asked as Algernon accessed ring management on the tablet.  Dram-Shara was still marked as being on 199, her life signs faint.

“Dram-Shara is here and not really here,” Algernon noted.  It was then he saw Iphur-Kishi, Cara-Tem, and Teb-Shara, also listed as on floor 199, “I better hide our rings or Mu-Duggan…”

Mu-Duggan’s marker was outside a meeting room on floor 195.

“We might have a problem…” Was all Algernon was able to say before alarms started ringing, “Mu-Duggan found the others. We’ve been sprung.”

“Well, then let’s go!” Tobias exclaimed, ready to run out the double doors.

“Rain, the purpose of alarms is to make the guilty panic,” Algernon said, turning back to the notes on venom worker production.

Tobias stopped in his tracks and thought, “That was very insightful, thank you.” 

“For several years, they’ve been making venom workers for Nakarand, though only in the last six months has production increased.” Algernon thought of the photographs of the Dustman he had from  London 1896 and Crow Hollow.  He wondered if the Dustman was one of these modified venom workers.

With the tablet, they returned to the foyer. Taking precautions, Peggy flipped her hologram to that of Bel-Tamar. Now that the alarms were going, the maintenance crew would not be put off with mere words.

“Excuse me…”

“You will stand down!” Peggy roared before the staff member could finish their sentence.  They backed up behind their desk, completely submissive to the one they saw as the superior being.

“Yes, sir,”

The group crossed the foyer to the small second door and found what they were looking for. This room was sparse and huge.  Whole floors had been stripped away to accommodate the creature that it held.  Taking up most of the room, a giant flabby worm-like creature pulsed, its skin moist even in the dry environment of the tower.  At one end, a ramp let straight into a chomping mouth lined with tiny rasping teeth.

Peggy swept the room looking for an access panel or interface of some sort and found nothing. Algernon started pulling out his weaponry, including a nasty disrupting grenade cypher he’d save for just this moment.  Bruce trained the Level ten Stranger-killer gun they’d received from Rimush, the golem on the hide of the worm.  He put on the glasses they’d picked up in the mall and received the following information:

Name: Nakarand

Species: Nakarand

Origin: Chaosphere

Strengths:  Tough skin, superior armour, regenerative healing properties

“It’s Nakarand all right,” Bruce informed the others as he spotted Tobias walk directly down the ramp and into the creature’s mouth, “Rain!”

“Rain, don’t go in there.”Algernon pocketed the grenade and ran.

“What!  You idiot, Rain! “ Peggy growled deep in her crystalline structure and also floated after.

Inside the worm, it was much larger than outside.  A massive tube made of the same thick brown skin reminded Peggy of the images she’d had from the Spiraleyed in Nederland.  A warm moist place, smooth and slick, and it made her crystalline box shudder as it had then.  A sourceless blue light lit everything in the same dull glow.  Bubbles of white fluid floated through the space.  When Algernon went to interact with one, it burst and splattered his hand with pale blue droplets.  He could feel the fluid burn his skin, and when he went to brush it off, he found it had turned into blue-tinted dust.  Spiral dust.  

There was no gravity, and Tobias found that with a thought, he moved through the space. He quickly shot ahead of the others, all his thoughts fixed on what was ahead when he realised he was no longer moving.  Turning back, he could see Algernon reaching out, using his telekinetics to pull him back.

“Let me go, Algernon.” Tobias said, flipping through the air to face his friend, “ You and Bruce try to kill this thing out there. I have to be in here. I have to follow this and find out where it leads.”

44. Deals with Devils

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.

“What for?”

“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.


“Sorry, sir!”

“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.”

“Doing what?
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.

“I’m listening,” 

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….

40. The Glittering Markets

Having freed the mining town of Omoko from destruction by the Manihiki Ferro Navy, the group returned to Seattle.  Ish-Ma-El experienced a small part of the multiverse, realising that a world could have seas and lakes of water, and millions of people can live in one of thousands of glittering city. The wake celebrated, Ish-ma-El returned to the sands of Railsea as Bruce returned home to New Orleans with his Father.



The old wooden flyscreen rattled in its frame as a heavy hand knocked at Yvette front door.  The day was unseasonable hot, and Yvette had welcomed the moisture-laden breeze off the Mississippi down the hallway to the kitchen where she sat.  The knock startled her, and she looked at the starburst clock on the wall.  Where had the time gone? She’d taken a break from her chores at ten, and it was almost twelve.  She swirled the remains of her now cold, chicory coffee and tried to remember what had startled her.


“Oh!  Who could that be?” She said aloud to herself and then to the stranger at the door, “Coming!”  

She emptied the remains of her coffee down the sink, washed the cup, placed it on the sideboard to dry, and then looked around the kitchen.  Spotless as ever.

“It’s me, Ma,” Came her Bruce’s voice from the front door, “I’ve got a present for ya.”

“Bruce?”  What a surprise!  His job in Seattle kept him busy, but he did try to sneak down to see her when he could.  But why was he standing at the door? “Come in, boy, no need to stand on ceremony at your own door.”

She walked out the kitchen into the hallway, the breeze gently flipping her hair away from her face as it used to when she was a girl.  Bruce (was that boy still growing?) stood in the door looking…expectant? Concerned? She couldn’t tell. As she gestured for him to step inside, he instead leaned to the left, revealing the gravel path and front lawn behind him.

Yvette’s breath caught as her heart leapt into her throat. She reached out for the wall beside her, sure she’d soon run, faint or be sick.  It was the very last thing she expected to see, and like seeing a ghost, she found it hard to make sense of what her eyes were telling her.  

Standing in a patch of sunlight, enjoying the same breeze she had only a moment before, was Jimmy. Jimmy, her sweetheart, her love, her husband and the malignant shadow over her life.  He was older. The hair was greying at the temples in that way, they say, gives men more gravitas.  He was also thinner, unhealthily so.  But as he turned away from the breeze and fixed his steel-blue eyes on her, she knew.

“Now, Ma…Ma?” Bruce said from the other side of the screen door.  She felt her slippered feet shuffle back towards the safety of the kitchen, her refuge (outside of church, that was). Behind her, a murmur of low voices and the screen door hinges squealed .

“No…no Bruce, no..” She said as her hand moved from the wall to the vinyl backed kitchen chair, “Please, we’ve had enough ghosts in this household.”

“Ma…it’s not how you think.  It’s not how any of us thought…”

“When that…” She could taste the foul words on her lips and denied their expression.  Instead, she licked her lips, their saltiness adding a sting to her thoughts, “When he left that last time, I knew it was for good. I shut that part of my life down.  He was dead to me…and so was I. All that mattered was you and Johnny. “

She could feel the tears welling in her eyes and knew they weren’t for the her wayward man, “Even then, I saw how the loss of him affected you both.  John went wild, just like his daddy and you…oh, Bruce, I thought I’d lost you too when poor Chris died.  Such a big boy, you shrunk into yourself and almost disappeared, do you remember?”

 He winced, and he nodded, able to say nothing.

“And when you came back, you were…different.  There was no more talk of college or the future, just making sure that John and me were alright.”

Bruce stood silent, head bowed.

“But that was never your job.  That was…his!” She pointed a finger down the hall, past the flyscreen into the sunlight with a bitterness she never knew she had inside her,” He never saw his boy torn apart and have to put himself back together, never saw the sacrifices he made.  He never felt…” The words stuck in her throat.  She leaned into her son’s broad chest and cried.

They stood there in the cool of the kitchen as the clock ticked away the time.  

“Ma,” Bruce whispered after her sobbing ceased, and they stood in the easy comfort they had learned to share over the years, “He was taken away by some bad people, to a place he…he never hoped of escaping…”

“He chose that life, the one that had those people.  He chose!  For what he did to you boys… I will never forgive him.”

“Maybe so. But for your boy’s sake, will you give him a hearing?  He has a strange story. Trapped in a strange place.  My group went there, found him, brought him home.  He’s done strange and wonderful things, things you’d be proud of if you heard them,” He placed his large hand on either side of his mother’s face and lifted it until she was looking him in the eyes, “I am.”

Yvette stood and searched her son’s face for signs of falsehood or dissembling.  She could always read him like a book and was surprised to find none. All she saw was the kind of peace she knew from church—the peace of forgiveness.

“You’re proud?  You forgive him?”

“For my part,” Bruce nodded and gave a weak smile, ”I can’t hold him accountable for all the terrible things that happened to us after he left. For John or Chris.  And for the terrible things he did before…yeah, I forgive him.  Not to say I didn’t give him a hard time about it.”

Yvette snorted a laugh, imagining that first encounter between father and grown son, “I bet you did.”

“Ma, you have to at least listen to him.  I think…I think he’s now the man you saw in him.  I hope so…”

Yvette lifted her chin defiantly and pushed her son away.  She crossed the kitchen to sink.  After a few splashes of water, Yvette felt better equipped to deal with whatever happened next. She turned back to her son, who looked like he was holding his breath.

“Alright.  But out on the porch, I won’t have him in the house.”

“You’ll listen and believe what he says?”

“I won’t promise to believe anything that comes out his mouth,” She retorted, a spark of her former self returning, “I will listen as is my duty…I don’t promise anything else.”

Bruce held out his strong hand, and his mother placed her worn one in it.  Together they walked down the hall to the screen door.

He was still standing in the sun as they came out of the dark of the house.  His eyes closed, a small smile on his lips.  As the door creaked open, he turned once more to face them, the look of contentment melting under Yvette’s glare.

“I never thought I’d miss the smell of the Mississippi,” Were his first words, “But there was never a day I didn’t miss you, Evie.”

Yvette’s sniffed at the sloppy compliment, and she let go of Bruce’s hand.  She walked up to Jimmy and looked him square in the face.  

“You look well,”  She said cooly as he raised his left hand to touch her face.  She pulled away and glanced at a gold band that still wrapped his finger.  She shoved her own left hand quickly into the pocket of her apron and walked around him. Gripping his arm she felt the hard muscle like that of Bruce, brought on by physical labour.  She allowed her hands to slip across his back, broader than she remembered and felt a roughness to the skin under the thin homespun shirt.  She traced lines crossing and recrossing his back as he turned his head to look at her,

“They’re lash scars,”

She pulled her hand away as if burnt, “Lashes?”

“For insubordination.”

“Ah, so that’s what I did wrong, didn’t beat the sense into you.”

Jimmy turned away, and she could hear his voice was strained, “It was never anything you did or did not do, love.”

Yvette placed her hand gently on her husband’s back, “Bruce, could you please fetch the pitcher of lemonade from the fridge and two glasses?”

“Right, Ma,”  And Bruce was gone. He could certainly move when it called for. 

“I hear you have a story to tell?” She walked around to face Jimmy as he brushed away a revelaing tear falling down his face. It was more telling than anything he had to say.

“Yes, Mam.”

“It better be a good one.”

“Yes, Mam.”

Later that evening, as Bruce waited for his flight back to Seattle, he received a call from his mother.

“Ma, how are you?”

“What do you mean, how am I?  What am I supposed to think?”  Over the phone, he could hear her strength, her practical level-headedness had reinstated itself, “He comes back after twenty years, and the best you two can come up with was this story of kidnap and high adventure?  Who do you think I am? Robert Louis Stevenson?”  

He smiled. ”Does it make a difference if I say I was there? I saw what those people were capable of and fought the same fight.”

“And this is the Seattle job?  You said that was security.  I asked John about it, and he went and found excuses to be somewhere else.”

Bruce grimaced. He never told her about the work. He’d said he worked for the Estate, a well known philanthropic institution, as a member of their security department.  When talk of work came up, he always mentioned the personalities, Algernon the wunderkind, Peggy, the nutty professor and…Tobias. Rain. Never their exploits.  

“It is security, Ma.  We’re like police, keeping the world safe,” He finally admitted.

“And here I thought you were the one person I could trust to tell me the truth,”  She said heavily like the idea was almost too much for her to carry, “What a fool am I.”

“You’re never a fool, Ma.  I couldn’t tell you. These things are secret for a reason.”

After a long pause, she sighed, “Yeah, I get that, I suppose,” And Bruce knew that somehow his dad had got through.

“So, you catch the people who do things like what happened to your dad?”

“Yeah, we do.” He confirmed and was pleased to be finally honest with her, “So, does this mean you’ve given Dad another chance?”

“Oh honey, we’re very different people now,” She cooed in a manner he was very used to and realised she was trying to let him down gently, “We don’t fit those moulds anymore.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“People change,” She said casually enough before,” He is taking me out to Old Town tomorrow night.”


“You know, I don’t remember the last time I went out, just for fun.”

“Good for you, Ma.” Bruce beamed. The sign for his flight flicked to “boarding”, and the announcements began.  He ignored it all, “You deserve a little happiness.”

“If you call scouring my wardrobe for something decent to wear happy, I’m delirious!” She chirped, and he laughed out loud in the near-empty gate, “Did I hear your flight called?  You better go.”

“Yeah, love you, Ma.”

“Keep safe out there.”

Tobias left the Estate early that morning, saying he had to go shopping.  It wasn’t until early afternoon when he finally went hunting for Algernon in the library.  Now free of the fear the tabooed subjects forced on him, Algernon was now spending his time researching information on an individual, entity or organisation called, Nakarand.  He was not having a lot of luck.  Even with a whole day’s work on the subject, he found himself covering ground that Rain had covered months before.  As he pulled over another report with the ubiquitous R.B. initials last on the check-out slip, something yellow caught his eye. 

He glanced up and saw nothing amiss but felt the weight of eyes on him.  He lowered his head, paying no attention to the words in front of him.  Instead, he focused all his thought on sound, smell and peripheral vision. A faint smell of the gunk Rain put in his hair each morning wafted through. Algernon found it a regular feature for people in this society and disregarded it.  He could hear someone walking behind the shelving beside him. The Librarians were omnipresent as always, it could be one of them? A splash of colour caught his eye, but peripheral vision is blurry, and when he tilted his head to look, the colour was gone. 

 He had no weapon with him and felt exposed.  Spotting a pair of scissors last used by the librarian who opened the files for him. He covered the scissors with his arm with a simple stretch and pulled them back into his lap.  Algernon had just swapped it to his main hand when a soft voice whispered over his shoulder.

“Studying on such a lovely day?” 

“If you want to sneak up on people, you should refrain from wearing yellow,” Algernon said without lifting his head from his reading.

“Why?  I snuck up on you, didn’t I?” The voice said as Algernon tapped the tip of the very sharp scissors against the fine yellow material of the new suit trousers.

“Ah.  I’ll remind you I was born Muslim and am circumcised,” Tobias gingerly moved around the scissor point and took a seat beside his friend, “A new look for the new me, like it?”

Algernon now raised his head and took in his friend’s new clothes.  A finely cut three-piece suit in egg-yolk yellow, a white-collar shirt and a dark blue tie spangled with stars.

“Not good for infiltration missions. You’d stand out too much,” Was Algernon’s honest assessment.  

“Standing out is what I do best,” Tobias sifted through the physical reports on the table between them, “I’ve read these… when looking up Nakarand.”

“Yes, I have been woefully remiss in my research of our enemies,” Algernon admitted, and Tobias’ eyes grew wide in realisation.

“No more verboten topics!  How is it to have a mind of your own?”

Algernon had to stop and think.  In one way, there had been no change.  The relationship between his senses and his body was as usual.  He had no memory difficulties or issues with cognitive abilities. 

“About the same,” He finally said, and Tobias shook his head.

“I noticed differences.  You don’t seem so afraid.  When did you last ask,’ was it safe?’”

Algernon frowned.  Fear had kept him alive all his short life. To not fear couldn’t be a change for the better, could it?

“I don’t know if I like that,” He admitted, and Tobias laughed low so as not to attract the librarians’ attention.

“There are other things.  The first time we were in Railsea, you tore apart a giant rat with your bare hands and a knife in a sort of frenzy,” Tobias started looking at little green at the thought of Algernon covered in the creature’s blood and shook it off, “This time, you were cool and calm.  Sabotaging trains, taking long-range shots from on top of moving carriages and sailing into combat, a serene force of nature.”

Not used to such effusive compliments, even from Tobias, Algernon blushed, embarrassed.  

“And now….Crow Hollow,” Tobias said expectantly, watching for Algernon’s response.

“And planetovores.”


“I’m scared of planetovores,” He admitted, and to this, Tobias nodded his head.

“And for good reason. They eat planets.  How do you reason with them?  How do you fight them?” He agreed, flicking absently through the files in front of him, “ Fear is not a bad thing, but we can’t live a life of fear anymore.”

Tobias caught Algernon’s eye at this point.  It was always a topic they had in common, even if their response to fear was different.

“And how about you, Rain?”

Tobias’s usual gentle companionable smile faltered, and his eyes darted away and down as if checking behind him.

“Ah, seriously?  About the same.  You studied psychology for a while, didn’t you, ever heard of closure?”

“It was neurology, but I’ve seen it mentioned in the documentaries.”

“It’s overrated.  I guess you’re meant to walk away with a little peace, a little wisdom,” He raked a hand through his hair nervously and sighed,  “Well, at least Tobias is a good guy. It will be good to be him again.” He said, talking about himself as another person.  It would have sounded odd to anyone else, but Algernon was well used to his friend’s idiosyncrasies.  In fact, without them, Algernon would have thought him strange.

They spend the rest of the libraries open hours in research.  Algernon, continuing to find out what he could about Narkarand, Tobias on their next destination, Crow Hollow,  its social structure and culture.

…Though one of the more established recursions, Crow Hollow is not a large place, really only encompassing the Great tree (30 miles in diameter) that holds the Glittering Market, residence and industry of Crow Hollow.  

The people call themselves Cro and are sentient crow-humanoids.  Though flying is almost impossible at their size, gliding is available to all Cro and can be very effective with the help of thermals.  

The Cro industry is “acquiring” items from other recursions for sale at the Glittering Market.  The Glittering Market is the centre of Cro life and culture. 

There is no seeming governing body.  Instead, a set of families all related and allied to each other in a complicated web keep control of the Glittering market and therefore Cro society.  Two families are most prominent, the Drood family led by Don Wyclef and the Cornaro family, led by Dona Ilsa Conaro.  Most other families are either directly linked to one of the two ruling families or stay independent and pay protection money….

At the same time, Peggy was busy putting the knowledge she gained from their last trip to Railsea to practical use.  Seeing into the Angel’s mind had been a revelation. Though the Angels’ energy system eluded her, she was able to created a prototype of their propulsion system.  Still only small scale (a disc the size of a large plate), with more research, she was sure one could make one to carry a vehicle through the air.

At Bruce’s return to The Estate, they all gathered, as usual, to translate out from Peggy’s lab.  From her desk drawer, she pulled out a coin with a crow’s head on it.  It reminded Tobias of the small chest of such coins taken from Eldin Lightfeather in Celephais, but this one was a key, a direct route to Crow Hollow.  

“Who is leading the translation?” She asked, holding it out.  No one replied.

“Fine,” She replied tiredly.

“I just assumed you or Algernon would,” Tobias said, “I can. I did with the triplets.”
“We all can. They just do it better,” Bruce added, looking back at Peggy, who rolled her eyes.

“It’s fine. I’ll do it” They all stood in their accustomed places in the circle, holding hands, and she concentrated on the coin.  Minutes past, and nothing.  Finally, Peggy gave up and handed the coin to Algernon.

“I’ve just got my floating disc working, and all I can think about is that,” She sighed as Algernon flipped the coin over in his hand before closing his fist over it.

“You can do it. Just breath and focus,” Tobias said as a shot of the Strange tingled Algernon’s hand. 

“Oh,” He complained good-naturedly, “I wanted to do it myself,” Tobias just shrugged.

This time the translation went through, and the group were once more sailing through the Strange.  Once more, Tobias’ sped them through the inky blackness only punctuated by the fractal starscape.  Once more, Bruce’s ability lessened the shock of impact of translation into their new selves.

And new selves they were.  All four were now Cro.  Algernon was gangly and thin but otherwise unremarkable in his black feathers and wings.  Peggy also looked herself , with her lab coat over the scruffy dark feathers.  She had appeared with a book under her wing and was now beak deep in its pages.  Bruce looked most like himself, a huge Cro covered in a thick layer of black with his crowbar now in heavy wood, strapped between his wings. Initially, Tobias looked much you’d expect, a small Cro with a yellow suit, the slick metal Ruk wings folded behind his back.  Warmth from the pocket he kept the puzzle box made him examine the item. It looked the same as it ever did, but he felt a strong connection to it, a binding of sorts as if he himself were protected within its wooden mechanics.

“Ah, now that’s interesting,” He said, more to himself than anyone, ”I’ll have to keep this close, it seems.”

Simultaneously, he was aware of a voice speaking to him as if from a long way off.

Are you a magic user, a soul sorcerer? Said the female voice. It echoed as if they were a long way off, but he could almost feel a gentle breath against his ear. He turned to look around them, but though the place was full of Cro, no one paid them any attention.

“I imagine you could say that. Who are you?” He asked out loud.

Avel, I’ve been so long for this chance.  I know soul sorcerers can shelter ones like me.  In return, I can do things for you.

“O-kay,” He replied, more as an acknowledgement of what Avel had said than anything.  It seemed she took it as a sign of acceptance as there was a rushing of wind and burning heat on his chest.  Quickly pulling back his new tie and unbuttoning the collared shirt, Tobias revealed the feathers down his keel bone marked in a white pattern, like a tattoo.

“What is that?” Bruce asked as Tobias quickly redressed.

“More she than it,” He clacked, surprised to find smiling difficult with a solid beak, “I have a new friend, and her name is Avel.”

“And she’s a tattoo,” Bruce asked doubtfully.

“She manifests as such,” Tobias acknowledged with a shrug, “ I think I’m going to have fun in Crow Hollow.”

“Cool!” Algernon nodded as together they turned and took in their surroundings for the first time.

They stood, as much of this place did, in the shade of a massive tree.  The lowest branches swept the ground, making a path that climbed up the tree and through the canopy.  The higher branches were lost to leaves, but occasional rooftops or chimney stacks could be seen poking out.  The whole tree swarmed with black bodies, either Cro, walking on two legs and wearing clothing or actual crows, flying in small groups through the branches.  Beyond the shadow created by the tree, a thick cloud obscured everything.  Peggy could feel the Strange’s electrical buzz beyond those clouds and surmised that if one were to fly through them, they would end up floating physically in the Strange.

Cro glided from higher branches down to lower ones, and both Bruce and Tobias started testing their wings, jumping and letting the air drift them back down to the ground.  It was a revelation, and they acted like naughty schoolboys with a new toy.  Algernon casually scanned the crowds around them.  They’re antics were getting looks from the locals.

“You’re drawing attention to us,” Using his levitate he picked up
Bruce just as he leaped into the air to attempt a glide.  Bruce complained as he watched Tobias swoop around effortlessly, but had to admit they were making a scene.  With a shrug to Algernon’s carefulness, Bruce dragged Tobias back himself.

“We’re at the market, we’re going to want these,” Tobias remembered the chest of coins and started sharing them out. Though fifty crow coins sounded a lot at the time, it came to only twelve each with a couple of remainders, but it was better than having to use your resources to dabble in the market.

“It’s the magic of this place.  You can buy whatever you like. However, once you run out the payment in crow coins is made from your lifeforce,” Tobias explained, “Keep your purchases to these twelve, and you should be fine.  After that, I don’t know how it will affect you.”

“Okay.  We’re here, and we have money.  Where are we going, and who do we kill?” Algernon asked, his crossbow sleeky hidden under ruffled black wing feathers.

“No one, just yet, I hope.  I’d like to set up an interview with Dona Ilsa, we owe her an interview, and I feel she may be the most amenable of the two Beak Mafia bosses,” Rain suggested looking to others for ideas.

“ We don’t even know where their place of business is. Why don’t we walk through the markets and get a feel for the place first,” Said Bruce, and it was decided, at least until their coins ran, that they’d check out the markets.

The legend of the Glittering Market did not convey its scope.  Taking up most of the thirty-mile-wide tree, the Glittering market held anything that would fit on a stall and many things that didn’t.  Peggy eyed a stall full of handguns and lamented her steampunked pistol from 1890s London.  Then, on the stall was what she was looking for sitting amongst other odds and ends.  

“Fifteen crow coins, “ The Cro owning the stall said to her enquiries, far more than she had on hand.

“I do have this Beretta M9. Can I use this for trade?” She asked, and the Cro’s eyes flicked between his stock and the offered gun.

“Deal, “ The feathered hand extended over the stall.  As Peggy reached out and completed the handshake, two crow coins and the flintlock pistol left the stall owner, and the Beretta  replaced it on the stall, “Thank you for your patronage.” Peggy was now slightly richer than she had been at the start of the markets.

At another stall, Algernon and Bruce were going through the assortment of odd products of offer.  A sachet of powered pet, “…just add water!”  A third arm that grafts directly into its owner’s body.  A globe of glowing winged humanoids that was as bright as a torch.  Bruce watched as the little fairies tapped on the glass, begging to be let out. As they walked away, he sidled up to Algernon and whispered so the stall owner couldn’t hear, “Hey kid, levitate the globe and knock it off the stall.”

“Why?” Algernon asked, perplexed that Bruce would be a party to vandalism.

“I want it to break and let the fairies out,” He replied as they joined the other two at the next stall.

“Then how will they pay off their debt?” 

“Debt?  How do you know they have a debt?”

“They were obviously captured during some criminal activity and are now serving time.  What you’re asking is to aid in the escape of criminals. That’s very unlawful of you, Bruce.”
“That’s why I’m asking you to do it?” Bruce replied with a grim smile on his face.

“Oh, in that case,” Algernon looked back at the globe.  With a flick of his fingers, the globe rolled off the stall, bounced off the branch, down through the canopy of the tree and disappeared.  Bruce leaned over to watch as the globe shattered on the ground, fairies flying away in all directions.  

The stallkeeper rounded on a customer who happened to be the closest at the time.  A fight broke out, and the group quietly just left the area.

Further up the tree, Algernon saw something that made him stop in his tracks. Besides a stall was a low-riding red motorcycle.  Decorated in various company logos, the swept-back style was unique and unmistakable as the Akira bike.  

“How much is it?” He asked the stall owner without preamble.

“Five hundred crow coins,” The stall owner replied cooly.  It was more crow coin than all the party combined were likely ever to see.   Even pooling all their resources, they would have been lucky to make more than two hundred crow coins.  On top of that, there was the issue of getting the bike back to Earth without it translating into a standard Earth road bike.

“Five hundred,” Algernon scoffed at the man, “Does it even work?”

The stall owner turned the key in the ignition.  The thing purred like it had found its master.

“Sure, it turns over, but does it actually work?  I could take it for a test drive. Check it out?”  He tried for nonchalant and failed.  The Cro stall owner turned off the bike and pocketed the keys.

Slipping into the Cro’s mind, Algernon asked, “Where did it come from?”

“Bought it off another traveller,” He replied. The image of another Cro with spikey head feathers in a red leather jacket suspiciously like the one Algernon had back in Seattle appeared. The bike was genuine and out of their league.

“What get’s me is, if that’s the actual Akira bike, what’s the one at Ni-Challan’s?” Tobias asked as they began to walk away.  A bright something flitted through his view, and he turned to watch a group of fairies flitting around the stall owner.

“We should ask him-”  Algernon started before Tobias dragged him across to a nearby stall.

“Let’s look what this one has,” He said aloud before commenting in a much quieter tone, “Don’t look now, but there’s a group of those fairies you help escape flitting around the bike owner.”

Algernon made a casual glance back at the bike stall but didn’t see the fairies.

“You think they may want to help?”  He asked, turning to the new stall’s wares.

“Possibly, you did free them.  I just wanted to see what they’d do.”  

Algernon pulled out a few items from the new stall that looked Strangely interesting: a repellent for spore worms, a speed boost and a cloak that made you look ten years old.  Tobias was interested in the speed boost, but at ten crow, coins balked at spending all his coins on one purchase.  All thoughts of fairies disappeared as the old con-man awoke and made his play.

“It’s a one-use item, too rich for me. I could be interested in purchasing the cloak and the speed boost for five crow coins.”  

Tobias and the merchant haggled for a moment or two, and in the end, he walked away with all three items for the ten coins.  The speed boost went to Bruce and the repellent to Peggy, who thought it would make a good stink bomb. That left the cloak with Tobias.

“Why do you want to look ten years old?” Peggy asked suspiciously.

“I don’t, but it could be a good disguise, or maybe we can just resell it.  Buying and selling it seems the way this place works.” 

Peggy rummaged around in her bag with the suggestion of reselling and pulled out a well-worn but intact packet of hygiene pads.

“Here, see what you can do with these?”

Tobias laughed as he gratefully took the packet.  It was the exact same one Algernon had purchased for Peggy while investigating the Spiral Dust trail in Seattle more than a year before.  At the time Algernon had, had no idea what he’d bought, only knowing it was for Peggy.  Now Tobias looked at it with the critical eye of a seller.

“Hmmm, original packaging, good but not mint condition.  An intact, complete set of multi-use, high absorbent adhesive pads.”

Now the spiel was established, he found another stall and started chatting to the seller.  Building a rapport was easy.  Tobias had picked the Cro because he looked bored and ready to chat with a stranger to past the time. 

“The names Paco Derois,” He replied to Tobias’ query.

“Derois, so not of one of the great families?” Tobias noted, “But you would be in with either the Conaro or the Drood?”

“We’re independent mostly, though I do pay protection to Dona Ilsa. You can’t run a business in Crow Hollow without protection.”

As he chatted, Tobias wove his spinner’s ideal into the conversation, making the merchant feel at ease.  

Tobias is trustworthy

The hygiene pads were presented for sale, and the price of ten crow coins suggested.  They were something new and unexpected, and Paco accepted the deal without question.  A small silent cheer filled Tobias’ soul as he and Algernon turned to follow a murmur of upset voices coming through the crowd.  

Pushing their way through the throng were four large well-dressed Cro, all in black suits making a beeline for Paco’s stall.  As they cleared the crowd, each of the four pulled out automatic weapons and fired.

At the sight and sound of guns, Tobias leapt the trestle table that made up the stall and dragged Paco down to the branch.  Algernon took the opportunity to slip into the crowd behind the four goons unseen by anyone.  In comparison, Peggy lifted her head from the book she’d been reading and spoke a word that held more power than the force she gave it. From the word, a human-like creature made of smoke and shadow rose and formed from the branch’s dark places. Sensing its mistresses intented it launched itself at the first of the goons. Flying feathers turned into coin shreds as the umber wolf torn at the Cro. The crowds watching in horror now turned and flocked in to pick them up. Two of the goon’s companions came to his rescue as the third stepped forward to finish what they started.  

Bullet flew over Tobias’ head, and he knew nothing but flight, literally.  Dragging Paco with him, he fell off the branch and down through the canopy of the tree.  Stretching our their wings, they glided out away from the tree and away from cover. The goon taking his chance, shot after the fleeing merchant and Tobias.  He could hear the sizzle of bullets as they flew passed and he could feel his panic rising.  Pulling his wings back, he dove to the ground, outflying the bullets and Paco still carefully gliding away.  With a flip practised over the sand of  Railsea, Tobias used his diving momentum to curve back up towards the tree and catch up with Paco. He grabbed paco and sent them both diving into the markets lower levels around the trunk of the tree from the machine gun goon. 

Algernon watched the goon shot at the disappearing Tobias.  From the anonymity of the crowd,  he gave a small gesture, a sudden hard thrust forward, and the third goon was sent flailing off the branch.  Three goons left, and one wasn’t doing so well. Peggy checked her book and found a page that gave details about the umber wolf she’s summoned.  Realising the strength and ferocity of the beast, she closed her book and, like Algernon, disappeared into the crowd.  

Bruce alone was taken by surprise by the goons.  Watching from the edge of the crowd, he could see Peggy’s handiwork and her curly feathered head slipping away.  Algernon was nowhere to be seen, as was Tobias and the merchant.  There seemed little reason to get involved in the squabble with the mobsters and the shadow monster. He too stood back and watched the two goons struggle to keep the umber wolf off their friend.

Below, Tobias pulled Paco into the relative cover of a sunshade.  With the sounds and smells of gunfire still ringing in his head, Tobias was finding it hard not to curl up into a ball.  But, he needed to focus if he was going to make something out of this mess.  He was alone with a complete stranger. His friends left with four gun-wielding thugs.

Suddenly he was less alone than he imagined as the voice of Avel piped up, insisting she could help.

I can manifest for a short while and use my scream, She suggested, Or if you prefer, I can take control and make you strong…?

No, right now, I…I just need you to be quiet. I need to t…think.

I’m sorry, He could feel her agtitation and a desire to be of help to him.

No, it’s fine. He sucked in a shuddering breath and found the distraction of Avel’s conversation soothing. You’ve already been a help. We’ll need to have a chat very soon, I promise.

 He turned to Paco, a shaking hand checking for injuries.

“Are you okay?  Did they hit you at all?” He asked Paco, who checked himself and shook his large beaked head.

“No, I’m fine,” 

“Ah, what was that about?”

“I don’t know, looked like Drood’s boys.”

“But they attacked your stall. Why come down so heavy on you?”

Paco turned away, seemingly to check the crowd around them. Tobias got the feeling he was stalling.

“Um..I…I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink,” He said, and the shaking of his feathered hand set off sympathetic shivers to the rest of his body, “Do you know a place we can hold up for a bit?”

Paco nodded and led the way to a copula open on four sides with a bar in the middle.  Buying them both drinks, Tobias directed Paco to a table at the far end, facing the entrance.

Above their heads, the umber wolf ripped the last few feathers off its victim and disappeared in a puff of black smoke.  Algernon, Bruce and Peggy watched the goons help their companion back to his feet. They looked around the crowd menacingly before starting the walk back down the branch to the lower reaches of the market.  In the crowd picking up the last coins, Algernon pocketed what he had and turned to watch the goons leave.  Recognised him through the thining crowd Peggy joined him.  Soon Bruce made three, following Peggy’s lead.

“Well, come on, we have to go find Tobias,” Bruce said and started for the edge of the branch.

“You go on, I’ve got something I want to follow up on,” Algernon said, not taking his eyes off the disappearing goons.  Without another word, he moved off through the crowd in pursuit and was soon lost to them.

Peggy tapped Bruce on the shoulder, creating a link.

He’ll be right. Let’s find Rain.  She thought and leapt off the branch into the clear air.  Bruce silently followed.

It wasn’t hard to find Tobias in the end. As soon as they landed on the lower level, Bruce started asking the local stallholders,  “You see a wannabe peacock in a yellow suit?”  Spreading out they covered more territory. Peggy found him first and directed Bruce via their link to the pub where Tobias and Paco were talking over their drinks.  As soon as Tobias spotted his companions, he introduced Paco formally and ordered drinks for the table.

“I was terrified, Paco. We must do something about this! I won’t rest easy knowing you’ll be facing those goons again sometime soon,” Tobias cajoled Paco, one time leaning on their new friendship, another moment making the most of his still shaken state.  As Tobias kept pushing the subject of why the Drood’s would be after him, he could see the Ideal at work and Paco seemed to accept his desire to help.

“I did help Dona Ilsa store a shipment of blue powdery stuff for a discount on protection this month,” Paco confessed after a few drinks.

“This month, as recent as that?” Tobias looked at the other two, who had already made the connection.  Don Ilsa was still trading in Spiral Dust, “Well, that must be it.  Please, let me talk to her. Let me sort this out. You shouldn’t be a target for any of her schemes.”

Paco hung his head, a forlorn look on a Cro whose large beak nearly reached his lap, “I’m not important enough to get an interview with the Dona, but I can tell you where she lives, and I’ll ask if she’ll see you.”

“Well, you tell her what happened here, and you tell her that Tobias Cudo wishes a word with her.” Tobias took Paco hand companionably.

“Why?  Why are you doing all this?  For me?”

Tobias snorted, an unusual sound through a beak,” Of course, we’re friends now, and like pads, we stick together!”

It was all Paco needed to hear.  His shoulders sagged in relief, “Okay, I’ll see if I can set up an interview with the Dona.” 

Tobias sighed and smiled inwardly, knowing they were on the next step of this mission.

Now Avel, you were saying?

Algernon walked a few metres behind the three goon, completely unremarked and unnoticed.  The goons followed the path through the markets down to where they saw Tobias and the store holder go.  Along the way, the fallen one rejoined his friends with a clatter of feather.  Taking advantage of the momentary disturbance, Algernon moved in closer to pick up their conversation.

“What happened to you?” Asked the umber wolf savaged one.

“I was pushed! “ Replied the clumsy one, affronted.
“Yeah, right…” A third spoke up.
“I was. You must have seen them…”
“There was no one near you!” The first grumbled, dabbing at his wounds.
“Yeah, stop making excuses for being clumsy.”

He followed them down to the lower market where Tobias and the merchant were sitting in an open pub with Peggy and Bruce.  Algernon saw them first, and stepping aside, he took a knee and pulled out a crossbow bolt. He wrote two words on the shaft before carefully loadin the bolt into his crossbow. The asked a stall owner and were directed to the copula and the group sitting together. As a wedge, they cleaved their way through the crowd.  Algernon brought the crossbow up and aimed through the sights at Tobias.  Squeezing the trigger, the limbs jumped and threw the bolt forward, past the goons across the pub and into a wooden beam by Tobias’ head.  

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

Will Robinson!

25. Moving On

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.

“Ideas, people?”

“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.

“Moriarty’s London?”

“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.”

“Oh yeah…”

“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,

“Does it?”

“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…

24. To stalk the hunter

Celephais, the golden city of The Dreamlands.  The party are here following the drug trails left by several multi-recursional organised crime syndicates.  A lethal enemy was seen in the city and the party needs to decide if to move on or deal with a threat that lurked in the alleyways behind them.


Yellow fluorescent lighting blinded Bruce for a moment as he lifted his head and to make sense of his surroundings.  No longer in the wooden slatted, stone-floored warehouse by the docks of Celephais where he’d gone to sleep. Here the floor was carpeted an industrial brown and the walls were clean modern style surfaces, shelving full of plastic covered books and lounges and tables with people quietly doing their own work.  People, the constant low hum of polite voices, murmuring questions, receiving answers, offering guidance.  

Bruce himself was sitting on a stackable plastic chair in a circle in one corner of the library facing a group of strangers and a cheery woman with a name tag that labelled her a librarian of somewhere in London.

“Welcome to all our old faces, welcome back to this month’s book club.  To our new face, Mr Johnson, so pleased you could join us, a very hearty welcome.” She said, speaking in a voice so cheery and pert that it sent a cold shiver down Bruce’s  spine, ”Good to see you’ve come prepared. Would you be interested in starting?”

Bruce looked down to see the leather-bound journal he’d picked up in Celephais sitting on his knee. Now he knew he’d have to be dreaming.  Either that or some horrible creature from the Strange was devouring his mind and providing him with this inane construct to lull him into a false sense of security.  He went to stand to fight the dream. To get out or go out fighting.

“There’s no need for any of that.” Said a voice he knew all too well, “This is a safe place, the safest in fact.  Sit down and relax for a second will you?”

Bruce glanced to his right and sitting beside him in the circle, a bemused look on his face, was Rain.  In one hand was a cup of takeaway coffee, the other his own book, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.

“Are you in my dream?”  Bruce asked, slowly sitting down again.  Just because he could now see the horrible little creature didn’t mean it wasn’t about to eat his brains.

“Well technically, you’re in mine.  When you have no other place to go, a library is a warm and welcoming location, and sometimes there’s snacks.”

Bruce took in the quiet activity, the airconditioned comfort and the eager attentions of the librarian, “Funny, this is the last place I feel safe.”

“Really,” Rain looked around himself, at the small group talking amongst themselves and to the larger library, “Would you prefer somewhere more private?”

Before Bruce could reply, the scene changed and the two of them were seated on lounge chairs tucked into a quiet corner of the same library, the journal on a coffee table in front of them. 

“Okay, so this is your dream, so why am I here and can I please go back to sleeping?”

“I set this all up for you and that’s what I get?  I thought you may like to have a little privacy to share about your new acquisition.” Rain gestured to the journal and Bruce relaxed for the first time since the dream had begun.

“So you’re creating privacy, not invading it?”


“Really?  All for something you could have asked me about when we were awake?”

Rain shook his head sadly as if speaking to a naughty boy who was in need of confession, “We debriefed when you returned from your market expedition.  We told you about the jeweller and you told us about seeing Mr Lightfeather and his goon Theo buying herb, but at no time did you mention the journal.”

“What of it?  It’s not important.” 

“Bruce, I saw your face as soon as you laid eyes on it at the stall.  You were seriously surprised and shocked to the point you were oblivious to almost everything around you.  Now, I gave you time to come forward about it, but instead…”

“It’s my dad’s journal, “ Bruce blurted out just so he didn’t have to hear any more lectures, “It’s weird and freaky and I don’t understand it but here it is.  Sitting on a stall, in Celephais via Railsea of all places.  But it has nothing to do with our mission and it’s really not important at this time.”

“It’s important to you, so it’s important.”  Rain finally said as he let the information sink in.

“No really, I don’t even know if I can be bothered tracking him down, it was just such a shock to see his name on the cover.”

“And Railsea?”

Bruce let Rain know about the Railsea connection.  The man with the military bearing who had come to Celephais and taken a new job, sold the journal and a few other scraps of a Railsea life.

“Okay, “ Rain finally said when the whole story had been shared, “Sure, not right now, but eventually right…he’s your dad.  I don’ t have the privilege…”

“No, but I do.” Bruce shut down the self-centred sermon before it could get started, “Look, he was a good bloke, but he chased the easy buck.  He’d come and go and one day he never came back.  As a kid, I hated how he’d come in like a whirlwind of energy and excitement, stirring up everything and then just as suddenly leave  my mother to try to pick up the pieces and to get on with the day to day of living with whatever he’d left her, which was often nothing.”

Bruce lifted his eyes from the journal cover he had found himself staring at to where Rain said silently listening.  He’d always been good at seeing through the con man’s expressions and moods.  Maybe it had been his early life with a father who on the surface was very similar.  He wondered if the little man had seen something of himself in that story too. He decided to change the subject.

“Rain, you know you’re a great asset to the team right? Like when you do that encouragement thing you do, make things just that one step easier, the impossible almost seems achievable, and sometimes they are.  I often wished you did it more often.”

“It doesn’t seem like I’m much help. You and Peggy and even Algernon sometimes get really hurt and all I can do is cheer from the side-lines, Go Team!”  Red pom-poms appeared in Rain’s hands. He flailed them in a desultory way before they disappeared again.

“Well, it does.  And then you’re the best information gatherer in the group. With the jeweller, and Moriarty’s people you knew just what to say.”

Rain sat silently listening to Bruce’s words, shaking his head as if he didn’t understand what was being said,  “Bruce, you don’t need to say that.  I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m just saying it as I see it.”

“I know I’m nothing, no name, no place, no people.  If I died tomorrow there’d be nothing to show I even existed.  Un…like…you.”  He pointed at the journal.

“Ha!” Bruce laughed mirthlessly, “For someone who is good at conning people, you sure don’t know yourself.”

Rain thought for a moment then his slow smile appeared once more, “Ah, but maybe that’s the biggest con of all.”

Bruce yawned and realised that he really was very tired.  It seemed odd to him, wasn’t he already sleeping?

“Now, do you think I can go back to sleep?”

Suddenly, the brightly lit space they recognised as a public library, was plunged into darkness.  The small glow of blue emergency lighting gave a dim glow that made all the shelving silhouette.

“What is it now, Rain?”

“Ur…Bruce.  I didn’t do that.” Rain’s voice quavered out of the darkness as simultaneously they both spotted two shadows moving through the shelving.  Piering through the darkness, neither man could see what was creating the shadows, only that they were crawling across the library towards them. 

Rain instantly broke the daydream and hoped that with the dream, the shadows had disappeared as well. 

“Was that supposed to happen?” Bruce rolled out of his makeshift bed on the floor and paded out of the room to check the warehouse was secure.

“Wha…? Er…no.” Yawned Rain still trying to tear away the dregs of sleep.

The large open space of the warehouse was quiet and dark, the only sounds coming from the creaking and bumping of the ships at the harbour and the snores of the others.  Bruce stepped out into the warehouse and peered into the shadows.  A sudden chill touched Bruce’s back, like the clammy cold hand of a dead man.  Pushing back,  he flung himself to the ground, crashing onto shoulders.  Instead of pinning the cold to the ground, however, the chill seemed to pass right through his chest.

“Wake up, we’re under attack!” Rain yelled, waking the others before trying Dream Thief on the shadow.  Instead of getting back a clear image or message, there was only a feeling of deep hunger.

The shadow lunged at Bruce as he stood.  He sidestepped the razor-like claws that whipped past his side.  Rain, still wrestling to free himself of his bedding, saw the movement of the second shadow as it came through the wall beside him.  Rolling out the door of the office, he escaped the attack to stand back to back with Bruce.

Bruce felt the frisson of Rain’s encouragement as they both looked out into the shadowy warehouse.

“How do you fight a  shadow?” Bruce asked, as he once more spotted the movement of something in the dark.

“Er…light?” Rain replied without thought as he too spotted the second shadow.

“That’s your thing!” 

“Oh yeah!”  Rain realised as the shadows attacked simultaneously.  Bruce swung out and connected with his shadow, Rain grabbed Bruce’s waist and flipped around him to avoid his. As he landed back behind Bruce, a crossbow bolt spun through the shadow tearing through the near incorporeal form as it passed.  Algernon was up and reloading his gug-jawed crossbow from the doorway.

“Enough dancing the dark.” Rain muttered and used his Dreamcraft to throw a mini sun high into the air.  The sun filled the warehouse with light, blinding Peggy and Algernon, but also drastically affecting the shadows.  No longer able to keep their forms under the light of the mini sun, the shadows were dragged back into the darker recesses screeching, their long claws grasping and scratching.  Bruce swung his crowbar as the shadow was dragged out of his range. Peggy stepped out of the office and for the first time saw the shadows.  Around their forms, the shimmering halo effect of a creature from another recursion.

“They’re not from here.” She told the others before returning for her backpack.

Another bolt streaked across the warehouse, this time the shadow did not tear but folded around the bolt like fabric. Where the bolt stuck into the wall, a ball of black dripped off evaporating completely before it could hit the ground.

Bruce ran across the warehouse and smashed his crowbar once more into the second shadow.  It was like hitting a cold block of air , with almost no resistance his crowbar sailed through the shadow.  This time the shadow seemed to coalesce like the first, but as a ball of black on the ground.  Before Bruce had a chance to move, however, the ball expanded engulfing the entire space in darkness.  Inside, the cold was extreme.  Exposed skin burned, breathing in hurt Bruce’s chest and he was sure that his breaths out were white clouds, though in the darkness nothing could be seen.   Outside, the ball of darkness acted like a mini-black hole against the illusionary sun and dragged energy and light away.  Nothing could be seen of Bruce, but Peggy now strode towards the orb, pulling the rod of power out of her bag.  

Since collecting the artefact from the suburbian house of Gwendoline Wurtz, Peggy had studied the rod in detail.  She knew it could drain an individual of energy, storing it for later use.  She now applied this knowledge to the black sphere, hoping to drain it of power and release Bruce.  She plunged the rod completely into the orb, freezing her hand in the process. 

 For a moment, nothing happened.  Blue sparks of static electricity started building up along Peggy’s arm before…


In an instant the dark sphere disappeared in a shower of golden fireworks.  Peggy looked down to see the rod, not charged up as expected, but fully discharged.  She’d fed the creature too much power and it had overloaded. 

Bruce stood, a covering of frost and his arms above his head ready to smash with a now scintillating crowbar.  What there was of Bruce’s normally short  hair was standing on end, as were Peggy’s more bushy curls.

“What just happened?” Noel stepped out of another office space he’d been sharing with Maximillian.

“Nothing really, Noel,” Bruce lowered his arms and Algernon put away his crossbow, “Peggy saw something she didn’t like.”

Noel looked between Peggy now purposefully ignoring him, and Bruce who still seemed to glow with static sparks. 

“Right…put out the lights will you?” He asked, looked up at the mini sun, giving it a double look before stumbling back to bed.  

Miffed that his mini sun had not received the awe it should have, Rain snapped his fingers and the sun disappeared.  As Algernon retrieved his bolts, he wracked his memory for beings such as these shadows from mythology.  Though many such creatures had been described, mostly used as assassins for powerful beings, very few details were recorded and certainly no name.  

“Those things were cold like the thonics, “ Rain said  as the group came back together to discuss what had happened, “Did they come from the Strange?”

“I don’t know, but you know how sometimes you feel like the universe is out to get you…and then you find out it really is.” Bruce shivered with the cold and the remnants of static.

“Don’t say that, Algernon already thinks the big unknown is going to get us.” Rain replied, “I’m the one with the ego, and I don’t think the universe gives a shit.”

“You think the universe is a being that cares?” Peggy asked more thoughtfully of Algernon.

“He knows of a terrible creature that he can’t remember.” Rain went back to his things, returning with a notebook where the discussion between him and Algernon was still written.

“Is it like the slimy thing we experienced from touching the minds of the Spiral-eyed?” She asked Algernon.  She had been knocked out by the experience when she mind-linked with one of the Spiral Dust users that had attacked them at a festival.  At the time it was assumed that Algernon had done the same, but now he looked at Peggy as if he didn’t know what she was talking about.  

“Nothings been in my mind.” He finally said by way of explanation.

“I know.” Bruce quipped back and laughed at the young man’s embarrassment.

Rain was watching the whole conversation.  The being that had no name and left no memory was a puzzle that he wanted solved and it was becoming clearer that one of the puzzle pieces was Algernon himself.  Watching the young man’s body language, listening to his use of words, Rain could not decern any dissemblement by Algernon. At least Algernon didn’t think he was lying. But there were lies. Rain was still mulling the implications over when Peggy announced, “Well, I’ll off to bed.” and the group separated back to their bedrolls.

It is fair to say that Bruce did not wake refreshed the next morning.  After having his sleep invaded not once, but twice resulting in being electrocuted by close contact to a homicidal shadow, Bruce was not feeling himself.  Still he went through his usual routine of exercises and felt a little better when the smell of fresh bread, strong Turkish coffee and even bacon, wafted through the warehouse.

The group were around a trestle table eating, drinking, and talking when Bruce finally joined them.  Rain had out the small vial of Spiral Dust, showing it to Noel and Maximillian.  When he noticed Bruce’s arrival, Rain poured him a cup of the strong black coffee and the vial disappeared.

“Ah yes, we have known of your Spiral Dust for a little while, “ Maximillian was expounding as usual. ”No, it is not the additive the Lang are so keen on, but good thought nonetheless.”

 “De Boss,” one of the captives called from nearby through a mouthful of his own breakfast, “He tried to break into dat business but didn’t met with a lot of luck.”

Rain nodded to all the information, then pulled out his notebook and started trying to fit it all into his mindmap.

“So, what are we doing today?”  Peggy asked, having finished her meal of coffee and fresh flatbread.

“We were talking about going to the moon,”  Algernon replied, wrapping up a few pieces of bacon in a clean rag for later.

“It feels like walking right into the monster’s den.” Bruce mused over his breakfast.

“I want to know what Mr Lightfeather…Lightfeather is doing in Celephais.”  Rain pointed to the prominent name on his mind map. Many lines had been drawn, scribbled out and dotted into and from Eldin Lightfeather. “Why is he buying the herb that he could have got his henchman to do?  Why is he the only one we’ve seen active on both the Spiral dust and Bywandine smuggling rings and how does he fit in with all of this?”

They spent the rest of breakfast sharing information and discussing the implications. In the end it was decided that the only way to find out what Lightfeather was up to was to go and find out.  

“But I can’t,” Peggy whined, knowing full well that she sounded like a scared child, “I don’t want to be hurt like last time.”

Run dug into his pockets and pulled out a hat, which he now gave to Peggy.

“He can’t hit what he can’t see. If you feel threatened, put this on and you’ll go invisible.  Celia found this in my recursion.”

“You have a recursion?” Came a chorus from several quarters, forcing Rain to admit it wasn’t much of a recursion and that he kept the key above his bed back at the Estate.  In its place, Peggy gave him the headband she’d found in the marketplace the day before.

“It allows you to mind-link with another person. It could be useful today.”

So with Noel and Maximillian once more looking after the captives, the party set out for a day of reconnaissance in the alleyways of Celephais. The plan was simple, thanks to Peggy they knew what alleyway to watch.  Algernon levitated Bruce and Peggy up to roof level before flying up himself.  Rain stayed on the ground wrapped in a loose cloak and mingled with the locals.  

The alley in question had several buildings flanking it, but only three doors, two at street level and one that lead down steps to a basement.  At either end of the alley, streets made t-intersections bracketing the doors.  It was one of those three doors, they were almost certain, but there was no way of telling which.

On top of the roof Algernon investigated his surroundings.  Heading down from their rooftop perch, there was a short flight of steps that lead to a door.  The lock was old and relatively simple looking. Algernon had  seen Rain and Celia pick locks countless times before, how hard could it be?  He pulled from his backpack a bolt and tried picking the lock by jiggling it around a bit. It didn’t work.

“I thought we were going to hang around and wait for Lightfeather and his cronies to show up,”  Bruce said as Algernon stalked back from his less than ideal investigation. 

Down on the ground Rain was blending in with the locals and finding only a little better success than Algernon above.  No one at the local stores or houses knew of a man matching Lightfeather’s or his bruiser’s descriptions.  That was until he sat down for a well earned morning coffee at a streetside coffee vendor.  The man boasted he roasted all his own beans and delivered to anywhere in Celephais.

“Anywhere?  Say, you wouldn’t happen to deliver to two friends of mine?  They live in the area, but I must admit I have  lost the address.”  He described the two men and was pleased when the coffee vendor nodded, recognising them.

“They seem relatively new to the area and I must confess that the tall thin one I have only seen a few times.  They do live nearby, but they are not as yet my customers and I have made no deliveries to them.”

Maybe it was the coffee, or the fact that Mr Lightfeather was close, but Rain felt spurred onto action.  Thanking the vendor and paying for his coffee, he glanced up at the roofline where he could see a number of faces looking down.  Then, with a fortifying breath, he walked casually across the road and down into the alley.

Walking at a normal speed he leaned into each of  the doors and gave the handles a little jiggle.  The first opened, but he kept walking by.  The second was locked and he left it.  The third was down a flight steps so impossible to do casually.  He started down the steps anyway.  As he reach the door, something thumped heavily into him.  He could feel tiny daggers raking down his back and he screamed in surprise and pain.

“What was that!” Rain clearly heard Mr Lightfeather’s voice through the door.

From above the rest of the group were watching Rain check the three doors.  Algernon had been searching the alley for a suitable cat for some time. As the first door opened, one scrawny tabby slunk around the corner.  Levitating the cat only enough so he could direct its movements, he maneuvered the beast in the first door and pushed it open.  The cat, was surprised and disturbed by the way its feet no longer touched the ground, scrambled through the air wailing pitifully.  As soon as the levitate was released and its feet made purchase, it sprinted away, climbing over the first thing that just happened to be in its way. 

“Obviously there’s not enough room to levitate a cat in there.”  Bruce quipped.

The cat, no more liking the boney stranger than the weird flying, sprung off Rain and pelted down the street.  At the door, Rain could hear the sliding of deadbolts and jangle of chains. The scratches forgotten, Rain ran up the wall, grabbed a windowsill and swung himself around the corner before he too pelted down the street.  

From the basement doorway, Peggy, Bruce and Algernon could see Lightfeather poke his head out and look up and down the street.  Taking a chance, Algernon tried levitating him out of the doorway.  Unlike his name though, Lightfeather did not budge and instead, seemed to fell the tug and quickly retreated back inside the basement flat, the door locking once more.

Now out of sight of the basement, Rain climbed the outside of the houses, swinging from window sill to gutter to roof before finding the others.

“A cat attacked me!” He complained, trying to get a look at the damage to his clothes.

“That the cat was levitating is more remarkable.” Peggy got up and inspected the injuries.

“Didn’t have to attack me though.”

“Sorry about the cat,” Algernon confessed and Rain’s self-pity was forgotten in a  sweeping gesture of bravado.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve had my back scratched worse.”  He winked winning for himself a gaffor or two. “And we did find Lightfeather, what next?”

They discussed a few different ideas before Rain pulled out his spy grenade. 

“This could be useful, but as it explodes when detected…” He put the cypher, that in this recursion looked like a tiny sleeping gargoyle “I’ve never liked to use it.”  

“You can give it any instructions you like,” Algernon explained examining the cypher, “It can explode as soon as it sees Lightfeather, or it can just gather information and come back.”

“Yes, let’s do that!” 

The boys spent a few minutes tinkering with the cypher until they were sure it would work as expected.  Now it was only a matter of access to the basement where Lightfeather was hiding out.

The doorway to the locked house was brought up again and Algernon handed his now bent bolt to Rain to help pick the lock. 

“Thanks?” He said, and picked the locked with his tools anyway.  When he turned to garner the praise deserved, he receive nothing but quiet disappointment.

“Am I missing something?”

”You could have at least made it  look like you used the bolt.” Bruce replied, gesturing to Algernon.  

“Why…” The narrative of what happened laid out in his mind and he pulled out the lockpicks and handed them to Algernon, “Right tools for the job. I”m no great lockpicker, you have them.”

“That was not…I don’t think…” Bruce started, but Algernon had already taken and stowed the lockpicks in his pack.

Quietly, Rain crept down the stairs and investigated the house.  There was no door to the basement, but a grill in the wall opened in that direction.  Back up to the roof, the cypher was set off with instructions to go through the grate, map the rooms it found and report back. The gargoyle opened its wings, stretched and flew down the stairs and out of sight.

They waited.

Peggy came and sat beside Rain as he watched down the stairs for the gargoyle’s return.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked, talking low so the other couldn’t hear, “I don’t think we can take Lightfeather.”

Rain’s eyes grew distant as he relived scenes from his life before the Strange and these friends, “He scares me.”  He agreed.

They stayed like that until the gargoyle flitted back up the stairs minutes later and projected an image of what it had discovered.

A room with a smattering of old furniture and a heavily secured door, probably the front door, inhabited by two burly guys neither of them Lightfeather or his henchman. 

Through an opening to another room filled with baskets of herbs.  Here Lightfeather was finishing an inventory on a trolley covered in a tarp.   When everything was in order,  he pushed the trolley through a large cupboard.

Following Lightfeather through the cupboard door to a third room had a metal checkerboard floor, plain metal panelling on the walls with electrical cables bolted to it.  Along one wall a window showed the rolling fractal clouds of The Strange.

Here Lightfeather was talking to a gentleman with a closely trimmed salt and pepper moustache and a great coat. A rigid face mask hung from a strap around his neck and a pair of goggles were pushed up onto his forehead.  Though there was no sound, the way the man held himself and the deference he gave Lightfeather showed him to be military trained.  He gave a small package to Lightfeather before taking the trolley himself and exiting out a third sliding door.

It was at this point that the cypher started making its return journey.  Nothing was shown past the third door, just the trip back through the cupboard into the second room.  A flash of sliver dominated the screen for a moment and then the cypher showed a throwing dagger fly past.  As the view enters the first room the two thugs were staring straight at the device. One tried to stomp out their view before it disappeared into the air vent and the return trip through the house.

“Did you see?  When the cypher moved into the metal room beyond the cupboard that the viewfinder changed?” Algernon commented, “That cupboard was an adipose gate.”  It explained the change to metal floor and walls as well as the view from the window, but not where it was going.

“Well, regardless, they know we’re still here so we better get ready for an attack.” Bruce pulled out his trusty crowbar and looked over the edge.  Sure enough, Lightfeather and the two thugs were slowly walking down the street.  Peggy noticed that the door to the basement was still open.

“You know what we should do, go down and lock that door behind them.”  She mused almost cheerfully, before she turned to see Rain’s amazed expression, “What?”

“Give me the Vanisher?” He replied with childish glee.  She handed it over, grabbing his hand as she did and connecting them via mind-link.

Keep in touch.

Rain put on the hat and disappeared.

Keeping to the street parallel to the one Lightfeather now travelled, Rain quickly made his way down the side of the building before running around the open basement door.  With a creak and an audible click the door closed over, seemingly locking itself.  Furniture piled themselves up against the door as larged bodies tried to smash the door open from outside.  The invisible Rain had the basement apartment to himself.

Outside, the others went of the offensive.  Having first moved across the alleyway to get clear of the door leading straight to their roof, Algernon was making good use of his experience.  Having been refused by Lightfeather the first time, he found he could easily lift Lightfeather’s goons into the air.  Up above the roof top, Lightfeather could do nothing but watch as his man thrashed and screamed for help.  Algernon lay with his back on the roof and pushed the goon even higher, 30 metres above the top of the building.  When he could push him no further, he let go.  There was a scream from the goon, a sickening thud and then silence once more.  Now there were two in the street and the second goon was looking nervous.

There’s no other doors besides the cupboard,  Rain informed Peggy as he stared through the double doors into another world, I’m going through the portal, I don’t know if the mind-link will continue on the other side.

Peggy acknowledged, a terrible glee apparent in her communication before Rain stepped through the gate and lost contact with her completely.

The metal room was like many on a man-made vessel.  Across the way an electronic sliding door with a control panel to its right.  As he walked across the room to examine the keypad, Rain’s eyes couldn’t help but be attracted to the broiling clouds outside the 10 centimetre thick glass.  The endless complexity of fractal spirals drawing his mind to follow their paths, to lose himself and his mind.  The awareness of a mind greater by far than his own looked down at him through those shifting patterns and it was all he could do to look away and focus on the control panel in front of him. 

The door was locked electronically and facing the keypad with his dreamland persona, Rain realised he had no idea how to bypass it.  He tried a few times, but without the code, the door remained firmly shut.  As he turned from the door to take in the room proper, he noticed through the window a structure jutting out into space.  Along an enclosed hallway he could see the military man pushing the trolley of herbs out towards a cylindrical vessel parked before the swirling fractals of The Strange.  A space ship.  As he watched, the umbilical line was disconnected and withdrawn and the ship glided out into space and was lost from view.    Without another thought, Rain ran across the room and through the portal.

Peggy!  Spaceships!  He messaged along with the images of the ship leaving.

The door’s clear, you can get out of there.  She replied with a feeling of triumph and malicious glee.

From their high ground, the party were relatively safe from the searching gaze of Lightfeather or his henchman as neither thought to look up.

“Do you think they would benefit from another distraction?” Algernon asked, looking over the roof to focus on the next goon.  

“I would condone this.” Bruce said seriously before turning to Peggy, “The door is clear, tell Rain to get out of there.”

As Algernon lifted the second goon off his feet, Peggy sent out a plasma arc between Lightfeather and the guard.  Both lit up like Christmas ornaments, but Lightfeather seemed to shrug off any damage. Having seen the movement, Lightfeather’s sharp birdlike eyes pinpointed Algernon and Peggy and he threw a dagger at them each.  Algernon’s hit the edge of the roof as he once more lay down preparing to push the second goon into the air.  The dagger on Peggy flew over her head, catching a few curls of hair as it passed.

“Nice to see you again, beaky.”  She goaded him over the edge, “It’s always hard to tell where you’ll turn up, first with the Droods, now with Moriarty.  Which side are you playing?”

As Lightfeather repositioned himself for a second attack, Bruce let fly one of his heavy crossbow bolts, hitting Lightfeather in the shoulder joint.  Now his right arm hung limply at his side, Lightfeather couldn’t throw his two daggers at the same time and had to content himself with throwing one.

“Moriarty?  Why do you think I’m working for him?” Lightfeather called back conversationally, as he drew a bead on Peggy. 

“You’re pushing herb.” She replied, giving Lightfeather her position.  The dagger struck her in the arm and she flattened herself against the roof, “Ah!  Still sharp I see.”

Algernon had the goon up to roof height when the henchman pulled something out of his pocket and a bubble of force similar to Algernon’s shield appeared all around him. 

“A ball, huh?” Algernon muttered as he pushed the ball up as far as his levitation would go and then let the ball go. “I wonder if Mr Lightfeather likes ball games?”

The ball, as expected began to fall, but this time Algernon had moved it to above Lightfeather, looking for his next target out in the street.  Bruce shot and again hit Lightfeather just as another plasma bolt skittered across his metal dagger, earthing in him.

“Why the sudden switch, Lightfeather?”  Peggy goaded from on high, “Was it a double pay or a double deal?”

Feeling the shift in the battle, Lightfeather did not respond but decided to run, taking shelter inside the second door.  The ball hit the ground where he had been just a moment before. The terrified face of Lightfeather’s henchman clearly seen through it’s walls before the ball sprung back into the air.  Following the natural slant of the ground, the ball started bouncing all the way to the harbour and was soon lost to sight.

“Are we going after him?”  Bruce asked standing up and slinging his crossbow, “He’s injured, we may not get another chance.”  With a nod Algernon levitated both himself and Bruce back across the alleyway.  Now with his crowbar in hand, Bruce sprinted across the roof and down the stairs to face Lightfeather for the first time since the defeat in Bollons.

Peggy was still across the alleyway when she heard Rain’s voice in her mind, 

I had to move all the furniture again.  Still clear?

Yes, but hurry, Bruce is on his way down to confront Lightfeather, She replied relaying an image of what was happening.  

Then Peggy saw the door open of its own accord.  She knew from what little information Rain let leak from his mind that he was down there, but not even a shadow gave away his presence.  

Inside the battle between Bruce and Lightfeather was joined. Bruce focused all his skill and strength down on Lightfeahter who use the walls to dodge out of the way of the blow, before pulling a small vial out of his pocket.  In it, a pill that he quickly swallowed before taking up a defensive stance with his one dagger.  Lightly he stepped back down the stairs, retreating into the living room under Bruce’s relentless attacks.  

On the roof, Peggy waved to get Algernon’s attention and was quickly levitated across the alley.  Below, Rain opened the door and stealthed along the alleyway to the door where Bruce had Lightfeather cornered.  To Rain’s dismay, Theo, Lightfeather’s right-hand man, walked casually back with a coffee in hand.  Knowing the action was inside the house, Rain moved to the open doorway hoping he’d be able to keep Lightfeather inside and out of sight of help.

Peggy, her hand crossbow ready, sparks of blue plasma playing around the other hand, ran down the stairs inside the house, 

“You’re on your own  and cornered featherbrain.  Give it up.”  She yelled, Bruce swung again, missing the now even more evasive, Lightfeather.  Once more Lightfeather backed up into the doorway, his lower legs connecting with something invisible.  Rain was thrown into the street where he conjured a group of the local militia all chain mail, halberd, recurve bows and scimitars clanging down from the opposite end of the alley towards Theo. 

Bruce was tiring fast as no matter how fast he swung the heavy crowbar, Lightfeather sidestepped the attack effortlessly. Even Peggy’s plasma took a shortcut through a metal fitting in the wall, flashing brightly and doing nothing.  Lightfeather stepped out into the alleyway and Theo saw his boss for the first time. Seeing an ally, Lightfeather retreated until Theo could step in front of his boss, his coffee cup dashed aside. It was Theo’s turn to pull something from his pocket, a small clockwork device that he quickly wound and placed on the ground in front of them. Rain didn’t know or care what it was and in one movement, dashed down the alleyway and kicked the cypher away.  It sailed out over the connecting street and was lost from view.  Unfortunately, this action put Rain very much in view and in the thick of the action as his invisibility disolved away. 



“Bruce!  Little help?”

His crowbar held high, Bruce ran down the alleyway and managed to surprise the flagging Lightfeather. The heavy blow sent Lightfeather reeling. He was in poor shape, but he had backup and still looked very dangerous.  Peggy plasma arced over the alley lighting all face a ghastly blue as she stood in the doorway.  Flying down from the roof, Algernon stationed himself at the basement door for cover.

Looking at the two threats in front of him, Theo correctly assessed Bruce as the most dangerous and tried to land a blow.  Bruce caught the arm with the hook of his crowbar and pushed it forward, smacking Theo in the face with a crunch.  Now that Bruce was engaged, Lightfeather started retreating down the alley, away from the still marching militia. Algernon tried to lift Theo but he too resisted and Algernon resorted to throwing loose objects instead to create a  difficult escape route.

Theo bashed the already winded Bruce with his meaty fists. Sweat and blood flowed freely and Bruce’s breath caught in ragged gasps. Bruce was on his last legs and facing a fresh opponent.  Rain did the only thing he could think of and dragged Theo in a Daydream.  Initially, it worked, one moment Theo was making a bloody mess of Bruce, the next he was alone in the wilderness beyond Sarkomand.  Not as bright as his boss, he was confused unsure how he’d been teleported so far from his belieguered boss.

Now free of Theo, Bruce threw himself at Lightfeather putting everything he had into the swing. The crowbar connected knocking Lightfeather out cold. 

“Tie him up!” Bruce yelled to whoever was listening and swung around to notice that Rain seemed to have Theo under control.  Now unconscious, Algernon found he could lift the lifeless form of Lightfeather and started walking down the alley, pulling out a length of rope as he did. 

Bruce helped and was hefting the bundle that was Lightfeather onto his shoulder when there was a ‘smack‘ as Theo’s heavy fist made impact with Rain’s head.  Instantly the militia disappeared and Rain crumpled to the cobbled alleyway ground.  Dropping the limp Lightfeather, Bruce once more threw himself back into the fight.

Peggy ran out from the doorway to see Rain get up from the ground, groggy but still conscious.  While Theo turned to defend himself against the enraged, Bruce they both went through Theo’s pockets before getting up and running towards Algernon, Lightfeather once more levitating above his head.  Bruce gaves Theo one last swing before he too ran catching up with the others before they all start making haste for the busier cross street ahead.  

Theo gave chase, lumbering after his bosses unconscious form.  Seeing the pursuit, Rain did one last trick.  Yelling out in some unknown language, he gestured to the wall of the building that lining the alleyway. Using his Dreamcraft and a little stagecraft he made it look like he had pulled the wall down and into the alleyway with thought alone. It looked to anyone watching on he had cut off access from that end of the alley.  Adobe rubble and dust filled the air and covered their escape into the city.

“Are we a little obvious?” Algernon said to the party as they moved through the crowds, the unconscious Lightfeather floating above their heads.  Once they were clear, Rain dropped the wall illusion and built another around Lightfeather, that of a long crate that the party seemingly grabbed a hold of and “carried” back to the docks and the warehouse, via the long way.

In the cool shade and safety of the warehouse, Rain watched as Lightfeather was stripped of almost everything and retied.

“Have you ever seen those nature shows where they catch a giant 6-metre long crocodile.”  He mused almost to himself, “The thing will be tackled by twelve of fifteen people, have its jaws strapped shut and its legs tied back. No matter how much you tie it up and throw dirty t-shirts over their eyes, it’s still a crocodile.”

“Well, “  Bruce stood up with a pile of oddments taken from Lightfeather, “Make crocodile boots.” And he handed 2 arms sheaths with spaces for 6 daggers each.  In Rain’s free hand, a dagger very similar to those in the sheaths appeared and he slipped it into an empty slot.

14. Betrayals and balls-ups

After wonderful successes with Lydia Lance and Gwendolyn Wurt, the group headed back to Nederland to await the arrival of Dona Ilsa in the basement of the Dreaming Crystal,  but not before buying Algernon a new weapon.

         *   *   *  *  * *   *  *   *  * *       

“Are you sure you’re twenty-one?”  The shop assistant in the camping and hunting store turned Algernon’s Seattle identification edge on to witness the iridescent Washington hologram appear briefly.

“He has a pituitary issue.”  Rain commented casually.

“He certainly doesn’t look his age.” Added Bruce uncomfortable with the fake ID.

Algernon said nothing, just a letting the administration do its thing while he admired his latest purchase, a state of the art rifle-style hunting crossbow.

In the end the shop assistant had no reason to deny the ID and rang through the $600.00 purchase.

As Rain and Algernon left the store, Bruce wandering behind for one last look at what was on offer, Rain quietly spoke to Algernon, 

“Now you have your crossbow, please don’t kill things with brains.”  

“If I shoot them in the head they won’t have any brains.” Algernon quipped back making Rain laugh nervously.

“Everyone you don’t kill is a potential friend.”

“Everyone he doesn’t kill is a potential threat.”  Peggy added. She’d been waiting outside and heard the conversation as they passed.

“See, she gets me.”  Algernon acknowledged the doctor’s contribution as they all climbed back into the van for the long ride back to Nederland.

Though only a day had passed, Nederland had undergone a transformation.  Blue and white decorations festooned the public spaces, small tents and massive marquees filled the town.  Posters with the illustration of a blue old man were everywhere proclaiming that Frozen Dead Guy Days had arrived.   Once back at the hotel, Rain made his mission to find a program for this unusual festival and tried to get everyone involved.

“How is this relevant to our mission here in Nederland?” Peggy asked when he showed her the poster.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with our mission, that’s the beauty of it.”  He replied holding out the list of events on offer over the weekend.

“Pancake breakfast, I can get into that.” Her eye alighted on the first event the next day.

“Pancakes, put me down for that.” Bruce sat down in one of the chairs in the hotel’s lounge with a wistful look on his face.

“Pancakes…are they good with bacon?” Algernon asked.  Most foods he rated in relation to bacon so this question came as no surprise.

“Yes,” Rain replied with enthusiasm, “and even better with maple syrup.”

“Ooh live vulture and other scavenger demonstrations.”  Peggy cooed over the program that she had now taken from Rain, “this may not be a complete waste of time.”

“See, something for everyone!”

“My mom made  the most excellent Saturday morning stacks.”  Bruce reminisce almost to himself in his chair, his thoughts miles and years away.

“Oh, I heard of that on the Internet.  Your mother had an excellent stack?” Algernon asked still cradling his purchase like his first born.

“She made excellent pancakes.”  The comment pulling Bruce from his revelries, “Always very round and fluffy, with little brown centres where the batter’d hit the skillet first…”

“Yes well, better than sausage and egg.”  Peggy said handing the program to Bruce.

With a horrified expression, Rain turned Peggy as if she had berated a sacred thing.

“Nothing is better than a full English Breakfast fry up.”

“So, what’s the plan for dealing with the crow woman?”  Bruce tried dragging the conversation back to the problem at hand.  This was more difficult than he would have thought as no one had any decent ideas.

“We need to catch Dona Ilsa, stop her from translating back.”  Rain said adamantly, but then lost momentum when it came down to how to achieve that end.

Peggy had picked up the program again and saw the first event of the festival was the Blue Ball.

“I guess it would be interesting to view the culture and social rituals around this festival.  Right here in front of us is the birth of a new fertility god. Anthropologically speaking this is a great opportunity.”
“Fertility god?”  Rain asked now distracted by Peggy, “Old dead Bredo Morstoel?”

“Sure.  The festival is set at the end of  winter, the rites of spring, even the giddy silliness of the activities are  classic pagan symbolism.”

“Back on topic.” Bruce cleared his throat and this time Algernon had a suggestion.

“I was going to use my net to entangle her and Peggy  could strip search her.” 

“So you’re leaving me alone with the crow lady?”  Peggy queried, an eyebrow raised.

“Well, they won’t let me do it.”  Rain smirked.

“Fair point.”

“You and Celia, obviously, when she’s up to it.  “ Bruce added, giving Rain a glare for almost derailing the conversation once again. “We also need something to distract her to hinder a natural translation.  Maybe we can have something trigger a recording of Rick Astley?”

“Regardless, I think we have to clean up the spider.” Peggy proposed, “Good fun in the moment, but a hindrance to our abilities to catch her.”

“Yes,” Rain agreed, giving Algernon a look of  apology, “Sorry to destroy your fun Algernon but it’s just in the way.”

“I don’t want to clean it up, I went to a lot of trouble smashing up spiders and I don’t think it should be touched.”  Algernon suddenly stood up, his crossbow forgotten. The action and attitude struck Rain as odd. Algernon was hiding something, but he kept silent wondering what thoughts his friend was concealing.

“We need to catch her.”

“Sulfuric acid?” Algernon suggested

“Urgh, you don’t want to clean up after that.” Rain shivered.

“Nitrous Oxide?”

“Laughing gas?  Safer. Can we get enough of the stuff?”

“Carbon monoxide is easier to make.”  Algernon piped up picking up his crossbow and walking around the group.

“Are we overthinking this? Are we forgetting something simple?” Peggy asked tiredly wiping her face, it had been a long day.

“We can just bash her over the head.” 

The conversation kept moving in circles around what was possible, all the time getting nowhere.  Suddenly an alarm on Bruce’s phone went off and he quickly brought up a camera image of the basement to see nothing unusual in the room.

“False alarm?”  He suggested, looking around for confirmation from Algernon.  He wasn’t with them, he couldn’t be seen anywhere.

“Where’s Algernon?” Peggy asked as Bruce called Algernon’s phone.

“Algernon. Just got the alarm.”

“I know, I’m going over there now.” Algernon’s voice could be heard replying through the phone.

“Right, we’ll meet you there.”  Bruce hung up and was about to put away his phone when Rain stretched out his hand for it.

“Can I just have a look at that footage?”  He asked. Bruce handed over the phone and Rain searched the video feed for signs of illusions. It was then he noticed that things weren’t quite as the group had left them. “Someone’s been in there, look the buckets have moved.”
“I think Algernon’s been there a few times.”  Bruce commented off handedly as they all left the hotel for the store.  

“Ah,” Rain’s demeanor sunk as realisation dawned on him,”That would make sense.”  He said almost sorrowfully.

The camera feed to the basement suddenly flickered off and Rain quickened his pace.

Camera down, what’s going on?  He texted from Bruce’s phone and quickly received a reply back.


The camera feed flicked back to life with the bucket gone.  Rain handed back the phone and started running.

We’re going to have a talk, young man. Bruce texted which caught Peggy’s attention.

“So you really have adopted him?” She said with all seriousness.

“So, have you….step mum.” Rain replied automatically as he also sent a text.

And then we’ll chat.

When the group arrived at the store the back door was open.  Rain quickly checked the front door was closed before following the others downstairs to where Algernon stood.

“All by myself.”
“We know.” Bruce was already in the door, arms crossed like a father confronting his wayward teen.

“So we’ve gathered.” Rain walked in and knew at a glance at Algernon that all his suspicions were confirmed.

“Nothing happening here, false alarm I guess.”  Algernon tried to brush off the affair, but his bravado petered out when he noticed Rain looking at the pieces of spider on the floor inside the translation square.

“So, what would happen if I do this…”  Rain said quiet as he started walking over to the pile of spider goo and body parts.  His moves were deliberate and inevitable, he was not stopping at the pile but intending to walk through it.

Faster than words, Algernon brought up his net crossbow and shot it at Rain.  Rain stopped instinctually at the sound of the net and it sailed in front of him to hit the back wall. Rain looked up at Algernon, his friend and closest companion for almost a year and then turned away.

 A horrible silence filled the room.

“I wouldn’t do that, Rain.”  Algernon’s voice was small and cracked, but it broke the silence giving everyone a start.

“And why is that Algernon?”  Rain responded quietly, still turned away still not having moved, “What would happen?  What would happen if that stuff covered a small person or someone with a compromised immunity.  What would happen, Algenon?”

“It’s a biotoxin.”  He said in a rush, “It will make someone sick. If they’re already ill, it will kill them over a number of weeks.”  

“Why, Algernon?” Bruce asked now stepping between the two men.

“She’s a threat.  She could kill Rain, or you Bruce or Peggy.”

“We’re not dealing with just one person, “ Rain rasped out his voice thick with emotion, ”We have a nation thinking they can use the human race for their own ends.  But they don’t know humans, they don’t know the levels of hate, the gen-gen-” He stumbled over the word like a physical barrier, “-genocidal levels humans will go to destroy what they perceive as a threat.  You don’t know!” He pointed at Algernon targeting him among the four of them who was not of Earth. His voice may have started quiet, but the last phrase was said with such force it was like a slap that was heard by everyone in the room.

“Rain!”  Peggy shocked by the violence in Rain’s words.

“That’s enough, Rain. Just calm down.”  Bruce turned to Rain and the smaller man held his tongue and quietly seethed.

“In a team, we don’t always get to do exactly our own thing…”. Bruce said returning to look Algernon squarely in the face.  “Sometimes we don’t agree and that means somebody isn’t going to have it exactly their own way. Being in a team means you’ve got each other, that you watch each other’s backs. “

“If you ignore what the team wants, you lose that and then you won’t have anyone helping and watching out for you to help keep you safe.”

“ Had to do it this way, “ Algernon pleaded over Bruce’s shoulder to where Rain still stood, “I had to try and protect you, but if I’d told you then Rain would have been disappointed.”

“Yes, and now he’s disappointed twice, “ Bruce acknowledged the young man’s reasoning in a gentle tone, “Once that you did it, but even more you did it without talking to us  If you really want to look after the team you need to be part of it.”

“Team?”  Algernon asked in a small voice.

“Family…” Rain said from his corner, “It was us against the world, now it’s just you.”

“And you, “ Bruce turned on Rain, “As brilliant as Algernon is, he really still a child and needs to be shown how to live, not told.  You have to model the behaviours you expect from him, by God, didn’t you have siblings?”

At this Rain turns as if slapped.  The anger was gone replaced by confusion and fear.  It was such an odd response that Bruce was taken aback.

“No.  No family.”  Rain said barely above a whisper, wrapping his arms around himself though the basement was close and warm with everyone in it.

“How about a rabbit trap.”  Peggy suggested breaking the tension of the scene and returning everyone to the problem at hand. “I could probably rig up a physical trap with what we have here.”

“It still doesn’t stop translation,” Rain croaked wearily from his corner, “Isn’t there something that blocks translations?”

“Radiation?” Bruce replied stating a fact, “The radiation of the desert recursion blocked McCain.”

“That was an event unique to that translation.”  Peggy shook her head, “McCain’s assumption about the radiation was false, but understandable in the circumstances.  How about paralysis?”
“Digitalis?  It’s a poison.”  Rain shook his head, “No, I could keep her here.”

“What are you going to persuade her to stick around?” Bruce asked seriously.  He’s seen some pretty amazing things from this group and he’d never believed in Rain’s claims to not have powers of his own.

“No, I did it before on Peggy, after Celia touched her and they became mind linked.”  He started moving towards Peggy, “I was trying to calm her down and she…froze.”

“Often the things you say leave me cold, but I remember…” Peggy started saying as Rain stepped in close and started talking quietly to her.  It wasn’t what he was saying, as much as how he said it. An intensity, an intimacy that was akin to when he encouraged them at tasks. Peggy stopped what she was saying mid sentence, she stopped everything even blinking and her breathing was slow and shallow like that of sleep.  Rain kept talking for a few more moments and then stopped, turning to the others, careful not to attract Algernon’s eye.

“…very clearly that I was having a panic attack….why are you looking at me like that?”  Peggy continued where she had left off until she noticed the other two staring at her.

“You stopped Peggy talking!” Algernon exclaimed forgetting the distance between him and Rain at that moment, even though they were less than a metre apart.

“I’m still not talking to you….but yes it is.” Rain tugged the cuff of his sport’s coat as an excuse not to look up.

“How?” Bruce asked and Rain shook his head.

“It’s subtle.  You said it yourself. I can’t scream and hurt people’s minds or make them levitate, but I can do this.  As long as I can talk, I can keep Dona Ilsa here.”  

“It would mean Rain staying down here twenty-four-seven.” Bruce looked to the rest.

“That’s why I hadn’t suggested it.”  Rain agreed reluctantly, “I’m going to miss the festival.”

Peggy sighed in frustration, they were going around in circles again, getting caught on trivialities that got them nowhere.  She was sick of the basement, sick of the smell from the translation square and thoroughly sick of this subject.

“Well, are we cleaning this up?” She asked and Rain nodded his agreement.

“I wouldn’t recommend it.” Algernon repeated. “It’s far too toxic.”

Peggy grabbed a broom.  She’s spent a lifetime handling the toxic, the caustic and the vile.  This was no different.

“You’ll only spread it everywhere with that.” Algernon protested stepping up to take the broom from Peggy and coming up against her obdurance.  He backed off.

“Don’t you think I know safe chemical handling protocols?” 

“It’s not that..”

“Well then tell us how to clean it up then.”

Algernon sighed and shook his head.  He had tried to save his creation against Rain’s fears, Bruce’s practical reasoning only to be defeated by the stubbornness of the Peggy.

“At least neutralise it with a strong alkaline.”  He gave in, withdrawing back into himself sullenly.  His net still lay against the wall where it had fallen. Without looking at anyone else he went over to it and started packing it back in its canister.

“Well that shouldn’t be too difficult.  Gentlemen, get looking while I work on some protection.”

 So while Peggy scavenged around the storeroom making a splash suit to deal with whatever chemical concoction Algernon’s fertile mind had created, Bruce and Rain found anything that could be used to neutralise it.  Washing soda, bicarbonate of soda, cleaning ammonia and several packets of antacids, even a few nice limestone pieces from the shop were crushed and thrown into the collection.  

Anticipating the fumes, Algernon tried retreating from the basement only to be pulled back by a plastic and rubber clad Peggy.  

“Oh no.  Your mess, you get to help clean it up.”  She expertly grabbed his ear and pulled him back.  The process was messy, smelly and thoroughly stomach churning.  They all took turns in adding the cleaning agents to the pile where Peggy mixed it with the spider parts with the broom.  

“It will need to settle, we have to leave at least overnight.” Algernon finally instructed and they all stepped away from the bubbling, fuming pile. 

“Right, trapmaking.”  Peggy now turned her attention to the task even though it was already late and neutralising the toxin had not been an easy task. Doggedly she went back to the stores, even pulling apart shelving for materials, to make a noose trap set at the door.  Her first attempt fell apart under the tension required for to spring a human body into the air. She carefully gathered the parts once more reinforced the locking pin that held the tension in balance and reset it. This time the trap held, a simple construction very much like a rabbit trap with the noose whipping the legs out from under the hopefully unsuspecting Dona Ilsa or associate.

“And now I’m going to the ball because I need a drink.”  Peggy announced to the dispirited group in front of her. Bruce wasn’t keen but at the same time would not see her go alone and nodded a tired agreement.  Algernon said nothing, but neither did he disagree. Only Rain looked like he’d refuse.

“You were pretty distressed back there, I’m sorry for that and I get if you don’t feel like socialising now.” Bruce said quietly to Rain who straightened visibly and gave Bruce a laconic smile that Bruce knew instantly was a facade.

“Why, that’s my life Bruce.”  He turned to Peggy, “Drink! Yes, many.  Let’s go!” And he left without a backward glance to make sure Algernon was following.

On getting back to the hotel and checking the time and location of the Blue Ball the group found it was a masquerade.  Peggy still had her chemical cleanup suit so she added a few pieces from her personal supply and turned herself into a steampunk mad scientist.  Rain raided Celia’s makeup and turned himself into a dead Frank Sinatra without even changing his clothes. Algernon stayed in his school uniform look while Bruce just cleaned up a little. Dressing up wasn’t his thing.

In a huge marquee tent the Blue Ball was in full swing.  Rain leaped straight into the thick of the activity as if nothing unusual had occurred only an hour before. Bruce, always watchful, noticed that he was never without a drink, an image he found disturbing. 

Peggy sat at the bar, a spider in her web. When people came by to ask her about her costume or just chat her up, she interrogated them about local social customs and their views on the new fertility god. Algernon just stood by the tent wall and watched the spectacle, detached from it all and very alone in the crowd.

An already inebriated Rain tripped out of the dancing crowd to the bar and held his glass up for another. 

“Dude!  Where did you get those trippy contacts?” A voice said clearly beside him and Rain turned to see two men chatting, one clearly displaying the spiraled iris of a dust user.  

“I have my sources.” He said looking smugly at his companion.

“Don’t leave me hanging.” Said his friend, “I’ve seen a few people wearing them tonight.  What’s the big deal?”

As Rain’s drink arrived at his elbow, he smoothly passed it forward to the man with the spiral eyes.

“Give your friend a break, it sounds like it might be a good story.” He said making eye contact with the user.  The man said nothing, just stared through Rain, twitched once, then again and then pulled back his fist. Rain ducked as the man made to King hit his head off.  Not taking his eyes off the guy he noticed his expression never changed, it was blank and emotionless, a puppet going through the motions set by its unseen master.

Bruce tackled the guy but couldn’t hold him, the man seemed unnaturally strong.  Rain, seeing Bruce pointed to the man’s eyes and Bruce nodded. This wasn’t just one insane guy, this was a Spiral dust user.  From her side of the bar Peggy grabbed a heavy looking ale flagon from a party goer and threw it at the spiral-eyed.  His expression never changed as the heavy glass made solid contact with his face. Bruce tried to grab him again as Rain stepped in.

“Hey, hey listen.  We don’t have to be enemies.” He said as his hand slipped into the man pockets and very quickly returned full. The wallet and other bits and pieces disappeared and Rain stepped back again. 

Peggy was enjoying her view of the fight when something hard and brittle cracked across her head, turning she saw another man with spiral eyes staring blankly back.  Behind him two women and another man were moving through the crowd, all sharing the same empty look. Algernon listened to the thoughts of the one who was nearest him without making his presence known to the Spiral-eyed.

Get the interloper for Nakarand.”

Watching the two at the bar tussling with his friends, Rain noticed their action seemed to be coordinated, synchronised as if controlled by one mind.

“Something is controlling these guys, they’re not in their right minds.” He said as he hopped out of the way by leaping on the bar.

Peggy’s screamed flavoured with Greek obscenities, but it did nothing to her attacker.

“Can  you make this look like a gang attack?” Bruce yelled from the floor, gaining for himself an odd look from Rain.

“What, like this?”  He started dancing across the bar clicking his fingers as if from West Side Story.  Bruce could only shake his head and move to protect Peggy’s back. He bopped an assailant on the head. The spiral-eyed attacker swayed on their feet, stunned and unable to move.

All as one the spiral-eyed moved in, now their eyes glowing in the low light of the ball.  There was no question that these people were being controlled by a force outside of human knowledge.  The one grappled by Bruce tried to break free, but Bruce’s arms held him in place. The bottle breaking guy made another swipe at Peggy, but she moved down and out of his way, tripping him up as she passed.  A third made a swipe with finger grown unnaturally long but again Peggy was faster and the nailed hand sailed passed her face. 

“This is something new.” Rain commented drunkenly from on top of the bar, “Celia really should be here.”

Two attacked Bruce but he used the grappled one as a defensive shield and neither could land a hit.

It was then that Algernon and Bruce’s phones buzzed an alarm. 

Algernon pulled out his phone and clearly saw a black haired woman in the neutralised spider parts beside a large pile of grey rocks.  In her hand she held a mug sized device from which she now removed something and put in her pocket. They had to get out of this fight.  Algernon looked around the ring of spectators that the fight was making and saw two muscular guys. Running forward, he tried pretending to trip, succeeded in actually tripping and fell in front of one of the Spiral-eyed.  The intended push just signalled his presence in the battle and the Spiral-eyed turned to look down on the prone young man. Algernon smiled sweetly, just a stupid kid.

The eyes glowed.

“Glowing eyes? Controlled spiral dust users? What does all this mean?”  Peggy asked The Strange.

Something is aware of our meddling, was the reply.

Bruce was weighing up his grappled aversary.  

How big is this projectile?  Average hipster? Is it a heavy bashing weapon? Sure, why not. Should be okay.  

Swinging from the hips like an olympic athlete, Bruce threw the Spiral-eyed into the other two ganging up on him.   One collapsed unconscious from the force of a full grown man propelled into their face, the other one faired only slightly better and stayed on their feet.

“Murder!  Murder! Bloody murder!” Rain cried from on top of the bar, so that many at the ball thought this was all part of the show.  Seeing the black uniforms of security guards he jumped down off the bar and faced one of the Spiral-eyed in front of Peggy.

The Spiral-eyed gang swung wide in a coordinated attack, telegraphing their moves and making it easy for Bruce, Peggy and Rain to dodge.  Algernon scrambled to his feet and cried in his wavering tenor,

“Help, help!  Junkies are attacking!” and blended back into the crowd away from fight.

Peggy’s scream roared out again straight into the face of the guy with the broken bottle.  Something behind his eyes recoiled at her attack and the Spiral-eyed physically did the same.  Now free of his encumbrance, Bruce found a barstool and made good use of it as an improvised weapon.  He swung it around him and landed a heavy blow on one of the women attacking. She crumpled to the ground unconscious and instantly Bruce felt guilty.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” He said but had little time to contemplate his actions as another attack swung through.

“We don’t have to fight, you have something controlling you right now.”  Rain used enthrall on the other Spiral-eyed woman. She stopped in her tracks.  Frozen, not like Peggy had, but as if two wills battled for control for her body.  Another swiped at Peggy who dodged and pushed them across a table behind her. The landed heavily on their heads and moved no more .  That left only one now on Bruce.

Algernon looked down at his phone again seeing Dona Ilsa study her surroundings.  She was alone. The group had to go.

“Will Robinson!” He shouted to be heard above the crowd, the brawl and the music before starting to slip away undetected by the security and out the door himself.  Instantly the group responded. Peggy ran, bashing past a bouncer trying to apprehend her and was only moments behind Algernon into the night.  

“I’m sorry, I have another appointment.” Rain finished his enthral and quickly looked to Bruce, “You got this?”

“Yes, the rest of you have to go, hurry!” Bruce responded pinned down as the bouncers encircled him. With a drop and roll, Rain scooted under the marque wall and was away. 

Now Bruce was left behind restrained by bouncers who mobbed him and the last Spiral-eyed. As soon as he realised the bouncers had arrived, Bruce gave up the fight.

“I am so happy you guys turned up, I don’t know what they’re problem is, but they just started attacking me and my friends.”  He said to the two bouncers restraining him.

“Yeah, okay we’ll take you outside first. Clear out before we turn the others loose.”  The bouncer replied as they frog-marched Bruce out of the tent. He didn’t need telling twice as he could just see the others run across town to the gem store.

As they ran Algernon watched the video feed.  He saw Dona Ilsa walk to the door and hit the trap.  It worked perfectly and Dona Ilsa was whipped up into the air by her ankles.  As she swung back and forward in front of the door she dropped the mug sized device and it hit the ground.  A flash of bright light blew out the cameras for a moment, and when they returned the noose hung empty.

Seconds later the group were through the door, the rope still swung, taunting them.  Rain fell to the ground in front of the trap defeated. They all stood around looking at the empty room.  She had come early, knew that they had destroyed that side of her spiral dust empire and had escaped. It was the worst possible conclusion to all their planning. 

“I’ll report this in.”  Bruce finally said and pulled out his phone. “Did you say something about one mind controlling those guys?”

Rain nodded, an image of total defeat, “Yeah, there was one mind controlling their movements.”

“Nakarand was controlling them.” Algernon added getting everyone’s attention.

“Well at least Dona Ilsa didn’t seem to be in control.”  Rain gestured to the space she had only just moments before occupied.  

Silently they stood numb and bruised as Bruce let Katherine know all that was going on.

“No, we don’t know anything about a Nakarand.” She said to Bruce’s question about the entity behind the fight. “Look, you guys have been running for weeks now, an upset like this was bound to occur sooner or later.  Tidy up things there, have a few days rest and we’ll see you back here in a week, okay.”

“Yeah, “ Answered Bruce wearily, “The Spiral-eyed attack really sorted us out. Okay, I’ll let them know,”

When Bruce hung up Algernon was circling the pile of blue-grey rocks. A circular chunk was cleanly taken out of the side nearest the trap and door.  Rain was on the ground making small piles out of a set of car keys and the contents of an unknown wallet.

“What are you two doing?”  Bruce asked the boys. Algernon showed him a set of calculations in his notebook, Rain held up a driver’s license.  

“Just trying to work out how many doses  this amount of rock would provide. If they’re getting it weekly which now seems to be the case, then there could only be dozens in each city addicted to the stuff.”

“Hardly a take over, so what’s the point?.”  Bruce took the license from Rain to see it was from Washington state one, for an address in Seattle.

“That is the licence of the guy that first attacked me, “  Rain pointed out, “I took the opportunity to relieve him of it during the fight.”

“Do you think Dona Ilsa is controlled like one of these guys?” Peggy asked taking the licence from Bruce and studying it for a moment before handing it back to Rain.

“If this was a regular drug syndicate you would suggest no, but she’d make sure that people like Lydia were, to keep them loyal. Lydia didn’t have the Spiral eyes.”

Peggy reached out for The Strange allowing the evidence to go out and return with possible solution.  Is there a grand design to all this? All she got back was a headache. It was very late now, they had had a very long and disappointing day and she needed her bed.

Though Peggy was ready to crash both Algernon and Rain were still scratching for clues.  Algernon was examining pieces of rock, to determine its origins. He could not detect if the rock was organic in make up there in the basement but the shape, cylindrical with a pinched of tapered end,  suggested that it had been extruded showing it had gone through some processing. What? He couldn’t say. 

Rain was also scratching around on the ground busy with something, but when he stood, all he had in his hands were the wallet and keys from Seattle.  

Bruce rubbed his eyes and muscles in his arms and back protested the action.

“Okay, back to the hotel for a rest and we’ll talk all this out in the morning.”