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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…

21. A Journey to the East

“Travel not to find yourself

but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

After tumultuous travel through the ruined city, the group has found shelter in an unlikely place.  Amongst the ‘ghouls’ most of the party found rest and a little peace right under the feet of the Lang that would see them enslaved or sacrificed to their gods, the Moonbeast.

Peggy has information that a friend, long thought dead, had travelled the ruins only a week before on his way to a country across the sea.  Now refreshed and a little more sure of herself, she’s determined to follow in his footsteps and find lost Noel Hagan.


In the fungal lit darkness below the spiral staircase, it was morning and ghoul life was just starting for another day. Though full from the feast last night, they picked over the bones of the moonbeast as others busied themselves with the every day tasks of surviving. 

Peggy, now refreshed from a night’s sleep and renewed in her purpose badgered both Rain and Algernon to ask the ghoul for information about Noel, her lost friend, and his moustached companion.

“They don’t have a word for moustache.” Rain yawned.  He amongst the party had not slept, having first been kept awake with the new action of his puzzle box, later as the concerns of the day entered his dreaming.  He looked up at Peggy balefully, “I guess I can use the word hairy and mime.” He suggested rubbing his top lip with his fingers.  He was surprised to find more than a few days stubble and lamented the lack of showers and laundries in this recursion.

“Yes, yes, “ Peggy acknowledge without listening to anything Rain had said, as usual. “A large waxed moustache and the other one is tall with brown hair, a long point nose and something of a horse face.”

“I don’t believe we have a word for horse either,”  Algernon added.  The meeps and chirps of the ghouls were a simple form of language and a million miles away from the breadth and depth of English.

“Just do what you can, we have to find him.”  She said walking over and sitting with Bruce who was putting together a more suitable breakfast that leftover raw moonbeast.

Algernon looked after her, “Doctor Peggy is broken.  She’s going to get us all killed.  She should go home.”

Rain heard him and couldn’t help but agree.  Almost to himself, he paraphrased, “If everyone was treated as they deserved, who would escape the madhouse.”  He looked to Algernon, the brilliant and terrifying sociopath and counted him as a friend. Who was really broken here?

“I can’t believe that I’m looking for Noel. He died, I saw him die.

“Ha, next thing you’ll know we’ll be bumping to my high school buddy,”  Bruce said by way of conversation with Peggy over breakfast.

“But it’s impossible,” Peggy repeated for the uncounted time when she let her thoughts drift to Noel, “There was simply no chance of him escaping.”

“What did happen to him?”  Bruce asked, pleased for this chance to tease out the detail surrounding the mysterious Noel Hagan.

“A mudslide,” Peggy answered simply without details.

“Was his body found?”

She didn’t answer, but neither was she convinced.

“Look, you know that amazing trap you made for the crow lady.”

“Dona Ilsa.” Rain correct from a group over.  Bruce waved acknowledgement and continued.

“Yeah, the crow lady.  She clicked something and escaped.  Couldn’t your Noel had something like that?”

Peggy shook her head, “We were research partners, he would have shown me.”  The recollection sparked something inside her and for the first time, she shared her story of Noel.

“We were in the same anthropology class, had the same thesis mentor.  His expertise was linguistics, he could talk to anyone.  

The university had received a whole shipment of things from South America and he was the obvious choice to try and make sense of it.  He found something odd he didn’t understand and he brought it to me.  It was revolutionary, new links to, until then, dismissed evidence.  We teamed up, him the face swaying the board to provide funding into our research, me with the background in the fringe fields and evidence-based work practices.  

Amongst the artifact was a set of tablets that showed the location to a temple and burial ground for an unknown god.  With his linguistics and my out-of-the-box thinking we worked out the co-ordinates and brought them up on satellite mapping apps. Sure enough, the shadow of buildings in the forest.  We’d found it, now we had to go there.

Using the last of the money I inherited from my parent, minus what my Yaya hadn’t taken away anyway, we set up and expedition.   When we reached the location, it was incredible, a lifetimes study fulfilled in a few stone buildings hidden on a forested hillside.  We found a skeleton, a humanoid creature with the head and beak of a bird, feathered wings, but a human-looking body and limbs.  In the texts, we discovered it was called a Skygod and seemed to be the inspiration for the Quetzalcoatl.  

Things couldn’t be going better, and then the rains came early.

The rain was so heavy that the ground, disturbed by our work, became unstable.  The decision was made to evacuate straight away and the students packed up the site.  Noel went back to the temple to secure our finds.  The landslide swept everything away, Noel, the temple, our findings, everything.

I went back alone, tried to finish the thesis in his name.  But without the evidence, it was anecdotal at best.  Our mentor thought it was a fraud, accused me of going mad, or worse, of killing Noel to….pepetuate a fairytale.  I was totally discredited, ruined totally in the scientific circles, socially and economically.  My best friend was dead and I had nothing to show for it.”

Peggy sat quietly.  Now that her story was out she was still, empty and yet more at peace.  While she had told her tale, the others had joined them.

“Well, I for one can believe four impossible things before breakfast.” Rain said, eyeing off the breakfast preparations.

“Only four, not six?” Peggy asked with the ghost of a smile.

Rain shook his head, “I’m a realist, I can only do four. “ He beamed to see a little of the old Peggy peaking though this new intense one. “Listen to what we found out.”

He gestured to Algernon who shared what the ghouls had knownabout the two mysterious men described by Peggy.

“A party of two men that matching your description travelled this way two weeks ago, heading south towards passages that are known but not travelled by the ghouls.  They take you to the eastern continent of Nyarlathotep.  The ghouls say that many creatures worship Nyarlathotep and that he is…unpleasant.”

“We need to follow them.”  Peggy had become more and more animated as Algernon had shared the ghouls’ recollections.  Now she was standing, unbreakfasted ready to head out and follow Noel and his companion into the darkness.

“Doctor Peggy, I don’t really want to go looking for an evil god.” Algernon said sharing his fears.

“Neither do I, but I have to find them” She replied adamantly, “If you come or don’t come it is up to you.”

“Peggy,” Rain asked breaking the tension forming in the group, “This Noel character is a good guy?”

Peggy looked around the group nervously, still disturbed by the events of the day before.

“He was the only one who believed me, in me.  He wasn’t afraid of me.  Yes, he was very good.”

“He was right.  You deserved to be believed.”  He replied simply and for the first time her demeanour softened.

“Thank you.”  She replied and shook her head, “But I just can’t believe he’s not dead.”

“I live in hope, “ Rain beamed, stealing a bite from preparations, “Your Noel is alive and if he lives then others can be as well.  Mr Hagan is now our quarry.”

When she looked like she might protest, Rain added.

“Peggy, we’ve called you many things, but crazy was never one of them.”

“No, you’re super cool.”  Bruce added finally handing out the breakfasts, “You are the machine whisperer.”

This amused Peggy and she smiled thoughtfully. 

“They are fun.  I would have changed my major if I’d known how much fun.”

After breakfast, supplies were carefully gathered from the ghoul and final goodbyes made.  Out into the darkness of the massive cavern only the fungus and columns as big as tree trunks broke up the monotony of the empty darkness.  Rain threw up one of his small suns for extra light.  

Bruce scoffed, “Don’t need the light, we can see perfectly well.”  And walked into one of the dark stone columns.

Their footsteps echoed and bounced from surface to surface, coming back to them louder than it had gone out. Rain made a game of first humming a tune and then harmonizing with the echo when it returned.  It was a pleasant sound, as harmony layered on harmony adding complexity to the simple song.  It was after the third harmony when Rain heard another voice singing along with his.  It was deeper and rougher than he could ever have achieved.  As a test, he started singing the words to the tune and listened to what the second voice sung.  The second voice could not articulate the words and it just repeated a garble that simulated the words.  By this time the rest of the party were aware of what was going on and everyone had turned to face where the second voice was coming from. 

In the dim gloom of the fungus, black towers of stone loomed with doors 30 foot tall outlined upon them.  Instantly, Peggy’s thoughts went to the giants and as one the group started moving rapidly in the other direction.  Keeping pace with their footfalls, was the stomp, stomp, stomp of something far larger.  The stomping made the floor shake a become unsteady underfoot.

“Have we got any cyphers for this?” Algernon asked checking his pockets for some of their more recent acquisitions.

“Vanisher?  Probably not going to work against something that lives in the dark.”  Rain replied tripping up.  

Algernon found a dark-sight cypher.  Putting on the glasses he turned to see a twenty-five-foot tall giant with four hands and a huge mouth running vertically along the top of its head.  He remembered very clearly seeing this being in the mind of Hazel Jenkins, the witch from Halloween.  It had been a creature just like this one that the clawed hand for the ghoul, Ismail, had come from.  

“I think it wants to eat us and it’s very big and scary. “ He said in a hushed voice, “It looks like what was grafted on that ghoul.”

“Hungry?” Rain thought out loud and recalled the giant centipede that had almost had Bruce for supper up in the mountains.  With a thought he made it appear behind them as they continued to run away. “Let’s hope it will at least give us a little time.”  

Peggy started lagging as they continued to run, the booming from behind faulting as it came across the illusion writhing in front of it.

“Can I give you a hand, Miss Peggy,” Bruce asked as he jogged up beside her.  Without a word, she nodded and he picked her up, catching up with the rest. 

The pounding steps of the giant were left behind and the group slowed their pace.  They started to look for places to rest for the evening as the cavern roof started coming into sight.  On the cavern floor, pools of water encircled the columns.  Peggy checked each pool for signs of life.

“Do you think the Rockwheelers could come from Dreamland?” She proposed but found nothing to support her suppositions and walked on.  

Algernon, who had staying clear of the pools, looking into their depths, felt something at his leg. Before he could look down, he drag him off his feet.  At his scream the group’s attention was drawn to the huge black tentacle that led back to a nearby pool, holding Algernon off the cavern floor.

Bruce literally swung into action with his crowbar delivering a devastating blow. 

“Great hit, Bruce.” Rain cheered as the tentacle responded by starting a withdrawal back into the pool.  As Algernon was pulled through the air he made attempt to grab stalagmites, stalagtites and any other rock formation at came within reach, with no success.  Peggy threw herself at the tentacle, trailing fire from her hands.  Where she hit the beast, steam rose and the cavern shook with the thrashing of the tentacle’s owner.  They were hurting it, but would it be in time to save Algernon from drowning?

Seeing Algernon grab for rocks, Rain wrapped himself around one nearest the pond .  As Algernon came within range he reached out with both actions and the Strange.

“Grab hold!”

Algernon did just that, grabbing hold of Rain’s leg.  Now with the leverage afforded by hold, Algernon wriggled out of the tentacle, climbed up Rain and leapt off, flying away with the use of his levitate. Rain turned to see Algernon still running in the direction they were going.  Bruce got in one more good hit and the tentacle popped covering both him and Peggy with black goo. 

“Urgh, that’s going to leave a stain.”  Bruce spat, trying to get rid of goo that had made it into his open mouth.

“If that was a Rockwheeler, then I’m done.”  Peggy panted.

Scraping off ichor, they caught up to Algernon and continued their walk, Bruce, Peggy and Celia in one group, Algernon and Rain in another.

“So, why did you join the group?”  Bruce asked quietly just of Peggy as they walked. “You know, right back at the beginning, after we came back from the wastelands.”

Peggy shrugged and a piece of black tentacle fell from her shoulder, “Validation, I guess.  I thought that this would be the perfect chance to show the world that my ‘crazy theories’ were true.  But I’d have preferred to stay in my lab.”

“Why?  You have such opportunity in the field.” Meaning, in general travelling through recursions, but the latest excitement was still too fresh to ignore.

“Ha, fieldwork is messy.”  She referred to both of their black goo looks, “Lab work is predictable.  Collect data, follow the evidence, build your arguments.”

Nearby, Rain mind had been mulling over the death of the Lang.  Eventually, he could not keep silent and quietly asked Algernon about it.

“How do you kill so…efficiently…cooly?” 

“What other way is there?” Algernon asked not interrupting his stride to reply.

Rain didn’t know what answered he’d expected, not that one.  Until recently Algernon had been quiet about such actions. Since talking about his role under the dreaded Doctor Lucinda Strangelove, he’d opened up about the violence he’d had to commit.

“Ur…I don’t know. You just seem very good at it.  Did you learn to kill like that under the Doctor?”

Algernon nodded vaguely, “I learnt many things.  Most that survival meant others not coming up from behind.”

“Your skill is very…permanent.  You can’t give a life back once it’s taken.  How do you know who should die?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“No not at all. That’s what terrifies me!”

“I do whatever the voices tell me to do,” Algernon said in his usual matter of fact voice, causing Rain to stop and look at him for the first time in the conversation.  Algernon turned, looking back with a small smile playing across his lips and Rain relaxed, just a little.

“Can one of those voices be mine?” Rain replied only half-joking. “Look, why I mention it is because I didn’t know what to do with the Lang. All I knew was that I didn’t want Peggy to have to make that decision.  So, thank you.”

“It had to be done.” Algernon acknowledged and they started walking again.

“Did it?  I wish I could be so sure.”

They walked throughout what would have been the day and into the night only stopping when another giant spiral staircase cames into sight.  The staircase continued down, but the party were more interested in the staircase climbing back up to the surface.

Algernon looked around the dust on the staircase and finds several large tracks, like those of the giant, other smaller ones and two sets of boots.  He pointed them out to the group.

“How long will it take do you think?”  Bruce asked dropping his pack for a moment’s respite.

“We’ll know when we get to the top.” Rain replied eager to leave the caverns behinds at least for a while.

“The stairs are big and I bet they’re harder to climb up than to climb down,” Peggy noted, reminding them all of the climb down to the ghoul colony the day before.  

They decided to camp for the night with the rock wall behind them.  Noises in the night disturbed their sleep, but nothing attacked and the group woke refreshed and ready to tackle the climb the next day. 

As the group were preparing to help each other up the first step, something large streaked overhead, wonkily flying up the stairs to crash awkwardly on its face and roll back down to where they stood.  Algernon, trying his new talent had showed he needed more practice somewhere..less hard. A shimmering shield of force helped save him from most of the damage, but he was still bloodied, sore and a little sorry for himself.

“Was that an attack of some sort?” Rain asked helping his friend to his feet looking back behind them for the giant.

“No, that was just me,” Algernon said sheepishly, having now found new places to bruise.

“Here is not the best place to come in for a rough landing,” Bruce commented as they continued to climb the conventional way.

“I don’t think I would survive another,” Algernon confessed.

The trip up the stairs took most of the morning with each of the party taking turns to help the others up the too tall steps.  On the last step, they turned and found themselves on an open landing. A small ledge on a cliffside.  Below was a city by the sea, encircled by walls. Unlike Sarkomand, this city was in perfect condition, with whitewashed walls and brass minarets reflecting the sunlight from the sky and sea.  A small flight of steps wound its way down the cliff and into the city by one of four gates.  Without another word the others started walking down and towards the city.  Rain alone stood for a moment looking at the ruin that was once his rainbow suit.  He sighed, brushed off a few clouds of dust and followed his friends into Celephais.

20. Past and Present Dreaming

    Finding themselves in the Dreamland, that Rain visited while experimenting with Spiral Dust, the party decided to find out what was beyond the spiral staircase.  During a chance encounter with a slaving party, Peggy accidentally swaps bodies with the Lang she was fighting.  Opinions differed and in the end, Bruce took things into his own hands and knocked out the Lang, sending Peggy back into her own body.  

Furious with the whole group, Peggy had stormed off in the middle of enemy territory and the party were left wondering what to do with the mindless slaves they’ve inherited.


He was inside a white room, walls, ceiling and floor all white.  Opposite, the outline of a door with a small window was the only feature of the room.  Stepping forward he realised he was wearing a constrictive white jacket that pulled his arms around his body.  

I’m in a padded room. He thought, but slowly and was surprised at how foggy his thoughts felt.

From beyond the door, the jangle of keys could be heard.  Someone was coming, there was nowhere to hide.  The door swung open.

Rain blinked and found himself staring in the dead eyes of the mindless human slave he had snatched a memory from with Dream Thief.  Algernon stood nearby, and he told him what he’d discovered.

“So, this guy is in an insane asylum?” Algernon said more than asked.

“It’s a dream. It could be his reality right now,” Rain explained, “Or it could be a construct created by his mind to make sense of where he’s at.”  Rain stepped back from the creature devoid of life in front of him, a look of disgust on his face. “Wherever his mind is, it’s trapped and this thing is just a husk, another mannequin given life by the Strange.”

Bruce’s attention drew their attention to each of the slaves lower backs where the pattern of burns was clear,“I’ve seen burns like this before on building sites.  These people have been electrocuted.”

They looked at each of the slaves one more time.  None had the spiral eyes of dust users.  They couldn’t be freed and they couldn’t be returned to Earth.  These things were a dead end. Almost as one they turned away from them and glanced towards Peggy.

She had not calmed down from her fight with Bruce.  If anything, an intense stillness lay about her.  Rigid and unmoving though her body was, Peggy’s eyes darted back and forward, sparks of wild energy and even embers flew into the air around her, manifested by her current elemental nature.  She was a simmering, crackling  chaos of emotions, it was terrifying to witness and for a moment no one would dare go near her.

Quietly and slowly, Bruce moved a few steps closer.  The movement caught Peggy’s attention and her eyes locked with his, like a cornered creature.

“Are you okay?” He asked bending down to be more at her level, but well out of the way of her fiery eminations, “You look like you’re going to catch fire.  Did he do something to you?”  He dared a step closer.

Suddenly, Peggy was up on her feet.  Her hair, normally a mass of unkempt curl loosely bound up, was standing on end, sparks and embers flying.  Her eyes were wild darted around the group looking for an escape or from where the next attack would come.

“Don’t you come near me!  Don’t you dare with your words and your ropes.  You’re trying to destroy me…. trying to ruin me…”

Algernon jumped back, a shimmering field appeared in front of him.  Rain stepped forward, moved by her pain.  Bruce stood rock steady and facing the storm. 

“Do you want a cup of tea?” 

“No I do not want a cup of tea!” Peggy screamed and ran blindly into the ruins.

Bruce looked after her getting to his feet as the other stared on dumbly, “I’ll look after this.”  

“Don’t gaslight her, She’s had that all her life, she doesn’t need it from you.”  Rain yelled after him 


“Yes, telling her she’s shouldn’t feel the way she does, that what she’s experiencing is wrong. I don’t know who, but someone’s really done a number on her over a long time.”

She wasn’t alone.  She was out of breath and footsore from tripping through the ruins in a blind panic.  When she stopped to breathe she realised that someone, something was watching.  She scanned the grey landscape around her looking for the source of the feeling and at first saw nothing.  It wasn’t until she allowed her eyes to rest for a moment in one place that she saw it.  The outline of a cat.  

It was a small cat, a domestic tabby as grey as the world around it, and it looked at her with a mix of curiosity and…humour?  

“Bliic?  Hello there.” Said a voice in Peggy’s head and her anxiety overrode her natural curiosity.

“I can’t hear you, you’re not in my head…I’m not insane…” She whirled around scanning the ruins only to return back to the little grey cat sitting on a broken wall.

“It’s been interesting in the ruins in the last couple of weeks.”  The voice came again, soft and velvety, unconcerned with Peggy’s behaviour.  The cat jumped down from the wall and padded across to her,tail held in a question mark, supremely confident of its place in this ruined world.

“You’re….not…talking…you…can’t…be…”  Peggy fought her own emotional state to focus on one thought.

“Hmmm,” The cat purred self confidently and rubbed itself against her leg, “What brings you here?”  

The contact scared her more than the thought of voices in her head and she leapt away, very much like a startled cat.  

“They…trying to destroy me…we…we came together…and now…they want to stop me…tie me up…”

“Bliic! Who’s that then?  The Moonbeast? They’re really the only things that roam here.”

Peggy shook her head.  As much as it seemed to be a figment of her overactive anxiety, talking to this cat was helping her sort out her thoughts and feelings.

“No, my travelling companions.  I thought they were my friends.”

“Oh, that pair I met last week?” The cat sauntered over to another wall and leapt up to get a better view of Peggy, “Such an odd couple, one man with a ridiculous waxed moustache with a travelling companion…Noel was his name.  They looked like they were dressed as explorers.


Ten metres away, Bruce had found Peggy and had stopped, watching from a distance.  At first, he couldn’t see what had caught her eye.  As soon as the cat jumped down off the wall and brushed itself against her leg it seemed clear that she had been talking to the beast, though the only sound nearby was coming from Peggy.  He stood watching as her demeaner slowly calmed and her interactions with the cat were more coherent. 

“Hmmmm, yes, Noel I’m sure that was his name.  Tall.  They were both heading for Celephais.” The cat replied to a startled Peggy.

“The Tall one. Long face?  Glasses?”

“Hmmm, now that you mention it, yes.”

“Pointy noise…kind of sharp.”

“That’s him.” The cat swatted the air in celebration of confirming the identity.

“Where did he go…I have to find him…”

“They took the underground tunnels to the land across the sea.”

“Can you take me there?” Peggy pleaded.  The cat who turned away at his moment to start cleaning.

“No, but I’m sure you can find your own way.  There’s a big staircase, two giant lions stand guard above it.” A licked paw pointed the way to go, “You can’t miss it.”

It was then that Peggy noticed movement behind and saw Bruce for the first time.  He was standing well back and made no sound or gesture towards her.  She ignored his presence and turned back to the cat.

“I would like to catch up with these two, Noel and his friend.  What do you suggest?”

“Mooar…you could go over the sea, south-west to Celephais that would be more direct, the underground caverns can be a bit of a hike.”

“Come with me?” She begged not wanting to go alone.

“Wroor, No.” The cat replied simply showing no sympathy or remorse as cats will, “I have these ruins to watch over so I can’t go with you.”

“What do you do here?”

“Mooar…Keep an eye on the moonbeasts.  We cats won a great victory against them and we like to check on them and their slaves.”

“The Lang?”  Peggy was more confident on this subject and grabbed hold like it was a lifeline, “They enslave my kind.  What do you know about them?”

“The Children of Lang enslaved themselves to the moonbeast and now can never be free.  It is only natural that they would enslave others to serve their gods.”

“But what do they do with them?”

“Wroor.  They make gems.  Gems of pain, of souls.”

This was new information and completely unexpected.

“They make gems?  What do they look like?”

“Red. Bright Red Sapphire.”


“Wroor…they value them, I don’t know why.” The cat stretched out a back leg contemptuously and started the clean itself. “Maybe they give them to Nyarlathotep.”

“Nyarlathotep?”  This was a name that rung bells deep in Peggy’s anthropological past.  A god only worshipped and even studied by the fringes of many societies. Those who did study Nyarlathotep were surprised, much like Great Flood stories, that he would appear in forgotten pockets all over the world.  How such worship could be so widespread, yet hidden at the same time baffled the academics whose studies lead them down that path, as Peggy’s had.

She knew that practitioners smoked mixtures of herbs that allowed them to touch the dreamlands.  Some stories talked of individuals just disappearing while in such a state, never to return.  Could it be that these were the fabled lands?

“Any advice?”  She asked, now feeling a little more herself.

The cat pulled a damp paw over its head in thought before replying.

“Mooar.  Do not go near the giant’s  city for they are likely to think of you as a tasty morsel.” 

She thanked the cat (whose name she’d never asked and it had never given) and wished it luck in its guardianship. Now with a plan firmly fixed in her mind, she started in the direction the cat had pointed out. 

Bruce, saying nothing, followed.

Peggy’s panicked run from moments before had led her in a wide circle so that when she started moving in purposeful straight line, it lead straight past Algernon, Celia and Rain stand around the unconscious Lang they had tied up.  She paid them no attention, only focused on finding the lion statues, the stair and the underground passages that lead to Noel.  She didn’t hear Rain run-up until he touched her arm.  There was no mental contact, she had used that power to link with the Lang and it was spent for the time being.

“Tell me.”  He pleaded as she automatically swung wildly at him.  He stood his ground and her blows flew over his head.

“Let her go,” Bruce rushed up unsure how to expLang what he’d witnessed, “She’s been given some direction…by a cat…” 

“Wha…” Rain replied, “Bruce, she’s not herself.  She’s vulnerable to all sort of thoughts and delusions at this time.  She needs talking down.”

“Let go…no…” Peggy complained but only turned back in the direction she’d been given by the cat without trying to break free.

Bruce walked around in front of Peggy and without touching her, tried to gain her attention.  Rain dropped her arm. 

“Peggy listen.  I’m  sorry I hit it while you were in it.”  Bruce apologised clumsily, “I was worried, but I was wrong.”

Peggy focused her eyes on Bruce in front of her, and then her anger.

“They…you…tried to hurt me…did hurt me.  You tied me up, knocked me down….”

“Why did it swap mind with you?”

“I needed to know!” She responded with the last of her anger before turning and looking at Algernon. 

“I saw it respond to Algernon…to his mind-reading talent and…I needed to know.”

“Peggy.  We need you.  We need your smarts, you’re good in a pinch.”  Bruce now pleaded and everyone could see that now the pleas were getting through.

“Noel’s out there.  I have to find him.”  She turned back to her path.

“Noel…?” Rain started and was hushed by Bruce.

“Okay, we’ll go find Noel, but we have to deal with the Lang.  Peggy, what do you think we should do with it?”  Bruce offered her the choice, trying to focus her on the here and now.

“Do you want me to kill it?” Algernon suggested in his most helpful tone. Rain winced and looked from the creature back to Peggy.

“I don’t know…” She struggled to focus her attention on the wrapped bundle at Algernon’s feet, “If you leave it, it will be found and tell about us…or it will die a slow death…I don’t think killing it is right, but…”  

“Peggy, you have a friend?” Rain said quietly, stepping up beside her, “Don’t worry about the Lang, go find your friend, Noel.”

“Rain, what…” Bruce started but saw the seriousness of Rain’s face.

“Algernon and I will catch you up, go with her.” 

So, with Peggy leading, Bruce and Celia left Rain and Algernon alone with the brainless slaves and the unconscious Lang.

“I can do this, Rain.” Algernon said lifting the unresponsive body of the Lang with his teleknesis, “You don’t have to come.”

“No.” Rain followed, his voice adamant though his arms wrapped around his chest. “I’ll come.”

Algernon found a place well hidden from the main path through the ruins and lay the body down.  With one efficient movement, he pulled out the bowie knife that Rain had given him and plunged it in under the creature’s ear.  The death was silent and quick and left Rain no less horrorstruck.

As the knife was cleaned and carefully put away, the body of the Lang started shrivelling before their eyes. With one last gasp, the body coughed up a black gem very much like onyx.  Grabbing a glove from his labwork supplies, Algenon picked up the gem and examined it for a moment.

“Could be a good key to get back here?”  He mused lightly while Rain stared in awful curiosity.


“I’ll keep it safe.” He said and packed it away in a ziplock bag.

“Yeah, it’s worth a life.”

It didn’t take the boys long to catch up and the group were soon travelling together again through the empty wastes of Sarkomand.  The only sounds came from the wind through the husks of buildings and the occasional scavenger.  A splash of red caught the group’s attention.  Bloody, almost human footprints leading to the body of a Lang propped up against a crumbling wall.  As the blood pooled around its feet, it was clear it had only just been killed. Bruce examined the footprints. They were clearly not the cloven hooves of the Lang, but there was something extra, something clawed to the footprints that made them clearly not human. Algernon and Rain both looked around and spotted a face peeking out at them from behind a crumbling wall.  It seemed mostly human in features, but the skin was a sickly yellow colour and the nose was disturbingly missing from the face.  

Rain peered at the face as it darted away. He was sure, behind the dirt, disfigurement and illness, that he knew the man.

“Alfred?…It’s Jimmy.”  He called following after the figure as it loped off.   Naked, battered and scarred, the being walked hunched over, on clawed toes, almost supported itself on knuckled hands as it moved.  Rain followed.

The creature rounded the corner of a broken building and Rain gave chase, cutting through the building itself as the others quickened their pace and followed.  Cat-leaping broken masonry, punching up to climb and leaping through empty windows to land in front of the escaping Alfred.  

“Meep!” Alfred exclaimed as Bruce and Algernon appeared around the corner blocking off his escape.

“Alfred, it’s okay you’re safe with us.” Rain tried soothingly, “It’s Jimmy, remember, from the Last Shot?”

Alfred’s body language stilled to become more curious than fearful.  A look of recognition came over his face, but when he spoke, it was only in meeps and chittering nonsense.

“Is it language, do you think?” Rain asked Algernon who had been studying languages before they left Seattle to go to Halloween.  

Making sure Bruce was between him and Rain’s new friend, Algernon skimmed the creature’s thoughts. He was surprised to find coherent, though primitive, thoughts accompanying the sounds.  He repeated some of them back to Alfred in a simple sort of sentence.

“Hungry?  Food?  Want?” He offered the creature a sample of their rations which was greedily snatched by clawed hands and eaten.  

Rain sat and listened as Algernon teased sense out of the nonsense.  Using Algernon as a type of Rosetta stone, he built on Algernon’s work, making clear communication from Alfred’s meeping.  Slowly, Alfred calmed and sat on his haunches in front of Rain as they caught up, a parody of how they once chatted in the bar.

“You know this…thing?” Bruce asked once it was clear that some communication was occurring and the creature seemed to recognise Rain.

“His name is Alfred Yip and he often came into the bar in New York.  Eldin Lightfeather left him parcels.” Rain gave a look that needed no explanation .  A major figure in the Spiral Dust trade, Eldin Lightfeather was a dangerous character that they had all been lucky to escape from with their lives.

“And whose Jimmy?” Bruce asked, uncomfortable with all of Rain’s personas.

“Joosep Sallavarin, really.  But everyone called me Jimmy.”  He shrugged as if it were no matter.  He turned back to Alfred who seemed unable to make sense of the English he’d once spoke.

“Alfred, you are the last person I thought to find here.  How is that?”

“I used to come here all the time, Dream Walking on the herbs I got from Lightfeather.” Alfred confessed and the other could see for the first time the man behind the beast. “I used to travel the land at will, and then one day…I don’t know… must have got a bad batch of herbs or something, I was stuck here.”

“Herbs?”  Rain made a small vial of blue dust appear, “Not dust like this?” He shook it to show the pale blue-grey of the dust in the light.  Alfred shook his head.

“Nah, herbs and seeds and stuff.”  

“How did you take it?” Looking at Alfred’s eyes, Rain could not see the telltale pattern of spirals in the irises.

“Smoked it,” Alfred replied in his new language as if the answer was obvious.

Rain sat back and thought about this.  Initially, he assumed that ‘The Last Shot’ was also part of Lightfeather’s Spiral Dust operation, but Alfred’s experience, though leading to similar results, was by another drug altogether?

Bruce stood watching the meeping group.

“How long has he been here?” He asked, and Rain translated the question.

“I don’t know, it seems like a very long time,” Alfred confessed, which could well be true with time dilation between recursions.

“What was the last date you remember?”

Alfred quoted a date 18 months before, not long after Rain left ‘The Last Shot’ himself.

“How many people has he eaten?” Bruce asked. Rain ignored the judgement inherent in Bruce’s question and asked his own about the Lang they had found.

“Langs are not nice, that’s why I eat them when I come up to the surface.”  

“Surface?  You live underground?”  Rain described the spiral staircase from his dream.

“Yes, that’s where the colony lives.  I travel up the staircase to check what the Lang are up to every once in a while.” 

“The cat creatures, do you eat those as well?” Ask Algernon and Alfred looked at him confused.

“No cats.  The Lang, other things but no cats.”

“We killed one only an hour or so ago, would you like to take it back for the colony?”

A universally understandable nod of the head and the group decided to head back and collect the kill.  On the way, Alfred talked of hunting parties going out and taking large kills back to the colony.

“Makes sense, cooperation is what humans do.”  Rain acknowledged when he translated the conversation back to Bruce.

“Ex-human…like, they’re hardly human anymore are they.”  

Rain gave Bruce a hard stare, “You’re always so interested in how things look, aren’t you Bruce.” He said referring back to the altercation with Peggy.  Bruce said nothing and let the argument slide.

Walking past the body of the Lang, Algernon checked the body and found three cyphers that he quickly shared out.  A blackout that obscured an area, Darksight that allowed a person to pierce through darkness and a radiation spike which Bruce realised would fit his crossbow.

When they finally cleared the ruins and rediscovered the body of the Aurumuorax, Alfred was overjoyed by the prize he would be taking back.  With a little work, the group made a hand-pulled stretcher to place the body of the large beast on and they started dragging it back into town.  The travel back was faster as Alfred led the way directly to the spiral staircase.  The path between the two giant grey lion statues lay ahead as Bruce spotted something moving through the above the crumbling ruins.  

Totally white, it was a huge beast, the size of a rhinoceros in the body.  Where the neck and head should be was a writhing mass of tentacles that seemed to ‘taste’ the air around them. The creature ’walked’ through the air moving in their general direction.  Alfred pressed against the wall making himself as small a target as possible.  Algernon followed his good example

“What is that thing?”  Bruce asked from the middle of the road, dismissing Alfred’s attempt as hiding.

“A moonbeast, the Lang worship them and make themselves slaves to them,” Alfred replied in a low whisper.

“So they’re real beasts.  Can they be killed?”

“We have killed some, but they were very dangerous, very evil.”

Algernon shifted bringing his crossbow around to face the moonbeast.  Something about his movement attracted the animals and it turned, stalking towards him.  That was enough for Bruce.  In one movement, he pulled out the Radiation Spike, fitted it to his crossbow and launched it at the beast.  It hit, doing serious damage, but the beast kept going for Algernon.

Algernon could feel the pressure of a great force on his mind as the creature made a mental attack against him.  With an effort of will, he brushed the attack aside leaving him feeling disorientated.

“No, no, no!  Bruce, attack it!” Rain called seeing Algernon hit by some invisible force. Dropping his crossbow, Bruce pulled out his crowbar and swung around and hit it.  Algernon did the same with this crossbow, but the creature remained.  Now it could see its real threat, and lashed out at Bruce with its tentacles, smashing Bruce across the body and entangling him.  Bruce managed to scramble clear of the tentacles before the creature lifted him into the air, but the attack was vicious and Bruce did not look well.

“One more hit Bruce, you can do it!” Rain encouraged, unsure of the truth of his words.  Struggling to his feet, Bruce swung again and hit the moonbeast across the head and the huge creature fell from the air, dead.

Two grubby heads poked up from the staircase to see the moonbeast fall.  They, like Alfred, were sallow-skinned, undernourished and missing their noses.  

“Quick, quick! To the giant’s staircase.” They beckoned as Alfred celebrated the destruction of the Moonbeast.

“We will eat well tonight.  Your arrival will be celebrated with a feast!”

With the help of the other two, the group dragged the body of the moonbeast and Aurumuorax into the shadow of the stairs.  The trip down the steps was slow and laborious as each step was literally made for a giant’s larger gait.  The ghouls, that is what Alfred and his people chose to call themselves, had a process for climbing down the stairs, helping each other step by step.  In this way, the whole group and the two carcases made it down to the bottom of the staircase and to the hall of bones.

Rain looked around wide-eyed as he remembered the last time he saw the bones and was thrown out of the vision.  Bruce walked through the bones noting their relative sizes to each other. There were bones of various different beasts, including some humans, all with gnaw marks.

“This way, “ All the ghouls gestured eagerly as they navigated the dark room via pockets of small phosphorescent fungus. Soon the gloom revealed a number of individuals who welcomed the group and the food they brought with them.  Without butchering or cooking the group of ghouls descended on the carcasses and started eating.

“Don’t you want to cook that over a fire?” Bruce asked, a little disturbed by the ghoul’s behaviour.

“Fire?  What for?” Asked Alfred when the question was translated.

“Light for one.”  Rain replied and created one of his tiny suns placing it high in the cavern ceiling.

The whole group of ghouls stopped their feasting and turned to the sun with deep mistrust.

“Turn it off!  Take it away!”  Alfred begged Rain who instantly snuffed out the light. “We are safe in the colony if we don’t attract attention.”

Bruce was done in.  The fight with the moonbeast had been the last in a long day of near-death fights starting with the big cats.  Without another word, he found a quiet patch and lay himself down to rest.  With no answers for Bruce’s weakness, the puzzle box appeared in Rain’s hand.  Distracting himself he started moving through the group of ghouls looking for the familiar face of Melissa.

“She’s not here,” Bruce called over the group, guessing what Rain was looking for. “They’re not spiral dust people, Rain.  They didn’t use dust to get here.”

“I did, why couldn’t she?”  Rain replied, but he soon had to admit that Melissa was not part of the colony. 

As he did, something on the puzzle box clicked into place and another step unlocked.  Looking down into his open hands he noted the new configuration in wonder. It had never, ever in all the years he’d owned it moved in this way. Disappointment forgotten Rain poured all his concentration into this latest movement of the box.

“How long have you been able to do that?”  Bruce asked sometime later when Rain rejoined the group in Bruce’s corner.

“It clicked open just now.  I never knew it opened like that.”  Rain hunched over the box, looking at the new movement from as many different angles as possible.

“Were you found with your box in the forest?” Algernon asked, remembering the conversation from that morning.

Rain’s shoulder’s relaxed as he placed the puzzle box in his lap.  

“That is a story all to itself. The story of the puzzle box is one of the first and greatest things I remember from my childhood.  It marked a time after confusion, fear and unknowing and the start of a new life.”  The preamble had something of ritual storytelling about it.  Though the ghouls did not move closer, all sound petered out until the only voice was Rain’s echoing 

through the cavern.

“How old were you?”

“Seven.  I was seven years old as the world counts these things.  In another way I was newborn, only recently dragged out of the darkness, not even six months before.  I was alone, with barely any language in a land I did not know, when one old man who wasn’t expected to be there, took pity.”

Taking a breath, Rain paused collecting his thoughts and starting the story of his first Christmas.

19. The City of Sarkomand

After being left on a bare mountain top by the dragon, Balthazar, the group had spent the rest of the day finding a path back down again.  When they sheltered for the night, Rain continued a paper-based conversation with Algernon, revealing a disturbing gap in his memory around a being that he is mortally afraid. 


The rain may have passed, but Rain himself was still sitting propped up against a rock when the world outside the cave greeted the new day.  Bruce started the morning with his usual round of calisthenics and Rain took the opportunity to explain the written conversation from the night before.

“But what does it mean?”  Bruce asked perplexed.  It seemed odd that Algernon would not know he had written something moments after writing it, not to mention not know what it meant.  The kids could be secretive, but this seemed to be going to ridiculous lengths.

“It’s something he’s afraid of, above everything else.  The only thing is when you ask him what it is, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”  Rain conjectured out loud.  He’d been mulling over the implications of this missing memory all night and now had an audience, “It’s like something is actively working against us.  Something that can get into a person’s head.”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it here, is there?“ The thankfully, pragmatics Bruce replied, “We’ll tackle that one when it comes.”
“I hope we recognise it when it comes.”  Rain messed with his hair out of habit , “Hopefully that’s not when we’re looking down its throat.”

“Hey, if I have to tackle it from the inside, I will.”  Bruce bragged, puffing up his sizeable chest before doubt deflated him once more.  A distracted air settled over Bruce and he busied himself packing up his few things.

Rain looked at Bruce with concern, “Hey, are you okay?”

“These places…they mess you up.” 

“They’re good for me.”  Rain smiled, and another tiny sun lit the cave signaling the start of the day to the others. His gaze came back to Bruce, recognising the confession of weakness for what it was, “It was scary from this side too. I’ve come to…lean on the good old reliable Bruce.  Fly off the handle, Bruce was too unpredictable for me.”

“Yeah…”  Bruce was getting uncomfortable with the attention.  Spotting Algernon he gestured to the youth.
“Talking of your current talents, have you tried that thought-stealing one on Algernon?”

Rain shook his head, “It seems that particular talent hurts the recipient.  I won’t be it very often in the future.”

“We could ask him…” And before Rain could protest, Bruce called across the cave to Algernon, “You wouldn’t mind if we had a look in your head, would you?”

“Oh no, “  Algernon replied emphatically, “ No more of that.”

“What?”  Bruce started to this interesting tidbit of news.  But try as he might, Algernon would now be drawn on the subject. 

After a cold breakfast of rations the group prepared to return to their trek down the mountain.  From the valley below, the regular beat of a drum and the tread of feet echoed off the mountains.  Looking over the edge, Bruce spotted a small group of six individuals, four carriers, and two in palanquins beating the drums.  Surprisingly these individuals were not the mongrel folk of the harbour, but a more reptilian body shape with the ones carrying being far more brutish in nature than the more delicate couple being carried.  

“Don’t know anything about them.” Peggy shook her head as Bruce described the group.

“Well they’re heading this way, what do you want to do?”

“Why don’t we have a chat?”  Rain suggested and stood waiting for the group in the middle of the path.

“Well I shouldn’t talk to them, I’m not the most tactful.” Peggy stepped aside as both Bruce and Rain look first at each other and then at her.
“Well, that’s some character growth.”  Bruce said as Rain quietly applauded Peggy.

“When people tell you to shut up enough you, get the message.”


Peggy, Celia and Algernon moved back into the shadows of the cave while Rain and Bruce waited for the strangers.  With a clatter of clawed feet and the misbeat of the drums the group of reptile people came to a halt.  One of the drummers looked down from his palanquin at the odd couple before them.

“You do not hold yourselves like slaves.” He said in a voice as rough as his scales.

“You are a very insightful person.”  Rain smiled his cheeriest welcome, “My name is Pavel.  So, you’ve had dealings with humans that have come before?”

The reptile head flicked up in what could only be assumed to be agreement, “I am Raks.  Your souls and body are both here, this is not usual among the slaves.”  Raks head twisted sideways so one eye could get a better look at the newcomers.  The action made him look more like his reptile and avian relatives and somehow less dangerous. 

 Bruce snorted a laugh, “You have a pretty good set up here.  I wouldn’t want to rak the boat.”  He punned, enlisting a groan from Rain and signaling the others to join in the conversation.

“You have been very gracious, “ Rain trying to draw the attention back to himself, “We’ve not had good relations since arriving.  The people of the town seemed very angry.”

“Yes, human aren’t usually so….present as you seem to be.”

“Why not?” Peggy asked, her curiosity overcoming any concerns.  Rak’s head flicked around to focus on her.

“Here you are the anomaly. It should be asked, why are you so aware?”

“We’ve traveled…another way than most.”  Rain added

Celia stepped out of the shadows emboldened by the others attempts at conversation.  “What is your role, if I may ask?”

“I am a priest.  I teach and lead my people in a town far into the mountains.”  

“And the people of the city below?  They are not of your kind, who are they?”

When speaking of his home, Raks had shown pride in his people and culture.  Now that pride was clearly replaced with disdain.

“They are the Lang, the slaves of the Moonbeast.  They came to these shores long ago from across the sea.  Their town is Sarkomand.”

“Well, you have been a font of info…” Rain started as he made to step aside and let the group past.  

Peggy had other ideas and said, “Our people are being unfairly subjugated in that city.  What can we do about gaining their release?”

Raks, threw back his head and made several sounds like the cracking wood, a rough sharp sound that Rain assumed was laughter, “You wish to free the slaves?  I wish you luck in your battle.”


“For your side, perhaps.” Raks looked around the group now seeing all five of them. “Perhaps, slaughter.”

“What is the Moonbeast?”  Peggy added as Raks gestured to his bearers.  Raks turned and looked seriously at the group, understanding that no one knew about the Moonbeast.
“You do not know and you intend to make war?  You are courageous.”  

Intrigued by this statment, Algernon tried scanning Raks’ surface thoughts. The response was instant.  Raks flicked his head into Algernon’s direction, his black eyes boring into Algernon’s.

A bold move, little human. Said Rak’s voice in his mind and Algernon stepped back surprised.  Out loud, Raks addressed the group, “I was going to let you go, but after the little ones trespass…”  He gestured and the bearers as one readied themselves for battle.

Instantly Bruce stepped up brandishing his crowbar.  Rain stepped up beside him and inspired Bruce with a nod.  Stealing himself, Bruce looked Raks straight in the eyes and addressed the whole reptile party.

“If you start a battle, this will hurt everyone including you.”  He pointed his crowbar at Raks.

“We won’t be going anywhere except under our own volition.”  Peggy yelled back dragging Algernon out of the cave by the ear, “And Algernon says he’s sorry.”  She turned to Algernon speaking in a low voice that everyone could hear, “Dude, learn to read a room!”

Raks leaned back in the seat of his palanquin and quietly assessed the situation.  Human’s they may be, but these ones had shown themselves to be intelligent and capable.  He gestured once more and the bearers stood back at ease and picked up their burden to move on.

“Keep your little one on a leash.”  Raks growled as he passed Bruce and continued their way up the mountain path.

The group watched Raks and his group leave before continuing their journey.  The mountain path flattened out into softer foothill and eventually a grassy plain.  Buoyed by the mostly positive interactions with Raks, Rain made a stream of butterflies, fireworks, streamers and rainbow coloured balloons appear around the group.

“Your skills have certainly progressed,”  Bruce commented as a dove fluttered away and dissolved into nothing. “I noticed you don’t inspire as much as you used to, though.”

Rain shrugged, making a cloud of sparks that floated away over the shrubs before it too dissolved in thin air.

“I didn’t feel like I was helping that much.”  He acknowledged, “I know these abilities are only temporary, but…”   Rain stopped and turned to the group. “Do you guys mind if I stop and try something?”

It had been a long dry walk and everyone seemed happy for a break.  As they found soft grassy seats to sit and eat a few rations, Rain found an open piece of ground and started creating a new illusion.  It was definitely a couple, a man and woman standing side by side in western clothing, thirty years previous.  The woman wore a red scarf loosely covering her head and shoulders, bright metallic gold sparkled at her neck.  Other than that the image was fuzzy, details of their face were blurred or missing altogether.  After several minutes of trying to draw out more of the image, Rain let the illusion go and sat down heavily in the grass.  Slowing the couple dissolved, becoming see-through before disappearing altogether.

“Thanks.”  He said self-consciously to the group, “I just wanted to try that while I could.”

“Who are they?”  Algernon asked.

“I don’t know.  A dream.” Rain shook his head, his eyes staring into nowhere, “Do you think you could look…no bad idea, forget I said anything.”

“Why? Would you like me to look in your mind?”

“No. There are…things I would not want an enemy to experience. I certainly would not want you to have to.”

“Was she an evil stepmother?”

Rain sighed. This was well trodden ground for him, but rarely had he ever vocalised his thoughts to anyone.

“Algernon, I could tell you a fairytale about them. How they loved their little boy and one day, through no fault of their own they lost him in a wood. I can tell you that, but it wouldn’t be true because I don’t know what is true. I just don’t know.”

Bruce sat up, and cleared his throat, “I once knew a Cambodian man who had lived through the horrors of Pol Pot’s reigime. I told him I was impressed he got all ten of his children out alive. He nodded and rattled off their names, first the boys and then the girls, though who was older than who got a little mixed up. He said eleven names and confessed to having lost one.

“I’m sorry,” I said knowing that the death of even one child was still a hearbreak.

He replied, “Oh no, you missunderstand, we were running for our lives and when we got on a bus that could take us away from the fighting, we counted and we had one less child. We lost them.” Bruce directed his gaze at Rain. “Being a parent in wartime is tough.”

Rain stared back silent and still.

“So Rain, tell me another fairytale, ” Algernon returned to the topic, “Tell me a dark tale about the couple and the little lost Rain.”

“Ah, ” Rain smiled sadly and confessed, “I can tell you that there was no Rain at that time. Rain only ever exisited for you. I like the thought that my friends, call me Rain.”

“Are we friends?”

Rain genuinly smiled then, “Oh yes. Apart from family no one but a true friend can mess you up as well as we do. Yes, we are friends.”

“Preach brother!” Bruce agreed making them all laugh.

“What were you called?” Algernon asked not long after.

“I don’t know. I do know that when they found me, they called me Tobias.”

“The name you said in your sleep that first night.” Algernon almost jumped from his grassy seat when he put the two together.

Rain nodded.

“You know I hung with bad people. The name Tobias is linked to very good people and I don’t want the two to mix. I think here in Dreamland, it’s pretty safe to tell you. But I can’t use that name on Earth.”

For the rest of the walk in the countryside, Rain was quiet, stumbling along behind the group deep in his own thoughts.  As a result, everyone saw the two panther-like beasts stalking through the tall grass to the side the path, except him.  Bruce moves to intervene, but before anyone could say a word, the creatures had chosen the weak one from the herd and pounced.  Both Rain and Bruce are bowled over by a 190 kg beast each, six legs striking out with readied claws.  Bruce shoved his one aside, but Rain was completely blind-sided and confused about what is going on until the teeth of his beast sunk into his shoulder.

Ignoring the one circling him, Bruce pulled out his crowbar and swung at the one on Rain, missing as it ducked away. It growled into Rain’s neck, daring someone to take its meal.  Celia’s knives were in her hands as she swung out and hit the same beast, slicing into its thick hide.  Behind her Peggy focuses her thoughts on the beast and instead of screaming.  The Strange made the air shimmer between her and the beast and the cat flinched but did not let go.

Algernon stood back and sized up the beast for a levitation.  Unfortunately, the six-legged cousins to terrestrial panthers were twice as big and twice as heavy as even Bruce.  In frustration, he aimed his crossbow and fired as it flinched under Peggy’s assault. The bolt sailed into the grass.

“Hey!  That bloody hurts!”  Rain cried and focused his thoughts on the beast.  If he could enthrall it, it would stay still enough for the others to come to the rescue.  The enthrall worked to gain the beast’s attention.  Realising it had its prize already, it picked Rain off the ground and started running away.

The second cat now turns its attention to an easier meal than Bruce, Peggy standing just behind.  Seeing the attack, Peggy side-steped the cat easily, giving it a kick in the side on the way through. The cat snarled in frustration.

Bruce was only concerned with the one stealing away with Rain.  He tried running after the beast, but even with its prize, the cat had the superior speed. It would not be long before it was out of sight.  Celia turned her attention to the cat on Peggy, slicing the air with her daggers.  One missed as the cat flinched under Peggy’s boot, but the other found a weak spot in the creatures armoured hide and it sunk in to the hilt.

The cat now carrying Rain was only a black small smudge in the grass.  Algernon knew he wouldn’t get another chance.  He drew up his crossbow, check his sights, aimed, and fired.  The bolt streaked for the grass, along the flanks of the beast, and sunk into the fletching just behind the front legs.  The giant cat collapsed dead, falling onto its prize who lay still and panting underneath it.

Peggy dealt with the last cat, pulling out her hand crossbow.  Seeing that this prey was too much to deal with, the second cat ran and was soon lost in the grass.

“I know what these are,” Algernon said, putting away his crossbow, “I remember reading about them, they’re called aurumuorax.”

Bruce trotted up to the dead aurumuorax, panther or whatever and rolled it aside to find a bloodied and torn Rain wide-eyed and panting.

“If…if you say…get up and…walk it off…”  Rain said as Bruce pulled him up using his good hand.

“Still like this place?”

“Not much…no.”

The group took a short rest as Bruce patched Rain up and Celia noticed that they were on the edges of the ruined city.  Parts of wall, broken streets and ruined fencing were visible poking up above the grass.  She surmised they were in the suburbs of what must have been a large city, something like her beloved Seattle, but on a smaller scale.  For all her looking though, there is no life of any sort.

“Should we split up do you think, cover more area?”  She asked as she informed the group what she’d found.

“It’s not a safe place to split up.”  Rain replied testing his new bandages.

“You’re just saying that because you have two big wounds in your arm.”  Bruce joked packing away his first aid kit.

“Sounds right.”  

“Could you make us look like the Lang? Or make us invisible?”  Peggy asked Rain as they started back on the path.

Rain shook his head, “Making a moving illusion is difficult, once you add bodies interacting with it I couldn’t keep it up for long, but…”  He thought a moment and from those standing in front of him seemed to disappear, the road empty where he had been standing moments before.  From beside and behind him he was still visible, he’d created a two dimensional illusion on an empty road.  

The group were soon in the shadow of crumbling buildings, overhead walkways, and overgrown courtyards.  Footsteps of a small group of people echoed from above and Rain created an illusionary terrain to hide them from above.  Looking up, two of the Lang guided a small group of humans along the raised walkway, one ahead and one behind.

Bruce pointed out the humans shuffling stiffly in a line.  They seemed completely unaware of their surroundings and certainly looked as mindless as Raks had suggested.  Barely dressed, they were in an assortment of underwear and bedwear if anything at all.  Where the small of their back were visible, the group could see two small burn marks either side of their spines.

 The one in the lead looked down at where the party were standing, but saw nothing but the empty lane.  He continued to direct the group around the courtyard and through a gap in buildings until they were all out of sight.

“Do we save them?”  Bruce asked concerned, they didn’t look like they were up for much.

“Ideally.”  Peggy replied sharing Bruce’s concern, but with no idea how to go about it.

“Where do you think their souls…their minds are?”

“Back on Earth?”  Algernon theorised, “They only came here when they were dreaming.”

“Yeah, but did they go back again, and leave these husks behind or…”  Rain mused quietly to himself unable to even vocalise that this was the fate of those who didn’t return.

“Well, I think we should follow them at least.” And Bruce stepped out into the courtyard and started looking for a staircase up.  It didn’t take him long to find a set of working stairs and the group followed him up and through the two buildings after the party of slaves and their captors.  

The walkways were rotten and mostly metal and had seen a lot of use.  Still, Bruce marched along the walkways following the slaving group.  The two Lang’s turned to see Bruce walking up to them seemingly alone. Realising he was exposed, Bruce ducked behind a metal beam.  Unfortunately, it was a lot slimmer than the well-muscled Bruce and provided no protection at all.

The others rolled their eyes and each prepared for battle. Using a cloth, Peggy carefully pulled out the rod that had supplied the whole Wurtz household with electricity, thanks to an imprisoned mother.  She held it in front of her, ready to strike at the first opportunity.  Celia moved into range, loosening her daggers.  Bruce turned to look at the Lang guiding the slaves from behind and their gazes locked.  He felt himself being pulled in and realised he could no longer move his limbs.  With all his will he turned his gaze to see Rain hiding behind a pile of rubbish, still cradling his bandaged arm with his other hand.  Bruce’s protective instinct kicked in and gave him the strength to shake off the mind control effect.

“Hey,” he said groggily, “they have a mesmerise.”

The Lang leading the slaves walked back along the line of oblivious human to his companion, in time to see Bruce turn and shoot.  The bolt struck and the battle was on.  

From her hiding place, Peggy stood up and hit one with her rod.  He jerked back like he’d been hit by a bolt of electricity.  Peggy noticed a bar on the rod appear to show it had charged up slight in the attack.  Celia ran out of cover and attacked, missing with one hit and succeeding with the other.  Algernon shot his crossbow at the second Lang as Rain steped out of hiding in front of the first and attempted enthrallment.

“This is a very unusual place.” He said as the Strange energy left on his words.  The Lang looks down at Rain, its eyes clear and focused.

You are a talented one. The Lang spoke in Rain’s mind followed by feelings of disgust and admiration. 

“Ah…thank you?”

The Lang that had been surprised by Peggy turned on her, raking the space where she’d been standing with its claws.  The one on Rain did the same, but being used to slow slaves was not prepared for the Rain’s speed.  Having watched his enemies now, Bruce gained an insight into how they fought. They were physically weaker than humans, but their great strength was their mind powers.  He shot and hit the one on Rain who turned to a hate-filled gaze on him before falling to the ground, dead.

Peggy reached out to the one she was fighting and linked minds.  Instantly the fight and anger went out of the Lang and instead Peggy’s hands balled into fists.

“I think something has happened to Doctor Peggy.”  Algernon said as he levitated her away from the Lang standing quiet and still.  The Lang’s eyes followed the movement confused and unsure of what it was looking at.  Celia held her attack, but stepped out of reach just in case.

“Oh no.” Rain walked up to Lang and looked up into its confused face, “Are you okay?”

“Rain, this is weird.” The Lang said out loud looking at its oversized claws.

Floating above their heads, Peggy reached down with the rod and tried striking Celia. Celia ducked out of the way and kept well back from both the Lang talking to Rain and the Peggy being held up by Algernon.

“This is not time to experiment, Peggy.” Celia added unsure where to look.

“Dr Peggy, I suggest you lie down and allow one of us to tie you up.”  

The Lang glared at Algernon.  “Yeah? Good luck with that Algernon, do you want me to take your other ear?”

“You are in a superior body,” Algernon thought for a moment looking up at Peggy thrashing uselessly against his levitate, “Would you like to kill your body before you get sent back?”

“What? Now hold on.” Bruce was looking between the Lang acting unusually, Peggy acting weirdly and Algernon suggesting the murder of a group member.

“No, I want to see what this body can do.” The Lang protested, jumping up and down on the goat-like legs, “Wouldn’t it be useful to have access to a body like this further into the city?

Rain started pulling paracord out of his sleeve as Bruce readied his crowbar.

“Listen you, allow yourself to be restrained. This is your last warning.”

“Shut up, Bruce I’m thinking.”

“Maybe you can tie up the body yourself.” Rain offered the paracord to the creature, “What happens when you’re sent back to your body, Peggy?”

“I can control…” The Lang said just as Bruce swung his crowbar and cracked it across the head.  The Lang fell into a heap in front of a shocked Rain who turned around and instantly enthralled Bruce.

Peggy’s body jerked and stopped trying to fight against Algernon’s levitate.

“Algernon, will you please let me down so I can smack Bruce with his crowbar?”  Peggy asked her voice strained and only barely under control. “How dare he take away my agency, like that!  Like he owns me or something! He wasn’t the one on the inside! He didn’t know what it was like!”  

“Peggy, we really couldn’t risk you losing control over the Lang.”  Celia tried reasoning with Peggy, but even when Peggy finally went silent, she floated arms crossed tightly in front of her staring straight ahead.  Eventually, Algernon had to let her down and he gently put her back on her feet.  As soon as he did however, she stormed over to Bruce readying a swing with the rod.  Rain released Bruce from the enthrallment and ducked out of the way as Mummy and Daddy fought.

“How dare you hit me!”

“I didn’t hit you, I hit the monster.”

“Well then you hit the wrong one!”

“I wasn’t going to hit you!”

“I am always me no matter what body I wear!”

“Me or mean?”  Algernon interjected.

“Both.” Rain replied as the argument continued.

“Look I couldn’t take the risk of that beast waking up, it had mind powers!”

“So do I!  I was in control of that beast and I don’t appreciate you taking that from me!”

“I was protecting the party!

“Well maybe I don’t need your protection!”

A sudden silence fell over Bruce and Peggy.  Peggy was still vibrating in her fury.  Bruce was confused and annoyed that he was being abused for his justifiable actions.

“I’m going to tie up the creature before it wakes up, if that’s okay with you?”  He said breaking eye contact with Peggy and pulling out a rope.

“I’m sure I don’t have a say in it.”  She replied bitterly walking a short distance away and sitting on a pile of rubble.

As a distraction to the fight, Rain was focusing his attention on the slaves.  All five, three men and two women, were completely unresponsive. 

“Break free.  Come towards my voice.  The darkness is not worth your life.”  He said quietly from one to another, encouraging them with all his gifts, but nothing made an impact.

Algernon checked each of the slaves’ surface thoughts and sensed nothing, they might as well not be there at all.  He told Rain as much.

When the Lang was trussed up, Bruce joined Rain among the slaves.  

“Wake up!” He shook one, Their head lolled on but they did not awake.

Rain looked at the slaves and grimaced.  He didn’t want to do it, but there didn’t seem to be another way of finding out what was going on.  Using Dream Thief, Rain reached out and tried to steal the dream of one of the slaves.

To be continued…

18. A Dreamland Reality

Having solved a string of issues in Halloween, the group chase a goblin called Morris (initials J.M.) through the random rooms and hallways of the House on the Hill.  Bruce, opening a wardrobe and was sucked into another recursion, a  land of broken spires and a harbour of black sailed ships.  Once altogether again,  Bruce cracks into Morris’ suitcase to allow three blind demon creatures to escape.  In fighting the demons, Rain created an illusion of a giant red dragon.  Once it scared away the demons, the dragon refused to be illusionary.  

The group were left facing  the giant red dragon as inhabitants from the city climb to their hiding place  in a ruined house.

  –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –

Peggy and Celia stood together breathing hard after the fight with the devils.  Algernon flickered his attention from the beings climbing the hill and the dragon above their heads, weighing the threats. Rain checked and double checked his connection to the illusion he’d created.  It wasn’t there and he could do nothing but look to the others for help. The dragon roared and stared down at the party, its huge wings churning the dust and sand into the air.  Bruce squared his shoulders and looked the dragon back straight in the eye.

“Ha.”  The dragon laughed a single joyless sound, circled the group and landed on the remains of a wall.

“Good day to you, bro.” Bruce said, turning to keep eye contact with the flying reptile.

“You are a funny little human.” The voice of the dragon was deep and resonant and was neither funny or little.

“Not the line I had intended”  Rain murmured low so only Bruce could hear as he also straightened up and stood beside him.  Turning to the dragon he smiled and gave a small courty bow. “I for one am very pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Pavel, I thank you for your timely arrival.”

The head, the size of a small car swung round, two eyes slitted like snakes focused their attention on the silly little man in the ridiculous clothes.

“Hmmm, my name is Balthazar.  Where are we and how did I come to be here?”

“My party needed help from devils so I…”  Rain took a deep breath and plunged into his role head first, “…summoned you here.  As to where we are, maybe we can work that out together.”

“Ah, do you think you can hurry this along, “Peggy pointed to the group of people climbing through the rubble, “We’re going to have guests soon.”

The great head, overflowing with sharp teeth, turned to the harbour and took note of the ’ eople’ Peggy referred to.
“I do no like the look of your guests.  They have a beastial appearance and evil demeanor.”

“Where are you from?” Celia asked, curious as to where a creature of pure fantasy would feel at home.

The head turned to the sky as if the answer to the question was out there, “Mountains, my hoard, dwarves.”

“Ha, don’t know anyone called Smaug?”  Bruce guffawed not taking his eyes off the creature.  Though ready for action, he seemed more himself, calm and self controlled.

“You know of Smaug?”  The head whipped back, “He is my uncle.”

“Bad news about your uncle, there.” 

“Why, last I saw he was living well in Lonely Mountain.”

“It’s just, it sounds lovely. Maybe we could visit.”  Celia interjected giving Bruce a withering look for goading the monster that could eat him in one bite.

“Hey!  Maybe we could.”  Rain perked up and turned to Peggy, “Peggy, Bathazar here is from…Middle Earth or wherever.  Could he be used as a focus to get us out of here?”

“Yes…if he contains the spark, his memories of his home could guide us there.  We need time though and that’s something we are running short of.”  She now turned to the dragon, “You could fly us to some place safe then we translate back to your home.”

“You ride me, like a pack animal?”  Bathazar looked disgusted, showing more teeth than was healthy for the human’s below. “Do you magic here magician,”  The eyes turned back on Rain, “Take me back to my home.”

“First things first, our visitors have arrived.”  Peggy announced running across the broken terrain towards the dragon, “We are short on options and don’t all have nice mail shirts like yourself.”

“Yes, Balthazar,” Rain replied, “Lend us your strength now and we will get you home.”

The moment of decision took almost the lifetimes of five mortals, but finally the dragon relented.

“Well, climb up.”

“All Aboard!”  Bruce shouted giving each member of the team a leg up.

A dragon is not a creature meant for riding, it has no convenient hand holds or places to sit.  Each group member found what they could in the way of a secure seat by wedging themselves between spines, hooking themselves to nodules and just plain holding on for grim death. When everyone was settled, the dragon bounded off the wall, flung out it’s giant batlike wings and took off into the sky.

Looking down, the beast men gathered in the broken down house.  Each was wearing clothes like large lengths of cloth draped around their bodies.  On their heads, turbans were pinned and desert face cloths were  whipping free to reveal long animal-like muzzles full of wickedly sharp teeth. Eyes full of contempt and disgust followed the dragon and its load into the sky, as clawed hands tightened on nothing.

Something about the creatures struck a memory for Rain.  As the dragon rose higher and started flying across the city proper, he saw the twin lion statues that lead to the underground cavern of his vision.

“This place! “He said getting the attention of the others, “This is the city I saw in my dream…the Spiral Dust vision.”

As they flew over the city,  Rain pointed out the gate he had entered, the road he had travelled down and the plaza with the two lions.”

“We can’t leave.”  Bruce said adamantly and Rain was stunned by his conviction. He nodded silently in acknowledgement.

“But of course you saw this place, this is Dreamland.” Algernon said as if it was all obvious.  

“But why my dream, why not yours Algernon.  Because of the Spiral Dust? And if so, who else’s?”  Rain replied thinking of the Spiral Dust user they had all lost.  The young hairdresser, Melissa Romero.  He turned back to Bruce, “I’d come to believe it was just a dream, but this place really exists!”

“Then we have to go look.”

As Peggy and Ceclia discussed how they’d conduct the trance to translate, Algernon had set himself up on the back of the dragon.  With his megre bodyweight he leaned left or right, jabbing his bony knees into the dragon’s neck.

“Keep that up little man, I need a back massage.”

“If you could just fly to the right when I lean in with my right knee.” He said, leaning in on that side by way of demonstration.

“Oh god!  Please ignore the child.” Peggy said when she realised what Algernon was doing.

“Yes, we’ve been very fortunate to find such a powerful friend as Bathazar.”  Rain added pointedly.

Algernon was irrepressible.

“Hey Rain, can you imagine and make me a big spear?” 

“I’ll imagine you a hood and a gag.”

Above the city, a mountain range bare and formidable clawed the sky.  For the topmost peak, the dragon flew finding a landing place where the group could disembark.  With little instruction, the five humans made the circle of hands,including the dragon, and focused on translating.  It was a profound disappointment when it was clear Bathazar was not part of the mindlink.

“There’s no spark of life.” Bruce said as the trace was dropped and the party looked at each other for what to do next.
“Do your magic! Why do you wait?” Bathazar’s large head came down into the circle of the five.  No one could replied, except Algernon.

“The problem is you’re really not real.”

‘What do you mean?” Bathazar’s voice became thick with smoke and the threat of fire.

“We can’t take you home as we would have liked to.” Rain admitted.

“Maybe if you give us a few details about your home.  We can lead the translation and get you back that way.” Peggy suggested. 

 Rain winced, “Wouldn’t he translate as a….like the raider from the wastes?”

“He belongs there, he’s created by that world.  Why would he appear there as a blank?” 

“But Rain made him here.  He’s only Rain’s image of a dragon.”  Bruce reminded Peggy and the group fell silent.

“Not real?  I feel very real.”  The dragon growled and leapt vertically into the air batting the group with his wings and the gusts off them. “Why would I put up with your rudeness and incompetence any longer?  Tell me, why I shouldn’t just leave you here to find my own way home?”

“Well, you could…”  Rain started, without conviction.  Having dragged the creature into this recursion, Rain felt responsible for its welfare.

“You may be better off.”  Algernon added.  It was the last straw for the dragon who, with two mighty thrusts of its wings, pushed off the mountain peak and soared away.

“Okay Rain, now you can make us a vehicle to fly us out of here.”  Algernon turned to Rain enacting the next step in some plan of his own.  

“I’m not so sure, not after last time.” Rain gestured towards the dragon.  It was a very appealing thought though, and it wasn’t long before Rain started trying to make transport to get the group off the mountain.  Unfortunately, they were only the thin illusions that were difficult to maintain and only lasted a minute before evaporating.  He didn’t know how the dragon came to exist in the first place and no matter how he tried, could reproduce it.

 After several failed attempts Rain had to admit defeat and the group started the long slow descent back towards the city.  Pulling a bound journal and pen out of his bag, Rain now turned his attentions to Algernon.

“You couldn’t or wouldn’t mention your mistresses name with Hazel Perkins, but you wrote something down.  I wonder if there are other things that are easier for you to write than say.”

Algernon did not complain but took the notebook and pen, writing answers down as Rain thought of questions to ask.  The questions were simple, writing the answers was not taxing and it filled the time as they travelled.


Algernon Balthazar Theobold

I’m not related to the dragon.


Age is determined in years… Earth Years.  I don’t know how old I am.

“Mistress’ name?”

My mistress is /was Doctor Lucinda Strangelove

“Is/was? Is she undead?”

Is she still my mistress?

“No!”  Rain shook his head vehemently, “You’re free.”

Bruce guided the group down the mountain side, following a wildlife trail.  The path led down to a natural wash cut into the soft rock over centuries of run off.  The sides of the wash grew stepper as the wash itself became broader and covered in small bushes and dried weeds.  Above, on the ridge, Peggy noticed movement, the black hairy chintous leg of something large reaching down the cliffside.  She looked again closer and this time saw another purple, horse-sized spider already climbing down as the second topped the ridge and followed its companion.

“Spider!  Spider! Spider!”  She screamed, sending out a wave of Strange energy at the second of the beasts.  It hit, dazing the creature and sending it falling onto the party.  Bruce, who had been focused on the path ahead, did not move in time as the giant spider fell on him, knocking him to the ground.  Rolling out of the way, Bruce cleared the body and legs of the stunned beast and was back on his feet, his crowbar in hand.  The ambush foiled,  the first spider scrambled up behind Algernon, its fangs bared to strike.  Algernon fell under the weight of the spider, the teeth sinking into his shoulder.  Poison pumped into Algernon and his cries were muffled by the creature’s bulk.

“Algernon!”  Rain yelled, catching Bruce’s attention, but a spider was between them both.  Swinging high, Bruce brought his crowbar down hard on the spider that had fallen on him.  A crack of carapace echoed through the ravine and the spider collapsed to the ground in a mess of legs.

Celia moved around the now dead spider and attempted to hit the one on Algernon with two daggers.  From her angle the spider was more legs than spider and she failed to get past the armoured hide to do any damage.  The spider, having injected its venom into one victim turned and attacked Celia, fangs extended.  Squirming under the weight of the spider, Celia avoided the fangs but couldn’t break free.  A handcross bow drawn, Peggy fired on the spider at point blank range. The tiny bolt embedded itself in the carapace and the spider squealed.

Frozen to the spot with indecision, Rain could think of nothing but reaching out to the creature and extracting a thought.  The psychic damage made the spider twitch, but nothing more.  Rain was awed by the age of the beast, the knowledge of hunts against the goat- legged creatures from years past and the sharp intellect of a cunning creature.

“These things are smart, old and smart.” He said out loud to the group.

Rolling to one side, Algernon retrieved his large crossbow and aimed it straight up at the underside of the spider that had attacked him. The bolt hit and sunk deep.  Bruce now strode up to provide the death blow and the spider crumpled, it’s weight falling on Celia.

Peggy helped Celia push the spider off as Rain raced to Algernon and was horrified to see the bite wound already red and covered in a purple mucus.  Algernon was conscious, but the bite wound was hurting him and his skin was grey and clammy.

“Bruce…?” Rain wailed, his hands waving in the air with no idea what to do.

Bruce had a look and didn’t think it was too bad.

“You’re just a little shocky from the attack,” He said turning back to the track,  “Get yourself up and walk it off.”

“Bruce!  He’s been bitten!” Rain protested. “At least can we rest.”

“Not here.  We’ll look for some place safer.” Bruce turned away and Algernon got groggily to his feet.

“Here,”  Rain took Algernon’s other side and helped him up. “Lean on me.”

The group walked slower now, set by Algernon’s pace.  Algernon did not feel well and it didn’t take long for him to start shivering.  Rain leaned Algernon against a rock and called for Bruce once more.

This time Bruce examined Algernon and was surprised at how hot the youngman was.  Taking a second look at the wound, the colour had changed to a dark purple, purple puss dripped out of the twin wounds. 

“Hmmm.”  Bruce pulled out his first aid kit a grim expression on his face.  Rain hovered completely useless as Bruce poured alcohol onto the wound and Algernon flinched as it burned.

“Listened to me, Algernon.  You’re not here at all, but in a comfortable safe place…”  Rain said, taking Algernon’s free hand.  He pushed the Strange energy through his words, enthralling Algernon into oblivion.  As Bruce cleaned out the wound, Algernon lay blankly staring up at Rain who was equally locked into position speaking slowly and gently to his brother.  As Bruce finished wrapping the wound, Rain let go the enthrallment and Algernon blinked.  His shoulder felt better, but the fever still burned.  Calling on the Strange, Rain made ice.  Wrapping it in his rainbow jacket he put it under Algernon’s neck.

“We have to deal with the poison, not the symptoms.” Bruce commented, more to himself than anything. Rain snapped back.

“Look, I’ve don’t what I can! Why don’t you do something.”  

Algernon rummaged around in his pack and pulled out a vial that Peggy had identified as a type of pick-me-up.  With shaking hands, he popped the cork and swallowed the contents.  Quickly a flush of colour spread across Algernon’s face and the fever broke leaving him feeling light headed but better.

The group continued to travel down the mountain.  One side of the gully gave way as the path followed a cliff. Exposed to the elements, the group struggled to keep to the path and not plummet down to the desert below.   Buffeted  by an updraft, Celia pinwheeled for a moment trying to rebalance. Limbs shaking and her vision swimming, she swung herself back to the cliff wall.

“We should probably rope together.” Bruce said sheepishly after the fact as Rain pulled out the paracord from a sleeve.  

Successive fights, wounds and the effort of the climb down were taking their toll on the group.  Peggy finally stumbled and fell dazed onto the path and it was clear that a resting place would have to be found soon.  Bruce’s keen eyes did spot a darkening of the rock wall ahead, a small cave opening.

“Bruce, are you up to checking it out?  You have the better eyesight.” Rain asked peering at the place Bruce had mentioned.

“Alone?”  Celia asked. This was no place to go it alone.

‘“Never alone,” Rain acknowledged, “Just first.”

Bruce stepped into the shadows of the cave, it was dark in comparison to the exposed cliff path.  He missed the shape of a outcropping and fell onto something cool and yielding, sinuous and smooth.  Rolls of muscular flesh moved quickly, wrapping his feet and legs. From behind, Rain created a tiny sun high in the ceiling of the cave, it’s light filling the space with cold brilliance.  The thing around Bruce squirmed getting a tighter purchase on its prey.

Ah! Light! Blinding! Were the creature’s surface thoughts which were basic and beastial. 

“Let go of my friend and we’ll turn off the light!”  Algernon responsed, but the creature didn’t or couldn’t comply.

The segmented body of a giant centipede tightened itself around Bruce, each breath becoming harder and harder to take.  As the creature’s body stretched across his vision, thin places between the chitin were exposed.

“You’re not going to let a bug stop you, are you Bruce?.”  He could hear Rain say, feel his encouragement and the Strange course through him. With all his strength he pushed on the tender flesh under the armoured segments, twisting as he did.  Eventually he wrestled his way clear, rolling out of reach of the thrashing beast.  With a flick and a scuttle the creature retreated to a small opening that went deeper into the cave, it’s whole body slivering into a hole not much bigger than Bruce’s head.  Heaving himself up, Bruce went to give chase.

“Let it go.” Celia said wrapping her coat around her as the wind that had battered them all afternoon brought the first signs of rain.

“Yes, “Algernon entered the cave gathering rocks, “We’ll plug the hole and any others we find before resting.”

Either way, Peggy wasn’t going anywhere.  As she and Celia found a comfortable place to rest, Algernon lit a torch and used it to look down the hole.  Two black eyes shone back briefly before turning away, the long body of the centipede slipping past his light. It wasn’t long before Algernon could see the end of the passage and the end of the centipede slipping into darkness.  Searching the rest of the cave, Bruce found a number of other holes that were quickly plugged with salvaged rocks and sand, pounded into place by Bruce.

“Well this is a cosy home.”  Rain handed out rations (that had once been muesli bars) from within his coat to the rest of the group, “Are we sleeping here?”

As if in response, a gust of wind  brought a splattering of rain to the cave, guttering Algernon’s torch.

Bruce swayed on his feet as he looked back at the wall where the centipede had fled.

“Get some rest,” Rain said to him handing over what looked like a small dense loaf of bread, “Algernon and I will keep watch, I can keep the light going as well.”  He pointed to the tiny sun lighting the cave but providing no warmth.  

As the others slept, Rain and Algernon continued their writing game.

“Why is it important to be safe?  Who do you protect?”

It’s always been my job to be thrust into hazardous situations and survive…I know that it’s never safe, but it’s comforting to ask anyway.  Dr Strangelove always said “Of course it’s safe!”

I protect myself.  I feel like I need to protect my new family now too, even if they don’t realise I’m protecting them.

“Knowing what you know, what would you want to be doing?”

Get away from Earth and all its recursions.  It’s not safe.  It’s really not safe at all…

“Where do you think it is safe?  Back to your world?”

That might be safer…but I don’t think there is safe either.  Nowhere is safe from !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&

Rain took a moment or two to try and make sense of the gibberish Algernon had written.  It wasn’t in any Earth script, Rain wasn’t sure if it could be considered writing at all.  Rubbing his tired eyes, he thought for a moment before asking his next question.

“Describe !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&?” He wrote using the same symbols and marks.

Huh, what do you mean?

“I don’t understand !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&.  Paint a picture with words of !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&?”

“Who said that?  I don’t know any !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&” Algernon said out loud.  Bruce shifted in his sleep.

Now Rain was intrigued.  Here was a mystery.  Was  Algernon being his secretive self again?  Rain didn’t think so, the look on Algernon’s face was of surprise, confusion and a little concern.  His protests seemed genuine, but how could he not remember writing something, even if you didn’t know what it was.  Rain pointed to the page, to Algernon’s own words.

“Algernon, You wrote it down.”

“But I didn’t…I’m mean…I don’t think I did…”  Algernon’s voice rose, bouncing off the rock of the cave to eventually peter out as he realised that there was something very wrong.  Rain, on the other hand, was like a hungry bird chasing what he thought was the tail of a very tasty worm.

“Where does !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^& live?”  He said louder than he intended

“I don’t know !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&!”  Algernon replied even louder, frustrated and scared of the black gap in his memory.

“Will you all shut !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^& up? I’m trying to get some sleep!”  Bruce complains and rolls back over.  The two boys went back to writing in the journal.

“When did you first feel the lack of not knowing?”

I don’t know.

“Since being with us?  Did you have this ‘not knowing’ with Strangelove?”

“I guess when you first asked me about !@$^@$!$@^^@%!$!$&^&”

“Since being with us, since studying the Strange and all the creatures of it.  Something scary, so scary nowhere could be safe.”  Rain mulled the problem through out loud.  On a whim he asked,  “Who is Nakarand?”

“The being behind the Spiral-eyes.”  Algernon replied simply.  This was in fact information Algernon himself had uncovered and shared.

Nope. Dead end.  

Rain rubbed stratch his head unconsciously.  He had run out of questions.  He knew Algernon had been studying creatures of The Strange, but when asked if he knew anything big and powerful he’d claimed to know nothing.  Was that this effect at work or was there genuinly nothing to know? As Algernon fell to silently watching the others rest, Rain brooded on the implication that vital information was somehow being deliberately withheld from within Algeron’s own mind.