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Musing 14: White flowers

The afternoon crowds through Celephais had thinned considerably from the time we’d slunk through with Mr…no...Lightfeather in a ‘crate’. Knowing that Theo was probably still about looking for his boss, I didn’t want to be out in public too long. We’d won a big victory for us by taking …Lightfeather,  I didn’t want to mess it up by being caught only hours later.  Besides, I wasn’t feeling so great after the day’s adventures, Theo had really rattled my loaf.

But there are things sometimes more important than a little discomfort. Traditions give us purpose and meaning, especially when they’re my traditions.

I remembered seeing a flower seller not far from the stalls full of fresh fruit and vegetables and hoped they hadn’t sold out or left for the day.  I slipped through the crowd as if I belonged, and after two days I was almost indistinguishable from the locals around me.  I didn’t draw attention to myself and only nod to those who recognised me and waved.  I was on a mission and would not be distracted.

As remembered, the stall was there, but due to the lateness of the day, they have precious little on offer.  Not that I’m particularly fussy. Over the years I have taken roses, poppies and even strawberry flowers.  One grim year I reluctantly picked onion weed growing in an unkempt corner of a city cemetery.  As long as the petals are white and the centre is green, or close enough.  Unfortunately, Celephais’ flowers, like their people, were a riot of colours that would brighten any home, but were not suitable for my purposes.  

“Excuse me mother, “ I called to the stallkeeper, an elderly woman packing up her last remaining blooms with the help of a strapping young grandson, “I find myself in need to a particular flower, do you know where I could find it?”  I described the flower and watched her expression change from late-in-the-day irritation, to interest to…sympathy?

“I see your need, young man.  Death does not wait for our convenience.” She gestured to the flowers around her and being loaded into a handcard, “But as you see, my blooms are for the living, I keep none for the dead, not in the Eternal city.  You should try the gentler slopes of Mount Aran,” And she pointed over my shoulder to an imposing snow-clad mountain that rose above the shining brass spires of the city, “That land is…inspired by another place I think.  There you will find the flowers you seek.”

I turned to look up at the mountain.  Its snowy peaks were menacingly steep, and the lower slopes were treeless and craggy.  It was not a friendly sight so late on a very long and exhausting day.  But there was no help for it.  I asked for advice for the best places to look from the old women and thanked her with a small gem before cutting across town to the nearest gate to the mountain.

Through an immaculately whitewashed city arch, a path of broken chalk lead up and around the mountain’s lower slopes in the direction of the sea.  At first, I only focused on the task at hand, I didn’t notice the landscape around me as I slipped further and further away from civilisation. Eventually, my mind wandered and I became aware of the white chalk giving away to grey spines of granite.  The sound of waves crashing around algae encrusted outcroppings, that protecting white sandy beaches could be heard before seen over the edge of a steep cliff and slowly I became aware that I knew this place. 

Thousands of miles and decades in the past, I walked slopes just like these on a rare trip to the sea for the foster children of the Morris household.  Without a thought,  I found my box in my hand, the compartment open and the shell I had found on that trip in my right hand. A small, now white scallop shell that had survived the decades and miles by being once hidden away in a puzzle box by a small boy.  

On a nearby rock, I found a seat and took in the view as the sun slowly sank into the waves, the moon following.  This was the Cornwall of my childhood, or a small slice of it, transplanted into an alien recursion.  The mix of past and present was dizzying (probably exacerbated by a knock to the head earlier) and for a moment, I could do nothing but take in the view, my mind focused on the moment.

That day, so many years ago had been a very good memory.  There had been a lot of darkness in between, much of it embodied in Lightfeather himself.  Today, right now was another good day and as I breathed out I felt the release of …a knot of tension, a burden I didn’t know I’d been carrying.  It left me to swirl around in the sea air before being carried off by the freshening off-shore breeze.

Eventually, like waking up, I took another breath and noticed a patch of ox-eyed daisies just like the ones we’d made daisy chains out of on that trip.  Placing the scallop shell down on the rock,  I slowly stood and took seven of the best blooms.  One I held up to the breeze letting it slowly slip from my fingers before it too was carried out over the cliff edge to the rocks below.

“In remembrance,” I whispered, the words even lost to me as a gust swept past and took those as well. 

The sun was low now, the moon dominated the darkening sky as I realised I was cold.  Carefully, I wrapped the other six bloom in a handkerchief and started the walk back to town. The path back was faster, as these things often are, and I was soon back at the warehouse, comforted by Bruce’s lecture about leaving the group.

“You didn’t even say where you were going?  Theo or Caw Eh Carve’s  men could have found you and we would have been none the wiser.”

I must admit I’d forgotten about Caw Eh Carve, he just didn’t seem to matter in the enormity of the day’s events.  I didn’t answer Bruce, just smiled and placed a bloom in a buttonhole of his tunic.

“What’s this?” He looked down at the flower suspiciously.

“When I looked at my notes this morning, I realised that today was 11th July.”

“What of it?”

“Well,” I took a breath, but the usual bittersweet tightness I usually felt at this question was not present, “I celebrate the 11 July as my birthday.”

“I thought you didn’t know…” Algernon said, having sidled over to hear my explanation.  I pulled another flower out and tucked it behind his ear.  

“I don’t,” I replied knowing that he’d look it up at his earliest convenience.

“Er…Thanks.”  Bruce fingering the flower as he felt the weight of the gesture, “But don’t go out alone again.”

I shook my head, “I just follow the path, Bruce. But I know I don’t follow it alone.”  

I found Peggy watching Eldin as he stirred in his bonds. The old thrill of fear was still there, but it was muted as if coming from far away.  I got Peggy’s attention before I started to place a flower in her dark curls.  She stiffened, and with a silent smile, I placed it in her hand instead.  

“You went out for this?”  She picked up the flower by the stem and spun it between her fingers.

I nodded.


I hunted a moment for the right words.  Falling back on that feeling of release, I answered, “Somethings need remembering, but they don’t need to be remembered with pain and…” I looked at Eldin, under our control, “they don’t need to define us.”

A small smile slipped out the side of her mouth as she placed the flower in her own hair.

“Happy Birthday.” She said.

Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons existbut because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman, Coraline

24. To stalk the hunter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“What of it?  It’s not important.” 

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

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

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

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

“And Railsea?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just saying it as I see it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it now, Rain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s your thing!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t have to attack me though.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, let’s do that!” 

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

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

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

“Am I missing something?”

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

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

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

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

They waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep in touch.

Rain put on the hat and disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“Bruce!  Little help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23. Old friends, new enemies

The party find themselves in Celephais under the roof of the Implausible Geographic Society.  With two ways ahead, follow the Lang or heading to London 1890.  Now they discuss what to do next with the old and new friends of Noel Hagan and Maximillian Von Candlestick III.


“What I don’t understand is why you spend so much time and effort chasing down this herb?” Algernon was still talking to Maximillian when the others, their interrogations now complete, joined them in a makeshift study and workspace.  Maximilian had been a font of information for the young man who was willing to sit and listen to the bombastic but insightful lectures of the older man.

“You see, though for many, the herbal concoction are completely harmless, there is a small number of the population that, when taking the herb in sufficient quantities, will…well let’s say it’s not so harmless.”

“So, they disappear.  But, I understand that adults get the right to choose on Earth.”

“Ah, well that is true, and if it were just the small numbers affected then we may let it go as a bit of harmless fun. Unfortunately, the Lang, for reasons of their own, are encouraging the addition of other drugs into the mix.  We know for a fact that they are paying James Moriarty and his group to do just that.  We don’t know why or for what purpose, and that’s what we’re here to find out.”  Maximilian gesticulated, pointing out into thin air to accentuate his point.

This is seemed logical reasoning for tracking down the suppliers of the drugs to Algernon who nodded  quietly before asking another question, “Why do they use the drug?”

“Escapism mostly, “ Bruce entered into the conversation followed by Rain. “Some find the realities of life hard to bear.  They find comfort in these alternative lives.  Forget their troubles for a while.”

“Like alcohol.”

“Yes, alcohol can be…”

“Like television.”

“I guess…”

“Like roleplaying.”

“I wouldn’t know….”

Rain changed the subject.

“So there’s a native herb of the Dreamlands, is that Bywandine?”

“No, not strictly.” Maximilian continued, “Bywandine is a concoction of the variegated leaf of the Dreamlands and opium.  Then, for reasons of their own, another additive is being incorporated by the Lang.”

“Is it addictive?”  Algernon asked, now grasping the essence of the problem. 

“Opium is, “ Bruce replied, “In itself and for the effect it has.  And the problem with addiction is you cease to have a choice.  These suppliers become…puppeteers, controlling their…customers.  They are no longer free, but enslaved  by the drug.”

“Okay, so why don’t we tell the authorities on Earth.  Let them deal with it?”

“When it comes to the opium, we do.”  Maximilian said, “They are usually better equipt to chasing down the drugs on Earth.  When it comes to the more exotic ingredients, especially this new development, we find it more convenient to investigate ourselves.”

“I see, I think  I understand.”  Algernon finally said.

This led to a lull in the conversation as Peggy walked up, flushed with victory over her captive, “So, where are the stork and the Lorax?” She asked before spotting Maximillian.  Behind her, Noel sauntered and looked around the group, a well-natured smile on his face.  She took one look at him and turned away, her expression a confusion of anger and loss.  Noel’s smile dropped and he took a place beside Maximilian, across the room from Peggy.

“You know Algernon, “Peggy turned her attention to Algernon so suddenly, Algernon nearly jumped and ran, “I’ve just realised I have no idea why you’re here.  You didn’t understand the implication of the drugs on Earth, nor would you care.  What is your motivation, Algernon?”

Algernon just stared back through his shaggy black hair,  his eyes large and unknowing.

“What do you care about?”  She asked again, not to be put off.  


“There’s got to be more to life than survival.” Rain interjected before being hushed by Peggy.

“Is there anything you’d give up your survival for?”

“Not willingly,” Algenon admitted uncomfortably.

“Okay.”  Peggy was now warming up to the subject. Algernon had remained inscrutable as the day the group first met.  Usually, he found an excuse to leave or just ran away.  With neither option open to him, he had to face the questioning.

“What if it wasn’t your life at risk, but the quality of your life?  If Rain or Bruce were in danger, it would be a loss to you, wouldn’t it?”

Rain watched from the sidelines of the conversation, fascinated and uncomfortable forAlgernon at the same time.  At the mention of either Rain or Bruce being in danger, Bruce’s eyebrows raised in interest as he turned to also pay attention to Algernon’s response.  Algenon remained silent, seemingly unable to make sense of her question.

“Maybe something more general, “Bruce suggested, “How about the Trolley problem.  There’s a trolley out of control on a set of tracks leading to a switch.  If the trolley were to continue it would hit five people working, but on another connected line, there is only one person working.  Do you  let the tram roll through the five or do you use the switch and move the tram to the second track killing the one?”

“Ha, that’s easy you send it down the second line.  Unless of course, Noel is part of the group of five then let hell rain down on them, I say.” Peggy replied her fury bubbling to the surface.

“You seem bitter,”  Noel said unprepared for Peggy’s wrath.

“I seem bitter?  I lost the last ten years of my life and not a peep from you.  I thought I could trust you, I can’t believe how wrong I was.”

Noel and Maximillian made themselves scarce and watched over the captives.

“Yeah, I’m scary now,”  Peggy said low after the retreating geographer.

“Now,”  Algernon replied quietly so she didn’t hear.

Rain tried to forget Noel’s discomfort and steered the conversation back to the problem, “To the one.  There’s no way I could move five people alone, but one I could…I think…sure, I’d do whatever I could to save the one from the trolley.”

“I of course, “ Bruce added his own opinion, “have worked too long in industrial safety and see too many die and get hurt.  It is always what is safest for the majority that matters.”

The group turned to Algernon who looked completely unsure what to say next.

“Look, let me make it simple,” Peggy said when it was clear Algernon was not going to give an opinion, “Who would you save, me or Rain?”

At this Rain pulled Peggy aside a little and said, “ Are you so sure I’m higher in his estimations?”

“Of course, he seeks you out, you work on projects together.  Not once has he willingly joined me in my lab.”

“As if you’d want him there…”

“What does that matter…”

“Stop it, both of you, “ Bruce said and Peggy and Rain fell silent, “It’s like watching parents fighting.  He’s just a kid, he’s still working out this stuff.”

“Okay, forget it, Algernon, it’s not important.”  Rain sighed himself, “What is important is what we’re doing next, go to London 1890 or find a way to the Moon?”

“I want to go to the market.”  Algernon countered and Rain couldn’t help but smile.

“A good short term goal, I like it.”

All ethical discussion put on hold, the group informed Maximillian and Noel about shopping for cyphers and anything else of use.  Noel instantly offered Maximillian and himself to stay and look after the captives. 

“That’s very chivalrous of you, Noel, thank you.” Rain made a point of the gesture.  Peggy scowled and started walking out of the warehouse.  

“She seems…so bitter.  She’s not how I  remember. She use to be so full of vision and big ideas,” Noel said quietly when Peggy was out of earshot.

“I admit I find it hard imagining the Peggy you knew.  When we found her she was dressed in ugg boots and a homemade hazmat suit, paranoid about creatures from underground coming to get her.  You know, she set up a static blast mine beside her front door?  Wouldn’t let me help her with her invention for fear of what I’d do to it.”

Again, to the soft-hearted academic’s credit, his expression showed the utter grief that Rain’s words had,

“I had no idea.  I was told I couldn’t go back, that the world was better believing I was dead.”

“I don’t blame you.”  Rain comforted him, “but your absence did not help.  Besides, the old Peggy full of ideas is still there.  In that garage, out of scrounged and stolen parts she made a machine that connects to The Strange.  It’s how we came together, being pulled into a recursion by her machine.”

“I see she is a real asset to your group.”

“Truthfully, I think she’s the only reason I’m allowed into the Estate at all.”  Rain grinned sheepishly, “Look, just be your best self.  She can hold a grudge but not against common sense.”
“But she’s so angry…”

“She was this angry with us, not so long ago.” Rain laughed nervously, clearly remembering how close they’d come to losing her in the ruins of Sarkomand. “The magnitude of her anger is only an expression of how much you meant to her.  Give her time and she’ll remember the good as well.”

Back into the dusty bustling market streets of Celephais, the group split up.  Algernon and Rain (on Bruce’s insistence that the ‘…kid needed a chaperone…”) and Bruce and Peggy. As soon as it was convenient though, he split from her as well.

Algernon searched the stalls for things that spoke to him of The Strange.  There were silks and bright coloured fabrics, exotic animals and unusual foods, but nothing that could be a useful cypher for Algernon’s collection.  

“There’s nothing here.” Algernon finally admitted as Rain looked about at the buildings around them.

“Well, you know when I hit a dead-end, I look for a new perspective.”  He said pointing up to the rooftops.

“Alright,”  Algernon replied and followed Rain to one of the many alleys that lead from the markets.  Here Rain started a quick sprint, running up the wall a couple of metres before grabbing a terracotta guttering and throwing himself up another metre.  He was about to grab for another handhold when an invisible force pushed him up and he clattered onto the terracotta tiles, a child dumped by a parent’s strength.  

“You know I’m already insanely jealous of your abilities.”  He chided Algernon from above as Algernon dropped his arms from levitating Rain and pushed them both down to the ground.

“You’ve not seen anything yet,”  Algernon replied as a shimmering ball of force encircled him and he started to rise from the ground.  With a level of control he hadn’t shown before, he levitated up to the roofline and dropped down beside Rain, who applauded.

“Right!  Flight and shield.  You do know that’s like one and two on the superheroes most wanted superpowers list.”  

Together they took in the breathtaking vista that is Celephais. Algernon noted where the gates and harbour connected to main streets. Where the cluster of large civic buildings stood and the shortcuts in between them all.  Rain took in the beauty of the white walls, the bronze rooftops and the blue sea and sky.  

“You know, you’re right about this place.  It never ages or spoils.”  Rain finally said, “Nothing lasts forever.”

Though only early afternoon, the moon was  large in the sky and it attracted the currently philosophical Rain.  It looked no different from the moon back on Earth, though its dominance of the sky, even in the day, was unusual.

“We might be going there soon.”  He said, glancing over at Algernon who seemed to be memorising the city.

“Yeah,”  Algernon replied.

“Just yeah, Not wow, amazing, exciting or scary?”

“It’s just another place.”

“Exactly, new place, new start, new everything.”

“New dangers.”

“Those too.”

While the boys overlooked the city from on high, Bruce was working his way back to the stall where he’d found the journal.  That there was an artifact at all was incredible, that he should find it seemed to be a type of miracle.  Bruce believed in miracles and wasn’t about to waste this one with wondering.  

When he found the stall, the stall owner was packing up for the day and had time to chat to a customer, especially one who had paid so well.

“Where did you get this book from?”

“Let’s see, a few months ago.  A military man came by and sold me a few things, one of them being that journal.”  The merchant turned to his packs and started rummaging.

“Can you remember if he looked like me?”  Bruce asked, interrupting the searching, “Older obviously.”

“No, he was shorter than you and held himself very stiffly and correct, military.”  

The trader pulled out three items, a set of rusty tools, a folded map and a military uniform. The tools were nondescript, but the folded map was of the trackways of Railsea and the uniform was also familiar from Railsea.

“Remember anything else about the guy?”

“Yes, we chatted for a while.  He was selling all this because he’d found himself a new employer.  Oh, which reminds me…” The merchants went back to his packs and pulled out a small worn book, “He was joining a group called The Found Gentlemen and said he wouldn’t need this stuff any more.”  He handed Bruce the small book which was stamped in worn gold leaf, Manikiki Fero Navy Recruiters’ Handbook.

“I’ll take the lot.” Bruce pulled out his collection of gems without quibble and paid what was requested.  Picking up the uniform he noticed a name stitched carefully into the collar of the jacket.

Rundat Tu Vin

It meant nothing, at the moment.  Bruce carefully packed the motley collection of Railsea items and started back.  Now he had secured all he could about the journal, Bruce scanned the stalls for interesting items, something to show for his time in the markets.  At one stall a black featureless cube caught his attention.  It was too plain, but also far too finely made to be local.

“What is this thing?” He asked the stall owner who was quick to spot his interest.

“Pretty isn’t it, such an unusual and rare item.”  The guy obviously had no idea what it was.  

“Not pretty, but Strange,” Bruce replied and paid full price and continued on his way.

Peggy had been doing much the same thing as Algernon, scanning the stalls. With her newfound ability, she was able to pick out items quickly and had found a headband and a hat that both shimmered with The Strange.  She was able to knock down the price on the headband, but the hat was too generally useful for the seller to bargain it down.  She was just stowing her purchases when Bruce truned up with the black cube. Peggy shared her cyphers with Bruce and together they started walking back to the warehouse.

“I’ve been thinking about the onyx that came out of the Lang, “Algernon said as he and Rain sat watching Celephais life roll on beneath them, “I think it would be worth a good amount in the local currency.”

“Do you want to find out what it’s worth?” Rain asked and shuddered, “It certainly bothers me that the local currency is made of people’s souls.”

“Yes,” Algernon responded grimly, perhaps finding something worth investigating. “So, what next?”

A childish smile lighted Rain’s face as he tagged Algernon and leapt away lightly, “Chase me!”  He said and recklessly sprinted across the rooftop for the edge.  Algernon flared his shield into existence and followed in pursuit.

On the relatively flat surface of the roof, Algernon’s longer legs had the advantage.  As soon as Rain jumped a gap between buildings, rolling on impact and landing on his feet, Algernon faltered.  Pushing against the roof with his levitation, Algernon propelled himself across the gap, missed the roof and smashed through the wall into a residential apartment.  

A couple, relaxing from the heat of the day in their loungeroom,  were showered in plaster, dust and bricks and Algernon.  Turning back at the crashing noise, Rain leaned out over the eaves to the disaster created.  Now weakened, the roof under Rain groaned and buckled and he too fell into the room with cascading tiles and roof beams.

“Wha….what are you doing here?” The owner said, gaining his feet in the midst of devastation. 

“That’s exactly the question I’d like to know,” Rain jumped up equally as quickly and looked down at Algernon, “What are we doing here?  Algernon, to the door, double time.” He barked before turning back to the homeowners a wave of The Strange penetrating his words, “ I suggest, as you were citizens, military maneuver in operation.”  He said and quickly followed the retreating Algernon out the door.

In the crowded market, the boys found a feeling of safety and a jeweller.  Algernon held out the gem and Rain, squeamish at its origins, took it up in a silk handkerchief that appeared from nowhere. With the cool gem now on his person, Rain stepped up to the stall as Algernon walked on a little, already scanning the surface thoughts of the shopkeeper.

“Ah, yes young sir, has something caught your eye?” The shopkeeper smooth patter washed over Rain who smiled politely and pulled out the silk.

“Good day to you sir, I have an unusual gem and I was hoping you could tell me its providence and value with the option to purchase?”  He replied smoothly back as he lay out the silk revealing the black gem at its colourful centre.

What the….no….it is!…oh the gods…

Algernon couldn’t help turning around the watch the shopkeepers face go through a mixture of emotions, mostly fear and anxiety.  Rain saw the same expressions and understood that knowledge of the origin of the gems was known to the public of Celephais.  

The shopkeeper cleared his throat and attempted to control his expressions before speaking again, “And where did you find such a specimen?”

“I travel extensively.  I believe that one came from ruins across the sea.”  

This is not safe, I don’t want anything to do with it…

“Ah, no I’m not interested, sorry.”  The shopkeeper pushed the stone back to Rain.

“What a shame. Could you advise me on who can speak to about this gem?”

The shopkeeper’s thoughts were a jumble of anxiety, he wanted the gem gone and quick.  And then a solution came to him.

He’s dodgy.  I don’t like him anyway.  Algernon picked up before he said to Rain.

“Well yes, there is a gentleman jeweller down at the docks who specialises in the…more exotic gems.  He may be interested in your bauble.”

Thanking the jeweller who physically relaxed as Rain stepped away from the stall and started down the hill to the docks.  Algernon soon caught up and they exchanged notes.

“He didn’t like it, did he.” Rain said sensing his friend beside him.

“No.  He knew what it was, but never even spoke it to himself.”

“How about the recommended jeweller?”
“Not trustworthy.”

“Well, that’s fine. I’m not trustworthy.”

“So, we’re going?”

“We have to go that way anyway.”

“Do I have to ask, is it safe?”

Rain smiled and did not reply.

Bruce and Peggy were almost to the docks when both were stopped in their tracks by a sight they hadn’t expected to see in Dreamland.  Eldin Lightfeather and his goon in a bowler hat talking to a vegetable seller.  Peggy slipped on her latest cypher, a hat, and touched a local walking the other way.  Instantly, she looked exactly like them, clothes and all.  Bruce stepped back behind some stalls to watch the two known denizens of Crows Hollow, haggle with the farmer.

“Do you  want to sneak by him?”  Bruce asked as they watched a bag of gems being exchanged for a basket of leaves. 

“What!?  Are you crazy?” Peggy rounded on him using the face of another, “I can’t go near them, those are the ones that stabbed me!”  

Peggy stared at the two supposed men in front of her and their forms wavered and dissolved.  Past the form taken in Dreamland, their true natures were revealed, that of bird-headed men.  Men just like the skeleton she had found with Noel ten years ago!  Her mind boggled at the implications that the people of Crow’s Hollow had been interfering in humanity for millennia!

“Can’t we hide or go around through the side streets?” She asked.

“But you have the perfect disguise right now.  We should sneak back and see what he’s up to.”

“But I’m not that good at stealth.”  She whined, uncharacteristically.  

Bruce tapped her on the arm, connecting them together telepathically.

You just have to follow them, trust in your disguise.  I’ll be right behind you.

Fine, but you owe me. She replied, as she stepped back into the flow of the crowd and headed towards Lightfeather and his companion.

Hanging back, Bruce kept his bulk well hidden while still keeping in touch with what was going on.

Stiff and unnatural, Peggy as the local walked up to a stall nearby and pretended to sort through the wares on offer.  She could see now that the leaves exchanged were purple with orange variegation to them, just like the ones described by Maximillian.  So this is how Lightfeather picked up his supply of Bywandine.  It seemed odd even to Peggy that someone so respected was doing such a simple low-level task.  But, she was unable to bring herself to step closer to hear what they were talking about.

I wonder where his hideout is here?  Bruce thought, startling Peggy.

So I have to follow Lightfeather?!  Can’t I just follow the farmer instead?

He’s not going to tell us what we need to know.  Do what you can, Peggy.

As soon as Lightfeather and companion looked to leave, Peggy steeled herself with a deep breath in and followed at a distance.  She could see them chatting, but once more she was too far away to hear and couldn’t bring herself to move closer.  Soon the duo turned down an alleyway that was relatively unpopulated compared to the markets and Peggy didn’t feel she could keep up the tail.  

Okay, double back.  I’ll meet you at the farmer. Came Bruce’s resigned reply.

The farmer was unloading produce to a market stall when Peggy and Bruce finally met up again.  Bruce, leaned on the cart and waited to be noticed.

“Er…can I help you?” The farmer asked, a little concern in his voice.

“You had dealings with a friend of mine.” Bruce replied cheerily, “You gave him leaves and he gave you a big bag of gems.”

“I…I have a lot of herbs.” The farmer gestured to his handcart which was full of many varieties of herbs and fresh vegetables.

“This would be a specific herb. Where did you get them from?”

“My farm…out of town…”
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of herb for a lot of gems.  Are they rare?”

“No…they grow wild…just no one else seems to want them.”

“What are they used for?”

“They’re said to be medicinal.  They’re used by some who Dreamwalk.”

Though he knew the herb was for Dreamwalking on Earth, Bruce hadn’t considered it could be used from this side too.

“Can you use it to Dreamwalk?”  He asked the farmer who shook his head.

“Never tried.”

“Do you have any more, I could pop by your farm to pick it up.”  Bruce smiled and scared the farmer even more.

“Why would I want you at my farm, you scare me.”  He said clearly putting his cart between himself and his brute of a man.

“Well, then I’ll scare you and still pop by.  Why not make this easier and faster and just give me your address.”

The farmer gave directions to his farm.

Peggy and Bruce walked away now back to the warehouse with what they had discovered.

The jeweller worked out of a small shop front at the docks.  Algernon and Rain had already walked by once and glanced in to see a figure wearing a turban sitting at a display case.  Algernon stationed himself just outside the window to the store and scanned the individual’s thoughts.

Ah, the black ships.  I wonder if they’ll bring me some of their lovely rubies, It thought covetously.

“Are you sure you’re okay going in alone?” He asked Rain.  

Rain actually thought for a moment, straightened up a little and smiled, pleased to know that someone had his back.

“Don’t worry, this is what I do.”  He replied, and entered the shop.

Behind the counter, the turbaned individual displayed a creepy smile as Rain entered.  Rain thought nothing of it, the room was dark and the reputation of the individual did not lead him to think he was dealing with an honest gentleman.  He put his best and most charming face on and stepped up to the counter.

“Good afternoon, you have been recommended to me by a fellow jeweller in the marketplace.” Rain started, buttering up his target who didn’t seem that interested in the praise.

“Indeed, and how can I be of assistance today?”

“I came across this interesting gem, and the last dealer refused to identify it for me.”  Rain pulled out the silk hanky and lay out the black gem in front of the dealer.

But how! Algernon instantly picked up from the jeweller’s surface thoughts, I must save them!

Rain too noticed the pause and was ready for the fake smile and brush off when it came, 

“I’m afraid this is just a rather pretty onyx, common in certain parts.”

Rain took a breath and drew on his link with The Strange to suggest a new course of action to the shopkeeper, “I suggest, you could buy this gem if you’re honest with me.” He said quietly without menace or threat.  To his frustration, the shopkeeper seemed to brush off the Suggestion.

“But I am being honest, friend.”  The jeweller replied simply, but Rain could see the avarice, he wanted the stone.

“What a shame, I guess I’ll just keep it then.” He said, Sleight of hand the gem and silk back where it had come from before turning to leave.

“Oh, don’t leave so soon.  I am still interested in your…bauble.  Please, sit and drink with me a moment while I consider an offer.”  The jeweller said and Rain smiled quietly to himself before returning to sit down, return the gem to the counter and accept the offered drink. 

Outside, Algernon picked the surface thought of the jeweller and grew concerned.

He’ll give them to me after a few of these, no one has tolerance for the drink like me.

Inside the cherry coloured liquor was poured from a small cut crystal bottle and handed across the counter to Rain who accepted it gladly.

“What an unusual cordial, “ He said, breathing in the drink and noting it’s potency.  He took a good sip of the liquid before dabbing his lips with another silk handkerchief, allowing the liquid to absorb into the cloth.

“Yes, it is a personal favourite,” The jeweller grinned again and started a waffling tale of where the onyx is mined in mountains…

“…North of the Lost City of Zin…”

Rain listened patiently, sipping and palming the liquor as he thought through what he could do next.  He’d finished the glass before he’d thought of a new plan.

Outside, Algernon heard the frustration of the jeweller and his concern rose.

He should be more affected by now.

“Would you like another?” The jeweller offered up the cut crystal bottle, and Rain held out the glass with a smile.

“Love one.”

Inside, Rain’s mind was going through all the options.  

What I want to happen,  He thought, Is for this guy to get so drunk that he sees me as his best friend and tells me what I want to know.  Amongst the thought, The energies of The Strange played and twisted working subtly on the scene.

Outside, Algernon listening to the thoughts of the jeweller, was dismayed when the signal became faint and distant.  Looking in through the window he could see both Rain and the jeweller still sitting at the counter, perfectly still.

For Rain and the jeweller, it was a lovely afternoon chatting with a friend.  The jeweller was significantly more drunk than he thought he should be, but the man across the way was harmless, charming and completely sober.    The jeweller looked at his glass and tried focusing his thoughts.

“Don’t…don’t worry about the gem… I’ll keep them safe.” He said

Them?  “They’re people?” Rain asked, pleased that somehow his wild imaginings had become real.

The jeweller nodded drunkenly, “A black onyx such as this, is the soul of one of my countrymen.”

Countrymen? Rain thought, knowing full well the gem had come from the Lang Algernon had killed.  He looked again at the jeweller and physically blanched realising that under the turban, jeweller’s white gloves and the weirdly creepy grin, the jeweller was indeed a Lang.  

Stupid, stupid, stupid! He thought to himself as he pulled out a few of the red sapphires from his purse.

“So Lang soul’s make onyx, while my countrymen make these.”

“Stupid monkies….yes, yes.  But what do they matter?”  The jeweller replied completely oblivious to what he was saying.

“They matter, “Rain gestured to the red gems in his hand, “Because this matters.” Pointing to the onyx, “And they are the same.”

“A monkey would think that.” The jeweller mumbled, “The black gem…he really matters.  You…you’re just useful as gems and then meat and nothing more.”

“And why do you matter?” Rain asked now, all his attention fixed on the drunk Lang, “What is the purpose of Lang?”

“We are the true servants of the masters.  You’d be barely a meal.” The Lang giggled at his joke at Rain’s expense.  Disregarding the jibe, Rain continued,


“The Moonbeasts.”

“And their Master?”

“They serve the Dark god, Nyarlathotep.”

“Tell me about the  Dark god.”

Outside, Algernon was now very worried.  He could see that neither the jeweller nor Rain had moved for several minutes.  Finally, he entered the store and walked up to Rain slumped unconscious in his seat, a rye smile on his lips.  A across the counter the Lang was also unconscious seemingly talking quietly in his sleep.  Shaking his head, at the crazy abilities of the little conman, he leapt across the counter and quickly searched.   Tucked away for easy access were two daggers with serrated edges that he quickly pocketed.  Stashed away under the counter he found a small box containing three red gems of the sort they had become accustomed to seeing, and a small black sphere.  A tingling in his scalp made him aware of the presence of The Strange and he quickly snapped up all four with a free cloth and quickly leapt back over the counter and left Rain to whatever he was doing.

“So, is there any hope for your countrymen, for ones turned to gems?” Rain asked now realising that there may be more lives that could be saved than just the herb and spiral dust users.

“It is up to the Moonbeasts. If they are willing…” The Lang petered out, he was more than a little drunk now. Rain had heard enough anyway. This latest illusion had served its purpose.  With a release of The Strange the shared dream dissipated and he and the Lang found themself sitting across from each other, the onyx between.

“Well, what a charming afternoon.  I’m sorry we couldn’t do business today…” Rain said moving to take back the onyx and the silk it lay upon. With a violent suddenness, the Lang snatched at the onyx, too slow for Rain’s quick hands who made the gem disappear.

The jeweller, now reached for his trusty daggers kept for the purpose of thieves.  Neither was where he’d left them and his mind turned to the precious item he kept hidden in a box under the counter. Sure enough, those too was missing.

I the meantime, Rain had got up and had the door open as the Lang climbed over his counter and lunged at the retreating back of the human.  Dropping down and rolling forward, Rain dodged the Lang attack who was now on all fours and looking far more like the beast than the gentile shopkeeper.  Again the Lang went to chase after Rain, but this time Algernon was ready and caught hold of it midstride.  He pushed it out over the docks and as soon as he was over the water, let the levitation force go and the Lang dropped with a splash into the harbour.

Rain tipped his hat to Algernon and silently they left, making it back to the warehouse before dark. 

That night, the group debriefed on their afternoon out in Celephais.  Bruce and Peggy shared their information about Lightfeather that made Rain go so quiet he almost forgot to mention his adventure with the Lang jeweller until Algernon prompted him.  Algernon showed the sphere he’d found in the store to Peggy.

“I know this, “ She said, surprised to find it here of all places, “It’s what was left of thonic.  Hertzfeld has been experimenting with one for his phasing project.”

No mention was made of the book that had so taken Bruce’s interest, and Rain made a note to corner Bruce about it sometime very soon.

22. Celephais

Out from the dark tunnels of the ghouls and the gugs, the group are blinded by the whitewashed walls and brass minarettes of Celephais, a human city on the other side of the sea. After days of rough travel, some of the party are looking forward to the comfort and familiarity of city living.  For Peggy, Celephais was the last destination of the long lost Noel Hagan and confrontation with shadows from her past.


“I’m telling you I can’t be seen in public like this, look at me.”  Rain complained as the group left the stone steps leading off the cliffside and entered the city of Celephais proper.  Whitewashed wall of stunning beauty lined the narrow alleyway of cobblestone.  The city had the look of a place newly renovated, the grime of city living covered by a new coat of paint.  

In contrast, the party was a mess. After three days of hard travel, their clothes were sour and dusty, many had bloodstains from their numerous fights and none had bathed in days.  Rain was most affected. Usually decently metrosexually presented, his white rainbow suit that he’d been so pleased within Halloween,  had not weathered the days of travel and battle well.  Crumpled, rumpled and dirty, with a large tear on the shoulder from the aurumuorax attack he was mortified at the thought of having to interact with people in this condition.

“They may be all Lang and bad, so it won’t matter.” Said Bruce glancing around at windows and doorways looking for the life of this city.  The low mumble of voices was slowly increasing as they moved closer to the heart of this civilisation.

“That’s even worse, how can you face an enemy down looking like a bagman.”

Soon the alleyway opened up into the main thoroughfare and the group saw Celephais for the first time.  The city was a bustling, happy enough community of humans.  Everywhere people were going about their everyday lives, chatting, bartering, arguing, carousing.  Their style of clothing marked this community as inspired by the middle east.  Men wore long loose robes like thobe with loose pants beneath. Women’s dress was more decorative but equally loose gowns with long colourful shawls they used to protect themselves from the sun’s glare.

The city was busy, vibrant and beautiful. Bruce and Rain looked out at the colour and life with a renewed sense of adventure.  Peggy was blind to everything except tall lanky men. With nervous excitement and not a little trepidation, she expected to see him at a stall or turning and corner and her stomach would do summersaults or make her feel sick in equal measure. Only Algernon looked out at the beauty of the city and scowled.  

“It seems too…nice.”  He grumbled behind the group as they spotted a bathhouse, decorated in colourful glazed tiles.  Rain made straight for the entrance as the other more circumspectly picked their way through the crowd.  

“I don’t want to go to the baths.” Algernon protested after Bruce and Peggy had completed their own self-assessment and felt a bath was in order.  Peggy turned to Algernon who instantly flinched away covering his ears.

“No, I will refrain from pulling your ears if you will join us for a bath like a civilised person.” She said, stunning Algernon who quickly complied in case there was a hidden catch.

As with other recursions, the group found they have the local currency, a collection of red gems.

“Oh, and I’d love a set of your local garb, do you think that could be arranged?” Rain asked, stripping off his coat there in the foyer.

“Ah, we’d love new clothes.”  Bruce altered and Rain negotiated a price.  It was more than he wanted to pay, but the baths awaited and he didn’t try too hard to negotiate.

Surprisingly, the baths were open and men and women bathed together.  Rain and Algernon did not waste time and were soon amongst a group of young chatty women. Bruce looked at the small bathing towels on offer.

“I think you should know that I’m bigger than this.”  He then saw Peggy and pointed her out to the other two.  She alone stood at the side of the baths fully dressed with a towel in front of her.  With a moment’s thought and a theatrical wave of a wrist, Rain made a screen of opaque material around her so she could undress in privacy.  Soon she was also out in the pool, a little distance from the others a towel firmly wrapped around her.

“So, have you sussed out the local customs in regards to seducing local women?”  Bruce said by way of reproach to Rain who would have none of it.  The was in his element, and with a sly smile, he replied.

“No, what me to ask for you?”

A large blonde headed man rippling with muscles joined the group and was soon chatting comfortably with the girls.  From her quieter corner of the pool, Peggy could see a shimmer, something like a heat haze around the well-manicured Viking.  As she watched him, her vision seemed to pierce an illusion and beyond the muscles, she could see another human, very similar in appearance, with less bulk to him.  Her instincts told her he was not from around here, but a traveller like themselves.  Carefully, she made her way over to the group and touched Rain’s arm.

“I’m done here, I’ll see you outside.”  She said ignoring the cool stares from the girls in the group.  In her head she pointed out their nordic friend, “He’s not what he seems?”

“Thanks, Peggy, see you outside then,”  He replied and quietly meeped a message to Algernon sharing Peggy’s suspicions.

“Oh, so you speak the language of the ghouls.” The Nord commented conversationally and instantly Rain thought they were caught out.

“You speak ghoul?!”  It had taken both Algernon’s knowledge and Rain’s knack for language to decipher the meep, clicks and chirps of the ghoul.  Even then, it had taken Alfred’s friendship and a large meat meal to ingratiate to ghoul to them.

“Oh no,  I can’t speak it.  I’ve heard it in the catacombs under the blighted city.  How is it you are fluent?”

“Algernon here has studied languages extensively and I tend to pick languages up like bad penny’s.” Rain relaxed back into the pool, pleased to be able to show off their abilities, even as Algernon scowled at the openly sharing of such information. “We’ve only just come from there.”

“Ah, “He also laid back in the warmth of the water and seemed to relax, “Yes, I ended that dream pretty quickly, there are more interesting places to visit than that ruin.  The name’s Anders Ohlson.”  The Nord reached out a hand in the standard western gesture and Rain reached across and took it.

“Pavel, so you are Herb user?”
“Are there other ways of travelling?”

“Several, we use a…group meditation.”  Rain ad-libbed. It wasn’t far from the truth and avoided having to answer other questions about the spark, “Where are you from?”

“I live in New York,” Anders replied and Rain internally dithered.  His old workplace was a known provider of the dreamwalkers herb, it was likely they knew the same people.

“Ha, all the way the other side of…wherever we are and we meet…neighbours.  Well, across the country. We’re from Seattle.”

“New Orleans,” Bruce the proud southerner, intended to be properly identified no matter what Rain’s mischief.

Peggy was soon back in her sodden towel.  Their clothes were not ready so she was confined to the bathhouse if she liked it or not. Having now been introduced to Anders she joined the others in the bath.

“What other places have you travelled to, Mr Ohlsen?”  Bruce asked and Anders sat back and thought.

“The Vaults of Zin, Ulthar, that’s another lovely town, but my favourite so far has to be Celephais.  Time seems to work a little differently here.”

Algernon, who had not been shy about his dislike for this new city, finally asked the group, “But, don’t you think this place is icky?” 

Rain thought for a moment.  He was usually good at seeing through lies and illusions, having made so many himself. Nothing seemed amissed except the fact that everything did seem very clean and well kept.  I was like Anders had said, time seemed to work a little differently there.  In the end he could only shake his head and shrug.  

“We’re following two friends who arrived here a couple of weeks ago.”  Giving no names, Peggy described Noel and his moustached companion.

“The shorter one, yes I’ve seen him around.  He was out in the market place only an hour ago.”

Peggy instantly became agitated. She wanted out, but without clothing was stuck.  

“Tell me, how often do you use the herb?” 

“Whenever I can afford it.” He said, seemingly deflecting the question.  Algernon scanned his surface thoughts and found a worry that there may be a problem with supply.  

He wanted to know about the herb as well, He thought and an image of a moustache man in a pith helmet flashed in his mind.

Meanwhile, Rain was putting on the charm and Anders seemed to relax his position on telling these strangers his secrets, “In New York?  Where do you get it from?”

“I get my Bywandine from a  barman at a nightclub called The Last Shot.” Refraining from wincing, Rain could hear Peggy thinking about the herbs, her mind linked to something beyond.

Bywandine…bywandine…what is there to know?  

In response, an answer in Peggy’s own mental voice replied, 

A herbal concoction made of opium and plants from the Dreamlands.  There was no spiral dust in the mix at all.  It was now clear that there were two distinct drugs and one was much older than the other, at least in its use on Earth.  

“I’m curious, “  Bruce asked as Rain shared Peggy’s information with Algernon, “Do you ever get hurt while dreaming?”

“No, I tend to leave the dream before it gets serious.” He looked at the group and their collection of scars and scrapes, “Are you telling me that you travelled through the catacombs knowing you could get hurt?”
Rain looked to the others before admitting, “We do not dream these worlds, we walk them for real.  There’s no part of us back at home unconscious and safe.  But I’d suggest that death here could be as serious for you as it would be for us.”

“Yes…” Anders looked at the group as if with new eyes. “You all are braver than you look.”

By this time the whole group were more relaxed with their new friend.

“You may want to know that we met a friend of mine among the ghoul.  He, like you travelled using the Bywandine and one trip he got stuck, he thought he’d had a bad lot of herb.”

“Bad herbs?” Now Anders looked concerned, “I didn’t know that could happen, who was this friend?”

“A Seattle local, you wouldn’t know him.” Rain lied smoothly only to be berated by Peggy in his mind.

Why not tell him the guys name, what is it going to hurt?

Too close to home.  They both bought the drugs from the Last Shot so it’s not unreasonable to imagine they could have met.

“His name was Brian,” Peggy told Anders and Rain mentally rolled his eyes.

He was Alfred, you met the man.

“Oh sorry, Alfred.” She apologised and Rain could only sink into the hot water of the bath.

“Yeah,  I think that Rain…ah Pavel forgets who he is sometimes,” Bruce added.  Rain considered drowning.  “So how do you travel via the herbs?”

“Well, mostly I climb the seventy steps of Light Slumber and walk through the Cavern of Flame, but sometimes I come here directly.”

“You mean you get to choose where you go?”

“If I think about it.”

“Where would you recommend going here in Celephais?”
“There’s the Turquoise Temple, the bathhouses of course, the ocean view from the docks is quite lovely, but stay away from the Black Galleys from Sarkomand.”

“We saw those,” Peggy said remembering the line of people being ushered onto the ships, “They’re slavers, do they trade in slaves here too?”

“No…” Anders baulked when he heard this new information, “They mostly trade red gems for general goods, food, supplies of onyx.”

Algernon and Rain looked at each other at the mention of onyx remembering the gem that the dead Lang had coughed up.  Rain shared that image with Peggy who shared some information of her own.

The red gems, they make them from the human slaves.

Rain went gray at the thought and even Bruce noticed that there was something wrong.

“They’re made of people.” He meeped to Algernon who doesn’t seem surprised.

“They probably do it through the burns.” He meeped back, and instantly Rain translated it to Peggy.

As Bruce was out of the link, he had been thinking about what Algernon had said about the city feeling wrong. 

“Algernon, tell me more about the ‘icky’ feeling of yours?” He said off to one side, away from the rest.

“It’s too nice.” Algernon scowled distrustfully of the seeming beauty around him, “there’s always a trade off.  It’s not right.”

“There are stories that they sail to the moon in those black ships.” Anders was telling the group, “ I met a guy who went there.  He’d been kidnapped by the Lang, but he was eventually freed by a group of cats.  What was his name…Randolph…Carter.”

“Cats?” Bruce said, thinking back to the cat that had spoken to Peggy, “Why, what was he doing on the moon?”

“He was obsessed with finding some place, a city of the gods called Kadarth.  He was captured on his way there and taken to the moon.”

A bathhouse attendant walked over and informed the group that their clothing was ready for them whenever they had finished. Peggy couldn’t wait and left directly without a goodbye or thanks to the informative Anders Olhson.  Bruce and Rain gave their goodbyes to Anders as well as the ladies that had made the hour or so such a delight.  Algernon asked Anders for his email address, which he gladly gave the young man with a promise to keep in touch once they were back Earthside again. 

When the men joined Peggy in the changing rooms she was already fully dressed in a long loose-fitting robe in a tan colour.  Around the v-necked collar and tight cuffs, lavish embroidery in silk featured pastel flowers.  Underneath she wore harem pants, but nothing would part her from her Doc Martens which looked a little idiosyncratic contrasted with the light flowing material.  The men were all in simple long tunics and trousers in various pastel colours, again tight only at the cuffs and ankles.  Bruce shifted and growled about wearing a dress and Rain preened in front of a polished bronze mirror.

“You know, I could get use to this, “Rain mused, “lots of room for pockets and I make it look good.”

“Hey, so do I.”  Bruce stood beside his diminutive friend in the mirror, the usually loose fitting tunic stretching tight across his chest and biceps.  He tried moving the tunic around to get it to sit on his heavy frame.

“You would if you stopped fidgeting.” Rain turned and straightened Bruce’s collar, pulled uneven.

Once back on the street the group were happy for the new lightweight clothing.  As the day advanced, the heat and light of a sun directly above baked the open city streets.  Following the directions given by Anders they soon found some relief in the marketplace, a semi-covered group of narrow alleyways and small streets full of stall owners and shopkeepers spruking their wares. As usual the groups response to the bustle of life around them varied.  Peggy,determined to at least solve the question of Noel, went from shopkeeper to shopekeeper asking if they’d seen a tall lanky man or his moustached friend. Rain moved through the crowd as if born to them, alighting at a stall that caught his eye, chatting a while before moving on, delighted with everything he saw.  Bruce, didn’t so much as move through the crowd, as the crowd moved around him.  He walked like a predator, comfortable in this space but alway watchful.  Algernon tried to keep to the centre of the party at all times.  Everything around was assessed for possible threats before being dismissed or carefully circumnavigated.  The only time he spoke was to nag Peggy about looking for cyphers.

“Anything strange remember, Peggy.  Cyphers.”  He’d whisper as she marched across the souq to another seller interested in her attention.  At this stall of trinkets of various lineages, a leather-bound journal caught Peggy’s eye.  Now better attuned to the Strange, the item shivered like a heat illusion. Peggy was just about to point it out when Bruce picked it up and started scanning through the pages.

“A gentleman weathering an odd hat and a large moustache was seen here in the marketplace today. He is a friend and we’re trying to catch up with him, have you seen him?”

“Hmm, I couldn’t say. So many people in the market.  Maybe if the lady peruses my wares a moment I can gather my thoughts…yes, I believe a man like that was in the markets today…”

As Peggy dickered with the shopkeeper, Rain’s attention was drawn to Bruce.  The journal he’d picked up had his total attention.   Madly flicking through pages of the handwritten journal, Bruce put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of the red gems.

“How much?” He asked without raising his eyes from the book. 

“Two gems, a unique item that one.” The shopkeeper smiled.  Bruce did not question the price and just paid the two gems.“Two gems, for a pre-used book.  Surely, now that you’ve overcharged us for a half useless item, maybe you can remember a little more about my friend?” 

“Certainly, he was also looking for two friends.  He was told that a tall lanky man with a hooked nose and another heavy set gentleman were at the docks.”

On hearing the description of the two individuals, moustache himself had been looking for all thoughts of Bruce and his journal fled Rain’s mind.  Instead the looming character of Eldin Lightfeather and his goon in a bowler hat.  That image, instantly sent to Peggy, made her start.

“We have to go, now!” She said aloud with no further explanation and started down the hill to the docks.

“What?” Algernon asked, “Will Robertson?”
“Yes,” Rain replied, starting to move after Peggy, “And hell, we’re running in the wrong direction!”

“Wait….what?  Will Robertson?” Bruce, only half hearing the conversation and only catching a quarter, tucked away his latest acquisition and followed the others as they moved rapidly towards the docks.

The docks of Celephais were as bright and clean as the rest of the city.  Half a dozen wharves stuck out into calm azure waters as their crews were busy loading or unloading, repairing or cleaning.  On the landside, pubs full of shore-leave sailors caroused happily in the sun.  It was a place of industry, and jovial companionship.  All except the far docks where a black sailed ship was quiet.  Peggy saw the black ship and made a beeline straight to it only stopping for the guard on the gangplank.

“Have you seen these men?”She described to the Lang as she had all morning.


“Here’s a gem, does that help loosen your tongue?”

The sailor thought for a moment.


Giving up she started walking along the docks in the hope of seeing any one of her quarries.

Meanwhile, the others were just arriving at the docks.  Rain made a hat with a heavy brim out of the stuff of dreams to hide his face, he wasn’t interested in gaining the attention of Mr Lightfeather.  Both Rain and Algernon spot an oddly eccentric fellow walking out of a bar.  Wearing a legitimate turn of the 19th-century safari suit and pith hamlet and growing the most preposterous moustache, he had to be their man. 

“What animals do you think he most looks like, a walrus…The Lorax?” Algernon asked as Rain pointed out the man to Peggy via the telepathic link. As soon as she orientated her view to match, she quickened her pace and started marching towards the man.  Unfortunately, Algernon, Rain and Bruce were not the only ones paying attention to proceedings.  Bruce spotted them first, dressed in the local style, though they were not locals. One even tried to hide his white skin with a badly wrapped turban.  Looking at each other as soon as Peggy came into view, they started forward.  They looked decidedly, unfriendly. 

“Hey, watch out. Someone’s coming, seven o’clock.”  Bruce murmured to the boys as he stepped up to intercept the first of the two men. 

“What? It has to be well past twelve…”  Rain started to say before spotting the two men Bruce had referred to. “ Oh, right you are.”  

All the time, Peggy was moving ever closer to the moustached man.  She passed under a tree planted for shade on the docks.  From its bows a small cat fell onto her, obscuring her vision and alerted her quarry. He turned to see Peggy struggling with the cat and was off down the docks.

“Let me work here!”  Peggy said, grabbing the cat and holding it to her shoulder.  The cat wriggled free and she let it go, freeing her hand for a new purpose.  Rolling her hand over each other she drew on the Strange to create a plasma ball which she hurled, hitting the ground in front of the moustached man.  It worked, stopping him in his tracks.  

“Where’s Noel!”

Just behind the two men turned to look across the docks to a third big lad with a heavy hammer and muttonchop sideburns.  He nodded and hefted his hammer onto his back. 

“We need to get Dr Peggy some earcuffs.”  Algernon said just as Rain started off to intercept hammerman.

“Where is he?”  Peggy placed a heavy hand on the moustached man’s shoulder, a bolt from her hand crossbow in her other hand, “Any word other than direction will result in loss of blood.”

“What do you want with him?”  Moustached man said in a heavy Victorian English Accent and not too little trepidation.

Peggy didn’t answer, just cut the man with the bolt.

“Excuse me, “ Rain stepped up in front of Hammerman and sending out a wave of Strange energy enthralled the man to stillness, “I was hoping you’d help me stop a bloodbath here today.”

Peggy’s eyes grew large with the thrill of power she had over the little man.  She smiled a malicious grin moustached man who could do nothing but try and stumble away from her baleful presence.  Her hands like claws, she lashed out to grab him and missed.

Bruce and Rain, however, did not miss the activity occurring on the rooftop just above the Peggy and moustached man scene.  A gaunt individual with a large hooked nose shouted orders and pointed menacingly in Rain’s direction to a second man in a red woollen cap setting up a crossbow.  Rain’s eyes narrowed as he realised that the thin man was not the dreaded Mr Lightfeather, but the backstabbing Caw eh Carve, last of Railsea and former henchmen of Don Wyclef Drood.  With only a slight shuffle to one side, he placed the big hammer-guy between himself and the crossbowman and hoped he was a lousy shot. With his orders given, Caw eh Carve walked out of sight.  The crossbowman shot was true and Rain had to dodge, breaking the enthral.  Hammer-guy looked down at the little man in front of him, his hammer ready. 

Bruce walked up to the turbaned man and took a defensive stance.

“Stop there friend.”  He said, crowbar in his hands.  In response, turbaned-man pulled out a falchion and swungs it round to strike Bruce.  Bruce lazily batted the falchion away with his crowbar and waited for his chance to strike.

After the first bolt sizzled across the docks, Algernon stepped back quickly, not to pull his own lethal crossbow, but to get a better view of the shooter.  As soon as he spotted the crossbowman on the roof, he flung the power of the Strange out like a huge hand, capturing the bowman and levitating him into the air with a yelp.  

Peggy, on the other hand, was in full control.  She knew she could burn him if she wanted, and lapped up the power she had over the man.  Moustached man took one look at her wild face and bolted, gaining a burn to the back of neck as he made a break for it.

“I don’t usually like hurting people, but I need to know.  Where is Noel?”  She pounced, grappling him to the ground.

By this time hammer-guy was back in control of himself again and about to move when, Rain once more used enthral, “I’d rather you not get involved in what’s going on over there.”  He said, as he felt her wild exuberance and wondered if he wasn’t in the wrong conversation.

For Bruce, things were going much better.  Swinging his crowbar, he clobbered the turbaned-man across the head.  The thug swayed on his feet dazed and unable to respond.  With a shove, Bruce knocked him down and then sat on him and watched the others with their altercations.

Another crossbow bolt streaked now from above as the crossbowman hung above the docks in Algernon’s levitate.  Dodging away, Rain once more lost the enthral on hammer-guy, and once more stared into the eye of the angry thug.  He cringed as the hammer-guy lifted his huge sledged over his shoulder, and grinned maliciously. Then the body of the crossbowman fell out of the sky knocking him to the ground.  Their heads connected in a sickening crack as both collapsed into a heap at Rain’s feet.  Rain looked at the unconscious pile in front of him, the empty air above and then finally over to Algernon who was standing nearby pretending to be an innocent bystander.

“It’s raining men, hallelujah!”  Rain sang joyously, to the increasingly disturbed and bemused crowds.

Peggy, her hand inflamed, loomed over the moustached man, the image of a vengeful fire goddess.

“Peggy?” Came a more curious voice from inside the bar to the left.  The voice was unmistakable, without thought, the flame went out as Peggy turned to see a tall gangily man with a long pointed nose.

“Noel?  Where have you been?  You were gone, you were dead!”  

“I…I thought I was going to die too.  That one saved me, “ Noel pointed to the moustached man only now picking himself out of the dirt and out of Peggy’s reach, “Not that I think he meant to.”

“Gentlemen…”  An exuberant Rain jogged up to join Peggy and the two men ready to introduce himself, saw the tension in Peggy and decided to stand quietly by her side instead.

Bruce was trussing up turbanded man when the crossbowman and hammer-guy woke up and start running.  

“Catch and keep, Algernon.”  He called across the docks.  Algernon, who had been scanning the roofline for Caw eh Carve.  When it was clear he’d disappeared, Algenon casually turned, spotted the crossbowman and lazily flicked a wrist up.  Once more the sniper was pulled out of the grasp of gravity and thrown into the air, far away from any help or safety.

“I was swept up in the mudslide, was falling, battered by rocks and tree trunks when I slid straight into Maximillian Von Candlestick the Third.”  Once more he gestured to the man who bowed awkwardly in acknowledgement.  In Peggy’s mind, she could feel Rain roll his eyes and say, And you think my names are ridiculous.

Noel bent down closer so his and Peggy heads were almost touching, and whispered, “His real name is Max Brown.”  Snapping back to upright, oblivious to how that close proximity had affected Peggy, Noel continued his story, “The world whirled around and suddenly I was in the well-appointed and comfortable library of the Implausible Geographic Society, half a world away.”  

Now he looked at Peggy noticed her barely contained demeanour.  With not a little trepidation, he asked, “So, how have you been?

The rant that came afterwards was spectacular and mind-numbing in its intensity. Rain, who was still connected telepathically received a double dose and later could not have told you exactly what was said, but knew it had to be at least along the same lines as what she’d already shared with them…possibly with more expletives.

To Noel’s credit, when it finally petered out he did not run or jibber it wasn’t his fault.  His response was one of incredulity and shock, (which helped), and with a calmness that obviously won over the conservative holders of university seats of power.

“They think you killed me?

“I had no evidence, nothing. They couldn’t prove anything either of course but that didn’t stop the slurs, the loss of tenure, lab and name.  I was reduced to living with Yaya, working out of her garage.”  She looked him up and down, searching for any impediments, any injuries and finding none, “And here you are…alive and well!  You couldn’t have dropped by? Shown your face?  Given in your notice?” 

“By that time I’d join the Society and we’re told to break ties, to leave our old lives behind.” He had the good grace to sound bad about it, but Peggy was now feeling more herself.

“Oh, we’ve all broken that one!”

“I knew people thought I was dead…I thought it was easier.  The people Maximillian are seeking are dangerous…” His list of excuses used up, he looked down on one of the most dangerous people he was likely to meet. 

“No kidding.” She said, finally turning away in something like disappointment, “So, you work with the Implausible…”

“…Geographic Society.”  He added, now on firmer ground, “We’re explorers.  We check up on dangers to society.  We’ve been following the trail of Bywendine for some time.”

Off to one side, Maximilian stood watching the reunion with an inscrutable expression on his face.  Rain made his way over to the dishevelled explorer and introduced the party.

“Very pleased to meet you Maximillian, I’m…” He paused, ready with one of his many false names, “…Rain, out there is Bruce and Algernon.”  He offered his hand and Maximillian shook it unhesitantly.

“Pleasure, it seems you compatriots have a few friends, “ He carefully, making sure Noel was between him and Peggy, he interrupted the conversation between the two long lost collaborators, “Noel, maybe we should go somewhere and talk to your new friends.”

Noel and Maximillian lead the way to an empty warehouse not far from the docks that they used on occasion while in Celephais.  Along came the two thugs, turbaned-guy and crossbowman.  Once the captives were secure, Maximilian filled the group in with his own investigations.

“Of course, I’ve been tracking Bywendine for years.  It was a clue in Noel’s initial translations of the South American artifact that led me down there myself to be in time for the mudslide.  We’ve known there are two organisations involved in the trade of Bywendine, a nasty fellow called Lightfeather… and the group we were following today, lead by James Moriarty.”

Rain, who had gone quiet as Eldin Lightfeather’s name was mentioned, quickly came back to life as soon as James Moriarty was spoken.

“J.M.  Peggy, you said the initials on Morris the goblin’s suitcase was J.M.  And, Wargen told us that Morris was called ‘Professor’ by some of the townfolk of Halloween, but he didn’t like it!

“We also saw someone else we knew, Caw eh Carve,”  Algernon mentioned, ”He was with the Drood Family out of Crow’s Hollow before earning disfavour by losing two shipments.”

“Yes, and we know that Lightfeather is also in with the Droods… “ Rain stopped, “Ah, but we were told that by Morris the Goblin so that might be suspect information now.”

Noel and Maximillian looked at the group in a new light.

“It seems we’re in the same line of business.” Maximilian finally said,  “You don’t happen to belong to The Estate, do you?”

It seemed childish to deny the fact so Peggy took the offensive.

“One moment I’m sitting in Yaya’s garage and next we’re in a fight with Amazon-Mad-Max-Wannabees.”

“Yes, that’s exactly how it happened all right, “ Rain teased, now that Peggy was behaving more like herself, “Just sitting around at Yaya’s, us four-”

“Quite.”  Maximilian interrupted, “ I think we need to compare notes, but in the meantime, how do you want to question our two visitors?”

“Separate them and interview them individually, “ Having been thinking about it for a while, Bruce now voiced his own opinion.  “Rain and I will take one, Peggy and Algernon can take the other.”

As a group, they went over to where the two thugs were stashed.  Algernon had taken from the Crossbowman his very impressive weapon.  A heavy crossbow in design, the arm was made from the single jawbone of a gug, the giants of the catacombs.  He now cocked it expertly and held it on the two thugs.

“You know we don’t need both,” Algernon said and Rain picked up on the refrain.

“Yes, gentlemen be useful.  Algernon says we don’t need both of you and he’s very clever, he does the levitation.” Rain looked pointedly at the sniper who looked a little ill.  The two men looked at each other but said nothing.

“Maximillian?  They were watching you, do you know them?”

“I’m afraid I’ve been asking questions, none very discreetly. It’s only natural I would collect an audience, but I’m afraid these mudlarks are unknown to me.”

Grabbing the once turbaned-guy, who was disappointingly normal-looking under his wrappings, Bruce dragged him aside for a little private chat.

“Now, I’d suggest you answer this one’s questions, “ Bruce menaced the ruffian, pointing to Rain, “ I don’t like killing people but, I really don’t like what your people are doing to my world and I wouldn’t mind breaking a few fingers.” He leaned in to grab a hand and Rain stifled a cry, 

“Oh, I can’t look when you get started.” He said and a frisson of The Strange flowed into the threatened violence.  “Please tell us who you work for before it gets…messy.”

“Why…why would I snitch on the boss?”  Said de-turbaned guy in an accent that was born within sound of the bells, and music to Rain’s ears.  He found it hard not to imitate him.

“Well, let’s see who would that be for starts?  It wouldn’t happen to be Don Wyclef Drood would it?”  

The thug said nothing, the name didn’t seem to raise a flicker for him. 

“No, of course not.  You work for the Professor, don’t you?”  This time the man’s lips pressed together and his eyes narrowed. He looked more shifty as his pupil’s darted around for an escape.

“So, how do you keep in touch with the Professor?  How does he give you orders?”

“Professor don’t give me orders, “ He replied truthfully enough, “I works for Old Fire Top or the toff, that Caw bloke.”

“Caw eh Carve?  Yes, we’re old friends.  But whose Old Fire Top?  Wouldn’t be the big guy I was talking to with the muttonchop sideburns?”

“Toby!” He said, almost laughing, it seemed he didn’t think much of Hammer guy.

“So who then?”

“Rodney…Rodney Dodds.” 

“And what were you to do?”

“We was told there were two nosy parkers sticking their whatits in the bosses business. We was there to give them discouragement.”

“And discouragement, was it six foot under sort of discouragement?” Bruce asked and the thug sneered.

“If it came to it.”

Bruce turned to Rain with a malicious grin on his face, “Do you have anything for making tattoos?”

“No,” Rain looked at Bruce curious as to his friends train of thought, “why?”

“I jus thought we could tattoo “I spilled my guts” on his forehead.  He wouldn’t be likely to go back to Old eh Carve in a hurry would he.”

Back in the previous room, now free of Rain in her mind, Peggy reached out a hand and touched the crossbowman.  Instantly their mind’s linked.

Who do you work for?

Get out of my head!

Not until you answer my questions, who do you work for?

Rodney Dodd.

Who works for?

James Moriarty.

Good.  What does Rodney do for Moriarty?

What the boss says.

Transporting goods?


What sort of goods?


Now come on, I’m sure a sharp-eyed crossbowman like yourself would see a lot of things.

Bunch of herbs.

Leaving here?  Going where?


What’s he get for it?

Money…I guess.

What kind of money?

This stumped the sniper who, though sharper than the blunt tack in the other room, was no great mind.

We’re paid in pounds.

Red sapphires? She brought up an images of the gems used as currency in her mind.


Seen anything like that before?

He paused again.  An image of a heavily wrapped Lang bringing a heavy case to see the boss.

Any changes after that?

New herbs.  An image of a thick leafed herb, red in colour appeared.  Down the centre, the leaf carried a pretty red and purple variegation.

You’re not local, where are you from?

London. His words didn’t match the pictures in his mind of a foggy, dirty town whose main transport seemed to be horse and carriage.

Not Modern London.

Nah, our London is better.  In our London, it’s always the 1890s.

Peggy sat back on her heals and thought for a moment.  Another recursion where London never moved out of the 19th century.  A recursion that spawned a James Moriarty surely also created his greatest nemesis, Sherlock Holmes.  

Heard of Sherlock Holmes?

The boss yells that name sometimes, some nosy nelly who doesn’t know their own business.  This last thought was pointed aimed at her and the others.  With true Peggy resilience, she ignored him.

How do you get there?

I just think about home, a little swirling feeling and there I am.

Which would mean they would need a key.  She looked up at the crossbowman’s knitted cap.

How about that hat of yours, come from there does it?

If his hands hadn’t been tied behind him, he would have snatched it off his head and held the dirty rag to him.

Me mam made it for me.

Peggy thought again, deciding the cap had travelled too far from its home to be a good key, but maybe there was another way.  She leaned back in over the sniper.

You wouldn’t want to leave your mam alone, would you?  Like, she’d never know what happened to you.  You’d just disappear.

What….what do you want?

I’m just saying, you want to go home.  We want to go with you.

While Peggy silently questioned the sniper, Algernon turned to Maximillian.

“I have not introduced myself, I am Algernon Bathazar Theobald.”

“Ah, another fellow with a distinguished name.” Maximilian chortled, pleased by Algernon’s impressive name.

“I wanted to ask, do the cats work for you?”

“Ho, ho no, not at all.  Anyone who has met a cat knows they have their own agendas.  I do find though, it pays to be nice to cats.”  Maximillian’s eyes drifted over the Peggy who seemed pleased about how her interview was going, “Er, that former companion of Noel’s…”

“I find it best to tell her what she wants.”

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. 

17. No dead ends

In a desperate attempt to find a way to Crows Hollow, the group travel to the recursion of Halloween.  Through twisting adventures they have found themselves as mediators in a body snatching dispute between a poor shopkeeper and the Lord of the graveyard, The Nightwatch man.

 *          *          *          *          *          *            *

“Oh man!  I’m looking forward to kicking some asses!”  Bruce crowed as the group walked towards the dead centre of town, the graveyard.

Besides Bruce, a determined grimness had settled over the others.  Rain quietly walked up beside Peggy.

“What you said in the tent to the five-headed thing, I just want you to know you’re not alone not knowing.”  He said by way of comfort.  

“You heard that?”  She asked surprised, the flames that made up her hair flairing up and spitting.

“You made the connection with me earlier in the pub, it was still running.  Look, it was good.   Knowing we had an ear on what was going on was the only way I could convince the others to leave you alone with him.”

There was no mistaking it this time, flames lit in Peggy’s eyes.

“You…you told the others!”

“I made him,”  Said Bruce marching ahead, “There was no way you were going in there without some backup.”

Regardless of what Bruce had to say, Peggy in her pumpkin-headed sorcererous form was a formidable character and now all that power and anger was turned on Rain.

“Don’t….don’t talk to me!”  She said through clenched teeth as if physically biting down on her rage, the fire of her wrath roaring like a firestorm.

“I’m sorry, I…”

“I said don’t!”

Rain backed off and caught up with Bruce.

“What time of day do you think it is?”  Bruce said as  Rain quietly stepped up beside him.  The evening that they had arrived in had lightened a little in the east showing that time had past, but the Sun did not look like it was going to show itself.  

“I think it’s always night here.”  Rain gave his uneducated opinion.

“How much time have we got for clobbering before we need to rest do you think?”  

“A thought. Couldn’t we at least find out why they’ve taken Horace’s remains, first?  There may be a simple solution to all this.”

The heavy crossbow swung up and smashed down onto Bruce’s open hand with a smack.

“Bruce, are you okay?”  Rain looked up into his friend’s face and was concerned at what he saw.  A mix of righteous indignation and confusion as this new more aggressive Bruce warred with his wiser if stodgy better nature.  

“We have a duty to protect the good living…and I suppose the good dead.”  The new Bruce replied as if rallying a crowd.

“Well, good that’s a start,” Replied Rain, “I’m glad you remember that there are citizens here that could be …less than alive.”

“Tell me, can you remember what Alberto told us about Horace, his son?”  

Alberto Ward, the shoemaker had been very forthcoming with information about his son, Horace, and his last few days alive.  Reviewing the facts, rain hoped, would help Bruce focus on the task at hand, and not his new and exciting blood lust.

“The miscreant had fallen in with a bad crowd. It sounds like the boy could have done with a good thrashing.  My mother would break canes on us, never did me any harm.”

Rain wondered about that last part, but said nothing.

“There was a deal involving that Gomez Snake again, slimly mutant fiend…”

“Differently adapted, but do go on.”

“…and he winds up dead in the House on the Hill.”

“Again, the House on the Hill, Morris wanted us to go there.  One of his experiments?”

“But that’s not the end of the story is it.  People don’t stay respectfully dead in this place.  You can go and visit them in their eternal rest, that is if you can pay the stand over fee of the Nightwatch man and his gang of foul undead.”

“The stain.” Peggy trotted up joining the conversation, “Morris had a stain on his soul.”

“How the hell do you know a thing like that?”  Rain exclaimed intinctually, then he remembered Peggy’s current mood and slunk back into silence.

“Morris must have been the bad company, the one that led Horace to his death, thus the stain.”

“I haven’t finished with that creature.”  Bruce growled, “I want him on toast.”

Peggy too looked like she was ready to do the toasting as her flames whipped into a frenzy and she again had to physically restrain herself from flying into a fury.

“What do you know of this Nightwatch man, “ Bruce asked changing thankfully changing the subject, “Does he have any friends?”

“He has lots of ghoul-friends.”  Rain joked receiving nothing but moans in reply.

“Do you think crucifixes hurt ghouls?”  Algernon piped up, the first time since leaving the shoemakers.  He was opposed to getting involved and had been quietly sulking the whole way to the graveyard. 

Now, at his suggestion, Rain pulled out his puzzlebox and for the first time revealed what was inside.  A few European coins, pre-Euro.  A polished brown stone with yellow band that looked like the slitted pupil of a cat.  A worn sea shell, a small piece of chalky blue rock and a silver chain with an empty cross.  He pulled out the cross to hand to Algernon.

“Wouldn’t think it would do anything.” Peggy appraised the piece of jewelry, “It’s just a piece of silver.”

Chastened, Rain put the cross back in the tiny hiding space within the puzzlebox and whipped the whole thing away with the flick of a wrist.

“Why don’t we poison the grave?”  Algernon asked again, trying to think of suggestions that didn’t involve confrontation. “Like it won’t hurt the dead guy will it.”

Rain winced and turned away from Algernon.

“You do whatever you want, you will anyway.”

“Not a great choice of words, Rain.”  Peggy interjected.  “You know he’ll take any opportunity.”  She stopped, grbbing Algernon stop with her long twiggy hands.

“No poison.”

“But Rain said…”

“But I say, no poison and who are you more afraid of, him or me?”  The flame hair lashed and nothing more was said about poisons.

It was now the group reached the wall that encircled the graveyard.  From the end of the street a small archway was inset into the wall that led into the graveyard proper.  Beyond, a low lying fog covered the ground  though none seemed to spill through the archway.

“So where does this pretend leader of the dead hang out?”  Bruce bent down to fit through the arch and stand up to his knees in the fog on the other side.

“Why pretend?”  Peggy followed, the fog burning off in a small circle around her.

“He’s dead.” Was the reply, as if it was obvious to all.

“A lack of life does not exclude someone from a leadership position.”  She replied as if this too was a fact, self evident.

The graveyard, unlike the bustling lit streets of the city, was quiet.  The sounds of the night were muffled and senses were easily confused.  Scurrying sounds loomed large nearby only to disappear quickly.  Bruce’s keen eyes spotted their first pack of ghouls, ghant, bony creatures many with body parts missing.  Bruce pointed one out with the point of his crowbar whose empty eye socket was black against his corpse’s pale features.

“ Look he has an empty eye socket just waiting for a crowbar.” 

The ghoul turned at the sound of Bruce’s voice and howled.

“Uh…hi, hello.”  Rain waved not spotting the other two packs coming in from behind.  In total there were thirty-six ghouls split amongst the three groups.  On the howls of the first they all leaped into a sprint across the distance to the party.

This was the moment Bruce had been waiting for since arriving in Halloween. With a primal roar of battle his first let loose his wooden stake-like bolt before running in at the nearest group, crowbar in hand.  His bolt hit a ghoul knocking his head off.  Staggered, the body  wandered a moment before crashing into another ghoul running up from behind. 

Seeing the army of ghouls surrounding them, Rain countered with his own illusionary army.  Thirty or forty soldier’s in Serbian military uniforms holding modern semi-automatics rifles lined up behind Rain.  Each one wore Algernon’s face and each looked determined to do serious damage.

“Take me to your leader!”  Rain announced, projecting his voice above the thunder of running ghoulish feet.

The three gangs of ghouls stop in their tracks.  The first as the two leading members of their party were taken out of existence with one bolt.  The owner of that bolt was right now roaring down on them in a way they were used to doing to their prey and they were not enjoying the juxtaposition.  The other two groups were baulked by the powerful army that has seemingly sprung from nowhere.  As armies don’t normally do that, and a ghoul’s brain is not the sharpest,  they were unsure as to what to make of it all.  In the end, they all thought it better to let the boss deal with the new intruders, and the groups pointed to a small cottage nestled in the centre of the graveyard.

Encircled by the stones of the dead as it was, the cottage was a sanctuary of love and care. Flowers and herbs a rainbow of colours contrasted with the granite and marble garden beyond.  The white-washed walls of the cottage glowed in the ever-twilight making it a beacon of life in the gloom of the sinister necropolis. 

“Okay…good work, now move along, move along.”  Peggy grabbed Rain and Algernon pushing them through the collected mob of ghouls towards the cottage.  Bruce, having stopped mid-blood lust, looked confused and disappointedly at Peggy as she pushed past grabbing his ear on her way through. 

“Keep moving before these creatures decide they’re more hungry than intimidated.”  

Down the path to the cottage the illusionary army of Algernons marched, all brandishing rifles that made the real Algernon envious,  through the ghouls behind the group for the minute the illusion persisted. It lasted long enough to get the four of them to the front door of the cottage before dissolving away.

“I’ll knock.”  Bruce grinned maliciously, pulling over his shoulder the big sledgehammer.

“No, no.”  Rain stepped in front of the door , “No need.”  He knocked and smiled back at a scowling Bruce.  The sledgehammer did not go away.

A moment’s wait before the door opened and a very old, very undead man in a very fine, very new suit answered the door.

“Yes, can I help you?”  With one phrase and a glance he took in the entire scene, the four companions unmolested and his ghouls hunched and cowered behind.  He was polite, at least to start.

“Hi, you would be the Nightwatch man?” Though faced with a flaming haired pumpkin-headed scarecrow, a goblin covered in tattoos and a huge man wielding a sledgehammer like a lollipop, the Nightwatch man’s attention was eventually dragged down to the small dapper man in the rainbow suit. “We’re representatives of Alberto Ward in regards to his deceased son, Horace.  I was wondering if we may come in and chat?”

The Nightwatch man stared blankly at Rain as only the dead can.  Bruce growled swinging his hammer like a baton.

“What’s this, good cop, bad cop?”

Rain glanced at Bruce nervously, “Something like that.”

“The Shoemaker’s son…”  Peggy elaborated when it was clear he had no idea who they were referring to.

“Ah yes.  Turned up dead in the House on the Hill, I believe.  He’d been running with a bad crowd, bound to happen. What does it have to do with me?”  He didn’t move from his doorway.

“You’ve got him, give him back!”  Bruce said as Peggy’s arm reached out once more and pinch his earlobe. He quieted enough for her to explain.

“Your ghoul’s have his body, he can not rest at peace and his father can not visit.” 

“It’s really not my problem, the ghouls have to feed.”  The Nightwatch man answered flicking the problem away with the wave of his bony wrist.

“Sir, we’ve come here to negotiate,” Rain retook control of the conversation, “I was led to believe that you control the ghouls, that you are their leader? If that’s not so could you tell us who we could talk to?”

This gave the Nightwatch man pause.  Confronted in his own home by strangers, surrounded by his watching ghouls.  He couldn’t be seen to lose face, control of a rabble like the ghoul’s was a delicate thing.  More bluff and intimidation than actual demonstrations of violence.  The Nightwatch man looked at the group in front of him and thought that at least three of them looked like they could handle themselves.

“I can speak for the ghouls, but I would need a favour done in return.”  He said blithely as if he were the one doing the favour, “My dear friend Ismail was captured by Hazel Jenkins over in the House on the Hill.  Who knows what experiments she’s subjecting him to.”

“What!” Exclaimed Bruce, “Save some undead fiend?!”

“We prefer post-life individual.”  The Nightwatch man obviously used to that sort of racist prattle retorted back.  Peggy pinched Bruce’s ear again.
“When we are in someone else’s home, remain civil.”

“Maybe what my friend needs here is a little perspective.”  Rain said civilly enough to the Nightwatch man, “He’d like nothing better than you beat you into paste, but maybe you can enlighten him as to what would occur if he did.”

The Nightwatch man smirked seeing where the conversation was heading.

“The ghouls, unchecked, would ransack the town.” He replied smiling back at the barely controled Bruce.

“That’s assuming the residents don’t rise up and destroy them.” Bruce pounded the head of his sledgehammer into the ground.

“Keep your temper in check.”  Peggy’s flames flared, licking at Bruce and singeing his eyebrows.

“Yes mum” 

“Oh, don’t make the angry stepmom, angrier.”  Algernon said from behind as the Nightwatch man followed the conversation in confusion.

“So if we do this favour, you will protect this young man and us, perpetually.”  Peggy asked, now digging a nail into the soft lobe of Bruce’s ear.


“Excellent, I’m so glad we can get along.”  Rain beamed as they now had a course of action that didn’t rely on the murder of residence,even undead ones, “Anything you can tell us about Hazel Jenkins?”

“She owns the House on the Hill and has a sort of cat, called Black Posey.”  The Nightwatch man volunteered.

“What are her interests?”

“As I said, she experiments on things.”

This gained Peggy’s attention.

“Oh, what’s her methodology?”

“All I know is she likes to combine creatures together, creating new beings.  Like her cat.”

“Black Posey.”

“It has human hands.”

The group as one all imagined a cat with tiny human hands (and where she would have got them from) and shuddered.

“So we just go and knock on her door?”  Peggy asked the group.

“Why not?  It worked here.”  Rain replied and turned back to the Nightwatch man who was just starting to close his door. “One more thing, we know Morris the goblin had to do with Horace’s death.  What can you tell us about him?”

“That one, “ The door opened again, “My advice, avoid that one.  He’s had dealings with Hazel in the past, and he’s best buddies with is that Gomez Snake in the Hollows.”

“Hazel’s laboratory, do you have any information about that?” Peggy drew the conversation back to her subject of interest.

“No, I’ve sent spies in, but it never seems to be in the same place.”
“Any honest business with her?”

“Not for a while”
“And in coin or favour or…”

“Favours, everything here runs on favours.”

“Thank you, any other questions?”  She opened it to the group.

“Not for this scum.”  Bruce picked up his hammer and slung it carelessly over his back into it’s harness, “We’ll be back.”

“Yes, thank you for our time…you have a lovely home…we will return shortly.” Peggy said haltingly as the group as one shuffled away from the cottage.

The trip back through the graveyard and up to the House on the Hill was thankfully uneventful except for the usual bickering of the group.  Some wanted to go back to the pub and find out what they could of Hazel Jenkins and Morris’ deadly scheme.  Others were curious about the House and its mysterious occupant.  As they trudged up the hill  the house came into view and that curiosity became contagious. No part of the building seemed to belong to any other part.  It was a conglomerate of many building styles, materials and quality of building skill and it sprawled across the hill top like a fungal forest.  A small sign at the border of the property read “Rooms to Let”.

“We should go trick or treating at the House on the Hill.” Algernon said, taking out of a pocket one of the small candles for the purpose.

“Good thinking, as long as you keep to the rules.” Rain said as Algernon lit the blue flame on his candle,” They don’t say anything about people going with you, right?”  

Together they walked up the winding path to the front door of the House on the Hill.  They knocked and it was quickly answered by a very tall gentleman, grey faced and wearing a worn and slightly too small black suit.

“You rang?” The gentleman’s base tones rattled the window panes set into the door and made Algernon’s candle gutter. He stood in a large entry hall from which stairs and a hallway were connected.

“Trick or treat.” Algernon held out his bucket.  A large meaty hand shoveled it’s way through a bowl of sweets and deposited a heafy weight in sugar into the orange bucket.  The transaction completed, the gentleman slowly started closing the door.

“Hi, excuse me.” Rain stuck his foot in the door, “ Pavel Nystral to see the lady of the house.”

The tall gentleman in black blinked, and refocused on the brightly coloured man.

“Wait here.”  He said and no two words seemed to hold as much weight.  Slowly he turned and walked down the hallway perpendicular to the front door and out of sight.  Rain stepped in and looked around the corner. There was nothing to see but the continuation of the hallway, lined with doors.  Even with the two heavy words keeping the two in check, it was fortunate that the gentleman soon returned followed by a stout elderly woman in a long Victorian era dress that swept the ground as she walked.  She had about her the air of authority and they were sure they’d found Hazel Jenkins, owner of the House on the Hill.

“Yes, what is this about?”

“Good day Ms Jenkins, we’ve been sent as mediators for one Horace Ward.”

“I had nothing to do with his death.” She replied instantly going on the defensive.

“No, that may well be true, but you are holding one Ismail the ghoul?”  This was not a question, but a condescending way of stating a fact. This Pavel Nystral was sounding more and more like a lawyer every minute and Rain was enjoying it, “ As part of settlement terms he will need to be released.”

“But, I”m not finished with him.” The Lady of the house blustered now deeply concerned for her experiment.

“On a more personal note, my group had a run in with one, Morris the Goblin.  We understand he is also involved in this terrible business.”

It was now clear that Algernon and Rain were well entrenched talking to Hazel Jenkins, Peggy and Bruce now joined them at the door.

“Morris?  What do you want with him?”

“Horace was sent to your house by Morris.  For what purpose?”  Hazel Jenkins looked like she was going to slam the door in their faces, this was cutting far too close to her own secrets. “Morris has injured many in this case, Ms Jenkins.  We are in the position of soothing some of these injurings by doing favour.  Let us do you a favour.”

Unfortunately, the Lady looked self-contained and, besides having to deal with the busy-bodies at her front door, was content with her life.

“Morris wanted Horace to help him,  Morris rented a room, Horace went in for something and died.  Bitten by something.” She replied as if putting a full stop to the business.

“Could we see the room?”

“Out of the question, I have a guest  in that room currently.”

“Morris’s possessions?  Would you be custodian of them?”

“Yes, and under my safekeeping they shall stay.”

“How old are you?” Algernon asked, now having snuffed out his candle.  The non sequitur confused Hazel for a moment.


“How old?” He replied, innocently, “ I’d say you couldn’t be a day over two hundred.”

The group held their collective breath at a comment that would normally cause outrage.  Of course, Halloween wasn’t a normal place and Algernon had judged his audience correctly.  

Hazel Jenkins smiled and it looked like part of her face cracked.

“Look,” And now Bruce blundered in and Hazel’s face went back to indifference, “we have a ghoul to get.”

“He is part of my experiment and I will not part with him until I have finished.”  

“But undead flesh, “ Peggy interjected, “As I understand it you are trying to incorporate living tissues with that of the ghoul’s?  Surely they are wholly incompatible, circulation alone…”

Hazel warmed to Peggy’s more straight forward scientific curiosity.

“I have had great success with some more exotic creatures provided by an ally.”

A surface scan of her mind showed a huge mouth on legs of the creature she acquired and Morris the ally who obtained it.  No wonder she was so keen to protect the nasty little creep.

“So…you have him now in your lab in the east wing?” A more subtle question from the angry Bruce of this recursion.  The Nightwatch man had told them the lab moves about within the House. Bruce, knowing Algernon would be scanning, was fishing for thoughts.

Lab in the East Wing?  How naive. Algernon caught.  He swallowed and stepped forward.

“My former mistress has similar passions to yourself.”  He said and the rest of the group turned to listen, it wasn’t often that Algernon shared his past. From the corner of his eye, Rain could see the big Bruce rock back on his heals and his face return to the more protective expression. Rain himself stood a little straighter and returned to the conversation.

“Hmm?  Does she have a name?” Hazel asked intrigued.

“She doesn’t allow me to divulge it.” He admitted and it seemed to be the truth, “I do know she is always interested in collaboration.” From his pocket he took a scrap of paper and wrote a note that he handed to Hazel.  

For a amaetur hobbiest to be offered a collaboration was a great honour and Hazel Jenkins demeanor didn’t exactly soften from that point, but crumbled around the edges.

“Well, if you’re all so fascinated I suppose I could take you to see Ismail.”  She relented and stepped away from the door to let the group in. 

Walking behind Hazel’s bobbing bustle and Lurch the butler’s more langid gait, the group walked down the ground floor hallway passing several identical,unmarked doors.  Stopping at one, she lifted  her hand and knocked out an intricate rhythm that the whole group paid close attention to. 

 When she opened the door, it was onto a medium sized room split in two.  One side, a small desk was set to take advantage of natural light, surrounded by bookshelves.  On the other side, a trolley bed, smaller trolleys holding tools and a large mirrored gas powered surgery lamp.  On the trolley a ghoul was strapped down looking all the world like the corpse it should be. One sinewy pale arm had been replaced by a large muscular one, dark and ending in tentacles.  The join between the two distinctly different skins was clean and neatly sutured.  Hazel Jenkins was obviously proud of her work as she turned to the group.

“I’m still waiting to see how the graft takes, but initial signs are promising.”  She pointed out the join and Peggy stepped in to take a closer look.

“What is your predicted outcome?”

“A successful graft.  The arm living arm to survive on the undead body.  Once it heals I want to see what the arm can do.  In a more plaint creature like this ghoul, I would think an arm like this could be very handy around the house.”

“But to regenerate living flesh on an undead specimen…” Peggy was in her element, “This could have implications for my own work. Would you allow me to see your notes?”

Hazel was very open with her data, pleased to have someone who could appreciate her work.  When Peggy looked at the notes however it looked nothing more than nonsense.  It seemed that the science of this recursion was not compatible with that of Earth’s and she gave the notes back to Hazel and turned back to the unconscious ghoul.

“You know, I’ve always found that willing subjects are more useful than unwilling.  They are often more honest in their feedback and will unwittingly provide insights that advance my research further than one that’s screaming ‘…get your hands off me, you bitch…’.”

Bruce reached out at this moment and put his hand on Peggy’s shoulder.  She was about to give her the sharp end of her tongue until she realised he created a link between them.  Cursing her bad luck to have manifested such a poorly designed ability, she tried to ignore the link and listened to Hazel’s response.

“….no, no no.”  Hazel tutted patronisingly, “I have all that I need as they are.  My subjects compliance is not required and their opinions are irrelevant.”

Spoil the experiment secretly. Bruce said in Peggy’s mind and she shook her head to both the internal and external conversation.

The ghoul will lose the arm if I tamper with it.

“Could we wake him up?  I’d like to see if he’s willing.”  Peggy responded to both.

How is his loss of arm our problem?

I do not want to hurt the ghoul.  Peggy scowled.  It was hard keeping up two conversations at the same time.

“I don’t see why, I’ll be keeping him even if he says no.”  Hazel seemed set.

“Ah, but just think of it Ms Jenkins.” Rain was now seeing the picture that Peggy was painting, “Ismail goes back to the graveyard with a powerful new arm and becomes the envy of all the other ghouls.  They’re all going to want improvements just like this, they’ll come to you begging for a new arm or new legs.  You’ll never want for test subjects again.”

They had found her weakness.  Getting good bodies on which to experiment was difficult for the amateur vivisectionist.  Having bodies come to her….

“Well, I guess it can’t hurt.”  She adjusted something on a collar around the ghoul’s neck and he woke to the sight of Peggy leaning over him.

“Now don’t struggle, you’ll only damage the good doctor’s work.  You’ve lost your arm and that is unfortunate, but you have been given a superior replacement.” She gestured to the muscular arm, “You have a choice.  You can fight Hazel Jenkins and her work, lose this arm and go without. Or you can do as the doctor says, comply with all her instructions, keep your new arm and all the benefits that come from it.  Tell me, what do you say?”

The ghoul Ismail looked where his arm used to be.  He twitched the tentacle ‘fingers’ and seemed surprised.

“I could do that.”  He said finally to Peggy.

“And you would comply with all instructions, keep all future appointments and give honest feedback as part of outpatient arrangement?”

The ghoul nodded and agreed.  Hazel Jenkins rolled her eyes.

“And what about my handyman.  I need help running this place.” She complained pointing to the ghoul on the table.  

“Can I suggest that you could probably get future ghouls to do favours for you in exchange for new bodies.  Certainly if all goes well for Ismail here, he may be happy to provide that service voluntarily.” Rain added and it seemed that the last of Hazel Jenkins’ arguments resolved.  She relented and released the ghoul from his restraints.

As the party walked Ismail back to the front door, one of the identical hallway doors opened and revealed Morris the goblin.

“Morris!” Rain exclaimed, “Bruce!”

Bruce pushed passed everyone to grab at the goblin, but the little guy was too fast and he soon slipped back behind his door and slammed it in their faces. When Bruce opened the door it was just a closet full of towels, a bucket and a mop. As Rain investigated the closet for a  secret door, Peggy had other ideas.

“This is a crazy recursion with nonsensical rules about how things work.  Why shouldn’t we ask the house to help us.”  She thought out loud, going up to a random door and knocking.

“Excuse me, could you please show us where our friend Morris is?” and opened the door. 

A long hallway lined with doors stretched ahead of her.  Walking down the hallway without a care was Morris.  Peggy ran, spooking Morris who once more slipped through another door and disappeared.  Now buoyed by her first success, Peggy tried another random door.

“Just a little closer please.” She said and opened it.  This door revealed a bedroom, a small suitcase on the bed, the only other furniture being a large wardrobe.  Peggy walked in and picked up the suitcase. Initials ‘J.M.’ glinted in gold from under the handle.

Bruce, having been frustrated at the closet, followed Peggy down her revealed hallway and into the bedroom.  Suspecting the goblin was hiding in the wardrobe he rushed to it howling and pulled the two doors open.  A sudden violent wind pulled Bruce off his feet, dragging him in and pulled the doors shut after. Peggy stared at the wardrobe stunned.

“Well that was unexpected.”

Forewarned she made her way up to the wardrobe door, braced herself on one side and opened a door.  The pull of the wind was powerful, but as she had braced herself she was not pulled off her feet and held against its force.  Inside the wardrobe the back was missing.  Instead the whole wardrobe was like a doorway onto a new recursion. A harbour with tall ships, their black sails furled, the smell of salt in the air.  Out from the harbour a ruined city lay crumbling, but not without life.  Here and there she could see where the residence had attempted to reclaim their city.  Man made basalt columns rose out of the city 25-30 metres tall, their purpose unclear.  Knowing Bruce was out there alone somewhere, Peggy let go of the door and jumped through the doors.

Meanwhile Algernon was still standing in the hallway with Hazel Jenkins.  Through the door he saw both Bruce and Peggy disappear into the wardrobe.  He scanned Hazel’s thoughts.

So that’s why Morris always wanted to stay in the same room. She thought, Oh well, at least we won’t see them again.

Algernon stayed where he was and waited for Rain.

Rain had failed to find a secret door in the closet.   He’d heard Peggy’s explanation for the building’s Weird geometry and seen her initial success with asking the house for help, but vacillated at trying it himself.  

A house is not a person.

“Could you please take me to Morris.” He said a little self consciously and opened a random door.  He found himself face to face with Algernon and started.

“Where are the others?”

“In the closet.” Algernon replied pointing to the bedroom with the suitcase.  Rain stepped in, noted the bag as Peggy had and then carefully opened the wardrobe door. The wind was less violent now and Rain was able to take in the view of the harbour, the black sailed tall ships and the sorry state of the city.  Behind him, Algernon picked up the small suitcase and together they stepped into the wardrobe.

Bruce picked himself off cold black rubble to find himself in the ruins of a home. He breathed in a lungful of cold sea air and for the first time that day felt more himself. Looking through broken windows and cracked walls he could see the harbour below as well as humanoid figures moving around.  The figures’ movements were hunched  and only vaguely bipedal, were being helped aboard some of the ships.  Other figures, more upright in stature, seemed to be in charge and were giving orders that were followed quickly.

Suddenly Peggy was beside him once more looking like herself.  Whatever this place was, it was not subject to the weird science of Halloween.  As the two of them took stock of themselves and their surroundings, Algernon, carrying the suitcase, and Rain appeared.  Algernon also looked like himself down to his motorcycle jacket and floppy hair.  Rain was still wearing the garish rainbow suit he’d acquired from the last recursion and was careful to brush the black soot of this world off his outfit.

Finding a suitable piece of broken wall, Bruce sat down, his head resting in his open palms.  Turning around, Algernon looked to see the open doors of the wardrobe and the bedroom beyond.  A small figure passed before the doors and Algernon got a glimpse of Morris before he shut the doors and closed the portal. They were now stuck in the new recursion for good or bad.

Pulling out a large silk handkerchief from thin air, Rain lay it on the brickwork of the broken wall and sat beside Bruce making an incongruent pair. 

“Well it seems we found Morris’ room.”  He said, “I wonder how many other portal there were in that house.”

“It was surprising.” Peggy looked over the harbour and city around them, “If this place proved too uncomfortable, we can always translate home.”

Algernon had propped the suitcase up on some rubble and was trying to determine if the lock was trapped before attempting to open it.  The mechanism eluded him and he put it back down puzzling over it.

“Do you want some help with that?” Rain asked as his lockpicking tools appeared in his hand.

“It seems fine, “ Algernon lied outright, holding it out to Rain, “Do you want to open it?”

Rain gave Algernon a look of distrust, but curiosity in what the suitcase had to offer was stronger than any fear of injury.

“Sure.”  He replied suspiciously and was about to get up and take the case when Peggy took it from Algernon.

“Let me have a look first.”  She inspected the latch, “It looks like there’s a cypher attached to the latching mechanism. “ Any attempt to open the latch would set off the cypher, whatever it was.

“Give that to me.” Bruce stood and in a few strides held the suitcase and his crowbar.  Before any movement to stop him could be made he’d thrust his crowbar through the side of the suitcase. The violent action set off the cypher anyway, which caused the suitcase to implode, leaving behind three flying devil-like creatures.  Thin, black and held aloft on batlike wings, the faces of the three creatures were eyeless and seemed to sense the presence of enemies through means unknown.

“You ham-fisted ape!” Peggy rounded on Bruce, “ Why use a crowbar to break into a trapped suitcase?”

“You said it was rigged to the latch!” Bruce shrugged, turning his crowbar to the winged devils.

Algernon was quick to draw his crossbow, looking more like its modern self, and shot, hitting a devil.  The devil snarled but didn’ t seem too phased by the attack.  Peggy physically attacked one, her hands once more on fire. Rain, feeling a link with between himself and the creatures, reached out to one and extracted a thought. The creature snarled in pain, though there was no physical wound.  

Ah, home.  Now fly and take one of these with me… Was the thought Rain heard echoed in his head.

“They belong here, bunch up they’ll try and grab you if they can.” He said out loud just as the two not currently fighting grabbed Algernon and Bruce.  Algernon easily wriggled free of the devil’s grasp, but Bruce was too slow and was lifted high into the air before he could react, his crowbar clattering to the ground.

The pumping wings were silent , Bruce could feel the barbed point of the creature’s tail trying to find purchase through his armoured clothes.  With his hands free, Bruce pulled out his sledgehammer and swungs it around his body.  The hammer connects with the head of the creature and it suddenly went limp in the sky.  Bruce was free and freefalling.  Faster than a thought, Algernon used his levitate and gently brought Bruce back to ground. 

Now there were two.  

From pure imagination, Rain constructs an illusion of a fire breathing dragon, terrible and terrifying.  It roared in the sky above, the glow of its firey eyes trained on the two devils. The last two devils saw the dragon and do not stay to see what this creature would do.  With a few silent flaps, they had disappeared into the gloom of the day.

Rain smiles at his successful creation, and then tried to dismiss it.  It didn’t disappear like the other illusions.  He looks to the others, but they were focused on the people standing at the docks. They have also seen the dragon.

“Oops!”  Rain said.

16: A Halloween Party

Peggy marched into Hertzfeld’s lab.  It was a action that none but her was even willing to attempt.  Especially while he was working. Especially when he was working on his pet project, the phasing glove.

“You’ve got the polarities switched.”  She commented over his shoulder, making the hand soldering the delicate circuitry together, twitch.  It was a small move that now connected half the circuit board to the rest, rendering it useless.  

“Peggy.  Nice to see you.  When are you leaving?” He asked, giving her a scowl that would have sent other researchers running.  She didn’t notice or care.

“I’ve come to pick up the three recursion keys.  My group are set on finding a way to Crow’s Hollow.” She made a face that was either frustrated at leaving her experiments behind once more or disgusted at the stubborn single mindedness of the others to find the home of the crow people.

“Of course.” Hertzfeld put aside his soldering iron, picked up the circuit board he’d been working on and threw it in the bin.  As he rummaged through his filing cabinets for the bucket, the first aid tin and signet ring, Peggy glaced at the circuit board and snaffled it for her collection of oddments.  She’d learnt long ago that one person’s trash is another person’s portal to another world.

“Here they are, anything else you’re needing from me?”

“No, I understand  Bruce is dealing with the heavy firepower at the moment.”  She replied, toying with the three keys.

“And yet you’re still here.”  Hertzfeld sighed, “What’s up Peggy?”

“I think I touched the mind of something….of the Strange.”  At that moment she looked uncharacteristically unsure of herself.  

“Your report hinted as much.  Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”  That look of disgust passed across her face once more, this time mingled with fear. “Not at all, I want to forget it.”

Hertzfeld thought for a moment.  Psychology was not his field. There were counselors on staff for this purpose, but he didn’t think Peggy would go to one even if he ordered it. Probably especially if he ordered it.

“Sometimes work is the best medicine.  Work and time. Focus your mind on a difficult task.  You know getting away to one of these recursions could be just the ticket.”

“I suppose.”  She looked down at the three item unconvinced. “Any that you would suggest?”

“No.  You were right they are all linked to recursions, but from this end we can’t determine which.  I’d suggest your group take a vote on one.”

She looked up a puzzled look on replacing the fear.  It was a start.

“But that would allow the stupid ones a equal say in where we go, wouldn’t it?”

Hertzfeld thought of Peggy’s group.  Bruce, a practical forthright character who thought through his actions. Algernon, a brilliant though naive mind who always looked for the strategic advantage.  Cecilia, the newest but most experienced investigator who would undoubtedly see things from all angles. Rain, a contrary character whose leaps of intuition had been useful on more than one occasion.  And then there was Peggy, brilliance bottled and kept away from the light.  

“Even the less…scientifically minded still have good suggestions.  Trust them.”

She made a face again, this one was one of her more regular suffering martyr looks.  Without another word she left, leaving Hertzfeld to draw up a new requisition form for a blank circuit boards and parts.

Collecting the group was usually a chore.  Peggy had spent most of a day previously hunting out each of her party members and gathering them in one location. Today they seemed to collect naturally.  Bruce’s request for heavy armour had been rejected as not in keeping with the covert nature of their enterprise. He had gravitated to the firing range where he was practising with Algernon at long range targets with his new Glock 40.  Cecilia seemed almost to find her and Rain turned up at her labs still stuffing his pockets with the essence of a survival kit. She laid the three keys in front of them.

“Which one first?”  She asked, looking to the group.

“Do we know anything about the keys and where they go?”  Bruce asked.

“Nothing, only that they are keys.”  

“Well, as to their use I’d say the first aid box is the most intimidating.”  Rain suggested.

“And the bucket, the most innocent?”

“Out of context, who knows.”

The conversation wandered around the three items that were minutely examined once more and placed back in their line on the lab bench.  In the end the bucket was chosen for no better excuse than it was cheery and fun and reminded several of them of childhood.

Peggy placed the bucket on the floor and the group sat in a circle around it.  Bruce instructed Cecilia in what to do, saving the rest from his usual monologue on the ridiculous nature of this”…hippy touchy-feely kum-ba-ya ceremony.”  Eyes closed and their thoughts focused on the jack-o-lantern’s deathly grin, the lab around them slowly melted away. The sensation of travel through the fractal blackness and down into the new world as its latest dizzy installments. The bright fluorescent lighting was replaced with the soft darkness of evening lit by gas lamps.  They were standing on the uneven surface of a wet cobbled street surrounded by wooden houses that leaned drunkenly out over them. Between the eaves, a crescent moon lit the sky, its cool glow making the cobbles shine. From far away the group heard the howl of an animal.

They looked at each other, noting how the recursion had changed their clothing and appearance.  Out of the three recursions so far, this transformation was the most radical and strange. Peggy was a tall Pumpkin headed creature with flowing, fiery hair and a faint orange glow to her exposed skin.  She was wearing a leather duster that went down to her mid-calf and gently moved in an ever present breeze.  

Algernon was dressed in a homemade fancy dress of a white t-shirt, blue jeans and a red piece of material tied around his neck, his black hair was spiked up wildly. His skin was green and covered in tattoos that seemed to move when seen from side-on.  A long pointed nose and unusually sharp teeth completed his look. To those who had sat through at least one viewing of Algernon’s favourite documentary it was obvious he was a tattooed goblin dressed as Tetsuo Shima, from Akira. Besides his crossbow, which had changed to suit the location, he carried a bucket exactly like the recursion key, a plastic jack-o-lantern. 

Bruce was even larger than usual, also wearing a leather jacket that went down to the ground.  Underneath he wore a padded gambeson with heavy metal plates across his chest and vitals. Along with his hammer and crowbar that were strapped across his back as usual, in his arms he held a massive crossbow that fired fletched wooden stakes instead of bolts.  His usually actively aware expression was replaced with a hunched and hungry look. It was as if the police dog had gone feral.

Cecilia’s look was darker than her usual style of leather jacket and jeans, including a collar made of one inch spikes and heavy black makeup.  Her black hair was cut short and a long fringe swept across her face and over her right eye. Across her jacket, studs had been hand stitched into place, so that she too looked like she’d make her own costume. As with Algernon, she was also carrying a jack-o-lantern bucket containing a number of candies of various sorts.

Out of the five of them, Rain looked the most pleased with his new look.  Stepping into the limelight of the gas streetlight, his suit of swirled colours glowed.  His 50s retro plaid vest was replaced with a white one and the whole look was topped with a tall white top hat, decorated with a swirling rainbow band.  He spun, mixing the colours of his jacket and flicking his top hat into the air. He juggled it a moment before throwing it up and catching it back on his head.

“I like this place already.”  He said, turning to the others who weren’t as sure, “This is going to be fun.”

“Okay, so where now?”  Bruce asked, impatiently hefting his crossbow.

At that moment, the sound of raucous laughter caught the group’s attention.  Down the street, alternatively lit by gaslight and thrown into darkness, a sign with a painted noose swung back and forward.  For those with keener eyesight, the sign read: The Old Hangman’s Pub.

“Just what we were looking for.”  Rain slapped his hands together and started walking towards the pub.  The others, still confused by their new personas, just follow.

Swinging open the double doors, the tap room of the Old Hangman was lively with all sorts of people. It was actually hard to tell if some of them were people. Along with green skinned goblins and pumpkin headed folk, there were rag wrapped mummies  and nightmarish snake people to name a few.  

” What are undead spawn of hell doing here?“  Bruce scanned the group with a predatory eye. He spotted the mummy drinking with a few friends like ordinary folk. His heavy crossbow creaked with the force of his grip. “What are we doing here?”

“We don’t know, Bruce.  We have to find out.” Rain replied looking up at the big guy beside him with some concern.  This was not the Bruce he was normally able to rely on.

Brief confusion flicked across Bruce’s scowl. He lapsed into a tense introspective silence, his hand still firmly gripping his crossbow.

“Maybe I can be of service?”  I small smartly dressed goblin wearing a monocle stepped up, “I couldn’t help but hear, you’re new to town?  My name is Morris, is there something you’re looking for?”

“Sights and adventure.” Rain beamed, flicking the top hat off his head, he bowed, “My name is Pavel Nuystul.  What do you call your charming town?”

“This neighbourhood is the Hollow.  The town is the town for that is all there is.  If it were to have a name it would be called Halloween.”

“Halloween?”  Peggy almost lamented, “Everything is so odd.”

“It’s excellent.”  Rain grinned 

“It makes no sense.”  She replied as if trying to speak reason to the insane.

“Yes, isn’t it wonderful.”

“Maybe we can drink and chat a while, I too am a traveller and would love to hear about your travels and home.”  Morris led them to a large table. Bruce noticed the goblin look at a snake man sitting at the bar, and then turned to the bar keeper.  Rain noticed too and saw the subtle nods of understanding from each. He smiled, noting the makings of a con, and sat down at the table.

“I would like nothing better.”

Algernon held out his bucket to the goblin.

“Trick or treat?” He said waiting expectantly for the response.

“Ah, I see you are familiar with our ways.”  The goblin took a sweet, “But be aware, you must follow the rules.  Trick or treating is a protected activity here in Halloween and none will abide rulebreakers.”

“I see we have a lot to learn.”  Rain said as the others took seats.

“Maybe we can help each other.” Morris beamed as drinks, that they had not ordered, arrived at the table. “You tell me about your home and I’ll tell you what I know of Halloween.”

With pure delight, Rain wove a story of their adventures that was as compelling as it was fictional. Some truths he told, mentioning giant mole rats that breached the sand like whales, blotting out the sun.  He whispered of broken worlds where beyond thick cloud cover madness lay and he praised home in ways that even those around the table found it hard to recognise. He coloured the whole thing with details drawn from fiction, history and from his own head.  The only real person he added to the stories was the name that was most closely linked to his own, that of Elvin Lightfeather. 

To go with the stories, three dimensional illusions seemed to appear across the far wall of the bar.  The sound of the mole rat hitting the sands (though no trains or rails in sight). Thonics flapped across a clouded sky, their screeches sending shivers down everyone’s spines (but no view of the Estate buildings or broken Seatle could be seen).  Illusion creating was nothing new to Rain, but the ability to manipulate the images of his mind and project them into reality was, and he relished every moment. He filled the goblin’s ear and eyes (and everyone else in the bar) with all the nonsense they could stomach only stopping to learn what he could about Halloween.

“This world is just the town of Halloween.  Trick or Treat is a favourite and revered pastime whose rules are strictly abided.” Morris listed three rules on long clever fingers,   “While you trick or treat you must not use, but save for later. You must always keep your candle burning, that is your sign. But while your candle burns you must not do anything other than trick or treat. To break any of these rules, breaks the protection provided to trick or treaters.  Without that protection… “ The goblin shook his head flapping large ears, “…you are vulnerable to the mean and vile of this city.”

“And what are they like?”  Bruce asked once more glancing over at the mummy, “What do these fiends, these spawn from hell want, heh?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.” Morris replied confused, “I don’t usually have anything to do with those sorts.”

The rest of the group had heard Rain mention Lightfeather.  Instantly all their senses, new and old were turned on. Algernon scanned for surface thoughts picking up on the goblin’s insatiable curiosity.  Peggy’s new form allowed her to Discern Sins and she felt the blackness of a baleful sin lodge in the heart of Morris the goblin. Bruce stretched out a new sense for him, sniffing the air for undead and found several more in the vacinity, but could .  Rain watched the goblin’s body language, noted his words and intonations. He also felt the curiosity about the group, he recognised a fellow traveller and above all, understood that Morris was not unaware of Crow’s Hollow and one of its more formidable citizens.

Peggy seemingly stretched, kicked out at Rain.  He was about to comment when he realised a mental connection between the two of them had been created.  Sucking in his breath he envisioned the fractal night sky that was never very far away, shielding Peggy from his thoughts, or him from hers?  He watched her scrunch her pumpkin features up in frustration.

Suddenly Algernon sat bolt upright in his chair and stared at Morris.

“How do you know Mr Lightfeather?” He asked out of the blue.  In the confusion of Morris’ mind he had picked up one clear thought, I wonder what old Elvin is up to?

Morris, seemingly nonplus, leaned back in his chair.

“We’ve done business in the past.”

Bruce leaned in, 

“And how long ago was it when you last did business?”

“Several months, maybe a year.”

“We’re not here to find Lightfeather.”  Peggy interrupted, the flames of his hair whipping back and forward menacingly, “This is a research trip.”

“Really?” Morris, having found himself temporarily on the defensive, turned his focus on Peggy. “What research are you into?”

“Doorways.”  She replied simply.

“Fascinating subject, do go on.”
“I’ve never understood, “ She continued, “How do you determine the edge of a barrier?”

The others sat back and just listened as Morris and Peggy chatted technically about portals and how to move between.  Rain noticed Bruce’s agitation grow steadily worse, and followed his line of sight to a table were two individual with bright red skin and horns growning from their temples horns sat playing cards.

I never thought Bruce racist. He thought and Peggy picked up on it via their mindlink.

Not racist, fiendist. And undeadist. I don’t think this recursion agrees with Bruce.

That could be bad.

“So what you really need is data.”  Morris summed up his and Peggy’s discussion, “You’ve seen only a small part of this place, let me furnish you with a map and then you can make some decisions on where you’d like to go to next.”

From a pocket in his neatly tailored jacket, Morris pulled out a map of the township of Halloween.

Labeled were the Hollows, where they currently were, the Midnight Circus, House on the Hill and at the centre of everything a huge necropolis that was just named, Graveyard.

“Any other scholar we can visit?  Places of education?”

Morris shook his head gravely, 

“Sadly the locals are not educated by nature.”

“So you’ve traveled?”
“I’ve been around.” He sidestepped the question. 

“Where are you from?”

“Here and there.” 

“Hmph, haven’t heard of that place.”  Bruce stood and leaned over the table at Morris menacingly.  It shut down the conversation for a moment until Peggy returned the group back to topic.

“Yes, tell us of other places, spare no details.”

“You know Elvin and have done business, have you been to Crow’s Hollow?”  Rain added conversationally.

“I’ve been there from time to time.”  Morris went back on the defensive as the group started peppering him with questions.

“Did you get there from here?”

“No, not here, other places.”

“What sort of business do you do?”  Cecilia waded in having stayed quiet and listening.

“Hmm, this and that.  I work mostly at the Glittering Market, buying and selling.” Morris seemed to relax into his subject at this point, “A fascinating place, they use a particular currency, a Crow coin that is quite unusual. You have to be wary of the price you pay.”

“How’s that?”
“The Crow coins materialise out of your very life force.  You will always have Crow coin to spend until…you don’t”

“And you’ve met people who have overspent?” Bruce asked once more, picking up some unseen trail, “What happened to them?”

“It is very unpleasant and not worth dwelling on.”  Morris became defensive again, but this time it seemed that the subject itself was very unpalatable.

“Six feet under?”  Peggy intimated and Morris nodded sagely.

“Something like that.”

“Eldin, “ Rain brought Morris back on the subject that  most interested him. “What’s his position in Crow Hollow society?”

“Oh, he’s a senior associate of one Whitecliff Drood, he’s one of the leading lights in Crow Hollow society.  Very well respected and connected.” Morris relaxed once more talking about something that he felt comfortable in sharing. “You see there are two major families, the Drood and the Cornaro so you can see our friend runs in the highest of society.”

“Whose side do you follow?” Cecilia asked simply.

“Me?  Oh, I don’t take sides. No, no, no I’m a businessman, I make deals.”

“How do you stop from being murdered?” Peggy asked and all who were present were reminded of Lightfeather’s brutal dagger attacks.

“I have my way.” The little goblin smirked.

“And if they want to deal with you?”

“They have their ways of getting in touch.”  He shut down again. It looked like that was all the group was going to get out of him on Crow’s Hollow, “Now, tell me more about this place with the giant mole rats, that sounds fascinating.”

Rain filled in a little more detail, leaving out Caw Eh Carve, their altercation with Lightfeather or the purchase of the keys.  What he didn’t know he made up and once more filled the far wall with stunning visuals.

“And you came straight here from this wondrous place?”  Morris asked as the last sights and sounds of the Rumour markets faded away.

“We went home for a while.”  Peggy replied making Rain wince through their shared link.

“Home?” Morris jumped on the mention of Earth, but Peggy was well practised when it came to dodgy salesmen.”

“Yes, I wanted to continue my research.”

“So you work for an organisation?”
“I’m independent, but I have many groups interested in my work.” She smoothly sailed past his probing questions to fall into a whirlpool of her own making, “My mentor is very keen to see my work continue.”

“Mentor? A fellow intelectual, that must be such a comfort. What’s their name?”

Sensing that she may have said something she shouldn’t, she started filling the air with her usual complaints about Hertzfeld, being very careful not to mention him by name.

“They’re a pain in my arse.  How dare they tell me my maths did not add up?!  They’re always denying me vital equipment and think too highly of fieldwork for my taste.  No, I can’t say they are a comfort at all.”

Rain let Peggy have her rant, before once more returning back to Lightfeather.

“Well, I never knew our friend Elvin was so well connected, he seemed so unassuming.”  He said casually as if the past thirty seconds hadn’t occurred.

“The best ones are.”  Morris agreed without adding any more details.

Meanwhile, Algernon had been studying the map Morris had provided.  Morris now seized the moment and directed attention to him.

“I see you’re interested in our little town.”

“Yes, “ Replied Algernon pointing to a tent in the Midnight Circus individually labelled as The Five-headed thing. “What is the five-headed thing?”

“Ah, an old institution, a singular fellow. He may tell you a secret but only one at a time.”  Morris’ silver-tongued salesman routine went into action. “He is well worth a visit, as are many locations in Halloween.”

Now the group were focused on the map.

“The Midnight Circus sounds interesting.”  Cecilia pointed to the large circular tent that dominated that area of town.

“What’s in the House on the hill?  Peggy asked and gestured to a large estate set on the only highground in town.

“You can go in and see.”  

“Only with the owners permission of course.”

“Hazel Jenkins, that could be arranged.”  It was obvious that Morris was very keen for the group to go out and explore the town and Bruce was getting more and more on edge the longer they stayed at the table.

“Why don’t we visit some of these places, we can walk and talk.”  Rain suggested as a way of moving out of the pub and away of temptation for Bruce. As it was, Bruce got straight to his feet, his massive crossbow ready.

“Good idea, let’s go.” 

As the group got up to leave, Algernon once more scanned Morris’ surface thought. He didn’t pick up any intent, his purpose for wanting them out in the township, but he did hear over and over, 

Who are you?  Where do you come from? Who do you work for?

The evening air was cool after the stifling warm taproom of the Old Hangman’s Noose. People didn’t seem to mind the chill as many of them were out on the street walking in groups or running from house to house, their blue flamed candles in hand.  Cecilia and Algernon found a similar candlesin their pockets, but kept them unlit, not wanting to join the Trick or Treaters just yet. Certainly the people on the streets were just as varied as the ones they had seen in the bar and Rain made comment on it.

“It’s certainly a  very cosmopolitan city you have.”  

“Yes,”  Algernon replied with a look of mischief in his eyes, “When we get back to CONTROL we’ll have to report all the different types of people we have seen to the Chief.”

“Of course, “ Rain replied equally as seriously all the time playing a television theme show music to Peggy in his head, “He may let you use the cone of silence.”

“Don’t get smart, kid.” Bruce growled, but Algernon ignored  him.

“It seems KAOS hasn’t come across here as yet.”  He added and Rain nodded his agreement, trying not to smile.

Walking through an open square, they passed a statue of a Jack-o-lantern humanoid like Peggy, only nine foot tall.  It’s carved hollowed eyes seemed to follow them as they crossed to a connecting street. On a whim, Peggy put her hands under her pumpkin head and lifted it off her neck to get a better look at the statue.  It wasn’t long after when they found themselves on the outskirts of the Midnight Circus. In front of them was a small tent with a large poster in front.

See the five headed thing, but never alone.

Morris who was standing back, watching the group’s response. Rain and Peggy stepped in as Algernon hesitated outside the tent flap

“Is it safe?” Algernon asked Morris.

 “As safe as anything around here.”  He replied honestly as Bruce pushed Algernon inside.

Inside was dark and empty except for a bell on a stand. Upon ringing the bell, a curtain moved and a partitioned section was revealed as was the creature waiting there.  It’s size and shape was that of a regular human with one head firmly affixed to its body. When it opened it’s cloak, four other heads made up the torso of the creature. Each of the four was bound with rags across their mouths so they couldn’t make more than indistinguishable mumblings.  

“It’s rude to muffle people.”  Peggy protested the treatment of the four torso heads that seemed to be desperate to be understood.

“He’s muffled himself.”  Rain defended the creature, more out of the promise of the show than out of pity for the heads.

“That sort of thing is not done in public, “ She complained, her sometimes prudish nature getting an airing, “Is it recreational?”

“This is entertainment, is it not?”  Rain turned to the creature, “I understand you can tell secrets?”

“Yes, but only one at a time and only alone.” The five-headed thing’s main head replied as it stifled the noise from the other four.

“But the sign clearly says….”  Algernon gestured to outside the tent remembering the warning on the poster.

“How much?” Peggy asked, stepping up ahead of Rain. He had his secrets, but he could wait so he stepped back.

“A few pieces of candy, that is all.”  The creature put it’s hand out for the requested fee.

“Cecilia, could I have a few pieces of candy.”  Peggy turned to Cecilia who offered up her bucket.  She took out three pieces and held them out in front of the five-headed thing.  “I have a secret.”  

The creature nodded and took her offering.

“I don’t think anyone should be alone…”  Bruce started and Rain cut him off.

“She’s connected.  The lady is well protected.”  He said tapping the side of his head.  With a huff, Bruce allowed himself to be led out of the tent.

Now alone, Peggy stood in front of the creature and asked the one question that had driven her for twenty years.  The one question she wanted to know above all else.

“John and Athena Martin twenty years ago, what happened to them?”

Outside, Bruce turned on Rain, 

“You better tell us everything that happens in there.”

Rain nodded and closed his eyes.  He focused on the link and quietly repeated everything he sensed from inside the tent, including the question.  The rest look at each other, but say nothing.

Inside, the Five-headed thing stepped closer, leaning in as if to whisper in Peggy’s ear.  She stood her ground, visibly uncomfortable with the closeness. The creature took a breath in as if to speak, but instead Peggy felt a tugging, then a draining of something vital to herself.  Mentally and physically she realised she was being held and pulled away with such force it startled the creature. She stuck out slapping the creature in the face. As her hand pulled away flames shot out from her palm lighting up the tent and her expression of pure anger.

“He’s moved in close, she hates this so much but she has to know…..what, something…somethings happening.  She’s being attacked…go, go, go!”  

Bruce flung the flap aside and strode back into the tent to see Peggy’s fiery hand held above the surprised Things main head.  Without warning he shoots his crossbow, the bolt roars through the air missing the creature and cutting straight through the tent wall.  The creature stepped back and slipped through the curtain and out of the tent.

“I want a refund!”  Peggy yelled and followed the creature.  She tried to Discern the Sins once more, but this time sensed nothing.  

Rain, still linked with what’s going on inside the tent, ran around the outside to where it connected with another smaller tent.  Dropping to the ground, he, Algernon and Celcilia slipped under the second tent wall only to find it empty, the smell of hot buttered popcorn in the air.

The flap between tents tore aside as Bruce and Peggy were visiblethrough the gap, lit by Peggy’s flames.  

“It’s gone.” Rain said as Algernon, putting his goblin nose to good use, followed the smell of buttered popcorn to the door where Bruce stood.

It was at that moment that Morris combat rolled into the first tent, two hand crossbows ready.  Rain rolled his eyes reading the scene and dismissing Morris’ bluff. Bruce lashed out, grabbing the little goblin around the scruff.

“Er…what’s the problem, friend?”  Morris asked Bruce who pulled out one of his stakes and pressed it into the goblin’s neck.

“What is the five-headed thing?”  

“Rumours, I only know rumours.”  The little goblin squirmed but couldn’t break free of  Bruce’s grasp.

“You owe me.”  Peggy said 

“It’s like the poster says, never be alone with it.  Some people have said the faces… they change.”

“Yeah, what’s in it for you, then?”  

“Just my little experiment.”  Morris giggled nervously, “You looked like you could look after yourself, and look you did!  Well done.”

“I’m getting really grumpy here and I don’t know how long I can stop from skewering you with this stake…”  

“Who was the main object of this investigation of yours?” Peggy cut in.  

 Algernon pointed at Peggy  as if it were obvious the reason for the experiment.

A tearing of heavy fabric from the other side of the main tent had Bruce turning to see two nine foot tall Jack-o-lantern golems, fires burning deep in their hollow heads, flickering through their eye sockets. They stared down at Bruce.

“Great, the police are here.”  Bruce said as both golems grabbed him and lifted him off the ground.  He dropped the goblin who was quickly grabbed by Peggy standing nearby.  Without a word or gesture the golem started walking away with the struggling Bruce.

Trying to find a way to stop the giant walking scarecrows, Rain conjured an empty bucket out of thought alone.  It appeared in his hand, not where he’d wanted it, on a golem’s head. Swinging the bucket over one arm he ran and jumped trying to climb up the nearest.  At nearly twice his height he had no hope of climbing the creature and slid down once more. Bruce still had his crossbow. With effort he swung it around and pushed it up under one of the pumpkin heads. Pulling the trigger, the stake went up through its head and out the top, but it didn’t stop the golem as it continued to carry him away.  Having a burst of inspiration, Cecilia grabbed Rain’s imaginary bucket and filled it with water from a nearby fountain. Throwing the water, bucket and all she succeeded in getting most into one of the pumpkin heads putting out its fire. It didn’t stop the golem, but it didn’t like it as it turned his baleful look on her.

Peggy’s scream didn’t seem to touch the golem so she settled for tightening her grip on Morris and followed.

“ Come on Morris, let’s go see where this goes.”

The golem with his fire doused by Cecilia lashed out at her, but she dodged away.  Algernon levitated Morris into the air so Peggy was holding onto him like a helium balloon.

“Call off the pumpkins!” Algernon said but never heard an answer as one of the golems fell to the ground.  Pulling a thin paracord from his coat like a magician would scarves, Rain had swung the loose end around the legs of the golem still lit by a fire.  The golem tripped up and crashed to the ground taking Bruce with him. Rolling away, Bruce was free if not unbruised.

As all eyes were on Bruce and the fallen golem, Morris started climbing down Peggy. No matter how she grabbed at him, the slippery goblin evaded her.  Bruce rolled to his feet, his crowbar in hand and brought it two handed down on one of the prone golem’s legs. It smashed to pieces in a shower of dry kindling.

“Okay you, hop it!”  He punned showing that old Bruce was inside this more aggressive version.

Cecilia seeing Rain’s success pulled out her whip and was surprised to find it was all liquorice. A liquorice whip!  Trusting in the mad rules of the recursion, she swung it out and caught the legs of the dampened golem. It too came crashing down, the sound of cracking pumpkin shell ringing across the cobbles.

“Oh!  Smashing pumpkins!”  She also quipped, rejoicing in the victory.

Peggy screamed again and this time her focus was true, stunning the golem with the broken leg.  It swung out at Bruce who was it’s nearest enemy but Bruce deflected the attack. The other golem rolled across the cobbles and toward Peggy wrestling her to the ground.  Touching one of his many tattoos, Algernon cast enchant creature on the golem holding Peggy.

“Release the prisoner!”

Before it could though, Rain grabbed up the ever trust bucket one more time, filled it and dumped its contents over the golem and Peggy.  The golem’s flames went out, Peggy’s spat and sizzles , steam rising in plumes around her. The golem let Peggy go, and she screamed again, and again the golem was sent reeling.  Bruce, leering over his fallen golem swung down with this crowbar and smashed its pumpkin head clean off. 

The last gollum let go of Peggy, stood up and moved away following the instruction of Algernon’s enchantment. Cecilia pinned an arm to its wooden body with a well placed bolt. Algernon tried to do the same bringing up his crossbow, fired and missed.  The bolt sailed over the open ground around the Midnight Circus to into the arm of a large werewolf talking with two friends.  

“Ah…It wasn’t me, it came from over there…somewhere.”  Algernon tried bluffing as he awkwardly hid his crossbow behind him.  The werewolves were not convinced and all three strode towards the party.

“Apologise kid.”  Bruce whispered hoarsely, not taking his eyes of the remaining golem as it stood passively before him.

Rain saw the werewolves, almost seven foot tall each, all with inch long claws and teeth, Algernon had no hope against such beings.  He glanced at the golem and saw the last was well taken care of and stepped out towards the three oncoming bruisers.

“Gentleman, I am so sorry for my little brother.  You know how they can be with a new toy, got to shoot at everything.  But I can assure you he’d not want to harm a living soul, it just got away from him.”  His words said, but throughthem he let the power of the Strange flow to the injured werewolf.  For that werewolf, time stopped, all he could do was stand and listen as Rain made his apologies. The other two uninjured friends seemed modified by the words and stood back, waiting to see what their companion would do.

“Do you speak?  Why do you attack?”  Bruce asked, his crowbar loose and ready in his hand.  The golem said nothing, bound by the magic Algernon had imposed on it.  Peggy and Cecilia backed away as the enchantment broke and the golem’s empty eye sockets turned to Bruce.  Straining it snapped the bolt pining its arm, and swung it at Bruce’s face. He batted the attack away, and ready his final onslaught. 

“Bad dog!”  Algernon mumbled to himself wondering if he could deal with these three like he had the dogs at Lydia Lance’s home. Realising each one was quite a bit bigger than him, he had to admit to himself that his levitation would not be able to hold them.  Returning his crossbow to his back, he contritely walked up behind Rain playing the part of the ‘naughty school boy’.

“I’m real sorry, Mister.”  He said just as Rain released the injured werewolf from his enthrall.  All three werewolves relaxed and stood by as Bruce dealt a deathblow to the last golem.

“I always like making pumpkin soup.”  He punned slinging his crowbar on his back before turning to the werewolves.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”  He said to the injured werewolf pulling out his first aid kit, “Can I help treat your wound at all?”

Pleased with Bruce’s generosity and the politeness of the others, he turned to reveal the bolt wound and gestured to the two now broken golems.

“Got yourselves into an altercation?  The gollem are set to protect the performers.”

Rain nodded, turning away as Bruce cleaned and bound the wound.

“We didn’t like when the five-headed fellow got handsy with our friend.” 

“Ah, so the rumours are true then.  You see the signs but you wonder if it’s just for show or you really shouldn’t be left alone with the guy.”

“That’s what Morris said, he was using us to conduct a little experiment.”

“Professor Morris?”  The werewolves laughed, “He sure hates it when you call him that.  Yeah, he’s an odd one, but he gets by here because he’s friends with Gomez Snake.”

“Ah, I believe we saw that gentleman at the Old Hangman’s Noose tonight.”  Rain gestured, miming the snake guy who’d been at the bar.

“Yeah, Morris has been coming and going for years and the only reason he hadn’t been dealt with before is that Gomez owns the Hollows.”

“Powerful friends, I see.”

“We’re new in town,”  Bruce said as he tied off the dressing and Rain walked away to talk to Algernon “Do you gentlemen know anything worth doing?”

“Well, the Circus is fine, but you have to pay attention to the signs.  Take for example the Carousel of Chance. You can have a fun ride, or something very good could happen. Sometimes bad things happen as well.”

Over to one side Algernon was dolefully picking up bolts that survived the battle.  

“I really did my part in that, didn’t I?”  He grumbled seeing Rain standing off at a distance. “Real slick.”

“I thought you did a great job talking down that werewolf.  And the tattoo, was that a spell? I was impressed.”

“You saved Peggy”  Cecilia added overhearing the conversation, “Don’t sell yourself short, you did what we all did, our best.”  She stepped up and patted him on the back. “Come on, did you hear, the Carousel of Chance is a bit of fun. You have candy,  why don’t you go try it?”

“I certainly want to, could I borrow some more candy?” Peggy said as she strode up to Cecilia.  Ceclia obligingly held out her bucket for Peggy who took another two.

Bruce, Rain and Cecilia watched as Algernon and Peggy took a ride for a piece of candy each.  It looked fun, but at the end of the ride, it was just a ride and they both stepped off wind blown and breathless.

“Are you staying out?” Bruce asked Rain as Peggy and Algernon both went back for a second ride.

“I don’t play games of chance unless I control it somehow.”  Rain replied, watching the other two carefully. “I’ve noticed.” Bruce replied as he too watched the carousel spin. 

“I don’t have a good relationship with Lady Luck.”

This time Peggy and Algernon had more than just a ride.  As the music ended and the spinning slowed, hands that had been empty at the start of the ride, were now holding cyphers.  Peggy studied the small box in her hand and discovered it was a pocket Recursion, a small emergency space in which to hide.  Algernon didn’t know what his was,but pocketed it for later investigation.

The riders, having spent their cand,y rejoined the rest of the party and they started walking towards the main tent of the Midnight Circus.  Here they met up with the werewolves who had been deep in conversation.

“Say, you guys really know how to handle yourselves.  We have a friend you might be able to help.”

“That’s very fortunate, “ Rain quipped cheerily, pleased to find a way of building allies out of these possible enemies. “We’re in the business of helping friends.”

“I’m in.” Peggy agreed and the group followed the werewolves out of the Midnight Circus to a string of shops that lined the road nearby.  They stopped outside a small shoe shop, inside they could see an old gentleman polishing up a pair of shoes. The werewolves said nothing,but entered the store where the lead wolf was greeted by name.

“Harry Worgen, nice to see you my friend.”  The old man looked up from his work and was introduced to the group

“These people can handle themselves and they’re willing to help.  They might be able to get your son back.”

“Your son?”

“Yes, my son died a couple of years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  Rain said, taking a seat.

“Death for us is another stage of life, his spirit lives but is not at rest.  A group of ghouls are seeing to that. I’ve tried talking to the NIghtwatchman about leaving my son alone, but it hasn’t done any good.  Now these ghouls have my son’s body and they won’t give him back. “

“This is too dangerous, we shouldn’t get involved.” Algernon said after hearing the old man’s story.

“A parent looking for their lost child…I have to help.” Peggy admitted with a shrug. All thoughts returned to her question to the Five-headed thing.  

Rain nodded silently also thinking of family lost, and looked up at Cecilia.

“Well, I’m for it.  Bruce?” She replied and turned to Bruce.

Bruce thought for a moment, refreshing after a night of Bruce on the edge.

“I’m worried this is over our heads…”

“If we go ahead then we’ll be fighting undead.” Cecilia mentioned and instantly Bruce’s demeanor changed. He grounded his crossbow slamming it into the shop flooring with a crunch.

“Then it is our righteous duty to destroy them!”