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49. Five days

Nakarand had been faced and defeated, and the group returned to Earth with Dram-Shara, a missing Ruk scientist and Uentaru, Earth’s real enemy.  Now they need to find a way of stopping the Aleph component from tearing the Earth apart and with it all the recursions.


It was an early Summer morning.  All over the campus, bird and squirrels were starting their days as Estate Agents check-in for morning shifts or got in a little exercise before work.  At the labs, there was a buzz of activity from deep below. 

“I’ve been working on the transport. It still needs an energy source and a time to plan…” Hertzfeld, head of the Scientific Department, walked briskly beside his smaller but formidable associate, Dr Peggy Martin.

“Energy source, I have.  Time we don’t.  Show me your lab.” Peggy displayed the fully charged battery rod, “What were you saying about something coming out of the Earth’s crust?”

“Yes, I have access to quite a few detectors all over the world.  With the usual seismic detectors, magnetic and neutrino detectors, the data is incredible. I wanted you to go over it with me.”

“Fine. I’d suggest it has to do with the Aleph component, a piece of old tech lodged in the Earth crust. Uentaru has been feeding psychic resonance to it with the use of Spiral Dust.  With the potential power of the component, she was trying to recreate her own lost world.”

“Uh-huh…maybe you should start from the beginning.”

Algernon had become the guardian of the entropic seed by default.  He was hoping to talk to Uentaru about its properties and searched for Tobias to smooth the way with her.  Unfortunately, Tobias had taken himself off to the dorms and collapsed on his bed, fully dressed.  Algernon looked at his bed for a moment, also contemplating a few hours rest. Turning Nakarand’s digestive juices to acid exhausted him more than he let on.  He swayed on the spot, clutching the entropic seed like his child.  In the end, it was the seed that won out as it almost slipped out of his tired arms, waking him with a start.  Heavily he turned and left the dorm determined to do what he could without Tobias and headed for the library.

The warm, quiet environment of the library was not conducive to staying awake.  Neither was the resource material which seemed to consist mostly of fringe conspiracy theory articles from magazines such as the New Aquarian. However, Algernon persevered.  On the entropic seed itself, almost nothing, a definition similar to that Uentaru had provided inside Nakarand.  A powerful item of almost unlimited potential.  He did confirm what she had to say about it powering the Aleph component, which was something. Her information could be relied upon if she were willing to tell the truth…or compelled.

On the Aleph component, he found almost nothing but near science fiction.  In this case, it seemed, that they happened upon the truth didn’t excuse the articles lack of evidence for their assumptions.  Many believed that something, not another proto-planet, hit Earth, forming the moon billions of years ago.  Very few had ideas what it was, but reading between the lines and gathering all the snippets together, Algernon gathered it was an item of The Strange.  What interested him most were notes, scribbled in the margin on these articles.  Beside one theory as to the nature of the object, someone had written Defunct Intergalactic Transport System, location unknown. Algernon looked back at who had signed these files out before him.  In every case of scribbled notes, Hertzfeld had signed out the file.

As usual, Bruce went straight to Katherine to debrief her on what had occurred. His continuing frame of mind to destroy something had not cooled.  It simmered as he explained what the party had discovered.  If anything, it seemed contagious as Katherine became more and more disturbed as he spoke.

“These beings are playing with us like a football!”He ended with a menacing grumble.

“You found something that will destroy the world?” Katherine replied, standing and leaving her desk, “To Hertzfeld, now.”

Hertzfeld’s experiment had grown considerably from the glove they played with the previous Christmas. Most of the lab benches, vacuum hoods and heavy lab equipment was pushed aside or removed entirely to make way for a black-painted Kombi van on ramps.  Hardware was bolted on its chassis, with wiring running everywhere. Something like the mesh the glove had been made of covered the front of the van. The van itself had been guttered except for the driver’s seat, and a wheel, much like that in an aircraft yoke, replaced the whole steering wheel assembly and connected to guidance panels on either side of the van.

When Katherine and Bruce entered the lab, Hertzfeld and Peggy were pawing over data from various seismic readers from all over the world.  Activity had been building for the last few days after a long quiet period. 

“If this trend continues, it seems the world has five days before it’s torn apart from the inside,” Peggy dispassionately presented the information to the alarmed group, “The destabilising event is inevitable unless we can release the resonance energies safely.  I’ve also established the activity is coming from 1,800 miles below, that’s well through the crust and just above the mantle.  We will need Hertzfeld’s invention online if we have any chance of getting there in time.”

“Right,” Katherine said, turning to Hertzfeld, “So what do you need?  Bruce said something about a seed…”

“An entropic seed.  Uentaru said it could help save the Earth,” Peggy supplied, but she knew little more.

“As to what we need,” Hertzfeld continued, “I need help extending the phasing field over the whole van, I need an energy supply to run it and some sort of guidance system to get the van to where it needs to go.” 

“Good, any suggestions for talent?  You can have anyone here, but is there anyone you would recommend from another recursion?”

“We brought Dram-Shara back with us from Nakarand.  She’s a biochemist, but there might be something she can help with,” Peggy suggested, and Hertzfeld put a call into security were Dram-Shara was being debriefed.

“There’s the Quiet Cabal. There were a few good hands there,” Bruce offered, and Kathrine made a note to send an agent to Ruk.

“Do you think Ni-Challan? He’s handy with his robots and computers,” Peggy offered as a suggestion, “We should also talk to Uentaru.  Her life depends on us getting to the component in time.”

“The one that put us in this mess!” Bruce growled with disgust, ”I’ll see what I can do there. God knows I understand only one of five things ya’ll talking about,” He pointed at Peggy and Hertzfeld.

“Rain can go talk to Ni’Challan…does anyone know where he’s gone?”

“He stumbled off to the dorms earlier,” Peggy yawned, stifling her own need for sleep.

“Figures…” Bruce said so low it came out only as a bass grumble.  With nothing more to say, he stormed out to talk to Uentaru.

No one got in Bruce’s way as he stormed through security and down to the detention cells.  No one dared.  His expression murderous and his body language threatening violence, his footsteps rung through the empty corridor to Uentaru’s cell.  The shiny metal mesh and glass cage was a faraday cage against those who could connect to The Strange.  It stopped Uentaru using any abilities she had, including translating.  Bruce stared at her through the mesh as two guards on charge intercepted him.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t talk to the prisoner,”

“Let me in and lock me in!” Bruce replied, not taking his eyes off Uentaru, who just turned her head and ignored the theatrics.

“Sir, we have strict orders to…”

“And I’m telling you we don’t have time to go through channels.  Let me in there and lock me in.”

The two guards look at each other, and as one put through a call on his walkie-talkie, the other opened the cage and let Bruce in.  

Bruce didn’t waste a moment. He stomped in and, lifting Uentaru by the collar of her Estate provided overalls, pinned her to the wall.

“They tell me the Earth ends in five days.”

“Well, if I was there to make it happen, my world would be reborn.” She stared back at him, unconcerned for her welfare.

“What happens.”

“Your world will end.  The only chance any of us have is if something good comes out of the tragedy.”

“The energies will be released, where?”

“Deep underground.”


“Earth’s core. You won’t get there in time.  Face it. We’re all doomed.”

“What if we dismantle the Spiral Dust network?”

She laughed. A trilled that would have excited men for a thousand years, now it sounded hollow and defeated, “It’s in motion. No one can stop it now.  Do you think to put the water back once the dam is broken? I think not.”

Bruce stared at her a moment, trying to read her but unsure what was going on behind her too calm expression. 

“You’re pathetic,” He finally said and dropped her back on her bunk before turning and asking to be let out.

Peggy also entered security to see Dram-Shara.  As both Katherine and Hertzfeld were busy, Lawrence Keaton was debriefing Dram-Shara and preparing passage for her back to Ruk. Peggy didn’t believe in preambles and interrupted the interview.

“Are you a realist or an extremist, Dram-Shara?”


“You are an employee of a Karrum owned business. I asked you what do you think of Ruk’s chances if Earth and all the recursion were destroyed?”

“I…I surmise…Ruk would be severely damaged if not destroyed in such a case.”

“Good.  We have five days to stop that exact thing from happening.” Peggy said, turning to leave.

“Is that your way of asking for my help?” Dram-Shara scoffed, leaning back on her plastic chair.

“There’s no point in asking unless you’re interested. I can see you have a vested interest in saving Earth, so why bother wasting the words.  You know what is at stake.”

Dram-Shara sat there a moment staring at Peggy perplexed before standing silently and following Peggy back to the labs.

Bruce returned to the lab as Peggy finished briefing Dram-Shara on what was required and using her communication cypher to talk directly to Giquabee of the Quiet Cabal.  Though it pained her not to make her ear-worm torture device from the cypher, she realised that talking directly to people instead of relying on official channels could tip the balance.  With less than five days, they needed every advantage they could get.  Bruce took one look at the lab, knew it was not a place for him and stormed off again.  

Peggy yawned.  They’d been up for 36 hours and travelled two recursions and a worm.  It had been a long day, and she decided she needed some rest before focusing her mind on the work ahead.  As she left, she noticed Bruce travelling in the same direction as her.  She hoped to just follow in after him and slip past to the women’s dorms before anything more was asked of her.  That wasn’t to be.

Ahead she heard Bruce stomping down the vinyl floored hallway before slamming open the men’s dorm door.

“Ah! Ow!” Tobias cried from inside as he was suddenly jolted awake by the fuming Bruce. Spotting Peggy, Bruce also waved her into the men’s dorm before closing the door.

“Bruce, I need some sleep,” Peggy yawned again and climbed up onto Algeron’s well-made bed.  It was so comfortable she lay her head on the pillow as she listened to the other two talk.

“I was asleep,” Drawled Tobias stretching out the cricks in his back and neck, “What is this about and can’t it wait until I’ve had a few hours rest?”

“She knows,” Bruce ignored Tobias’ complaint.  

“Of course she does. It’s her plan” Tobias knew exactly who ‘She’ was and what she knew.

“I want to know what she knows about the component.”

“Well,” Tobias stretched again and stood up in one graceful move, “I guess I could ask her now,” He mused as he examined himself.  His clothes did not translate but were a little worse for being slept in. “ I’ll go freshen up a little.”

“We don’t have time…”

“There is always time to look decent.  Besides, alarms are only there to make the guilty do something foolish.” He replied quoting Alegernon, and walked into the showers.

“Oh, and don’t forget to talk to Ni’Challan about… help…ing,” Peggy said sleepily as she pulled Algernon’s blankets over her and fell asleep.

The ten minutes it took Tobias to clean off the worst of his exhaustion and smarted up his suit may have seemed an eternity to Bruce, but the duo were soon walking across the Estate, the little man chipper and as fresh looking as someone who’d just come back from holidays.  

“We could do with Algernon and his mind scraping,” Bruce said as they drew near the library.

“Bruce, have you ever wondered about the nature of God?”

Bruce stopped in his tracks.  The thought was so contrary to anything his brains was trying to comprehend that it froze, his mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Tobias stopped when he realised that Bruce was no longer by his side.

“What I mean is, it’s sort of a revelation to find out that God is a machine, don’t you think?”

“What…? Why are you talking at me about this?” Bruce wailed, finally finding his feet once more.

“I get Jesus. A man of his time, totally quickened. It only makes sense.  The same with Buddha and Mohammad.  These are people speaking of their time with voices and actions affected by the Strange.  But God?  We’re always told he’s unknowable, that his ways are ineffable and that it will all become clear at the end of days.  Well, we’re at the end of days, and I think it has been made clear.  The Aleph machine is God, and we couldn’t hope to understand it because what’s to understand?  It’s a broken down piece of alien tech, right?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to speak to a priest or something about this?” 

“Oh goodness no, could you imagine?  Hey, that religion you’ve been so keen on for 2000 years or more?  What if I told you I had evidence its deity is space junk?  No.  Algernon has no concept of God, and Peggy is busy.  You had a Christian upbringing. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.”

Bruce was not a philosophising man, but neither was he stupid.  He had a feeling that Tobias was playing with him a little, maybe for getting him out of bed.

“Look, all I know is you do what’s right, right?”

“But what’s right in relation to a machine?”

“It doesn’t matter about God.  You do what’s right. Look after others as you’d want them to look after you…”

“The Two Great Commandments, or at least Jesus version is.  So, it is not the power, God, Aleph component that matters, but how we respond to it?”

“Yes…?” Was that was Bruce was saying?  It sounded right but very wrong all at the same time.  Just then, he spotted Algernon through the library windows and, with a silent sigh of relief and pointed him out.

“Greeting all-powerful one.  Tell me, how do you destroy a planetoid with your mind and still walk around like an everyday human being?” Tobias joked as they walked up to Algernon in the near-deserted library, his head deep in files. When Algernon raised his head to respond, the pale complexion and deep bags under the eyes spoke for him, “Ah , so that’s how.  Still mere flesh then.”

“We’re going to have a chat with Uentaru,” Bruce ignored Tobias, who was obviously in  a prankish mood, “I’d like you to pick her brains.”

“I couldn’t last time I tried,” Algernon replied, staking up the files for the librarians to file away, “ Her mind was shielded or something. But I do have some questions to ask.” And leaving the library the trio headed towards security. Bruce made one more stop before reaching Uentaru.  At security, he signed out his gun, checked and holstered it.

“You don’t need a gun, Bruce.” Tobias was suddenly serious.

“Why not?”

“What do you hope she will say at the point of a gun she wouldn’t say before?  And I won’t help you with torture.”

“You just do your thing, and I won’t need the gun.” He replied adamantly, and they continued to their destination.

Uentaru was as before, sitting on a cot in the glass and wire cage.  Tobias led the way, politely knocking on the glass before speaking.

“How are you keeping?” He asked like a concerned friend at a sick bed.

“Fine,” She replied curtly, not bothering to keep eye contact once she saw who was there.

“Mind if I come in?” Tobias asked, watching her demeanour.   

“Suit yourself.” She was putting on a strong front. She’d had to for a long time. She was alone in the universe.  

Tobias asked for the cage to be opened, and he stepped inside.  There was nowhere else to sit beside the floor. Flicking up his yellow jacket, he couched to be on a level with Uentaru.

“Bruce tells me you are a Chaos Templar. That you founded the order. I found it intriguing that you created a group whose sole focus was to stop planets being destroyed.”

Uentaru’s gaze swung around, baleful and contemptuous, “I saved thousands of planets from destruction. I earned the right to resurrect what was.”

“Hmm, I’m not arguing with you.  But, do you think it’s a view your fellow knights would share?” Tobias asked, and the strong exterior cracked a little.  

“You know nothing of the Chaos Templars,” She couldn’t look at him and turned away, seemingly disinterested in the conversation.  But, for a moment, he saw the despondency and her complete lack of hope. 

Summoning the power of the Strange, Tobias wove one thought, an ideal that where there is life, there is hope.  With it, he continued to talk, embedding the ideal in Uentaru’s mind.

“That’s true. Nonetheless, they seem a noble group. I’d like to get to know them, Uentaru.”

“Well, it’s too late.  Everything is in motion. You can’t save it now.“ Now the hopelessness was obvious to everyone watching.

“Never,” Tobias smiled, trying to catch her eye, “We have a vehicle that can get us to the Aleph component, and we have the entropic seed.  We have the brilliant minds of Algernon and Peggy to guide us, and we’ve even got people from Ruk helping out. No, we have life, Uentaru, and while we have that, we have hope.”

The ideal connected with his words and sparked something deep within Uentaru. Her head bowed, and after a long pause, she spoke again, “If I had an Entropic seed, this is how I’d use it…”

Algernon took over the conversation from that moment on, asking appropriate questions to understand the true nature of the seed and how to use it in the situation.

“So, with the Entropic seed, we can turn off the Aleph component?”

“Yes, but you don’t want to do that.  The Aleph component made the Strange. It made Earth the way it is. If the Aleph component is turned off or destroyed…well, it would be the same as doing nothing.” She said with assurance that gave the group pause—doomed if they did too little, doomed if they did too much.

“The Earth is a rare place.  I search a thousand years and found only Earth with its link to the recursion and the Strange.  No other prime world has such a link. It created a race of people all with the spark and the highest concentration of quickened in the Universe.”

“Can I ask how you were going to get to the Aleph component when the time was right?” Algernon asked. It wasn’t a question that had come across anyone else’s minds.

“I have a key to cavern where the Aleph component lies. I keep it in a private recursion. The only way for you to get there is with a recursion key, a poster, held by my associate in Cairo.”

“Could you take us there?” Tobias asked hopefully.

“That’s not happening, Rain,” Bruce warned as Tobias shrugged his shoulders.  Instead, Bruce spoke to one of the guards and asked a message be send to the Cairo office and see if they could get a hold of the poster.  

“Uentaru?” Algernon asked again, “The distribution arrangement for the Dustman, how did you do all of that?”

“Contacts.  I found and gave him the contacts. The Crow Hollow families were ideal managers of the network. I arranged it for him.”
“The qephilim woman with the bright yellow mythlight…” Tobias slapped his head, “Remember Algernon?  Rimush back in Ardeyn told you that the Dustman first came with a woman.”  He turned to Uentaru in awe, “I never questioned you…you were so… good.”

Uentaru didn’t respond, only bowed her head so no one could see her face.

Algernon continued with his question, ”Do you have any tech that would be useful to us?”

“No,” She said without raising her head, “ I have nothing, you’ve taken everything from me.”

Algernon had what he needed to know. It was time to go.  

“I’ll come by for another conversation soon,” Tobias said, standing and leaving the cage “Say five days?”

It was late.  Bruce and Algernon had not slept at all since returning. In an unspoken agreement, they headed back to the dorms for a decent rest before the hard work of the next few days.  Algernon was flummoxed when he turned to his bed and found Peggy sleeping there.  For a moment, he thought to wake her, thought better of the idea (he really did require his ears) and snuck into the women’s dorm to sleep in her bed instead.

There were a few other occupants of the women’s dorms, so he was sure to sneak as quietly as possible, checking for traps and snags that would give him away.  He found one under the pillow, a nasty buzzer that would have woken everyone present.  With his crossbow armed and ready, he caught a few hours rest, all that he needed these days.  It wasn’t until he was leaving early the next morning that he caught a rug trap, tripping up and waking the closest of the inhabitants.

“Wha…? What are you doing in here?” Said the very fit young female agent as she sat bolt upright in bed.  

“Sorry, I was looking for Peggy. Is she here?”

“Get out,” The woman rolled over and didn’t give the peeping tom another thought.  

Algernon didn’t look back.  He was pleased that someone would be able to tell Peggy he’d been there.

Day 1

The group gathered over the usual breakfast, and Algernon updated Peggy on using the Entropic seed.  After a cup of coffee with the group, Tobias didn’t waste any time and headed to Peggy’s lab to translate out to the Graveyard of the Machine gods.

Travelling alone through the Strange was slow and taxing, and he was glad when the library with the large window looking out onto the space station slowly came into focus. Ni’Challan was not there to greet him this time, and he had to go hunting out the old man within the vast interior of the station. Thankfully, the sounds of repairing and the occasional verbalised instructions helped Tobias hone in on Ni’Challan’s location.  He found him organising a group of robots to replace the internal walls in a section of the upper station that saw most fighting.  

“Well, what disaster gives me the pleasure of your presence?” Ni’Challan said, glancing over his shoulder to where Tobias was walking down the hallway.

“I’m glad my presence is a pleasure, even in a disaster,” Tobias smirked, and the old man gave a dry laugh and turned back to orchestrating his robots.

“I assume you would like something.”

“Yes, unfortunately. Uentaru, how long have you known her?”

“Ohhh, a while.  She helps out when she can,” Ni’Challan turned and looked thoughtfully and Tobias, “Why?”

“And you’d say she’s a good person wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” He replied instantly without doubt, but now Tobias had his attention, “Why?”

“We’ve just caught her planning to destroy the Earth and its recursions on the hope that she could remake her homeworld, Mycaeum.”

“Ah, yes,” Ni’Challan grew grave and now forgot the robots and the repairs for the subject at hand, “She always was overly fond of the old place.  But, what has this to do with me? You caught her? The world is safe?”
“We caught her.  She confessed the whole plan and has helped with information. Still, the machine is already working. Unless we can get to a spot deep in the Earth’s crust within five days and do something about it, the Earth and recursions will all be destroyed regardless.   We’re gathering help from all over the recursions, and I was wondering what you may know or have that could help, ” Tobias looked at the old man and could see his mind was already on the task.

“Tell me everything.”

Ni’Challan questioned Tobias about the Aleph component and their plans with the entropic seed.  As they spoke, Ni’Challan guided Tobias through the station and down into the lower levels.  Here he stored all the projects that he hadn’t got to around to preparing for display.  Here anonymous crates and broken artifacts lay in huge drifts through the vast warehouse-like space.  Glancing around at the collections of ‘junk’, Tobias was astounded that one person could collect so much in one lifetime, let alone know where anything was.  Still, Ni’Challan led him through narrow paths between near-titering piles of stuff with a sureness of a ranger in a favoured forest.

As with any forest, the junk piles finally thinned out to a clearing where a large two-seater flying vehicle rested.  It was a helicopter of sorts with two props that were held out from the vehicle’s body on long arms to either side.  The remains of a red and black paint job could be seen on the body of the vehicle in the style of a dragon.  That is, where the body wasn’t melted down to the chassis.  As far as Tobias was concerned, it was a wreck and belonged, floating among the detritus that encircled the station.

“The people of this recursion tried to restart their dying sun.  They failed, of course, but you had to admire their spirit,” Ni’Challan ran his hand over the unmelted side of the cockpit, and Tobias could see the old man’s passion for the story of noble but inevitably doomed heroism. He hoped their story would not be equally as tragic.

“The vehicle itself is too far gone, but the fusion engine could be useful in the right hands.”

“This just might be the thing Hertzfeld and Peggy have been looking for.  Thank you, Ni’Challan.”

“Bring it back if you can. One day it will have pride of place in my collection.”


Ni’Challan now went rummaging through nearby boxes strewn throughout the clearing.  With a cry of triumph, he pulled out a one-piece suit and helmet made of thin silvery material. He pulled out four such suits from the box and packed them carefully in the burnt-out shell of the flying machine.

“They should help with the heat.  You did say you were heading deep into the Earth’s crust?”
“I understand there’s a sort of cavern where the component lies.”
“Still, you’ll be glad you have those once you get there,” Ni’Challan tapped the suits, and Tobias realised that in sharing his collection, the coolly distant old man was showing love.  

“I never did get to tell you. I found out a little more about my background,” He said, drawing out the heavy silver locket and showing Ni’Challan the image of a young woman, “This is Avel, my mother.”

Ni’Challan’s dark eyes fixed on the small portrait and crossed the clearing , a hand outstretched.  Silently he looked upon the photo and then at Tobias, a fervidly curious expression on his face.

“Extraordinary! But how did you find her?”

“Ah,” Tobias smiled, taking the old man’s hand in his, “I’ll tell you all about it in six days.”

Back on Earth, the rest of the group were preparing as best they could.  Though Algernon had covered everything Uentaru had shared with him, Peggy still insisted on watching the security video footage of the interview for herself.  Algernon didn’t take offence and did what he could do to help Peggy get up to speed.  

Bruce spent the morning at the gym working himself hard while letting his mind drift through thoughts of what they’d been through in the last few days and where they were going in the next few.  Exhausting the body, he centred and renewed his mind, reinforcing his sense of self-control after the confusing and disorientating trip through Nakarand.  Once out the other end, he felt more at peace, ready to help in any way he could.

“Hey, I have this electrical null field,” He said, returning to Hertzfeld’s lab and the centre of all activity, “It protects against electricity.  Do you think it can help?”  

Peggy took the cypher with a silent nod and added it to a collection of useful items ready to be installed on the van. 

Soon after, Tobias returned with shiny metal suits and the promise of an engine.  While Peggy went back to her lab to inspect the copter, Bruce put on the largest of the suits, and Algernon bathed him in flames from a propane torch.

“Are you going to turn that on or what?” Bruce’s muffled voice could be heard over the roar of the flames.

Tobias took the opportunity to talk to Dram-Shara, who was busy laying down electrical cables throughout the van.

“In Nakarand, you said you had a cypher that would create a portal to Ruk?  I was hoping I could take it with us on this crazy trip to the centre of the Earth,” He said, giving her an imploring look.  She thought for a moment and then pulled from her pocket a small metal box with a press button.

“If you can’t stop the Aleph component, this thing is not going to do me any good.” She handed it over.

Peggy returned, announcing the engine would be suitable for the van, and she and Bruce started pulling the old Kombi’s air-cooled engine from the chassis.

“We could also reinforce the Kombi’s body with the aircraft frame.”

Algernon took it upon himself to start cutting up the aircraft body with an arc welder.  The extra power required started a short circuit in the cockpit of the aircraft.  Sparks and bright red flames illuminated the lab, quickly catching alight the seating and insulation.  Peggy and others, drawn by the fire alarms, soon had the flame out, but not the flames of Peggy’s anger.  That was until she realised none of her equipment was damaged. All he’d achieved was a black mark on the roof and scorching himself.  

“Maybe you should stick to creating the software interface,” She said, picking up an oxy-acetylene torch.  He quickly left and did as he was told.

 All that day, Hertzfeld’s lab was Queen’s chamber at the centre of a large beehive of workers all focused on one task. Giquabee turned up midday and started working on the guidance system that would direct the van to the cavern of the Aleph component.  Dram-Shara connected the fusion engine to the battery rod and the rest of the van, providing power for the phasing field, steering, guidance system and dozens of other essential systems.  The phasing field was Hertzfeld’s,  but his proudest moment was when he installed a large red button with a clear perspex cover to the dashboard.

“In case of emergencies.  Technically, it should take the van and everyone in it to a random recursion.”
“Technically?” Tobias asked, picking up on the adverb.

“Either that or it will blow you up. That’s why it’s for emergencies.” Shrugged Hertzfeld.

“Either way, I bags sitting there. Who can resist a red button.” Tobias grinned and missed Bruce’s calculating look behind.

 Algernon quietly worked away created computer interfaces between it all and the human’s who had to pilot the thing. More and more, that task was looking like his.

“Too many scientists and not enough lab assistance,” Bruce joked as by late that evening, they all stepped away from the modified Kombi van, their tasks complete.  

That night, they ate a feast ordered and Ubered in by Tobias.  At first, they ate quietly, too exhausted to enjoy the extravagant items on offer.  When the lobster was described as a giant sea cockroach and champagne as off fruit juice to the Ruk guests, merriment descended on the group.  It was at their last meal together that they christened the Kombi van.

“Why don’t we call it Unfazed?” Bruce suggested to the group, inspiring the other to come up with equally and punny names.

“I like Bertie,” Peggy said, inspiring Tobias.

“No, Burnie.”

Day 2

To be continued…

44. Deals with Devils

With all five eggs in hand, the group return to Crow Hollow with the expectation of learning a little more about the Spiral Dust network from Dona Ilsa.


“Maybe we should sell them to the highest bidder,” Algernon mused as the group settled themselves back into their Cro forms after translation from Ardeyn.  Behind him, Bruce gave the young man a scowl that would have made him take back his thought, if he’d seen it.

“I thought money was a transitory power, not worth your time?” Tobias asked as he threw the chain of the necklace around his overside bird head and hid the soul gem amongst the white feathers on his chest.  The heavy stone nestled above his heart, cool and present.

“Let’s just get to Dona Ilsa and find out what she knows,” Peggy yawned, exhausted from their ordeals in the Vaults.

They hadn’t bothered to rest, leaving Ardeyn as soon as they cleared the Mouth of Swords and the entrance to the Vault. Though now in new bodies that hadn’t endured the security and traps of The Vaults, some of the group were exhausted.  But, the end was in sight, and they went without tending to injuries to see the eggs safely delivered.

Once they climbed through the canopy of the great tree to the Conaro mansion, they were ushered straight into the great woman’s presence, a sitting room, genteel and refined.  Few words were wasted. Tobias let Bruce lead with the box as he stood aside to watch as Dona Ilsa was reunited with her lost eggs.

A relaxation of the shoulders and posture was all there was to see as Dona Ilsa opened the box and the five eggs were presented to her. She picked them up, one by one, examining them in detail before moving to the next. With each egg, a feeling of genuine happiness and relief suffused the lady, transforming her before their eyes, from the hard edge businesswoman and leader of a family dynasty to a mother.

“Thank you for returning my eggs to me,” She said simply, putting the box to one side, a protective hand on them at all times.

Tobias had to drag his attention away, deeply moved by the sight of a mother’s love. Clearing his throat, he opened the conversation.

“Lady, we have proven ourselves true to our word. We have an agreement.  Tell us what you know of the Spiral Dust trade.”

“Yes,” Instantly, the image of a doting mother was gone, the businesswoman returned, “He calls himself The Dustman though what he is…I can’t say. His supplies originally came through Ruk, from a business called Whole Body Grafts.”

“Algernon, do you know anything about that place,” Tobias asked, giving up a little push of The Strange to help the memory.

“It’s one of many body modification stores.  Nothing exciting,” He replied, remembering their advertisements on the Allsong.

“So you met with the Dustman? “ Returning to the Dona.

“From time to time.  He doesn’t come anymore, just sends the stock.”

Tobias looked at Algernon, who had his hand on his backpack. Both knew inside was a picture of the Dustman drawn by the golem of The Vault, Rimush.  There was no particular benefit in showing her the image of the being who had stolen her eggs. She’d confirmed they were after the same person already, so Tobias said nothing and eventually, Algernon dropped his hand.

“Dustman?  Wasn’t he one who took the eggs to The Vault?” Bruce said, oblivious of the non-verbal interaction between the other two.

“What? I should have known!” The Dona pounded her fist on the arm of the lounge chair she was sitting in.

“Yes,” Tobias sighed.  He admired the Dona, and he hated being the bearer of bad news,” So our contacts in Ardeyn told us.  I’m sorry, you were played.”

“What a fool I am!” She fumed, “When he came to me with the proposal, all I thought of was the chance to make a little extra money to find my eggs.  It never occurred to me he had arranged the whole damn thing!”

“I have had reason recently to see how far a parent will go for their children.  It can make you blind, I think.” Tobias said quietly, and the Lady turned to face him, all mask of authority gone.

She nodded, accepting his words, but the fire was lit.  She fumed silently where she sat.

“Dona, what would you like us to do?” He asked, hoping to soothe her, give her a moment to stop and think.

“End him,” She said, her voice and posture full of venom.

“Which end?” Bruce replied.

“The very end.  I want him and everything he is destroyed.”

That was certainly clear. Tobias changed the subject.

“Dona, do you know anything about the Drood side of the Spiral Dust trade?” 

“Only that their arrangement was made at about the same time as mine.”

“Would you be able to provide an introduction to Don Wyclif?” Bruce asked.

She laughed humourlessly, “Only to getting shot. We exchange nothing but gunfire these days.”

“Possibly we could go in as mediators between your two houses?”

“Only for your own executions, I’m afraid.”

“Dona, what does he like?” Algernon asked

“The Don likes power, power and fear over others.” Was all she would say, and in the end group were floundering for more questions to ask.  Algernon had at least one that was important to him.

“Dona, do you have an inapposite gate?”

“No, I do not.”
“Do you know the location of one?”
“I’ve heard the Drood might have one,” She said with a sigh. It was clear it was all they were going to get from the Lady, for now, so Tobias made their farewells, and they left.

“Could we demolish his house, do you think?” Algernon was musing as they walked back into the crowds of the branches of the tree.

“Oh yes, we need to see about getting that dynamite for you,” Tobias replied, only half attentive to the conversation.

“No, we do not,” Bruce interjected, “Are you sure that blowing up the Drood mansion isn’t more for your enjoyment?”
“I can’t help if I enjoy my work!” Retorted Algernon, “Say, what if I turned the metal wires holding the house to plastic?”

“We’re in a market,” Tobias was still bumbling along on his thoughts, “I wonder if there’s anything like the rumour markets here?  We could do with more information about the Droods and their organisation.”

“I could watch the Droods, maybe that back entrance, you know who comes in and out,” Algernon suggested.

“We have a disguise cypher. One of us could go in and scope out the place,” Bruce added as Tobias yawned, swaying on his feet as he nodded agreement to Bruce’s idea.

“You’re still hurt. Let me heal you up a little, at least before we go on with our plans,” Bruce offered, and Tobias stopped him with a wave.

“It takes effort for you even to try and heal us. I need your good right arm strong, don’t short yourself trying to patch me up,” Tobias looked around the buildings and businesses nearby, “Maybe I should just find us a place to rest.”

They continued to move down the tree. Tobias did find an inn and arranged accommodation for the night.  While waiting, Bruce and Algernon spotted two Cro talking at a market stall. They stood out as one had a shock of bright red feathers sticking out the top of his head. The second was a large Cro, with a sledgehammer strapped across his back.  His grey feathers seemed groomed to stick out each side of his beaky face.

“Say, doesn’t that one look like Muttonchops from Dreamland?” Algernon asked, subtly pointing the two out to Tobias walking back, now lighter of all his Crow coins.

“Toby Walsham…well, and that must be Old Firetop himself, Rodney Dodd.  Now, what do you suppose they’re doing here?”

“Moriarty wanted in on the Spiral Dust trade,” Bruce reminded him,” Seems he still does.”

Without seeing the group’s attention on them, Rodney and Toby moved further into the market.  Algernon gestured he would follow and, with a push from Tobias, started moving through the crowd.  Grabbing hold of Bruce’s armoured arm, Tobias focused on his phylactery, and they started following at a distance.

Firetop and Muttonchops visited several stalls, all asking their questions and moving through the crowd as if native to it.  It wasn’t until Rodney turned to glance through the crowd that he saw Algernon watching.  Their eyes locked, and Algernon knew he’d been made.  Rodney said something to Toby, who started pushing through the crowd towards Algernon.  A whistle from Rodney also brought another Cro, looking at rifles at an adjoining stall, and all three started circling Algernon.

“He’s in trouble. Dodd’s seen him,” Tobias whispered to Bruce, who moved them through the crowd.

Algernon stiffened, and like a deer, sprung away from the encroaching thugs.  He knew the others were behind him.  Even as a Cro, Bruce was very identifiably Bruce, and these men had fought him twice before. With this thought in mind, he started moving away from their direction. 

From within the crowd, Bruce noted Algernon wasn’t moving through the crowd as smoothly as he had.  People seemed to be getting in his way , slowing him down and then finally, he fell as Mutton Chops reached him.

“He’s caught!” Tobias cried, almost fighting against the bulk of Bruce in front of him.

“Yeah, I think the kid meant to be. Let’s just hang back and watch a bit.”

“Well, what ‘ave we got ‘ere?” Said Toby of the Muttonchops, lifting Algernon off his feet to face Rodney.

“Thank you, sir,” He bluffed, nervously smiling at Muttonchops.

“What for?”

“For helping me up.” Large black bird eyes looked innocently from Toby to Rodney and back as if an evil thought had never entered their head.
“What are you up to?” Rodney said, his red feathers swaying like flames as he moved.

“Oh!  Lovely red feathers, sir.  I was just shopping, sir.”

“Thanks,” Rodney eyed Algernon suspicious as Toby put him down.  If he could just show them he could be clever…Algernon shot a hand out to pickpocket Rodney, but the thug was ready for that game.


“Sorry, sir!”

“What are you playin’ at?” 

“I work for you now, sir.  Now.”
“Now?  Who before?”

“No one, in particular, sir,” Algernon looked downcast, as if life had been very unfair up to that point, “But I can be useful.”

Toby growled and pushed Algernon close to Rodney, “Talk to the boss.”

“So, you want employment?” Rodney finally said, looking down on the small non-descript Cro.

“Yes, sir.  I can be very useful.”

“Doing what?
Algernon thought a moment, “Pickpocketing occasionally, I’m pretty stealthy…blowing things up…”

Rodney did a doubletake, his red feathers swinging back and forwards like a wildfire. 

“Tell you what.  A friend of ours has things we would like…back.”

“Recovery mission.  Where would you like me to go?”

“His place, we’ll show you. ”
“And pay, sir?  For this job?”

Rodney smirked, “Very little, and on completion.”

“How…little would that be?” Algernon asked timidly.

‘Oh, I think five crow coins would be little enough.”

“Bringing something back is surely worth…ten?”

At this, Rodney laughed out loud, “You come back, I’ll make it ten.”

“What do you want me to recover?

“Hmmm, our friend is not willing to share.  We need something that will…encourage him to share.”
“Something to inspire sharing.” 

The thugs gave him the directions to the second-largest house in the whole Great tree.  Algernon guessed correctly that this was the home of the Droods and Don Wyclif.

“And where can I find you afterwards, sir?”

Rodney named an inn further down the tree, “Ask for Clovis Miller.”

“I’m on my way!” Algernon almost saluted and ran off in the direction of the house.  

Bruce stood to one side and watched the murder of thugs.  They followed the kid with their eyes, bemused expressions on their faces.  They chatted for a moment or two. The third guy went back to the stall of rifles.

“Algernon’s just said we should probably regroup,” Tobias said, tugging on Bruce’s feathers.

“Yeah, just what I was thinking.” And, leading Tobias, moved back towards the inn they had booked for the night.

In the small but comfortable room, the group met and prepared to rest.  Not taking no for an answer,  Bruce prepared to do what healing he could for the two most injured in the party, Tobias and Algernon.  His first aid worked well on Tobias, who relaxed a little easier into a chair. For Algernon, he failed to make an impact.

“Is there a psychological reason you don’t heal me?” Algernon asked the frustrated Bruce, who made him sit down again.  This time, the healing took, and he was able to rest well.

The next morning, Peggy, Bruce and Algernon were all up before Tobias, who was still looking poorly and not moving with his usual speed.  It couldn’t be helped. At least the day held nothing more strenuous than talking.  They breakfasted and headed out into the market to each of their assigned tasks for the day.  Algernon found a good vantage spot to watch the back door of the Drood mansion and noted those coming in and out, how they were received and what was required for entry.  Two thugs were on guard at all time, and they seemed to expect a password from fellow security and generic house staff alike. Unfortunately, his hiding position was too far away from the guard to pick up a stray password from their minds.

Bruce was further away again, perched on a branch that overlooked Algernon’s hideout and the entrance.  Too far away to hear or see anything at the door, he was still within distance if Algernon got into trouble.  Peggy moved through the stalls keeping close contact with Tobias, who was gathering information.  Tobias was out talking to stallholders, especially those the Moriarty gang members had spoken to the day before.  He started by trying to sell the dragon marionette he had carefully brought back from Ardeyn.  He felt lousy and knew he looked it as he failed to gain the interest for the marionette he expected.

“It’s nice. I’ll give you twenty-five crow coin for it,” The Stallholder said.  Tobias almost kept it at that price, having grown fond of the thing, but he needed the information more.

“Tell you what.  I’ll sell it for ten if you tell me what the gentlemen yesterday wanted.”

The Storeholder looked around the crowd for anyone listening as he exchanged coins for the marionette, ”They wanted to know about the Droods.”
“And what did you tell them?”

“Wyclif has been busy focusing his attention on a special trade.  He’s fuming about the loss of his favourite lieutenant into the hands of an enemy.”

“So if the Don lost this second, whose taken up that role at the moment?”
“The younger brother, Terilis Lightfeather.”

“What sort of character is he?”

“He’s a mean one.  Real vicious.  He brings out the worst in the boss. He used to sit in his big brother’s shadow, but no more. I’ve heard some wish for the good old days of Elvin Lightfeather. He was tough, but you knew where you stood with him.  His brother is wild and can go off at nothing…”

The shopkeeper went quiet and looking past Tobias.  Tobias could feel a presence behind him, and something like a static shock ran through his body. He knew this situation of old.  Stepping aside, he looked at the new arrivals through his feathers.  Five big Cro had walked through the markets and now stood in front of the market stall.  One was a little taller than the others and seemed to be their leader.  Feathers matted down each side of his beak make this Cro look scruffy, not that anyone would have told him that to his face.  On each hand, he carried a large metal claw that flashed in the morning light. 

“I hear people have been asking about me?” The Cro asked the stallholder. Tobias could feel the stallholder’s eyes on him already.  Focussing on a calm like the one Dona had presented to them, he squared his shoulders and faced the goons.

“Ah, yes.  That would be me.  Not just me, of course.” He said, with seeming ease, all the while thoughts were churning.

“You?” The Cro said, turning to take in the small, dapper Cro in front of him, “What about this red-feathered guy…?”

“That’s the one.  Goes by the name Rodney Dodd and works for…hmm, have you heard of the Professor?”

The Cro cracked his neck menacingly and, without warning, punched the tree branch they were all standing on with this metal clawed fist.  The violence of the action set Tobias’ heart racing as he realised the quality of the Cro in front of him.  He’d suspected this was the infamous Terilis Lightfeather and now knew that the stories were true.  Suddenly he was back in New York once more working for the organised crime syndicate run by Louis Astra.  It was a life that he had run from, fleeing blindly to New Orleans in the hope of something better.  It seemed a cruel irony that having come so far, he was right back where he started.

“Moriarty?” Peggy added, honestly inserting herself into the conversation, “What a jerk!”

“Yes, that’s the one.  He has your brother,” Tobias confessed, knowing that right now, the difference between life and death may hinge on Terilis’ interest in his brother’s welfare.

“Go on,” The Cro said, brushing his long oily feathers out of his eyes.

“I wanted to talk to you.  That’s why I was asking around.  I can be useful.  Can we talk?” Tobias was aware he sounded like Algernon. His words came out at the speed his heart was racing.

“I’m listening,” 

Tobias looked around the market place as the stallowner had, checking for others listening and took a moment to centre himself. Didn’t they want inside the house?  

“Here? In the markets?”

Terilis nodded, “Take him.”  Suddenly the other four surrounded Tobias, and the panic in his chest spiked.

It’s okay.  Peggy will tell the others.  You’re not alone anymore, remember.  You don’t have to do this alone. He said to himself as the group started moving away.

“Excuse me, where do you think you are going with him?” Came Peggy’s voice from behind, and Tobias almost wept.

“And what’s it to you?” He heard Terilis say.

“I look after him. Where he goes, I go.” Peggy pushed through the group and stood beside Tobias.  He could feel her solid presence, the warmth of her beside him and felt that everything would be fine if she would just stay close.  

At the same time, he knew the others had no idea where they were or what was happening.  She needed to let them know.  With a wrench, he touched Peggy’s arm.

You have to tell Bruce and Algernon what happened, He said within the mind link.  Outside so all could hear, he turned and smiled indulgently at her, “Get out of here. We have business to discuss.” He looked to Terilis and ruffled his own feather to cover his discomfit, “She doesn’t need to be involved.”

“Scram, don’t you hear you’re not wanted,” Terilis added gruffly, and Tobias had to stop himself from contradicting him.

Why? You need me. She replied telepathically, though externally it was almost the same message. “No, I won’t.”

Please, go. He pleaded in her mind as he said out loud, “Go on, go find your brother.”


Because they don’t know where we are, He was going to add the truth, that she was right. He couldn’t do this without them but was sure that would keep her from leaving.  In the end, Peggy agreed grudgingly.

“Fine, fine!” She complained and pushing her way through the goons, and stormed off.  The Cro thugs laughed at the sight of her climbing higher through the tree.  Tobias watched her receding back until she was lost in the crowds.  He closed his eyes and could still feel the link between them.  Her quietly fuming as she found new words for idiot.  

No, these weren’t the bad old days at all.  

A slight shove in the small of his back told him it was time to move.

It had been a very dull morning.  Algernon had thought that spy work would be more of the infiltration, stealth missions and secret codes. All he’d done since coming to Crow Hollow was follow and watch.  Now he was watching.  He was in a good enough spot between stalls to get a good view of the door, the guards and those who came in and out but not close enough to hear what they were saying.  High above, within gliding distance, he could just make out Bruce’s bulky shadow.  He wished he had some way of talking to the others, or at least Bruce at this moment. It would have helped fill the time. 

Suddenly a rustle of feather and a harrumph, Peggy was beside him, taking up all the space in his tiny hidey-hole and making a scene.

“Budge over. I don’t fit.”

“No, you don’t. Why aren’t you with Rain?”

“Rain got himself caught. He sent me to let you know.”

“O-kay,” Algernon looked up to Bruce’s nest.  He was no longer there.

“What’s going on? Our canary’s being marched up the tree surrounded by heavies,” Bruce’s deep bass came up behind both Peggy and Algernon.  

“Terilis Lightfeather, Elvin’s little brother, is now Don Wyclif’s right hand. He caught Rain asking stallholders questions.  Rain sent me to tell you, and I’ve done that now,” Peggy replied and pushed past Bruce and was soon lost in the crowd of market-goers.

It wasn’t until the marching group of goons were within sight of the back door that Tobias realised they might see Peggy talking to Algernon and suspect something.   In a panic, he looked around for a distraction, something to stall the group so Peggy and Algernon would have time to clear the door.  He saw the market stall Algernon had been interested in before the trip to Ardeyn.

“Oh, my good man!” He exclaimed, pointing to the bundle of dynamite on the stall and aiming his suggestion square for the stallholder, “Can I suggest to you that dynamite is weeping nitro-glycerine and is highly volatile!”

The Cro grabbed the dynamite and, in a blind panic, threw it out of the tree.  It sailed away into the crowds of shoppers and stalls far below and was lost from sight.  The whole transaction took less than a few seconds and didn’t even slow the marching group down.  Tobias chided himself, remembering Peggy’s link.

You’ll have to get out of the way. We’re following you.

Why?  Came the same stubborn insistence for facts.

The goons want to use their back door.

Doesn’t everyone? He could almost hear her roll her eyes.

Exactly! And I’d rather they don’t see you lurking around.

Oh, they’ll see me,  She said through the link. 

He almost groaned. What could that mean? Tobias glanced around the crowds. With a determined look on her face, Peggy marched in from the right. She barged her way through the knot of thugs and stood beside him.

“I’m coming with you,” 

Thank god! He said via the link, Thank you.  He took her hand in his cold, shaking one.

Peggy blinked, surprised. Not so much for the physical contact, but from the force of his need. 

Idiot, She responded automatically, unsure how to react to the intense emotion, We’re a group. We look after each other, don’t we? 

It’s not a concept I will ever tire, I assure you.

Besides, I’m not leaving you alone with the bully brother of Lightfeather. The image of Elvin Lightfeather throwing his murderously accurate dagger in a narrow alley of Bollons, Railsea, was shared.  

Tobias’ grip on Peggy’s hand tightened. Together then?

No other option.

“What?  You again?” Terilis growled, oblivious to all that had been said in the moment she’d pushed through. Peggy paid Terilis no attention.

“You’re an idiot, and I’m coming,”  

Tobias turned to Terilis, “Little sisters, they think they own you.”

Without another word, they was pushed through the door.  They were bundled quickly down a narrow hallway, a door was opened, and they all entered the small private space.

“Okay, so talk,” Terilis barked, taking a seat behind a simple wooden table.  There were no other chairs, and the other four goons loomed over Peggy and Tobias.  Never letting go of Peggy’s hand, Tobias slipped into a new persona, one he hadn’t needed for a long time.  Dropping his head to define the change, his usual polite transatlantic accent was gone. When he next spoke, replaced with a broader cockney.

“Right, I’ll come clean wi’d you gents. Moriarty is a thorn in me side.  Dat’s my patch, that London, and ‘e don’t seem ta think there’s room to share.  So, when I found out ‘bout your brotha, I figured we ‘ad a mutual enemy.” 

You sound like an idiot, Peggy said via the link, I’m glad you don’t go around sounding like that.

Terilis nodded, this was something he could understand,” And what do you want from me?”

“He’s all gun-ho ‘bout dis Spiral Dust trade.  I want in before ‘e does.  I want ta cut ‘im out, know what I mean?”

Algernon and Bruce moved into the crowd and watched silently as Tobias and Peggy were marched up to the door by five Cro.  The guards snapped to attention, and though no password was given, they were let in.  Algernon skimmed the mind of the nearest guard and found the password.

“Usually, the guards give the password,” Algernon murmured to Bruce as they finalised their plans to follow, “I can probably pass myself off as staff…”

“And I’ll use the disguise cypher,” Added Bruce, who had made a note of a Cro about his size leaving for down the tree earlier.  Algernon handed over his crossbow to Bruce and made himself look neat, presentable and unnoteworthy.  Bruce used the Cypher and seemingly didn’t change much, remaining a larger than average Cro, now with a crossbow on his back.  Together they walked up to the door, and Bruce gave the password.  The Cro on guard said nothing, and they were let in without a question. Now, to find the other two.

A long hallway lined with doors faced them.  At the far end, a set of stairs led seemingly up to the main house.  Nearby a set of stairs led down into darkness. Algernon went to work looking for a trail, a blood smear path, anything that would give them a clue as to where Peggy and Tobias had been taken.  He didn’t find anything, as there was nothing to see.  Bruce stopped and listened.  Faintly he could hear a conversation being held behind one of the doors.  Drawing Algernon’s attention to it, they crept down the hallway, listening to doors until they could discern a higher voice in London accent amongst the deeper vocalisations from behind one of them.  Bruce rolled his eyes, they’d found their room all right.  Getting down on one knee, Bruce looked through the keyhole.

“So, you want into the Spiral Dust trade for your London in exchange for…what, my brother?” Terilis summarised, looking through his shaggy mess of feathers at Tobias across the table.

I wonder what makes his feathers all straggly like that? Peggy thought via the link,  Do you think it’s intentional or some sort of scalp condition…

“Sum fink like dat.  ‘Cept I was thinking a little bigger.  This universe is big, a lot bigger if ya get my meanin’.  D’ere no need ta step on each other’s toes,” Tobias paused, seeming for effect, but mostly to give himself time to figure out what he wanted from this conversation. What information do they have on the Dustman?  What were the Dustman’s intentions? “If we go into  for a partnership I want a bigger slice.  Say, I run my London and…Earth?”

 I wonder if Cro’s suffer male pattern baldness? I’ll have to ask someone when we get out of this stuffy room. Haven’t they heard of ventilation?

Terilis scoffed and gestured to one of his goons.  With a look and a sign, the goon crossed the room and opened the door.

Bruce peered through the keyhole.  At one moment, he was looking into a room filled with Cro, Tobias’ yellow suit clearly visible amongst the black.  The next moment, the scene was blocked by a body, and the door opened.  Instinctually, he grabbed the Cro by the throat with one hand and yanked him out of the doorway, throwing him across the hall.  That the Cro did not hit the wall was Algernon snapping him out of the air.  Controlled for the moment, Bruce quietly closed the door. Peggy, wide-eyed, the only witness.

With a single gesture, Algernon threw the Cro down the hall towards the stair heading down. The Cro tumbled out of sight as both Bruce and Algernon moved quietly as possible down the hallway. The Cro was stunned, sprawled on a landing half way down. Levitating his crossbow off Bruce’s back, Algernon shot him almost point-blank as soon as the goon was in sight.  Bruce closed the stairwell door, but no amount of wood was going to muffle the sound of gunfire as the goon pulled out his gun and shot.  It missed Bruce by inches.  Pulling out his crowbar, Bruce lept from down the flight of stairs, landing full weight on the Cro. There was a crunch and Bruce felt the body of the Cro give way beneath him. Standing, the Cro slumped down to the bottom of the stair, very much dead.

The gunshot was clear from inside the room, and Tobias instinctually flinched. He stopped his sales pitch to Terilis as all Cro heads turned to the door.  

“Go see what’s happening out there,” Terilis ordered, and another of the four opened the door.

Just Bruce and Algernon as usual.  Do you think they’ve ever heard of subtle?

“Everything okay?” The goon called down the hallway.  There was a sound of a door opening.

“Yeah, boss,” Came a voice, distinctly Bruce’s for those who knew it.

Yeah, playing with guns again.
“We heard a gunshot.”
“Yeah, sorry accidental discharge.”

Terilis slammed his metal claw into the table, the blades slinking through the wood, the fist leaving an impression on the surface.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Said the goon, translating his bosses body language and closed the door.

“Where did we find these idiots!” Terilis bellowed.

“They’re all over, gov,” Tobias sympathised, and Terilis focused his attention back on him.

“Here’s my idea, “Terilis said, straightening up and retracting his clawed fist from the tabletop,” You get my brother and one more thing.  I want the head of a traitor that left our organisation and joined Moriarty.”

A flash of Caw Ek Carve directing crossbow fire from on top of a warehouse room sprung to Tobias’ mind.

“Oh yeah, new bloke.  Sharp, but officious,” He mimed Caw Ek Carves wireframe spectacles, and Terilis nodded.

“That’s a lot of work, close to Moriarty.  Not saying it can’t be done, but that’s tipping my ‘and,” Tobias looked up as if collecting his thoughts. “ I was thinking more of a trap.  Moriarty’s safe in London, within his network like a spider, in ‘is web.  I can get information to Moriarty about your Spiral Dust contact’s location.  It would have to be legit, Moriarty’s smart. He’d see through any porky pies. We lay an ambush the other end and nab him outside of London and all his protections. Later, I can sweep in collect your brotha, find this traitor of yours and make London me own.”

Terilis seemed to warm to this plan for a moment.  He leaned back in his chair and watched Tobias, who fixed all his thoughts on just keeping up the mask and not crumbling into a shuddering wreck.  After a moment or two, Terlis shook his head.

“No good, the Dustman doesn’t tell us where it comes from.”
“Could we contact this Dustman, arrange somfin’?  It’s in his best interests that someone like Moriarty is not involved in his business.”

Again, the head shook, sending the dangling feathers drifting back and forward, “He stays out of things. He won’t get involved.”

If Terilis knew more than Dona Ilsa about the Spiral Dust, he was doing an excellent job of keeping it close.  Frustrated now, Tobias realised it was time to leave.  The hard part was getting Terilis to think so too.

“Hmm, so your brotha and this traitor and what, I become a junior partner is dis Spiral dust?”

“That’s how I see it?”

“Yeah, right, I’ll be in touch,” He gestured to the door, and the goons looked to Terilis.

“See them out, boys.”

With a shove from one of the two goons behind them, Peggy and Tobias were marched out the room and back through the rear door.  

Bruce dragged the body of the Cro down the stair and along another corridor as Algernon went ahead checking rooms.  So far, they seemed to be storerooms or currently unused workrooms.  Algernon had grabbed six grenades out of an armoury.

“I could probably bring down half the tree if I could find its weak points,” Algernon said as he tucked the grenades under his wing.

“I’m sure you could, but right now, I’d like if you could find a spot to put this one before someone finds us,” Complained Bruce. Algernon closed the armoury and opened another door.  It was a large workroom set up with two stations.  One for processing Spiral Dust and the other Bywandine. There were even separate tools to avoid cross-contamination.  Algernon took a few samples of each and handed them to Bruce before closing that door too. 

“We need somewhere they’re not likely to go for a while.”

The next-door offered them a better solution. It was a general storeroom, complete with mops, cleaning products standard, handyman tools.  With a little luck, the unlucky Cro goon wouldn’t be found until the cleaners arrived the next morning.  Propping him up in a corner, they close the door and started back down the hallway.  Now, which way should they go out?  The rear exit was closest, but as they’d just come through there, it could look suspicious, and they wouldn’t get to see any more of the house.  

They climbed the stairs from the storeroom, through the door at the top to the first corridor.  At the other end, the second staircase beckoned. They were almost there when Terilis Lightfeather walked out of the room flanked by one of his bodyguards.

“You! Are you the new guys setting off guns in the house?” He fixed both Bruce, hidden in his disguise and Algernon with a gaze that seemed to look right through them.

“Ah, yeah.  Sorry boss,” Bruce replied as Algernon silently tried his best not to be there.

The clawed fist slammed into the wall beside Bruce’s head, and snow of gyprock landed on his shoulder.

“Don’t do it again.  I don’t need more idiots, but all we seem to do is lose good hands and find idiots,” He said more to himself than to Bruce or Algernon, “Well, hasn’t Salvin got a job for you?  Get going!”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce replied smartly, and both he and Algernon walked on and opened a random door.  

It was a kitchen. The staff looked like they were preparing for a midday meal and had little time for security staff not where they should be.

“Ur…sorry, do you know where Salvin is?” Asked Algernon of one of the junior staff, peeling vegetables.

“Wouldn’t he be down in the market somewhere?” Replied the kitchen hand who thought he’d found someone lower ranking than himself and wasn’t afraid to show their disdain.  It was utterly wasted on Algernon.  He knew the vegetable peeling Cro was beneath him and was content to let him fall with the house when he got around the destroying it.

They waited thirty seconds to let the hallway clear before heading out again.  Climbing the stairs to the main house, they got a feel for the layout and where Don Wyclif would be further up in the building.  By now, they had pushed their luck as far as they were willing to go. They made their exit through the open front door and left the Drood residence for the genteel part of town.

To be continued….

39. The fear of the gods

The planning complete, materials hastily collected, the group and volunteers were on their way to the ambush point.  As The Molly and the old diesel travel away from Omoko, preparations wre being made.


“Hold still.  The train is rocking enough without you adding to the wonkiness of these lines,” Rain complained, pulling Bruce’s head roughly to the front.  Bruce said nothing and continued to sit patiently as Rain first painted his face and neck in Silver Frost paint.  Following Bruce’s angular features, he created the illusion of metal plates outlined and riveted in charcoal. Lastly, he adding smears and drops of red paint like blood from Bruce’s eyes and mouth.  The whole look on Bruce was of a murderous robot, and with everything else they were planning, Rain hoped it would help tip the balance in their favour.

But right now, he had other things on his mind.

“You gave your dad a pretty hard time when we arrived,” Rain said conversationally.


“You didn’t think how that would make us look?”

“You weren’t in the conversation,” 

“My point exactly, it was a private conversation, and you aired it in public.” 

 When Bruce didn’t respond, Rain put down the paintbrush and looked Bruce in the eye, for once on the same physical level.

“He’s the hero of the town, their saviour.  To them, he can do nothing wrong.  And then you show up, an unknown quantity, a possible enemy even, and abuse the hell out of him. Who do you think that looks poorly on?  Him?”

“We shook hands,” Bruce replied, nonplussed.

“Look, I can only do my job when we’re at least neutrally accepted.  Unknown is fine, though I was hoping that the rumours of you and the Dreaming Sable would have preceded us.  But to make us look bad out of spite…”

“Hey, doesn’t it look better if from a tense moment we came together in the end?”

“Don’t go all Shakespearian on me,” Grumbled Rain, picking up his brush and continuing to working on Bruce’s face.  It was obvious he wasn’t convinced, and moments of silence hung heavy between them.

“Ish-Ma-El is going to make an excellent Avenging Angel,” Rain started again, conversationally in tone.

“Wouldn’t have them come into combat with me if they weren’t good.” Added Bruce, pleased at how the scruffy salver they’d found in the old theatre had turned out to be a first-rate fighter, planner and Captain.

“Yeah, really great.” Rain agreed with a bitter edge.  


 “I can’t do that, right?”

“Because you don’t want to,” Bruce replied, and before Rain retorted that Bruce was just making it his fault, he added, “And we like that about you.”

Rain’s self-righteous posturing deflated—all pretence of painting forgotten.

“Really?” He asked doubtfully.

“Yes, really.”

“Then why am I being pushed out?”

Bruce shook his head, unsure he’d heard correctly, “What?”

“At the planning meeting.  It was all you were going to do and then the assumption I wouldn’t be in the fight.”

“You’ve never wanted to fight.”

“No, but when we’ve needed to, have I ever sat on the side-lines?”

“No, but who said you would?”

“You have your new fighting buddy, “ Rain sighed, “It just felt like it.”

Bruce scowled, making his murder robot makeup look even more menacing.  Rain was many things Bruce appreciated, but his emotional outbursts and neediness were not some of them. 

“Do my makeup!” Bruce said, and in silence, Rain complied.

“Your talents are needed and irreplaceable,” Bruce said a few minutes later as he examined Rain’s work in one of two large circular concave mirrors Rain had insisted they bring, “I look like a harbinger of death!”

“You worry me,” Rain replied as he packed up the paints and brushes, “The theatrics, the larger than life Bruce is fine, I can use that…but you give the impression you can do all on your own.”

“No, he can’t do it on his own,” Ish-Ma-El walked in, already painted from head to foot in silver paint, charcoal outlining their eyes and shadowing their features.  The wings, also painted silver, were already strapped to their back with Peggy’s homemade fountain fireworks bound to their leading edges. The twin hilts of Ish-Ma-El’s swords stuck out up above their head.  Even casually walking around the train, Ish-Ma-El looked every inch the terrifying avenging avatar of railway gods they portrayed.

Rain, whose back was to the door when they entered, stiffened, then turned to smile at Ish-ma-el.

“Thank you, my angel, of death,” He turned back to Bruce, who was strapping his armour back in place, “I’m just worried that you may…do a Halloween.”

The cryptic phrasing baffled Ish-Ma-El, but Bruce paused in his dressing.

“I’m worried that your ego will drive so far ahead of us that we won’t be there to help.”

Without looking up or making eye contact with Rain, Bruce shrugged on his coat and walked out the carriage door Ish-Ma-El had just come in.

“Well, he can’t.  Not without me!” Ish-Ma-El smile back maliciously.  Ish-Ma-El was looking forward to murdering the Ironside Roar crew for what they did to their train.  With their natural confidence, Ish-Ma-El exuded an air of righteous malevolence. 

Rain went back to cleaning up the brushes in turpentine and stowing the paints,

“I wanted to ask, what are we doing with the Ironside Roar when this is all over?” Ish-Ma-El asked, changing the subject.

“Nothing.  It can be blown up or given to the resistance.  We certainly have no use for it,” Rain replied, thinking that Railsea was interesting to visit, but it was a little too small to live there.

“Fair enough,” Ish-Ma-El replied, deep in their own thoughts.

“Ish,  as a citizen of this world, I stand behind you in determining what happens to the train and the weapon.  Whatever you and the leaders of Omoko decide,”  Rain suddenly said, seemingly out of the blue.

“I…appreciate that,” They acknowledged and inclined their head back the way Bruce had gone, “What does Bruce think of that?”

Rain went back to cleaning up, now only an exercise in keeping his hands busy, “Ah, you’d have to ask him.”

Busy with the last minute preparations, it wasn’t long before the old diesel from the Omoko and The Molly were at the pinch point and unloading equipment and personnel.  Most of the crews of the Molly and the Almighty Bruce were there, setting up more of Peggy’s detonators (these a little less explosive than the first batch) moving the old diesel and carriages on the tracks as planned. When completed they took to the mesa around the ambush point with the catapult, piles of rocks and concave mirrors.

The switch’s lever was removed, and wedges inserted to force the Ironside Roar from one track to the other.  Once in the trap the Ironside Roar would need to slow down or ram into the back of the old diesel.  As soon as the Ferro-navy were in range, both Ish-Ma-El and Bruce (with Algernon’s help for the later)would swoop down from the mesa and attack.  Rain would come up behind supporting the fighters. Peggy and Algernon would deal with the weapon and disconnect it from the rest of the train.

Bruce derailed the lone carriage with the help of his formidable strength.  The old diesel’s brakes were firmly on.  The ambush was set.

At least that was the plan.

Hiding around the old diesel with Rain and Algernon, Peggy asked the Strange what the Ironside Roar had prepared for them.  Instead of the usual reply made in her own voice, she saw an image of two trains, the larger Ironside Roar and a smaller steam train. Ish-Ma-El’s old engine and remaining carriages.  

“Oh!  They have two trains now,” She told Rain and Algernon, who thought a moment.  It could mean more marines.  But, forced into a single file at the pinch point, the trains could only attack one at a time.  Going around was not an option.

“There’s smoke.  I think the Ironside Roar is here,” Algernon pointed out the tell-tale black oily cloud of diesel smoke floating above the mesa.  He unslung his crossbow and notched a bolt.  Peggy hefted the grappling hook and rope she’d acquired, and Rain checked his pockets for the remainder of Peggy’s fireworks and gently blew on the burning end of a cord in his hand.

On the mesa itself, Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were ready.  From their vantage, they’d seen the Ironside Roar and the smaller steam train coming.  As Bruce turned to tell the others on the ground, a cylindrical silver something floating through the sky caught his attention.  The thing had wings of sorts, but unlike a bird, the stubby wing-like appendages did not flap.  As it moved closer, it was clear the item was made of metal, cigar-shaped and smooth, but unlike an aircraft or missile, the thing moved standing on end, a thin metal slit in the sky.  As Bruce and Ish-Ma-El watched, it descended to the damaged rail switch in the middle of the ambush.

“That’s an Angel…an actual Angel!” Rain cried out as the cigar-shape craft slowed to land near the jammed switch. Spindly metal limbs extended and the Angel settled balancing on one end as other limbs extended to work.  No one saw Peggy run down the length of the carriage behind the old diesel until the grappling hook flew through the air, catching hold of the Angel around its cylindrical body.

“Wha…!” From on top of the coupling between the old diesel and the carriage, Algernon could barely believe what he was seeing as Peggy was pulled out onto the open sand as the Angel fought its bindings.  She quickly wrapped the end of the rope around a railing on the carriage and pulled.  The rope tightened even further around the Angel, it stopped fighting the restraint.  Now its attention was torn away from the repair job to the rope binding its limbs.

“Peggy!  What the hell!” Shrieked Rain, his eyes flicking between the Angel, the oncoming cloud of diesel smoke and Peggy, eyes-wide and gleeful.

“I want…I want to learn about it!” She replied manically, her whole focus on the machine that now withdrew its repair tools and extended a sharp blade.

“In the middle of an ambush!  It’s an Angel! Railsea myths are full of how they run down and destroy the wicked!”

Seeing the Angel cutting itself free , Peggy quickly tied off the rope and ran across the tracks towards the machine.

“Peggy!”  Both boys screamed as the Ironside Roar turned the corner into the ambush, heading straight for the switch.

Shaking his head at Peggy’s lunacy, Rain turns to the crews on the mesa. “Light it up!” He yelled, pointing to the Angel on the tracks.  To himself, he mumbles, “Maybe something can be salvaged out of this,” As he broke cover and ran after Peggy .

Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were waiting their moment to leap as the Ironside Roar turned the corner .  Seeing the old diesel and the Angel on the tracks, the Ironside Roar instead squealed, applying its brakes.  Behind them, a small steam engine also started braking.  The crews on the mesa maneuvered the large mirrors they brought from the mines of Omoko.  Usually used to move sunlight down into the mines as free safe light, the reflections moved across the sand like giant spotlights to find the Angel.  It glowed and sparkled like its namesake in the shadows of the ravine.

Seeing Peggy dash across the ambush, Bruce called down to the old diesel, “Algernon, can you lift her out of there?”

Peggy, a look of sheer joy on her face, dashed up to the Angel just as it broke free its ropes.  

“You are so beautiful…” She said, stretching out a hand to the machine as its cutting blade pulled back and plunged into her shoulder. Blind to everything, including the pain, she mentally grabbed hold of the physical link to create a mental one.  

Awe! She projected, soothing the Angel, Excitement!  Curiosity!

Something like a mind stated its imperatives, FIX RAIL. ALARM!  CALLING ASSISTANCE!

Allowance for repair.  Danger Ahead! She answered physically and mentally, pointing out the Ironside Roar screeching to a halt only metres away. The Angel seemed to accept her response, and the alarm ceased.  Peggy cooed and smiled as you would to a baby, embracing it while still impaled on its blade.

The Ironside Roar was finally in jumping distance.  Bruce went to go first when Ish-Ma-El put out an arm to stop him.

“You may be the harbinger, but I’m the freaking Angel of Death!” They said, lighting the two fireworks attached to their wings and leaping off.  Wings fully extended, silver paint glowing warmly in the late afternoon light, a shower of golden sparks cascading from the end of each wing, Ish-Ma-El descended on the officers of the Ironside Roar.  Caught in a knot on the command deck, the group of officers could do nothing but watch as the Angel hovered overhead and pronounced its judgement.

“Foolish mortals!  Your time is up!  For services rendered, I have come for payment with your souls!” The figure reached up and extracted two wicked blades from behind its back and flourished them, ready for the kill.

Stunned at Peggy’s insanity, Algernon had not moved from his spot on the old diesel.  Bruce’s call snapped him back to the present.

“Which she?” He said to himself, knowing full well there was only one ‘she’ that needed saving at that moment.  He focused his levitate on the real Angel and pushed it back into the Ironside Roar.  The blade in Peggy’s shoulder wrenched free as the Angel was thrown backwards by an invisible force.  Crying in pain and loss, Peggy screamed, “Don’t hurt it!  We’re communicating!” The Angel’s polished metal skin hit the heavy metal body of the Ironside Roar.  The engine buckled in,  but no real damage marked the Angel. With a whimper of concern, Peggy ran to its side once more.

Running along the tracks, Rain pulled out a number of the fireworks and lit them.  Using the canyon’s natural acoustics, he projected in his street performer’s voice to the Ironside Roar crew.

“See the… Angels of Vengence here to collect the souls of those who murdered the crew of the G.V.!  They will take you all to Beeching’s firebox where your souls will stoke his engine forever!

“Repent now, and the Angel may yet spare your lives!  Those forced into this life of pillage and murder, kneel and confess, and the Angel will pass over you!”

Coming after the crash with the Angel, his voice echoing off the ravine walls, gained every crew member’s attention.  Many looked up to see the Avenging Angel swoop down on their officers.  Others saw another figure leap down from the mesa and roar in their direction.

The Angel extracted itself from the damaged engine as Peggy rushed up to soothe the machine.

This is danger! She relayed to the Angel.  As the engine had just crashed into it, the Angel was inclined to agree.  Turning to face the Ironside Roar, the Angel clamped its legs to the sleepers and lifted the train’s front end.  Having come to a complete stop, the engineers were busy trying to put the Ironside Roar in reverse only to find their drive wheels spinning in mid-air. 

With a childish giggle, Peggy started asking questions of the Angel, how it was able to lift such weight and its nature as a mechanical being.

Bruce pulled out his crowbar, “I’m coming, kid!” He yelled down to Algernon before stepping back and running off the mesa.  Algernon caught Bruce part-way through his fall, bounced him off the carriage of the old diesel and sailed him across the sands in a backflip to land squarely in front of the officers, astonished by the angel.

“Fear the Champion of the Angels, the harbinger of death.  Surrender and live!”  Rain preached to the well converted.  He glanced at Peggy as he ran past as she stared lovingly up at the mechanical monster holding up the front end of the engine.  With a shiver he put her out of his mind and started climbing up the Ironside Roar after the fighters.  As he reached the top, he saw Bruce swing his crowbar up. 

“If you hold fast to the Ferro-Navy, Die!” Bruce roared in his  best preacher’s southern accent, bringing the crowbar in a jarring attack that sent the Captain to his knees, “If you were conscripted, made a slave to this foul life, flee and live today!”

The officers fled, leaving their crumpled and wounded Captain behind. The Captain was terrified. He tried scrambling away on all fours, but it was the Angel of Vengence’s turn, and with a precision snicker of twin blades, his head flipped up into the air and over the side.  His body soon followed to be lost to the sand.

Behind Rain, the engineers saw their Captain’s demise and leapt from the cab onto the sand.  Better the molerats and other monsters of the sandy depths than these terrible creatures from faith and myth.  Rain quickly changed direction and climbed down into the cab and shut it down.  The Ironside Roar was theirs!

“Peggy, we’ve got the engine!” 

Power down, less threat,  Peggy praised and soothed the Angel.  Her direct link and clear instructions accepted, the Angel dropped the train back onto its wheels. 

Algernon flew past the spectacle that was the Ironside Roar. The crew were fleeing the train from all carriages, many running for the reversing steam train, the G.V. that had once been Ish-Ma-El’s home.  Others just ran blinding into the sands, ocassionally being snapped up by opportunist predators drawn by the commotion.  He sailed smoothly above the chaos to the coupler behind the first carriage, the one carrying the weapon.  Now, seeing a real-life Angel of the Railsea hold up the engine, he recognised the resemblance to the salvage Ish-Ma-El’s crew had been unlucky enough to find.  This, however, was a weapon of war; something meant to destroy, not repair.  Well, so was he.  Touching the coupler, he forced the Strange between its molecules, and the solid cast metal coupler disintegrated into dust under his fingers.  

A movement in the sky caught his attention.  Two more of the Angels floated above the battle. Disinterested in the quarrels between the flesh-creatures they’d been drawn to the cries of alarm from their friend.  Algernon acknowledged the sentiment. With his job now done, he flew back along the train to where Rain was fussing with the controls.

“The weapon is free. We’re ready to move forward,” He said and headed to the cab of the old diesel.  His job done, he looked back at the Ironside Roar, Peggy now climbing up the Angel, Rain restarting the diesel, Bruce clubbing another defender off the train, and even Ish-Ma-El swooping up and diving on their next prey.  They were fine.  He faced the controls of the old diesel and started it up.

“Stand and face your death, you creatures of the Ferro-Navy, or flee and save your lives!”  Bruce continued his speech as officers and railmen alike fled before him.  Bruce found this a little frustrating.  He’d turned on an armour cypher specifically for the purpose of ploughing through and getting face to face with some Ferro-Navy scrubs.  Revelling in the power of the moment, but with no apparent outlet for his energy, he clambered over the engine and jumped down onto the next carriage where the weapon lay.  

Up close, it looked like a big, thin tin can, nothing as terrifying as the Avenging Angel beside him.  He thought it was something like the two hovering over their heads at that moment. It was something that no one should have.  He swung his crowbar back and forward as he walked the length of the carriage, intent on at least doing some damage to the thing.  But, when he reached the end without touching it, he found more resistance in the form of a big muscled Ferro-Navy man wielding a sword.  Without a second thought for the weapon, a manic grin plastered on his metal-painted face. He lunged for the defender.  The crowbar found the man’s head, and he fell from the train and into the sand.  The moment gone, Bruce continued his climb through the train looking for more opposition.

Ish-Ma-El was also looking for prey.  Most fled before them, some even killing themselves in their panic.  They rose above the Ironside Roar to get a better view and spotted two daring Ferro-Navy crew preparing the ballista.  

“Spare the innocent, Oh Angel!  Strike the wicked!” They heard Rain from behind and felt the tingle of the Strange.  Sliding their blades carefully back in place, Ish-Ma-el pulled out their hand crossbows and shot both.  The bolts hit true but didn’t stop the crew members from firing the ballista in return, straight for the Angel of Vengence.  In a moment’s thought, Ish-Ma-El dropped one of their hand crossbows and caught the shaft of the ballista.  Pirouetting in the air, they sent the bolt flying back.  It bounced off the frame of the ballista and spooked the already terrified railers into running…straight into the crowbar of Bruce.

Permission to climb you?  Respect. Curiosity, Peggy projected to the Angel still at the head of the Ironside Roar.  The Angel gave her the impression that it didn’t know why she would but agreed to her request.  Using its legs as ladder rungs, she clambered onto the body and shimmied up to the top.   There she could see over the engine and into what was left of the battleground.  Ish-Ma-El had just thrown a ballista bolt at a couple of rail crew before she and Bruce descended on them both.  Bruce sent one flying off the carriage in one direction before dropping out of sight. The other’s head and body were both flung back by Ish-Ma-El’s twin blades in two distinct pieces.  She heard Algernon talking to Rain about the weapon being free, and it was time to move.  

Threat nullified!  Good work!  She told the Angel before slipping back down to the rails.  The Angel acknowledged her message and returned to its original purpose, fixing the switch.

Looking for new enemies, Bruce had spotted the two on top of the third carriage, working on the ballista.  Inside the third carriage, he could just see the ladder leading to the roof. Jumping across the gap where the coupler had been, he worked his way through and up the ladder.  As he reached the top, Ish-Ma-El let go of a ballista bolt in his general direction.  The rectangular frame of the ballista caught the bolt before it could reach either of the operators who now took their opportunity to flee…straight into him.  

“The Ferr-navy will no longer be tolerated!” He roared once more, swinging up his crowbar.

In the one-sided struggle that followed, Bruce bashed one off the carriage roof and into the sand while the other had to face Ish-Ma-El and their terrible twin blades.  He left them to it, dropping down to the next carriage still hunting more resistance.  As he did, first a head and then the rest of the body fell on top of him, nearly sending him over the edge into the sand.  

It was the last enemy any of the group were to face. The battle was over and with it the beginning of the end of the Ferro-Navy’s stranglehold on Railsea. With a signal from Algernon, the crews left their posts on the mesa and made their way to the three trains, the hidden Molly, the old diesel and the newly acquired Ironside Roar.  Peggy stayed by the Angel’s side, asking it questions about its design (for which it had no information) to maps of Railsea (supplied as an image in Peggy’s mind) and where it went for repairs (Upsky, the poisonous altitudes above Railsea).  Once the switch was cleared, it left behind the two other cylinders that had watched from above the whole fight.

Later, no could say what had really happened.  Early in the trip back, one of the crew replaced Algernon in the drivers’ cab of the old diesel.  It is supposed he flew back to the Ironside Roar as twilight fell as he was seen later with the group astounded at what had happened.  What is not in dispute is the large chunk of a mesa that went missing in a flash of yellow light.  There was no explosion, no flying rubble or scorched remains.  A plateau that had weathered the winds and sands of Railsea for countless centuries lost a third of its mass in seconds.  Later, people would say that before the gods’ light stuck, a voice was heard calling an unusual cry.


A great victory had been won, and the gods proved to be on the side of the rebels.  Omoko settlement celebrated and lauded the victors, the strangers from the yellow train, the son of Captain Johnson,  the Avenging Angel and their peerless crew.  What was not clear to all,  was that there had been a cultural and political shift in Railsea that would have effects for years to come.  The Angels were on the free-traders’ side, and they had left their weapon to protect the faithful.  

 The signal flags had told the community of the victory as it happened, so when the trains arrived in town, the party was already in full swing. Bruce wound his way through the crowds of miners, railers and civilians, all celebrating their freedom from the Ferro-Navy.    Celebrating, Bruce would do later, but at that moment, he wanted to speak to his father.  He found him talking with his crew from the Almighty Bruce and quietly pulled him aside.  

“You need to know what happened,” Bruce said as Jimmy led both of them to a side room out of the noise and bustle of the celebrations.  He gave a detailed debrief on how the ambush had gone, the Angel’s role in the fight and what it meant to Railsea as a whole.

“Now that you have your freedom, the protection of the gods no less, I want to talk to you about the weapon,” Bruce said, and his father sat back, ready to listen.

“I’m not comfortable giving you this weapon.  It’s a gamechanger. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, ” Jimmy acknowledged, not giving anything away.

“Do you have the guts to destroy it?”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes and sipped on a drink someone had handed him earlier, “Are you kidding? I didn’t fight the Ferro-Navy for my amusement.  That thing will keep us safe long after you and your troop of miracle workers are gone.”

“Look, you scored a big win here today.  If you follow this up, get out there and start rallying more trains to the cause, you won’t need this thing of destruction.”

“You said they were planning a big push before you arrived. Your group worked in thwarting those plans, and for that, I am thankful, but who says the Ferro-navy won’t try again?  We can never be sure.”

Bruce leaned over his folded hands.  It would be so easy to beat this man into submission.  Only two things stop Bruce; this was his father, and that when he left Railsea, he wanted the job done.  Jimmy had to believe it was the best way if it was ever to happen.   Bruce took a deep breath and tried again.

“And when the balance shifts and the Ferro-Navy are no longer a threat?”

Jimmy sat back and looked up at the ceiling.  His eyes flicked as his mind moved from scenario to scenario.  Eventually, they came back to settle on Bruce’s. The same eyes as his.

“We will destroy it,” Jimmy replied simply.

Bruce held his father’s gaze daring the man to renege, but Jimmy returned his gaze steady and sure. Bruce had to admit that this was not the same man who had left his mother alone twenty years ago.

Bruce broke the contact first, looking out a nearby window and to the view of the Railsea to the horizon.

“Pa.  Ma’s never stopped loving you,” He said without returning his gaze to the man sitting opposite.

He heard his father’s intake of breath, the sudden reminder of what he’d left behind.

“A fine woman,” He replied, and his voice held a tension, as if holding something back, “I never planned to leave her. I just never knew how to get back.  I guess I can go home.”

“Oh, she’ll slap you in the face,” Bruce qualified as they both envisioned the strong, loving woman who had held her family together and both smiled, “But, then welcome you back with open arms.”

Jimmy nodded, and they sat in silence a moment, thinking over what everyday life would look like after Railsea.

“You know Pa, you’ve manned-up. I think you’re the man she always saw in you,” Bruce said, and Jimmy’s eye’s narrowed again at the backhanded compliment.

“I mean it.  You were in a pickle, but you didn’t just weasel your way out of it and leave someone else to fix things.  You stepped up, led people and kept them safe.  Can you leave it behind?”

“I can find a replacement.  I didn’t do this alone,” Jimmy replied, and the phrase so like Rain’s rebuke from that afternoon made Bruce think for a moment.

“Find people you can trust.” 

Down at the docks, the rest of the group gathered around the weapon.  As Rain fielded questions from the joyous crowds, Peggy was hip-deep inside the cylinder as Algernon looked on anxiously.

“It’s no good. I can’t see the reactor for all the propulsion system in the way.  I’ll have to dismantle it if I’m to have any hope of understanding how this thing is powered.”  Peggy climbed out from under the cylinder and pushed her curls away from her face. 

“Rain, don’t let Peggy pull apart the Pew-Pew,” Algenon called to Rain. Seeing his friend distress, Rain left the crowds to find out what was going on.

“I don’t think you realise how important this is to science… life as we know it.  If I can only understand how the reactor works, I may find that elusive power supply that has been holding back Hertzfeld. It could be a small fusion reaction. Imagine that!  All the power a city would need in a package the size of a suitcase!” Peggy exclaimed, patting the metal skin of the broken Angel.

“Yes, but when you talk about it to Bruce, you may want to refer to the dangerous reactor you don’t understand as a battery,”  Algernon suggested innocently as usual, and Rain smiled.

“Yes, you know Bruce, any thought that it could be dangerous, and he’ll throw that reactor into an antlion pit out in the wastes,” 

“Ohh, so wasteful!” She complained and sulked off find a quiet spot to contemplate humanities loss.

“Now, now, picking on the Angel Speaker,” Ish-Ma-El, still wearing most of the Silver Frost paint, but now back in their regular Captain’s coat and hat, “We should make her a priestess of a new religious sect, not pick on her for her love of their innards.”

Rain let them in on Peggy’s plans as  Algernon went off and found a small pot of paint and brush from inside the Molly. By the time he’d told the story, Algernon had finished writing PEW-PEW on one side of the weapon, and Bruce had just strolled up. 

“Surely, we’re all men and women of science. Can’t we all share in Peggy’s excitement over her discovery?” Ish-Ma-El said and with an impish grin, added, “Besides, what’s a fusion reactor?”

“What…?” Bruce said.

Rain left the others trying to talk themselves out of the hole Ish-Ma-El had purposely drop them in.   As Peggy complained about the whole lot of them being Philistines, a man Rain had been waiting to talk to was waving him over into the crowd.

“Sul-E-Mun, I presume?  So good of you to drop by tonight,” Rain welcomed the man and drew him to one side. 

“They say you want a stone carved, though as far as I know, you and people won the day without loss,” Said the middle-aged miner looking confused.

“Yes, a good day all round.  This is a memorial. There will be no body.  Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all.  I’d dare say that if you wanted to fill a grave with that broken Angel of yours, no one’s likely to say no,” He glanced over Rain’s head back at the weapon.  Peggy had spotted Algernon’s graffiti and added a touch of her own.  It now read:


“I doubt that, sir, “ Rain laughed gently at the man’s joke and pulled out a scrap of paper.  Suddenly his expression was serious, and he was surprised to see his hands shake as he handed the instructions across.

“It…it should read as follows, just as written if you don’t mind. I know it doesn’t follow the usual format for names, but this person lived a long way from here, and they’re customs were not the same as your own.”

“Nevermind that. I put on what the family wants and just what the family wants…er they were family, weren’t they?”

Rain paused for a moment, “We were very close once,” He said and smiled weakly at the man, “when can you expect to have it ready?”

“Oh, a few days.  The mines on holidays on account of your victory.”

“We will be in town for at least that long. Please let me know as soon as it’s ready.”

The man tipped his cap and rejoined the crowds of happy villagers, miners and railers.

The next few days were full for the group.  Besides chatting or avoiding well-wishers, each seemed busy with their own tasks.  Ish-Ma-El was getting ready to leave with their crew on the Molly.  They would have left for the open sands sooner, but a promise to Rain held them in port at least a few more days.  Their crew certainly appreciated it, and several had already come to their Captain with reasonable offers from the miners to ship ore to friendly cities.  The wings had yet to be returned to the group, and Bruce took the opportunity one morning over chicory to bring up the subject.

“While I remember… the wings, hand them back,” He said to Ish-Ma-El, who bridled at his rough tone.

“Why should I?  In fact, no!” They retorted, leaning across the table to push their face into his.

“Ah, Ish, I’d appreciate it if we could have the wings back,” Rain asked quietly from beside them, and they sat heavily back in their seat, “  I know it’s a wrench, but we’ll to need them.”

“Oh, okay,” Ish replied sweetly with a smile and drank their drink.

“I will miss you Ish, how can we get in contact if we ever need you?” 

“A red smoke signal over Omoko, I intended to stay local for the time being,” They said.

“Remember, you are not just a clever Railsea Captain and brilliant salver,” Rain leaned in close, “You are a  citizen of the multiverse, and you’re future doesn’t have to be in this desert world.”

“Railing between the stars?” Ish-Ma-El said, the hint of their old cynicism showing, “You talk in dreams, Rain.”

“Well, I, for one, would like to say it’s been a privilege, “Bruce put one of his meaty hands-on Ish-Ma-El’s thin shoulders.

“Don’t touch me!” Ish-Ma-El rounded on Bruce, who was now standing and had the advantage of height and leverage.  Out of spite, Bruce placed the other hand on the remaining shoulder and Ish-Ma-El visibly shrunk away from the touch.  Their eyes went distant as Ish-Ma-El’s mind drifted away from the moment to read Bruce’s.

Don’t make this uncomfortable for both of us. He thought back, and Ish-Ma-El quickly released the link.

“Say, how come I don’t get the wings?” Peggy asked, breaking the tension building between the two scrappers.

“You’d only pull them apart,” Algernon replied, quickly adding another tablespoon of sugar to his already sweetened chicory, “It’s why we can’t have nice things.”

Algernon also has his own ideas about the weapon and its uses.  He sought out Jimmy as their one contact who knew about the mines and Le Pew-Pew’s capabilities.

“Sir, I was wondering if you thought about the weapon as a tool to aid in mining.  In the right circumstances, it could be very beneficial at removing unwanted tailings in a single flash.  If you like me to set up a demonstration…”

“Oh, I want in on that,” Said Peggy interrupting the spiel Algernon had rehearsed, “A Pew-Pew fo science!”

Dusk, their third day in town, Rain gathered the group together and led them out to the small graveyard beside the mine.  There, a white stone neatly engraved and embossed with the Silver Frost paint read:

Amir Ademovich

??? – 11 July 1995

One of the 8,372.

From Allah, you came, and to Allah, you return.

Ish-Ma-El went to ask about the dates on the stone but was quickly hushed by the other. 

Rain had no flowers to place on the grave.  He’d spent the last few days asking everyone in town for white flowers with green centres.  He even asked outgoing trains to keep a lookout. The best the town could do was a stem of plastic daisies, faded and worn.  He’d thanked the villager, offered to pay them for the stem and hid it as soon as possible. 

He now reached up to his neck and broke the leather thong that held the transparent piece of resin containing a small embroidered daisy with eleven petals.  He looked at it for a moment before bending down to bury the piece of resin in the turned earth.   A wave of vertigo hit, and he let himself sink to the ground on one knee.

Hands shaking, he combed his fingers through his hair, catching on the scar well hidden all these years.  He’d always tried to hide his scars, but it hadn’t done him much good.  Hounded by terrors he couldn’t put words to, he had run his whole life. If there was ever to be peace, the dead needed burying.  Taking a shuddering breath, he spoke his eulogy.

“I never knew you.  It seems odd to say.  You lived, grew, learned and explored your world for seven years, and I never existed.  All we have in common is one moment, one morning in a dirty patch of waste ground outside Srebrenica.  At that moment, you ceased to be, and I began, Tobias Cudo.”

“For many years, I wondered, who you were? What had happened? And who I was?  For many more, I tried to forget, decorated it in the colours of a story I told myself.  That changed the moment I heard your name spoken. 

“Goodbye, Amir Ademovich,  return to Allah and find peace.”

Still from the ground, as he didn’t trust his legs to hold him, he turned back to the others.

“Since coming back to Railsea, I’ve been a little confused. Here I was, Havel, but a simple mistake meant I had to reevaluate a certain practice of mine.   I have been many people in my life. Still more since meeting you and travelling the Strange.  But, hiding behind a name doesn’t make any sense when surrounded by people that know me better than I know myself.”

“So, I’m reclaiming the name, Tobias Cudo.  From now on, that’s who I will be.”

Rain looked to Algernon, who he knew wrote down each name as he adopted a new persona, “No need for your list anymore, “ He smiled wistfully, “Though my friends can always call me Rain.”

Bruce was first to move.  His heavy hand resting on the thin man’s shoulder, making his start.

“Proud to know you, Tobias.”

Tobias nodded and, using Bruce’s hand, got shaking to his feet.

“Now, Ish-Ma-El, let’s try out that hangover cure of yours.” Bruce turned to the Railsea Captain with a grin, “And I know just the place, in Seattle.”

“Seattle for the wake?” Peggy added, wiping her face with the back of her oil and grit stained sleeve, “Thank god, I don’t think I could stand another drop of the local moonshine.”

“Seattle?” Ish-Ma-El asked, “I don’t know where that is, but if there’s booze and a story that explains all this, then I’m in.”

“Good,” Bruce replied as they headed down the hill, “Be prepared to have your mind blown!”

A few moments, twelve hours previous

It was quiet after the battle for Ni’Challan’s space station.  Somewhere, on the skin of the habitable zones robots, welded, glued and replaced sections blasted by Doctor Strangelove’s forces. Still, others polished away scorch marks and cleared up damaged exhibits inside the structure.  In the control centre, the gravity was correctly orientated, and the broken perspex replaced.  Inside the secured room, Algernon, Peggy, Bruce and Rain rested.  The only sounds were the grumbles and complaints from Ni’Challan as he saw the extent of the damage done to his sanctuary and collection.

Rain was still mulling over Algernon’s revelation that he’d never been a child and never experienced growing up.  Even his assumed 15 years was more time than he currently remembered and all at the hands of the elusive Doctor Strangelove.  Though Rain was missing a large portion of his early life, he remembered fondly all the people who had seen him through from age seven to his mid-teens.  Glancing over at the console he recalled the little old man who, one Christmas, had given him…everything.  A far cry from the taciturn stranger alone with his space-bound collection.  

Could I have built him up to be something more than he was?  Rain thought.  It was possible.  It was amazing what the human mind did with memories that it thought were important.  They acquired a magic quality, the etherealness of better times.  The further back the memory went the more stardust the memory seemed to collect.  

“Can I help you?” Ni’Challan said in a tone that stated the complete opposite. Rain realised he’d been staring, lost in his thoughts.  He stood and joined Ni’Challan at the console as he continued his work.

“I just want to be of assistance, sir.” Rain replied, falling into the same formal patterns of speech he always did when conversing with Ni’Challan.

“And yet you refuse my invitation to join my Found Gentlemen,” Ni’Challan said nonchalantly enough, but there was a tone of reprove and a disappointment.  Rain had assured the Ni’Challan that under normal circumstances he would have been happy to take the position, and Ni’challan had accepted the refusal graciously at the time.  But, rejection is still a rejection, and time tarnishes negative memories as it exalts positive ones.

“Mr Cudo, why are you here?”

“Because we knew you needed help.”

“And you’ve given it, and I appreciate your efforts even though it is by your mismanagement that aid was required.  What I want to know is, why are you still here?”

Rain looked over to the party, still resting from the battle.  It would have been easy to blame their lingering on the hard-fought fight.  Bruce himself was not doing well after the blood rush had faded.  It would be simple to say that was their reason for lingering. It would be the truth, most of the truth, but not all of it. 

“I…sir, when I received your card I thought only of Bruce and his father.  Even then, though flattered, I knew I had no place among your Found Gentlemen,” Rain paused a moment, weighing his words, ”Then I discovered you were Mr Samuels, the man who gave me my life’s vocation, a reason to keep on living.”

Ni’Challan made a derisive sound, “You overestimate my actions. I gave you a trinket on the off chance I could recruit you at a later date.  And to that, you have made yourself very clear.”

“You may have never intended it, but in your actions, you gave me the greatest gift; hope,” Rain could see Ni’Challan squirm under Rain’s sentimentality.  But this was the moment he’d wanted to say since discovering that Mr Samuels still lived, “Sir, I can’t be a Found Gentleman, but I’d like to be a friend if that’s at all possible.”

Ni’Challan’s brow’s furrowed, and his hands faltered on the console.

“Friends?” He asked, glancing sideways through his thick eyebrows at Rain, “What is it that you think we have in common?”

“Virtually nothing,” Rain admitted candidly, “A moment twenty years ago, we’re both alive and living this incredible life amidst the Strange, that we collect…”

“Collect?” Ni’Challan interrupted.  It surprised Rain what Ni’Challan knew of him.  His entire history was an open book to Ni’Challan, whereas it was a vague and confusing nightmare for Rain.  Ni’Challan knew that Rain was a wanderer with only what he could carry in his pockets and his backpack to his name, but knew nothing about what he found important.

Rain nodded, but didn’t answer the question directly, “Tell me, sir, why do you collect your…pieces?”  Ni’Challan picked up on Rain’s ambivalence to his collection and frowned, “They are valuable…artifacts, “He added the appropriate amount of reverence, “Important to Earth and every recursion they’ve spawned.”

“A bit of broken boat? “ Referring to a piece, the Titanic, “A motorcycle from a fictional world?” Algernon’s beloved Akira bike sprung to mind.

“They are tangible and irrefutable links to their moments in time.  One thousand five hundred died on the Titanic. Millions died in Tokyo 1988 and many hundreds of thousands in 2019.  And you too, are a link to your own tragedy, though you do not remember it. What was that number again?”

“Eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-two,” Rain supplied breathlessly.  It always had that effect.

“Exactly, you are a living link to all those who were lost.  You are an important remnant of that history.”
“History, his story, her story, their stories…” Rain toyed with the words, “You find your worth in the.. .preservation of those stories?”

“I do,” Ni’Challan said proudly, “I preserve the truth.”

“You are given purpose.  You find comfort in your small part in those stories?” Rain added, moving through his argument.  Ni’Challan looked at Rain suspiciously as if he suspected some con.

“I suppose.”

“Then we are more alike than you realise.  You connect and collect the stories of people through their artefacts. I do it through my interactions with the people themselves,” Rain gestured to his group and back Ni’Challan himself, “It is our own small piece of immortality.”

Ni’Challan huffed derisively again and went back to his console, the work of fixing his space station and collection.

“Rain, are you ready to go?” Peggy called as she and Algernon formed a circle with the unconscious boy and the distracted Bruce.  So busy with Ni’Challan, Rain had not noticed the group getting ready to leave.  

Without a thought, the black puzzle box appeared in his hand.  It had ceased to be a comfort to him, though its role in preserving and shaping his life was undeniable.  But, if it could soften the heart of an avaricious old man, it was a gift worth the giving. Placing the puzzle box down on the console, Rain moved away to join his party.

“What this?”  Ni’Challan picked it up, puzzling through its many movements without opening it, “But I gave this to you.”

“Yes sir, “ Rain looked back at the box, his one and only companion from that first meeting to this moment, “It’s meant a great deal to me over the years, but I don’t need it now.”

“Oh?” Ni’Challan looked genuinely confused by the revelation, “But it’s yours.”

“It reminded me of hope and magic.  I don’t need it now. I have both in here.”  He tapped his chest and his head. He went to turn away again, sure this time the box would be taken and returned to Ni’Challan’s collection.

“But…it’s just a box.  There is nothing significant about it.” Ni’Challan pondered, more to himself.  He held the box up as if examining it closely for something he may have missed.

“Oh, I disagree.  It was magical then, and it’s magical now.” Rain smiled for the first time in that conversation, “Let me show you.” 

Facing Ni’Challan, he moved his hands in front and behind the proffered box in a smooth, practised pattern.  One moment in Ni’Challan’s line of sight, the next hidden for a fraction of a second.  Suddenly the box disappeared without Rain seeming to touch it.  For the next few minutes, Rain made the box appear and disappear in various locations including Ni’Challan’s pocket, all the time keeping his eyes fixed on the old man’s.  

At first, the Ni’Challan observed Rain’s hands carefully looking for the deceptions, the misdirections and the covers that sleight of hand artists used to convince their audience that illusion is real. Slowly though, as Rain moved the Strange through his routine, the tricks became wilder and more impossible even for an experienced eye.  Rain spun and manipulated the puzzle box until Ni’Challan chuckled in surprise and from that moment, the gentle old man twenty Christmases ago was there in the room.

“See, not such a simple box.” Rain finished, placing the box into Ni’Challan’s age-worn hand. 

“No, only for you.” Ni’Challan held it out to Rain, “Your clever box would never do those things for me.  You’ve taught it that.”  

When Rain didn’t take the box back, Ni’Challan reached out, cupped Rain’s hand in his own and placed the box on the flat of his palm.  The moment was so like the one when he first received his gift from Mr Samuels that Rain knew he had remembered true.  He hadn’t imagined more than there was, the moment shared then as now.

“There, back where it belongs,” Ni’Challan said with finality, “Now go, your friends are waiting.”

Rain nodded, not trusting his voice in the moment. As he turned to go once more, he heard Ni’challan.

“I suppose you’ll be back, won’t you?” 

“As soon as I can,” And Rain smiled, a flush of emotion for this silly old man and his trinkets washing over him, “Farewell…Ni’Challan.”

“Yes, yes.  Leave me to clean up your mess.” Ni’Challan grouched, but now it seemed more tempered.  A crusty facade.  Scratch the surface, and you’d see the rust was no more than surface deep.

Rain joined the others in the circle as Peggy started the translation.  He had come to the station a mess of grief, fear and doubt. His grief was still present, a raw thing that often took him by surprise, there was a sense that life continued, and it could be worth living.  It was another rock in Rain’s shaky foundations, an absolute truth to base a life.  

The translation blotted out everything, and he was only aware of the Strange,  his part in the mechanics of travel, and being happy.

Musings 13: Nyarlathotep

“Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void. . . .
I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago. The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard.”

H.P.Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep 1920.

As shown in Peggy’s studies, Nyarlathotep has been busy on Earth for a very long time. It has many names and forms, but the one it is best known for on Earth are Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos, The Black Pharaoh or the Black Man. On at least one instance Nyarlathotep has assumed the role of The Devil, complete with cloven hooves.

From my chat with the jeweller, Nyarlathotep often assume the form of a human man, tall, thin and joyless. They are the servant of the Outer gods, but I couldn’t find out who these Outer gods were. I wonder if they are not the nameless thing that Algernon can not speak of?? Or possibly the ellusive Nakarand? (though the similarity in name between Nyarlathotep and Nakarand is not lost on me). They make real the will of these Outer gods and is the Outer gods’ messenger.

It seems Nyarlathotep’s agenda is not just destruction of the human race, but he delights in insanity and chaos. I feel I know this fellow from old. It seems they are also very clever, deceptive and manipulative, something they have more in common with us than their Outer god brethern.

One of their practices is to gather followers to do their bidding. We’ve certainly seen that with the Lang. Are the Spiral Dust and Bywindine other ways Nyarlathotep has brought people to them?? They have also been known to use the words and practices of science to draw people to them. Whatever works, right?

He seems to have the power to make people fall asleep and into nightmares. There, I guess, it has absolute control to do with people as they will.

They’re not the only one.

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.

March 2001 – Anderson’s household, Brixton, Enlgand

“Hello?  My name is Samantha Anderson.  Is this Mrs Morris?”

“Yes, what is this about?”

“Sorry to trouble you.  I’m currently fostering Tobias Cudo.  I understand he spent some time with you.  I’m just trying to get a little background.”



“Yes, sorry.  I’m not sure I can help you beyond what I told the social workers.  He always behaved perfectly in front of Mr Morris and myself, but he never seemed to fit in with the other children.”

“It was more to do with his mental health.  Was he always so…”


“I understand why you’d say that.  No, had you not felt his…sadness?”

“You’ve read his background.  Horrorifying!”

“And what impression did you get about what he thought about his past?”

“Frankly, we never saw any sign that he knew about what happened.”

“You never broached the subject with him?”

“Why bring up something so horrible if it’s not remembered.  We instead raised him in a positive christian way, to put aside the past and live for today.”

“I…I can appreciate that view, but even if he doesn’t remember it, it has an effect, one that could be at least understood with openness and councilling.”

*More Silence*

“Sorry, if that sounds like a criticism…I only meant….”

“It was a  criticism…but, I accept it.  Maybe we didn’t do all we could for Toby, but we did all we knew, if that makes sense.  I was sad to lose him when my husband past, but I just couldn’t keep all the children alone.  Out of children I had at the time he seemed the least likely to….the most capable to move on.”

“Yes, he does give that impression.  But he hides, sometimes for hours when there’s a difficulty of some sort, and his fingers always fidget with a little black box.”

“Oh?  He has always cherished the box.  I once gave him a crucifix to put in the box hoping that it  would give comfort.”

“I’ve never seen inside.  I’ve never wanted to pry.”

*Silence again*

“I hear his stay in the group home was not a good one. I’m very sorry for that.  But, I’m pleased to hear he has another loving family.”

“Thank you, we try.  He won’t speak about the group home.  He’s actually very good at putting on a brave face when he thinks we’re watching.  He’ll even make up jokes and do silly impressions, but if you ask him for stories he’ll have nothing to say and will put on another show as a distraction or demonstrate one of his magic tricks as a change of subject.  But I think there’s real pain there.”

“Life for these children is pain, or at least the part before they come to us.  All we can do is help them live with the past, and demonstrate a better way of living.”

“Yes, that’s what I hope to do.  Toby deserves that much, the rest is up to him.”

*Silence from both sides* 

“Is there anymore I can help you with?”

“No, thank you.  Sorry for disturbing you.”

“Not at all.  If you think it proper, say hello from me and remember Mr Morris to him, please.”

“I’m sure it will be fine.  Goodbye.”

Being smaller than average had its advantages.  A sliding door storage space that most people wouldn’t consider, becomes a safe refuge.  The linen press that I currently hid was just inside the study where Sam Anderson (she’d told me to call her Sam) had phoned the Morris’ old home in Slough.

It had become a sad house after Mr Morris died suddenly at work.  He’d been, maybe not a father, but a patient and giving uncle to me and to many others.   In the end, I’d been happy to move just to escape the complete feeling of helplessness and loss.

I must have fidgetted with the box, clicking the secret doors and slides until the first compartment (only compartment I’ve ever opened) revealed and disappeared again.

“Toby?”  Sam’s voice rang out clear and startling to both of us I think in the silence of the study.  I froze and the clicking ceased.  There was a moment of silence and then the shuffle of cloth and the sudden bright light as the sliding door opened.

“Oh, Toby.”  She sighed more than said, “Did you hear all the phone call?”

I nodded, there wasn’t any sense in lying, she’d caught me, embarraingly in this secret hiding spot.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear things about ourselves.”

I said nothing as I consciously processed her statement.  She wasn’t sorry to talking about me with Mrs Morris, to say I hide or make up distractions just so I don’t have to talk about things.  She was sorry I’d heard.  Did it matter?”

“Look, you must be cramped in there, would you like to come out?”  Sam suggested and suddenly I realised, I couldn’t feel my legs.  How long had I been in the linen press?  Long before the conversation.  It was after Max had set off the chinese crackers he’s swiped from the local grocery store’s Luna New Year celebrations.  It had been fun, until it hadn’t been.  It was then I had to leave.  

Carefully, I dragged himself out of my hiding spot and into the well lit study.  My eyes scan the rows and rows of books, all dogeared and note flaged, all on child psychology and development.  I’d have liked to look further but I could feel the pins and needles  running up and down my legs and it made me wince and turn away.  Slowly I stood, shakily taking to my feet that were just lumps of lead on the ends of legs that were alive with sensation.

“Toby, do you have any questions about what you heard?”

What had I heard?

Sam asked Mrs Morris about my metal health.  We’d learnt at school about iron deficiency, but I didn’t know of any deficiency.  There was something to do with my past, and talk about the group home.

Something dark and ugly uncoiled in my stomach, something that sometimes wrapped itself around my heart and made it hard to breath.  I must have looked ill because Sam made me sit down in one of two reading chairs.

“What is a metal state?” I eventually asked in the stilted English that sometimes came out when I was nervous.

“Mental state.” she corrected, “ How you feel about yourself and as a result, the world around you? ”

“Bit stupid for being caught in the linen press.”  I joked and was rewarded by a smile, but Sam would not be distracted.

“Why do you go into the linen press?”

I shrugged, the universal teenage language has so many uses.

“Well, why today?  What happened today that meant you ended up in the linen press?”

That was easy.  I told her about the firecrackers on the way home from school, but not who’d had them.  Then I told her something he’d never told anyone.

“Somethings wake up the dark worms.  When they wake up, they eat me and wrap around my heart and I can’t breath.  I need to hide until they go back to sleep.”

“Dark worms?  Can you tell me more?”  She looked concerned and I was surprised how comforting that was.  I took a deep breath and continued.

“They’re inside me, all the time.  Sometimes they wake up just because, sometimes loud noises, sometimes…gun fights on TV or when the guys play…”  I made a pistol with my finger and was surprised to see my hands shake.  Quickly I slipped it behind my back.

“No wonder you find a quiet space.”  Sam replied seriously after a few minutes, “You can always come into the study, I’ll let the rest know to leave you alone…”

“NO!” I said more loudly than I meant to, “I mean they’ll only think I’m weird or getting special treatment or something.”

“You’re not going to fit in the linen press forever.  Maybe there are other things we can do to help make the worms sleep.”
“Really?”  Until this moment, the worms arrival was always a matter of enduring, holding out until breath returned, until I knew I’d survived one more time.  

“You do some of it already, with your box and in finding a calm space.”  She pointed to the puzzle box clutch in my exposed hand. Sam brushed the sweat encrusted hair from my forehead and I felt a giddy thrill at the attention.  I wanted it to feel like this all the time.

“You also need to find the quiet space inside you as well.  A place where there are no worms.”

A quiet space inside?  Like a linen press inside my chest?  I must have looked puzzled.

She smiled again and sat square with me so our knees were touching. She took my hands, the puzzle box between us, and closed her eyes.

“Now, close your eyes and think about your box.  All four sides, the top and bottom.”

Confused and unsure where this was going, I complied. I knew my box, every chip and scuff.  I knew the shiny black lacquer and the bright red of the compartment I could open.

“Set it spinning, slowing so that you see one full side and then it turns, “She took a breath in, “and disappears to show another side.” Slowly she breathed out.

This was harder.  I was becoming aware of Sam.  Her hands on mine, the dampness between and the smell of her perfume. I started feeling this was stupid, that if someone walked past they’d laugh or worse.  I wriggled uncomfortably, but she just repeated the suggestion in the same calm tone and eventually the box spun in time with my breathing.

“Good.  Now, if that doesn’t help we can go deeper by opening your box.”

My eyes fluttered open in suspicion.  Nothing good ever came from wanting to look in the box.  She must have sensed something, maybe a clenching of my hands, a sudden intake of breath. She opened her eyes.

“I meant in your head.  I don’t need to know what’s in your box unless you want me to.”  She said seriously once more and I believed her.

I closed my eyes, and under Sam’s direction set the box slowly spinning.  This time when she suggested the box open in my mind I saw the bolts, switches and slides that opened the first compartment.

“This time the inside of your box is full of light and joy.  There’s a cool breeze and plenty of room to run around in.  This is your safe place, make it what you want.  Expand it until it fills a world, or is as small as matchbox.  Fill it with detail or keep it blank and simple, it is all up to you.

I thought about what she said.  Light wasn’t hard, the motes of dust in sunlight playing through my fingers always seemed like magic.

Joy…that one may need to wait.

The cool breeze turned cold.  I could feel something sticky running down his face and the smell of the fireworks…

No.  No worms here.

Warm breeze, like at the beach on a sunny day.  Warm enough to melt your ice cream if you weren’t careful.

Now the joy, showing people my latest trick.  Making someone smile and laugh.  Feeling people around me enjoying my company and me theirs.  Yes, that was good.  Almost as good as a cool hand brush my hot brow.

It was dark and I was lying down.  Outside my window, crickets were starting their evening chorus.  I sat up and my lacquered box slipped off the bed and spilt its contents tinkleling all over the floor.  I rolled over and looked at the item scattered about.  A shiny pebble, the only thing I had to remember Mr Morris, a few shells from the beach, a couple of shiny coins I did his magic with, a button made of mother of pearl and a small silver cross.  It wasn’t the one Mrs Morris had given me, that had Jesus all bloodied and broken.  This was a simpler cross, and completely empty.  I liked it better that way, a reminder that bad things don’t last.

One by one I picked up my treasures just as my body registered the smell of dinner from downstairs.  Gently, I placed them in the box and closed the compartment.  Maybe later , when the others were busy or asleep I’d show Sam inside the box, then maybe I would ask her what my records said.  

But right now it was tea and a boy’s growing can not wait.  Jumping out of bed I ran down stairs just as the food arrived at the table.

January 2001, Morris’ house – Slough, England

Tobias stood outside the office after the funeral. Mrs Morris was on the phone to someone as Mr Morris’s wake happened elsewhere.

“…I just can’t cope…no…no there’s no problem with the children…no…I’m all alone now and …I’m not saying I don’t want to foster anymore, but it was more Robert’s vision than mine…look, I just wanted to organise a talk about what happens next…that’s right, I won’t be able to keep all three…I don’t know…I don’t know, look I need to get back to the wake…yes…let me know when you’re available…okay, thank you…yes, I actually don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”

Mrs Morris hung up and sat alone behind her big wooden desk as Tobias looked on from the hallway. He couldn’t have said why he was there. Certainly the wake held no interest, but Mrs Morris’s grief caused him pain.  He rubbed his chest now, his heart raced under his hand and he wondered, not for the first time, if you could die of a broken heart. 

Mr Morris died at work ten days before. They’d been no signs of illness, nothing to show anything was wrong.  In one sudden moment, the light and life of the Morris’ house had gone out.  Now all that was left was Mrs Morris’s stoic coolness and a hole where Mr Morris had been.

“Toby?” Mrs Morris was standing in front of Tobias, a damp handkerchief in her hand, her eyes red rimmed and unpainted.  “Toby, why are you just standing there?”

Why was he standing there?  That’s right…

“Grandmother said it as time for speeches and to look for you.”  He replied.  Mr Morris’s mother had always told the foster children in their care to call her grandmother.  Never nanny or Grandma, she was Grandmother.  Having no family, Tobias was glad to have someone he could call anything familial.

“Of course.” Mrs Morris replied dully.  It seemed she wasn’t enjoying the wake anymore than Tobias.  “Will you accompany me, Toby?”  She offered her arm like the ladies on the historical television shows she liked and Tobias took it gratefully.

The autumn sun was warm and inviting after the cold interior of the house.  The wake was being held in the garden as it was the only place that held all the people.  Late blooming flowers and the turning leaves made a backdrop worthy of a good man’s send off.  And if the crowd was an indication, Mr Morris had been a very good man.

Over twenty years he and Mrs Morris had taken children into their large sprawling home.  They had provided safety, stability and love for 82 children and supported 67 families.  It seemed all of them were there with their spouses, children and extended families to pay their respects.

“…Mr Morris, Robert, didn’t  tell me how to be a better person.  He showed me through his quiet ways.” Said one of the ex-foster kids now an adult in a dark suit, “He always had time, though there were five of us then and none of us were exactly ‘house-broken’”

The crowd laughed companionably.

The speaker dug into  the pocket of his pants and pulled out a small polished stone, creamy white, blue and grey.

“He shared his passion for geology and lapidary.  And much like his rocks, he took us in and carefully smoothed out the rough edges, showing us how to rub-along together.”

Tobias thought of his puzzle box and the piece of polished petrified wood warm and smooth.  He scanned the crowd and noticed quite a few others also with small polished stones mounted on chains or just in their hands.

“So here’s to Mr Morris, assuredly in heaven.  May the many pebbles he left behind follow in his legacy.”  The glass of wine, beer or soft drink  rose and the group roared their agreement startling Tobias.

“Toby, go find the other children, will you, I have to talk to our guests.”  Mrs Morris let go of Tobias’ arm and straightened herself.  Now the host, Mrs Morris walked into the crowd and was swallowed up by the well wishers.  Tobias put his hands in his pockets and stalked around the outside of the adult group looking for the other two.

Tim (called Tam because of his half Scottish heritage and love of the chocolate biscuits ) had found himself a quiet spot in the garden.  Tam had acquired a pile of treats from the table and was currently working through a small meat pie when Tobias sat down beside him.

“Want something?” Tam offered from his pile of sweets and savories.  Tobias’ stomach lurched and it was all he could do to keep his mouth closed.  He shook his head.

When he thought he could speak without being sick, Tobias said in a low voice only for Tam,  “She’s going to send some of us away.”

Tam’s mouth dropped open and his half chewed pie fell into his lap.


“I heard her, on the phone to the agency.”

“She wouldn’t.  Where else are we supposed to go?”  Tam had now completely forgotten his food and they both sat in the Autumn shade in communal misery.

“Who do you think she’d pick?” Tam asked after a while.  He was a very fast eater, but not so fast at thinking.

“For what?”

“Staying, of course, what did you think I meant?”
“Who’d she’d pick to go.”

“Oh God, that’s even worse.”

The two boys looked over the wake, spying Jancy and her school friend who’d been invited so she’d have someone to talk to.  Both had set themselves up under the food table and were taking it in turns to sneak out and find something tasty to share.

“Well, it won’t be Jancy for sure.  Her Aunty lives nearby and you know how Mrs Morris always prefers the girls.” Tam scowled, not his usual kindly expression, but dire times called for dire expressions. 

“I wouldn’t be so sure, ” Tobias thought back a time before Tam when Jancy had been caught lying by Mrs Morris.  Jancy and Tobias’s relationship had been complicated after that.

“Oh man!”  Tam sat up in realisation, “That means me, they’ll get rid of me!”

“How do you figure that?”

“Well, I have both my parents, though they’re bums.  You have no one.”

Kind hearted Tam had noticed last Christmas when no one came to see Tobias, didn’t  even send a present or a Christmas card.  He’d given Tobias one of his presents, though he hadn’t opened it or anything.  Tobias hadn’t forgotten that kindness, and was more patient with Tam’s melodramas than Jancy or even Mrs Morris.

“You have family nearby.  That I have no one make it more likely I’ll be the one to go.”

That made Tam cry and the two of them sat in companionable silence as he wept and Tobias decently ignored it.

Days went by and it was clear the heart of the household had been cut out by the loss of Mr Morris.  Mrs Morris treated the children as she always had, but without the tempering gentleness of Mr Morris, she came across as a school principal and not the head of a mix-matched family.  Tobias found he couldn’t get comfortable anywhere.  When he was at school he thought about the empty house.  When he was at home spent his time aimlessly roaming the house peering into echoing rooms looking for somehting that wasn’t there anymore.

When  the day of the meeting with social services arrived, Tobais asked to see Mrs Morris in her office.

“What is it Toby, I have to get ready for this meeting and you know that…Mr Morris was always better at  dealing with these people than me.”  She looked stressed and tired and for the first time Tobias realised she was just like him, missing the comfort of Mr Morris.

“It’s about that I want to talk to you.  You shouldn’t have to pick which of us has to go.”

She stared at him like she wanted to cry.  Instead she sighed and ushered him around the desk to her side.

“You heard that phone call didn’t you?”  You don’t have to hide it, Tam’s be walking around here like the world is going to fall down on him.”

Tobias nodded and so did Mrs Morris

“I probably won’t get much of a say, the department will probably determine whose best to stay and who could go somewhere else.”

“Well…you can tell them I’ll go.”  Tobias blurted out in a rush, “I mean, I want to go.”

Now he thought she would cry and that was somehow more disturbing that being yelled at.

“Don’t….you like living here, Toby?”

“Yes.  You and Mr Morris…you have been my only parents…” He was going to say ‘ I remember’, but thought better of it, “…here in England.  You taught me everything, but…”

“It’s not the same anymore, is it?”


‘“No.”  She repeated, placing her hands on the desk.

“Thank you, Toby.  I’ll let them know.”

In the end everyone agreed that to relieve stress on the family one of the children would be relocated to a suitable family.  As Tobias had no links in the community, had no serious friendships and had volunteered he would be the one to go.

Tam was inconsolable and even Jancy showed distress at the family being broken up.  Mrs Morris was beside herself with guilt over the decision and spent many hours either talking to the social workers or working on her private finances to somehow afford to keep Tobias.  Only Tobias seemed calm and philosophical about leaving.  If anything, now that the decision had been made he was almost looking forward to the move.

Eventually, due to the distress it was causing on the household as a whole, it was decided to move Tobias to a group home for a week or two until a place could be found in foster care.

The morning of the move, Tobias was packed and ready, standing in the front door.  His worldly posessions fitted into a suitcase (his clothes) a box (a few books, including those for school) and his backpack (snacks, drink bottle and puzzlebox).  He scanned the street for the social workers car as behind him Mrs Morris ushered Tam and Jacy foward to give their goodbyes.

Jancy looked bored, there was no love lost between Tobias and her, but for his part he was willing to forget their differences.  It’s not as though they were ever likely to meet again.

“Bye Jancy, don’t give Tam a hard time, okay?”

Tam started crying again.  His eyes were already red rimmed, the skin around them puffy.  He’d wiped his nose on the back of his hand so often there were shiny snails trails. Jancy looked at him in disgust.

“I wouldn’t touch him.”

“Tam, come with me for a moment.”  Tobias took Tam’s damp hand just as the social workers card drove up.

“I’ll put your things in the car,”  Mrs Morris said, picking up his box and suitcase, “You two take your time.”

Tobias led  Tam down the path away from Jancy at the front door.

“I don’t want you to go.”  Tam said quietly, he had no energy left for wailing, “Everyone always leaves.”

“Well, remember I’m not leaving you, they’re moving me on.”

“Does it make a difference?”

“All the difference in the world.  Adults make stupid choices, what are us kids going to do?  Cry?  Get angry?  Na, I say make the best of it…” At that moment he stomped down on the head of a garden rake he’d placed there for just this moment.  The rake handle lifted, hitting and turning the garden hose tap.  The hose jumped as the water pressure ran along its length to the nozzle held in place by two bricks behind the rosebushes.  

A jet of fridget morning water sprung out of the garden bed beside the front door and drenched Jancy.  Tam looked from Jancy to Tobias and back to Jancy his mouth moving but no sound came out.  Suddenly the tears were forgotten and he roared into uncontrollable, well needed laughter.

All this took but mere seconds.  When Tam turned, laughing at the screaming Jancy flailling at the high pressure water, Tobias quickly bent down, turned off the tap and pressed the button that automatically wound up the hose.  The water stopped with one last gout and slithered backwards through the grass to nestle safely in its plastic nest of hose reel.

Mrs Morris, who had her back turned talking to the social workers, swung round to the screams and laughter.  There was Jancy soaking wet, there was Tam no longer crying but laughing outrageously, and there, of course, Tobias looking on at the chaos, the slightest smirk on his angelic face. But how? There was nothing to show, but a rake and a few bricks in the garden?

“Jancy, go in and get changed, you’ll catch your death.  Tam that’s enough, thank you.  Tobias…”  She gestured for him to join her at the car. “…I probably should be glad that I wasn’t at the door with Jancy.”  Mrs Morris said low enough for only the two of them to hear.

“I don’t know what you mean, Mrs Morris.”  Tobias relpied, his face the image of innocence.

“Hmm…well I think you have guaranteed that you will never be forgotten.”  She put her hand out, her fist closed.  Tobias put out his palm and Mrs Morris dropped a small silver cross, one with Christ still nailed to it.  It hit Tobias’ palm with a solid ‘thunk’.

“Mr Morris and I always tried to show you the hope found in Christ.  This is for you in rememberance of that.”

If there was hope in Christ, why are you sending me away? Tobias thought bitterly.  Christ isn’t a symbol of hope but an example of how the world treats the good.  He folded his fingers around the image and nodded, saying nothing.

There wasn’t much more to be said after that.  A few hugs, especially from Tam who was still giggling and then Tobias took his seat in the car, all he owned laid around him.  Tobias tried to think back to the time he’d been brought to the Morris’.  That time his entire possessions were a few changes of clothes and an illustrated English dictionary.  He’d had almost no language, no idea of where he was or what was going to happen to him. 

The Morrises had given him that and more.  

He rummaged through his backpack until he found his puzzlebox.  He flipped it open and placed the cross with the other pieces he’d collected during his time in the house.  The car drove off and he waved goodbye, now not with a sense of loss, but with a sense of purpose.

Okay, let’s go and see what the world has to offer.

October 1997 The Morris’ House, Slough, England

Afternoon sunlight washed the oak floor golden as Tobias made his way to the office.  Behind him, the sunlight poured through the open door where the other children played in the backyard.  He lifted his hand and with delicate fingers he let beams of light slip through, highlighting in gold the dust motes.

“Abra-ca-dabra!” He whispered under his breath as his fingers fluttered, making the light and the dust motes spin.

“Toby?”  Mrs Morris’ head poked around the corner of the office doorway,  “Toby, day-dreaming again?”  She asked in exasperated tones.

Tobias quickly brought his hand down and he put on his sweetest puppy-dog expression.

“Mr Morris said you wanted to see me?” He said it like a question, but they both knew there was no question about it.

“Yes Toby, come into the office please.”  Mrs Morris stepped back and Tobias walked in and plonked himself on the worn leather lounge like he belonged there.  Mrs Morris, who had hoped to use the authority of the office desk to instill a little fear, now had to move her notes and a small black box to the coffee table.  Tobias eyed the little black box, but said nothing.  He swung his feet back and forward in a disarming way.

“Toby, is this your box?”  Mrs Morris picked it up gingerly like it was some exotic creature.

“Yes, “ He replied simply.  It was his, everyone knew it.

“Yes, it is and I would not have usually taken it out of your room without permission but Jancy has lost her bracelet, the one her mother gave her before she past.”

Mrs Morris always talked about people having past instead of saying they were dead.  Tobias wasn’t sure if it was lying or not.

“Well I didn’t take it.” He protested, his large eyes creasing and his rosebud lips quavering only slightly.

“It’s just she was very sure she saw you put her bracelet in this box.  If you didn’t do it, the bracelet won’t be inside.”

Tobias nodded with the sensible logic, but did not move to take the box.

“Toby, please open the box.” Mrs Morris thrust it out and place it in Tobias’ lap.

Now the box wasn’t just any box.  Just two Christmases before he  had received it from an old man who had shown Tobias the one secret he knew and assured him there was more to learn, with patience.  No other secrets had appeared, yet, and knowing that sometime in the future they may appear made the box all that more special.

The small worn book that had come with the box was gone. Michael had been angry one weekend when his mother hadn’t come though she’d promised and promised.  He’d made a bonfire in their bedroom out of magazines, school books, other paper and bedding.  Tobias has saved the box only because Michael had been unable to grab it from Tobias’ quick hands.

It hadn’t mattered.  Tobias had learnt all he could from the book and afterwards he’d had the room to himself.  What was important was the box.  He looked at his box and then up at Mrs Morris, his eyes now shining with tears.

“But… they’re my specials.”  He said in a hurt childish voice nothing like his more confident tone.

“I know Toby, but the bracelet  is Jancy’s special and you know what God thinks about stealing.  If you could please let me have a look…”  Mrs Morris’ voice trailed off.  She didn’t look or sound confident she was doing the right thing.

Tobias looked back down at his black box and carefully picked it up in his slim dexterous fingers. 

What happened next, Mrs Morris could never say later.  One moment Tobias was twisting a corner and pulling out a secret pin, the next the lid of the black box flew across the room skidding across the polished wood surface of her desk and onto the floor.

While Mrs Morris fetched the lid, Tobias pulled a fine gold chain out of a secret compartment and just as quickly slipped the chain down the sleeve of his jumper.  The whole action had taken a fraction of a second and Mrs Morris returned with the lid of the box none the wiser.  

“Could I look inside please Toby?”  She said not gesturing for the box.  He could see a timidity in her, a shyness now that the box was open.

She doesn’t want to do this. He thought, and the thought gave him a ugly sort of happiness.

Slowly, reverently, as if revealing something precious and rare, he turned the box to Mrs Morris.  There were a few coins, some foreign, a shiny brown pebble that Mr Morris had helped him polish up.  A shell button found a trip to the city and no bracelet.

She sighed and handed back the lid to the box, “I’m sorry I had to ask you to do that.  Thank you for being so honest.”

Mrs Morris stood up and returned to her desk where she felt more comfortable, as the little boy carefully put together his puzzle box, wriggled off the leather lounge and walked out of the room.

“Oh, and Toby,” Mrs Morris called now back in her seat of authority. “I hope you know you too can always come to Mr Morris or myself if you need help.  I don’t want you to ever feel like you’re alone.”

Tobias just looked back at her, his large brown eyes now genuinely glistening and turned to go upstairs to his room.

 It was days later, and the incident of the missing bracelet had seemingly been forgotten by the Morrises.  Tobias waited for the perfect time to find Jancy alone.

She was pulling the petals off a yellow rose and laying them between sheets of newspaper for drying.  Her attention was totally absorbed with pulling the petals off whole, she did not notice Tobias until something gold glittered just to the edge of her vision.

“My bracelet!” she exclaimed grabbing for the glittering tricket, but only grab at air.

“You said you’d see Christine eyeing it.  You’d said you wanted it kept safe!”

Jancy’s face darkened, the remainder of the rose crushed into yellow pulp in her fist.  “Me and Christine made up, and then you ate the last piece of toast at breakfast.”

“So you thought to get me in trouble with the Morrises?”  Toby boiled inside though, on the outside, he looked to be having a polite conversation.

“They like you….they love you.”  She teased, “They’re all… ‘Toby did this…and Toby did that…’ ”  Jancy’s quite pretty face crunched up into something wicked and mean, her dark eyes squinted so only pin-prinks of black could be seen.

“You were jealous…of me?” Tobias’s voice became low and menacing, though his expression remained serene, “You have a grandmother who still visits, but I have no one.  Why would you be jealous of that?”

“I…oh it doesn’t matter.” She gave up her indignation with a sigh, looking down at the now crushed rose in her hands, “Are you going to give me my bracelet back or what?”

Tobias glared down at Jancy, his anger now clear, the bracelet still swinging from one finger.

“What a good idea.  ‘Or what’ seems a very good idea to me.”  He smiled maliciously, “I’m going to use my magic to send your bracelet into a pocket space where nasty girls can’t get to.”  And with that, he swung the bracelet once more around his finger, flicking it up, slingshotting it directly into the sky. With two hands up he went to catch it in his right, but secretly let it slip through, palming it in his left.  As he dramatically opened his right hand and showed Jancy the bracelet wasn’t there, he slipped the bracelet down his sleeve of his jumper again.

Instantly, Jancy grabbed his empty left and then looked around on the ground, but the bracelet had disappeared, just as promised.

“I’m telling Mrs Morris on you!”  She balled and ran inside without a second’s thought to the inevitable scolding she’d receive about telling lies.

Later, months later, while making a floral decopage card for her grandmother, Jancy would find her mother’s bracelet pressed  and waiting for her, between yellow rose petals.