The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Dolorous Stroke
Chapter 7

August 16th 9pm
Sam – the carnival
Matt, Mark, Andrew, Peter, John, Mickey – the hotel
Isobel, Twitchin – the road outside the hotel

Swallowing his fear, Sam turns slowly to face the black shadow of the ringmaster. His mind is racing. Violence isn’t going to get him anywhere, even if he was capable of it, especially with that thing lurking close at hand. And, come to think of it, if that’s the sort of hired thug the Master has at his disposal maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come here alone. But here is where he is. The grim reality of it sinks through his frightened brain. He has to swallow several more times before he can speak.

“Aaah……” he finally manages. His voice dies away quickly, so high and thin it makes him flinch. He gulps again. “Doctor Pretorius, I presume,” he says to the dark figure before him. This time he manages to speak clearly. He can almost fool himself that he is feeling confident. “Interesting name that, where does it come from? Pleased to meet you anyway…I caught the show – very impressive, I must say. You cut quite a dash as the ring-master.” Now he’s gabbling, he thinks. He stops with an effort and eases another step back to the exit behind him. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here. I won’t lie to you, I’m a reporter. I’m investigating the disappearance of several people from this ghost-train. Perhaps it’s time I introduced myself. The name’s Malachi Pheasant; call me Mal. Have you anything to say about the missing people, Dr Pretorius?”

“A reporter.” Pretorius chuckles softly. He takes a step forward, his long cloak billowing about him, melting into the darkness around. The only light in the entire place is coming from his eyes. “I might have know there’d be at least one.” His eyes narrow slightly. “What would you say, Mr Pheasant, if you found out your employers had been misleading you all along.”

“Misleading?” Sam keeps his thoughts on track with an effort. “All I know is there have been reports of disappearances here. If I have been misinformed perhaps you’d care to tell me the truth of the matter and then I’ll be on my way.”

A crooked smile appears for a moment and is gone. “If you really want to know the truth I can tell you. This place, for example…” he gestures around them. “It is a haven for people who cannot find peace anywhere else in the world. If people have disappeared here it is because they wanted to. It is every child’s fantasy – to run away from home and join the circus. Haven’t you ever wanted to just disappear, leave all your problems behind?”

The voice is so seductive, Sam almost agrees. He recovers himself slightly and straightens up. “It would be ironic wouldn’t it? A reporter mysteriously disappearing whilst investigating mysterious disappearances. Just imagine the press coverage that could generate, the hordes of journalists crawling all over your little carnival. Of course, if that’s the kind of publicity that you’re after, maybe you could make it worth my while to…disappear.”

Pretorius laughs, puts out a hand and touches Sam’s shoulder, making him jump. “I assure you, Charlie Morgan, it would be very much worth your while to disappear.” The use of his real name shocks Sam into silence. “Let’s make this easy for you,” Pretorius murmurs. “I know who you are. I know why you’re here, and Blaize is wrong – terribly, terribly wrong.”

 “Someone’s following the lovebirds,” Mark says turning around from the window. He grabs his coat and walking stick and heads for the door. “Anyone else want to tail the tailer? I for one want to know what he is up to and where he ends up.”

Matt goes to the window. “Uh oh, is that one of the guys who was around when I collapsed?”

Andrew, Mickey and John are already following Mark out. Peter, slumped in an armchair, sighs. “You know, this was exactly what I said would happen if we ever divided the party. We were always supposed to be at least two people together. I think we should check out what happens to poor Sam as soon as possible. We almost have to assume that he has gotten himself into danger.”

Matt is the only one left in the room to hear him. He smiles thinly. “Okay,” he says, “looks like Blondie’s being taken care of. We really need to talk about the play, see if we can’t firm up our plans a little, eh?”

Outside, Professor Twitchin happens to glance behind him and slows from a stroll to a dawdle. “…and my dear,” he booms, “that gypsy violinist… why I could have died when he sauntered over to our table…” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Keep walking Isobel my dear, don’t look back and around the next corner run like the clappers…” Raising his voice again, “…and what a delightful evening why my head is still spinning….and those schnitzells…”

Isobel doesn’t turn to look behind. Now that the professor has alerted her to the fact, she can sense someone watching, but she doesn’t get any sense of danger at all. She walks on, allowing Twitchin to take the lead. They turn a corner in the road and pause.

“He’s coming,” Isobel whispers.

“I know. Have at ye varlet.” He swings, swiping at the blonde man with his walking stick. “Have at ye! Fly, Isobel! Fly!” He gives Isobel a shove that sets her running and backs away. The blonde man grins then yells in pain as the stick catches him across the arm. Twitchin waves it again. “Help! Murder! Help!”

The blonde man utters an oath in German and dives for him. Footsteps echo in the road behind them – Mark and the others coming to the rescue, Twitchin hopes. He staggers towards them, yelling, the combination of fear and excitement making his heart pound. His attacker gives up and runs in the opposite direction. Twitchin collapses against his team-mates, gasping and puffing.

“There he goes!” he manages.

Mark takes off after the fleeing figure, realising at once he’s not going to be able to keep up. But then a car comes screeching round a bend in the road. Its headlight turn everything brilliant white for a moment, there is a crunch that echoes the length of the street. Then silence.

Mickey stops the car and gets out. The man is dead, blood spreading in a pool beneath him.

Mark stares at him in disbelief. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” He casts a glance around. Curtains are being drawn back from windows, people looking out.

“He shouldn’t have attacked the professor.” Mickey shoves him towards the car. “Get in,” he orders. “Too many people have seen this now. Have to make it look like a hit and run.”

Back in the hotel, Isobel bathes the professor’s single bruise and summons up suitably grateful responses as he chatters on about his unplumbed depths of bravery. Everyone else is subdued.

Mark glowers in a corner. He could have tailed the tailer, found out who he was working for. Now all they’ve done is brought more trouble down on themselves. And Sam is still missing, he remembers. “Now that most of us are back together,” he says loudly to cut over Twitchin’s voice, “what about Sam? Are we going to look for him?”

“I’m more concerned we decide what to do next,” Matt says.

Mark gets up, his annoyance plain. “Fine. I’ll go.” No one else volunteers to go with him and he slams the door behind him hard.

 “What did Blaize tell you?” Pretorius muses. “That the Master is evil incarnate, that he must be eliminated at all costs?”

Sam backs away from him, feeling in his coat pocket for his garlic water pistol.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I really have to go and phone my editor. Look, I’ll give you my business card.”

Pretorius’s gaze is hypnotic. Eyes like steel, Sam thinks. Or maybe it is eyes that can steal. Eyes that steal your mind and your will power until you want to pull the gun out of your pocket but it’s far too heavy, far too much trouble to do.

Something hits the ground by Sam’s feet. It is probably his gun but he doesn’t think to look down to see for sure.

As the group sits down to plan its next move, Matt finds himself wishing again that Side-step was there. To his relief, Andrew takes over the discussion.

“We have a lot to decide on,” Andrew says. “First of all the play. Are we going to take part in it? I don’t want to, but I’ll follow it as a spectator.”

“The play’s tomorrow and the Master knows we’re here. I think we’re agreed it’s time to go on the offensive, yes? I think if we don’t let it go ahead, the Master’ll just go to ground again we need it to lure him out And, on a more selfish note, I’m wondering if the ‘healing power’ could be directed from the Master to myself, maybe cure me of the Virus from Vampyria…” His lips twitch into a smile. “My own plan, I explain, is that Isobel and myself wait for Balin and Galahad to collect their masks tomorrow. We follow them and find a suitable opportunity to overpower the players, take the masks and assume their places in the play. At the crucial point, Isobel/Galahad touches me/Balin with the Spear of Longius and the ‘healing power’ is directed through me instead of the Master.” He frowns. “I have no idea how the Master is planning to infiltrate the Play. There were six actors for six parts and none of them was ‘Doctor Pretorius’ I’m guessing he’ll do the same as ourselves, dispose of ‘Pellam’ and take his place beneath the mask just before the end. Maybe Isobel, as Galahad, could turn the Spear aside at the last minute and heal me, as Balin, instead? Maybe another of us could play Pellam and, if the Master tries to take his mask, blow the bugger away? We know that at least some Ylids can be hurt by firearms…”

“Too much of a risk, my boy,” the professor mumbles. “You and Isobel being Balin and Galahad sounds the best plan. I’m sure we can kidnap two actors… I’ll do everything I can to help, of course…” He glances around. The others nod, Isobel looking slightly troubled as she tries to put herself into the character of Galahad.

“So much for the play,” Andrew says. “What about the mine? Do we go in?”

“Definitely,” Peter agrees. “As John said, the reason there’s nothing strange about the transportation is probably because the crystal the Master uses never leaves the mine. I suggest we take a camcorder down there tonight and see what we can find.” Going off track a little he adds, “I’ve been doing some research about Pretorius. A German composer called Praetorius lived between 1571 and 1621 in the district of Bavaria, which I think we are all familiar with. Most of his renown came from the syntagma musicum, which is a great source of interest when researching music of that time. For whatever purpose. The name, however, comes from ancient Rome, as I think someone mention. He was the lawgiver. Praetorium means high guard, the personal guard of the emperor. Since these Ylids have been with us through history, it seems very likely that they were part of the roman empire as well. Perhaps the Master was a Praetor, or the Praetor? Not that it helps or anything.” He blows out a long breath. “It’s the crystals that really worry me What is he using them for? Have you noted that the masks for all the parts of the play have eyes made of crystal? Don t you think we should make some replicas or something, sneak in again and replace those crystals?”

“The mines may be just where the Master gets the crystal for the costume eyepieces,” Matt points out. “The Mexican Ylids use crystal skulls to somehow focus ‘belief energy’, and I reckon that’s what the Master’s gonna do with the Galahad myth.” He shrugs. “Anyway,; I’ll get hold of SITU and get them to go with Andrew’s idea, the gas leak. At the very least, that’ll give Breit something else to worry about tomorrow.”

“And we’ll take a look at the mines tonight,” Peter finishes.

 “If I show you the truth what will you do with it?” Pretorius murmurs. “Everyone else – those who have been willing to open their minds to what is really going on – have chosen to work with me. You decided to work against me before you even knew who I was.” He stoops down and picks up Sam’s fallen water gun. “What’s in this? Acid?” He squirts out a spray of water over his hands and gives it back to Sam. The dilute garlic juice doesn’t seem to have bothered him at all. “Here,” he smiles. “If you think it will do any good, shoot me now. I think you’ve been trusting the wrong people up to now. Try asking your friends why you are the ones on full out attack all the time and people like me are forever struggling to defend ourselves. Ask them that and see what they say.”

Sam stares at him, unable to speak.

“I’ll prove I’m on your side,” Pretorius says suddenly. “I’ll let you go. Go back to your friends and tell them what I said if you like. And if you want to know more, you know where to find me. I think we’ll be meeting again.”

He vanishes, so quickly it appears the air has simply closed around him and hidden him. Sam blinks, then remembers where he is and suddenly finds himself gasping for breath.

A light shines by the entrance way, and then a familiar voice. “Sam? Are you in there?”

Several cups of hot chocolate later, Sam feels more or less recovered – enough for Mark to drive him back to the hotel. They find the others still there.

Sam quickly brings them up to date, stammering out what Pretorius told him. “We’re all going to die,” he moans. “We should leave at once.”

“We should have cars ready to escape in and request that SITU is ready to help us out if needed,” Andrew corrects him. “If Pretorius is the lead henchman of The Enemy, do we try to destroy him now?”

“Lets summarise what we know,” Matt says. “I’m guessing the charming Doctor Pretorius is the Master, and the ‘strangely padded’ people are some sort of homunculi – like the Frankenstein stuff he’s done elsewhere – that’d explain why they don’t seem to need food or water. We don’t know where Pretorius holes up during the day but I’ll bet he’s drawing sustenance from all the freaky ‘dark carnival’ shit he’s pulling at night. So…the carnival’s one possible target, possibly tonight. All those tents look terribly flammable…” he glances meaningfully at Andrew.

“Now how could one disrupt or prevent carnival?” Twitchin mumbles in the background. “Get out of town coppers in mob handed….terrorist scare? we have an US army vehicle …blow it up near the route and claim responsibility “….baader meinhof or one of those dreadful save the planet johnies ..you know the sort..dog on a string..” He looks up. “Michael my man,” the prof adds as an afterthought, “do you have access to one of those bleepy thingymebobs which bounce of a satellite whatsit and allow one to track a motorcar….if so be a good fellow and fix one to Pretorius’ caravan for future reference…”

Mickey nods. He and Andrew are both looking eager at the thought of a little night time action.

Matt leaves them discussing whether or not to kidnap Breit for SITU to interrogate and goes to phone Blaize. Updating him on the situation he asks, “is there anything you can tell us – anything that might help us tomorrow?”

“Don’t kill anyone else,” Blaize says promptly. “Though I somehow think telling you that isn’t going to make any difference. We don’t have unlimited resources to protect you from the consequences of your own actions. We can get you out of the area quickly, but the idea is you stay in and finish this investigation.” He’s silent a moment. “When Quetzacoatl was killed in Mexico he was in some sort of stasis and that made him vulnerable. I doubt you’d be able to take the Master down with simple firearms, not unless he’s severely weakened first – and I mean weakened to the point of unconsciousness. Good luck. Get in touch tomorrow to give us an update.”

He hangs up. Matt goes back to join the others.

Plans are made. Peter, Mickey and John will investigate the mine under the cover of darkness. Matt, Mark and Andrew will launch an attack against the carnival.

“And we’ll enjoy a pleasant evening together, my dear,” Twitchin says to Isobel. “Do us good after all the excitement.” If she looks less than thrilled at the prospect, he doesn’t seem to notice.

Andrew drives his group to the carnival via the army base so that he can secure his weaponry. He comes back to the vehicle and slings one case into the back. “Cobra AOW,” he explains. “Don’t anyone touch it.”

Mark looks at the case with distaste.

Andrew ignores him. “Here we are,” he says, almost cheerfully, as they reach the outskirts of the carnival ground. “

“Here we are,” Andrew murmurs as they reach the outskirts of the carnival ground. “I believe that The Enemy will try to attack us. We should take care to not walk alone.”

Most people have gone by now, only a few stragglers singing drunkenly. Andrew swings the gun case out of the jeep. “Lets go.”

The mine is dark, completely deserted. Across the entrance is a notice – ‘Danger, do not enter.’ Mickey tugs it aside and goes on in. John follows just behind him, creeping softly, and Peter at the rear.

Their torches light up the long tunnel in uneven patches. They walk forward slowly, checking everything. John allows his mind to clear completely and concentrates on the rock around him. In places he can almost feel the crystal points embedded in the grey stone, each one vibrating slightly.

“Further down,” he mutters. The others look at him and he shakes his head to clear it. “We need to go further down. That’s where we’ll find it.”

They come to the lift that Peter used the other day with Breit and stop before it. Everything is silent. The machinery looks dead.

“No power,” Mickey says. “Of course, they’ve turned it all off. First thing you’d do when there’s a suspected gas leak.”

John examines the cables leading down then without a word swings himself onto the nearest one and climbs down into the darkness.

 “Matt,” the voice whispers in Culver’s head. “You were so close to understanding once. The chance is still open to you if you’ll take it.”

Matt stops where he is, drawing in steady breaths, willing himself not to answer. A sigh passes through him, a feeling almost of regret.

“You are dying. You know that, don’t you? I can heal you.” The voice becomes compelling. “Come to me and I can heal you.”

He knows which way to go. He is poised turning towards the ghost train when a tent goes up in flame behind him. He jumps, the spell broken.

“You’re right,” Andrew calls softly. “These things are pretty flammable.”

Mark stands back and watches. Bands of red light and shadow play over the carousel. Another soft explosion goes off closer to the main tent, mushrooming up into the black sky. The bone dry grass flares immediately, strands of grey smoke writhing like snakes across the ground.

It is strange that there is so little sound. Only the grass burning and the wind fanning the flame. Usually where there is a fire there are sirens, human voices screaming and crying. But this is silent.

Then the carousel begins to turn. Mark spins towards it. No music sounds and yet it turns, lights flickering red and orange, turning lazily. And lazily, slowly, the creatures move, shaking their heads, stamping hoofed feet. Eyes blink, mouths open. In the light of the burning, Mark watches, frozen to the spot as one of them, then another and another, turns to look at the fire and steps off the still revolving platform.

 “Isn’t this pleasant?” the professor says happily.

He is sitting at a table making petrol bombs, “just in case they’re needed,” while Isobel is going over her coming role of Galahad and Sam works his way through the entire contents of the room’s mini bar. Every light in the room is on – Sam insisted on it.

“Henry used to like lights,” Isobel says inconsequentially. “You never met him Sam – he was such a wonderful man. I can’t tell you how much I loved him.” She feels a soft wave of disappointment coming off the professor as she says this, but Sam is obviously relieved to have something else to talk about. She looks at him curiously. “Were you ever married?” she asks.

There is a knock at the door before he can answer. Isobel gets up, gesturing frantically to Twitchin to hide his collection of half constructed bombs.

“Who is it?” she calls.

“The police, ma’am. Sorry to call this late but we saw the light under the door and guessed you were still awake. We’re following up a report of a mugging and a hit and run accident. We’d like to take a statement from you and your husband.”

Isobel peers through the spy hole on the door and sees a man and woman, both in police uniform. One of them is holding up an ID badge. Allowing her mind to drift out to them for a moment she steps back. “They’re genuine,” she says, shaken. “What do we do now?”

 “I want to get hold of some crystals and persuade the hospital to x-ray them for me,” Peter says.

Mickey, intending to buy a bag to use as bullets, shrugs and takes hold of the lift cable. It appears to be a long way down. He begins to lower himself quickly, leaving Peter standing by himself.

Alone in the near dark, thoughts of polymorphs and isomorphs run through Peter’s head. Perhaps the Master mines the crystals as coal as converts them into the equivalent of diamonds. Or vice versa. He knows that crystals emit radiation, anyway. Something to do with their particular arrangement of ions and molecules. With the play starting the following morning, he hopes there’ll be time to get the crystals x-rayed first. It might give some clue as to what they’re used for.

The thought of radiation sets his skin itching. He remembers where he is, swallows hard and grabs hold of the lift cable. This isn’t exactly what he had in mind when he said he’d check out the mine, but John and Mickey are already down there and he doesn’t want to be left behind.

He is gasping by the time he reaches the bottom, sweating beneath his heavy clothes. John looks at him worriedly. In the torchlight his skin looks yellow, his eyes glazed. He seems sick. Not in the same way as Matt, but not in any normal way either. It’s as if there’s some sort of invisible leprosy spreading over his skin.

A sharp whine in his ear draws his attention away. A warning. He motions to the other two. “Careful. I think there may be trouble ahead.” He sniffs cautiously. His heightened wolf senses pick up the scent of old blood. He moves forwards cautiously.

They find it on the first branching of the tunnel. A hunched, black form on the ground. They think it’s a miner until part of it comes to its feet and growls at them.

They were half right. The torch light picks out the remains of a human body on the ground. But the thing that is standing over it is half wolf. Yellow eyes blaze at them, furred lips draw back to reveal sharp, bloody teeth.

Mickey’s pistol goes off, deafening them all in the enclosed space. The wolf man flies back then rights himself. Blood oozes from the hole in its chest. It puts its fingers to the wound, licks them and lets out a long howl that echoes through every corridor. A prickling of fear starts up across John’s arms.

He’s heard the sound before – it’s the noise a wolf makes when he’s calling the rest of the pack to join in a hunt.

August 17th 1am
Andrew, Matt, Mark – the carnival
Twitchin, Isobel, Sam – the hotel
John, Mickey, Peter – the mine

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