The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 17th 10am
The village of Bad Schlachendorf.
It takes Mickey all his concentration to resist the pull to join the crowds watching the play. Back in his room he grabs the bag of crystals, the silver and the pistols and hides them all in separate places. It won’t help against a thorough search of the room, but they’re reasonably secure where they are.
Music and laughter greet him as he comes out into the street. Mickey blankets his consciousness with thoughts of his dead wife and daughter – killed, so it now seems, by one of the Master’s creatures. The pain of the memory slices through his mind like a knife, deep enough to bring hot tears to his eyes. It is enough. His mind clear, he pauses and looks around him. The main procession seems to be making its way through the streets to the castle. Mickey joins it.
It’s all up to Matt and Isobel now, he thinks. All he can do is make sure they have enough time and space to complete the job they’ve set out to do.
The hand on Peter’s arm urges him on and he allows himself to be pushed through the crowd. His mind is a haze of confused ideas. The Master’s people could, and should, have killed him when they captured him in the mine. Yet they didn’t, and that suggests to him that what SITU has told him so far cannot be the complete truth. They have never given him a reason for combating the Master, other than that he is an Ylid and therefore an enemy. Is he evil incarnate as they say? From what Peter has seen so far he doesn’t seem to be, even given the appearance of his minions.
A thought nags at him that maybe SITU is right that the Ylids are competing, but that SITU itself is the creation of another Ylid. In any case, before taking sides, he has to understand more of what’s been happening. Therefore he must allow himself to be taken. He must speak with the Master, face to face.
As he walks, he eases his hands into his pockets. His mobile phone is there – his only means of getting in touch with the rest of the team. He turns the volume off. He might need to contact the others later and in the meantime he doesn’t want to risk it ringing and revealing its presence.
A feeling of utter helplessness washes over Professor Twitchin. Fragments of thought chase each other through his mind. What can be done against these creatures… the Master is invincible… his minions are legion… my joints are aching again at the sense of impending rain… fat chance against the tumbling hordes of acrobatic subdemon midgets or whatever they these creatures are… the lovely Isobel is going off me… oh for Side-step to be here now. He always knew what to do… generally it was to inflict extreme and more or less controlled violence but somehow this was always so comforting.
“Pull yourself together Twitchin old bean,” he mutters with an effort. “Hearts of oak pom de pom de pom etc… and an Englishman could never be a susceptible to this mass hypnosis or hysteria or whatever it is as these continental johnnies… sterner stuff indeed.” His shoulders straighten perceptibly and a small but hopeful smile lights up his face. “Indeed I may start to see myself as a genuine Sir Galahad rescuing the fair damsel.” Secret agent, Professor Adam Twitchin to the rescue! He runs his hand over the gnarled head of his new walking stick and checks the twin bulges of the home-made petrol bombs in his shoulder bag. Then, taking a long, loud slurp from the beer cans on his novelty disguise baseball cap, he makes his way purposefully through the crowds to the castle.
Fuckfuckfuck! Where the hell’s the sodding Master?
Nervously keeping pace with the other players, Matt risks a sideways glance at one of the black-garbed mummers. Through the crystal eye-pieces of his mask, the figure shimmers, appearing to flicker with a silver light, its form shifting so one moment it is a young man cartwheeling along the road, the next some hunched, unrecognisable creature encased in silver light. Parts of Matt’s voodoo symbols appear to be superimposed over the top. Are the crystals somehow projecting them outside of the mask, he wonders, or is his voodoo magic interfering with whatever power the crystals are generating?
The other players are around him and they seem to shift form as well so that half the time he is looking at a group of people in extravagant costumes and masks and half the time he feels he really is among the knights and kings of Malory’s day. The masked faces gaze forward impassively, showing no expression, but the crystal eyepieces glow with a silver light, almost the same colour as the lightning that flickers restlessly overhead. Isobel alone remains steady – her costume appears as a real suit of armour, shining white, but the mask is very obviously a construct of crudely painted paper and wood.
Obviously the crystals endow their wearers with a strange sort of glamour, but whether this is a result of the concentrated belief of the villagers, turning the players into the very forms the watchers think they are seeing, or whether from some tool of the Master, Matt can’t tell. He leaves the eyepieces of his own mask intact for now, deciding he may well be able to make use of his voodoo spell through the crystal.
But where is the Master? Not Pellam. That is obvious now. Yet his voice surrounds them all, washing over them with the coolness of rain after a long drought. The scent of silver is still in the air – could that be him? He manifested himself as a sheet of darkness once, Matt remembers. Perhaps he appears as silver by day.
“Ezili protect me,” he whispers again, clutching instinctively at the hidden fetish.
Beneath the mask, Isobel’s mouth is dry, her throat tight with fear. She’s scared that she might not be able to control what happens, scared that she may have already made a serious mistake in removing the crystal eye-pieces from the mask. She can see the reaction of the audience to her costume, sense that something is not quite right, though she doesn’t know what.
But there is no time to worry now. What’s done is done and what will be will be.
“Lord God, help me,” she whispers. “I don’t know what to do. Guide me.”
The words of the thirty-fifth psalm come into her mind. “Strive thou, O Lord, with them that strive with me. Fight thou against them that fight against me…” She finds herself murmuring the words aloud. “Let them be ashamed and brought to dishonour that seek after my soul. Let them be turned back and confounded that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind and the angel of the Lord driving them on. Let them be dark and slippery and the angel of the Lord pursuing them.”
She lifts her head and walks on. Her steps become more confident. “Lord, who is like unto thee, which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him?” A breath of cool air caresses her face. Almost, she can imagine outspread wings sheltering her, and a feeling of peace creeps over her. Whatever happens, what she is doing now is right. For now, that is all she needs to know.
The crowd is slowly moving, flowing in the direction of the castle. Among them, Andrew, Mickey and John watch with varying degrees of concern. The play must not come to its proper conclusion – that much is obvious. But, for now, all they can do is watch and be on hand to protect the more vulnerable members of the group should there be any trouble.
John glances down. The silver wolf glides along beside him, passing through people’s legs without them noticing. Her eyes turn up towards him and he nods. The feeling of danger closing in is worse now; with every breath he takes the air appears to tighten around him.
The figure of Merlin strides past, tall and forbidding with his midnight-blue cloak sweeping over the ground behind him. The wolf growls softly in her throat.
“… Watch as Balin reaches Castle Carbonek,” the Master’s voice comes. “Vengeance is what he wants now, and vengeance shall rebound upon his own head for the curse of Merlin is upon him forever.”
Further back in the crowd, Mark busies himself taking photographs. He is limping slightly, his leg still sore from yesterday’s exertions, but his size gives him an advantage as he pushes forward. Further to his right he can see Andrew waiting calmly. Of Mickey and John there is no sigh, nor of Sam, but he’s sure they’re there somewhere. Using the camera one-handed he fingers the long barrel of the shotgun under his coat. He just hopes there won’t be the need to use it.
Belief. That’s what it comes down to in the end. But whom to believe, that is the question. Pretorius? His words make as much sense as anything Sam has heard since joining SITU, but that’s not saying much. Culver and some of the others certainly seem to believe they’re doing the right thing, but Sam knows too well how easily people will believe the most astonishing lies if they want them to be true.
So, what does he want to believe? That there is an explanation for everything that has happened here. A simple, seductive truth and the means to divine it – or define it. Is that what Pretorius did, he wonders, in the darkness of the ghost train? If he could know what was in someone’s heart, just by reaching out and touching them; and then mould those thoughts to his own ends… now that would be something really worth believing in.
What to believe? For now, he believes what Pretorius said was true, that the play will heal the land and disrupting the play will be calamitous for the village. Whatever the others think, he has to do everything he can to stop them.
Sam walks on with a new sense of purpose. He barely notices that he is sweating under the huge mask, or that the midnight cloak is dragging on the ground behind him.
The mine is quiet, empty. Every building is locked and machinery stands idle. Peter pauses to look around and his black-clad guide urges him on. Then, as they approach the mouth of the mine, a figure steps out in front of them.
“Herr Ramsey,” calls a familiar voice.
Peter stops. It is Johann Breit. A feeling close to dismay steals over him. Don’t say the Master isn’t here after all, that he has not worked out Peter’s link with SITU. But Breit ushers him on in and in the greenish light of the safety lamps he turns and the two men regard each other in silence.
Breit is the first to move. “I have been told to be open with you, Herr Breit. I know who you really work for, and I think you know the same of me.
“Then let me talk to him,” Peter says, moving forward. Breit shakes his head with a slight shrug of regret.
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible. He has other business today. Yet he thinks you are important enough to pull me out of the play so I can talk to you while your friends are busy.” A small smile. “I am the Master’s chief agent in this village, Herr Ramsey. He wants you to know the truth of what is happening and so he has instructed me to answer all your questions as fully as I can. What you do with your knowledge is then up to you.”
“Very well.” Peter swallows hard. “Who is the Master?”
“One of a race of beings that has existed on this earth far longer than mankind. They predate us. One could even say they have a greater right to this planet than we do. But by force of numbers we have pushed them out and now they exist where they can. This is the Master’s last refuge. Isn’t it natural that he’d defend it?”
“Maybe.” Peter doesn’t allow his doubt to show. If he’s to learn anything here he needs Breit on his side. “What about the crystal?” he asks.
“The crystal that you are so interested in. What leaves the mines is crystal, that is all. Some people say it is charged with psychic energy. Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is their belief in it that creates the energy. But below the mines it is different. The Master’s labourers work there, mining and refining crystal all through the day and night.”
“Refining it into what?” Peter asks.
“There are some secrets even the Master must keep,” Breit says. “I don’t know why he needs the crystal. My job is to keep the top levels of the mine open, to manage the tourist side of things so no one grows suspicious, and to smooth things over should a miner disappear from time to time on the lower levels.”
Peter absorbs this in silence. He’s feeling more confident now he’s reasonably certain his life isn’t under threat. If the Master wanted to kill him he’d have had his creatures waiting here, not Breit. And Breit wouldn’t be wasting time talking now.
“What of the Master’s plans?” he asks. “Are they really as benign as you think?”
“I believe so. He is injured – hurt by the people of your group who insist he is an evil that must be destroyed. He fled back here because it is the only place he has left, and the drought started on that day. He has told me he can heal himself and the land together through the ritual of the play, and I believe him. After that… well, I do not know what his plans are. No doubt he will reveal them in time.”
“No doubt,” Peter agrees. He attempts to inject a measure of sympathy into his voice. “If he fails, will he die?”
“He will not fail.” There is no doubt at all in Breit’s voice. “He will not fail.”
The stone keep of Castle Carbonek scrapes the underside of the clouds. Thin blades of lightning crackle around the outer walls, followed a moment later by a rumbling of dry thunder. The wind is cold but no one seems to mind as they press forward eagerly.
The climax of the play is about to begin.
The figure of Balin strides into the castle, looking a little uncertain, but raising his sword in time to meet King Pellam’s challenge. The two weapons clash together with a ringing that echoes around the hill top. There is a gasp as the combatants stagger backwards and forwards, thrusting at each other. Merlin watches silently, Galahad stands ready.
At the appropriate moment, Balin’s sword breaks in two. He stumbles theatrically and turns to run, pursued by Pellam. If the movements of the two aren’t quite synchronised properly no one seems to notice. Of course, Matt thinks, it’s the same as with the costumes: they’re seeing what they expect to see, and what they expect is a perfect rendition of the play. One of the mimers steps forward, holding a long, wooden spear aloft and he seizes it.
“Ezili, Legba, Samedi,” he prays. “Protect me now.” His voice becomes louder, slipping into the guttural sounds of a voodoo ritual prayer. Which one is the Master? He cannot tell, cannot tell if the Master is among the players at all. His eyes smart with salt and his vision clears. Suddenly, with certainty, he knows the Master is not physically present. The play will symbolise his healing and the belief of the people watching will carrying that healing to him.
Feeling light-headed, Matt spins round to meet Pellam’s final onslaught. His eyes close instinctively and he concentrates will all his strength on the eye pieces before his face, willing a portal to open. Let the voodoo lwa manifest now, through the crystal and harm the Master as they did before.
Almost without thought, the spear slips beneath the broad, fake blade of the sword and lodges in the costume. Pellam screams and sinks to his knees. The crowd surges forward. Balin, his part finished, wrenches the spear free. A crash of thunder shakes the whole castle.
The mine trembles.
Peter starts. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” Breit looks around as if the dark walls will give them the answer. One of the safety lamps flickers off then on again.
“Where is the Master now?” Peter asks.
“I don’t know. In the mine, in the carnival, in the castle. I don’t know. Something has happened. You must go now – quickly!” He shoves at Peter, trying to push him back into the light.
Peter holds up his hands. “All right. I’m going.” There’s nothing to be gained from trying to force Breit to talk, he reckons. On the other hand, there’s potentially an awful lot to be gained from waiting outside and watching.
There is silence for a moment. In silence, the blue-cloaked figure of the sorcerer steps forward. In silence he raises his hands to pronounce the prophecy. Lightning emphasises the gesture.
Then, rough and unsteady, the Master’s voice comes into focus. No one seems to wonder how they are still hearing him when there are no loud speakers around. “Thou has struck the Dolorous Stroke. Because of this shall you be cursed. Your own kin shall strike you down and you shall not know it. And Pellam, innocent though you be, long will be the time until you be healed. Long shall you suffer and the land with you until one shall come to heal you.”
Matt feels a shudder of cold run through him. Casting a quick glance around he can see the others edging through the crowd towards him, looking wary now they know the end of the play is almost on them.
Mark clutches his gun under his coat, Andrew has a smaller handgun in his pocket. John feels a low snarl come from his mouth, Twitchin wonders whether he should dial Matt’s mobile number and spoil the atmosphere of the play then decides he’s better off getting ready to hurl his molotovs at the mimers.
Isobel whispers one final prayer to herself and steps forward. She is Galahad, the white knight, son of Lancelot and representation of Christ. Hers is the power to undo the damage that has been done, to heal the Fisher King and his realm. The spear of Longinus comes into her hand almost without her having to reach for it. Pellam is lying outstretched on the ground, one hand raised in a gesture of pleading. Slowly, Isobel raises the spear.
Everything seems to happen at once then. Matt sprints forward, hampered by Balin’s heavy costume, and flings himself at Pellam. At the same moment, Merlin hurls himself forward, grabbing at the spear in Isobel’s hands, crying out in a voice that is unmistakably Sam’s.
“Sam!” Twitch yells, dives through the front of the crowd and trips over to roll to the feet of his beloved Isobel. The crowd, frozen in shock, not sure whether this is part of the play or not, watches. But the black-clad mimers, the Master’s servants are moving – cartwheeling towards them. Twitch is sure he can see weapons flashing and he scrambles in his bag for a petrol bomb and his lighter.
“Take that, varlets!”
With his last effort of strength, Sam wrenches the spear out of Isobel’s hands. An explosion behind him sets several of the mimers tumbling aside. John and Mickey dive at another group of them. Gunfire cracks like lightning and the crowd scatters. The shotgun bucks in Mark’s hands and one of the mimers twists in mid air and falls. Andrew aims casually at another two in quick succession.
Matt, Isobel and Sam are still fighting over the spear of Longinus.
“Sam, don’t be a fool,” Matt pants. “The Master is a liar. Whatever he’s told you it isn’t true. He’ll use this play to make himself strong again and when he does there’ll be no stopping him.”
Sam hangs onto the spear grimly. “You have to heal Pellam. It’s the only way.”
Lightning turns the sky white. It blazes through the clouds, touches the black stones of the castle. It glances off a hundred crystal eye pieces; slides over Isobel’s armour. She still has one hand on the spear.
White light shoots down it, bathing them all in its brilliance. Momentarily blinded, Sam grabs the glowing shaft and tries to swing it in the fallen Pellam’s direction. Matt heaves the other way. For a moment the tip of the spear is pointing at him and a feeling of warmth floods him, then Sam thrusts him aside.
There is a sharp crack.
The light fades. Isobel and Sam are left holding one piece of the spear each. John and Mickey stand up from a group of suddenly still mimers, the professor freezes with one last petrol bomb unlit in his hand. Andrew and Mark hurry over to join them. People are picking themselves up, looking around dazed and confused. ‘Pellam’ limps off, leaving his mask in the grass, crystal eyepieces glinting unnaturally. Black-clad bodies lie in heaps. Sam stares at them all defiantly.
“What happened?” someone in the crowd asks in English.
There is no time to answer.
The sky darkens as suddenly as if someone threw a blanket across it. A clamour of thunder shakes them all and in the middle of it the Master’s voice is heard.
“You let this happen. If you thought this land was cursed before, see what I will do now. May it be cursed until the stars fall from the sky. May the ground burn, may everything that grows in it die. May there be nothing but dust for food and may your tears of despair be your only drink. This is my curse.”
Hiding close to the mines, Peter watches with incredulity as the sky flares with white light and then goes suddenly black. The thunder rolls around him, pronouncing its curse. All is still for a moment then, slowly, one by one, all the trees in the area begin to topple. Peter sees Breit come running out of the mine, shouting something he cannot hear over the noise of creaking and breaking.
Something appears to be chasing Breit, a snake, rushing along the earth behind him, flexing with the sound of a circus whip cracking. With a start, Peter realises that it is the earth itself. The crack widens, the whole mine shakes and folds in on itself. Breit cries out once in panic and then he is gone.
Slowly, the crowds are dispersing. People walk as if in a dream. Most of the tourists seem to think everything went as it should, but the villagers are silent and afraid as they creep down the hill to their homes.
The SITU group retreat within the walls of the castle where they can talk unseen. The professor has retrieved Pellam’s mask and is prising the crystal eyes loose with Matt’s pen knife. For a while the sound of his scraping is the only sound.
Eventually Sam looks up. “I guess I’ve got some explaining to do,” he says.
August 17th. Midday
Peter – the mine
The others – the castle.
MICKEY: No chance yet to finish loading your gun with crystal or hide the hire car. I’ll carry them over to the start of the next turn.
ISOBEL: No need to probe Sam’s emotions now. Everyone else at the moment seems very shaken by what has happened, and show no sign at all of going over to the Master’s side.