The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 17th. Midday
Peter – the mine
The others – the castle.
“… I guess I’ve got some explaining to do,” Sam says.
“You certainly have,” John and Twitchin say together. But Matt gives them no more time. White with anger he throws the Balin mask aside and punches Sam – just once, and hard – in the face. Sam yelps and staggers back, clutching at his nose. There is blood on his hands. Blood on Matt’s knuckles too.
“What’s there to explain?” he spits. “You’re a gullible fuckwit who fell for the oldest trick in the fucking book!” He advances on Sam as he speaks, spitting every word. “Do you know what you’ve done? The Spear was my last hope – I could feel it starting to heal me. Now I’m gonna die of the Master’s fucking plague. Well fuck you, Sam. Fuck SITU. Fuck the whole lot of you.”
He looks as if he intends hitting Sam again and several of the others start forward. Cursing loudly, he turns and strides away, tearing off the remains of the Balin costume as he goes. Isobel and Prof Twitchin exchange glances and hurry after him. The others stay where they are and look at Sam.
“Can you not see that there is nothing good or honourable about the Master?” John asks. “He deals in death and destruction.”
Sam dabs blood from his face with a handkerchief and winces. “It wasn’t me. The Master made me do it! My mind was clouded.” He attempts a smile but his left hand inches towards one of the broken pieces of spear as if he intends to use it as a weapon. “It’s all right, honest,” he says. “I’m back to my old self now.”
“I don’t believe your mind was clouded,” John says calmly. “I’d have felt it if it was.” He glances over to the castle entrance. Twitchin and Isobel are coming back minus Matt.
“I hope you lot are proud of yourselves,” Sam shouts. He waves his arms at the scene around them, the dark sky, the bodies of the mimers lying where they fell. “Is this why SITU sent us here? Is this what they wanted all along? You’d better hope so, because they won’t be there to back us up if it’s not. Ask yourselves how much we really know about SITU, about their aims and their manipulations? Almost nothing! We’ve learned more about the Master than we have about the organisation controlling us. You want to believe SITU when they tell us we’re doing the right thing, that we’re ‘saving the world’ because it makes you feel important. But just who are we saving it for? Ask yourselves, people, who are we – or SITU – to judge someone or something we don’t – haven’t even attempted to – understand? Who’s right and who’s wrong? And ultimately, who’s controlling who?”
“Only a weasel would rat on his friends like that you… snake…” Twitchin mutters. “Don’t you try to tell us that the Master and his like are put-upon innocents.” He casts a worried glance at Isobel. “Are you sure you’re all right, my dear?”
“Fine,” she assures him. “Listen, Sam aside, it looks like we’ve seriously mucked things up here. I don’t want to be in the firing line from the locals but I guess it won’t be long before they come looking for us. I suggest we lie low for a bit, see what happens.”
“We could make a stand here,” the Prof suggests. “Standing alone like the Alamo.” He picks up a bit of broken spear and wields it absent-mindedly. “Don’t… you… point that… bloody spear at me…” he mutters in his best Michael Caine accent.
Andrew shakes his head. “It’s time for the big final. We need to get the jeep, get our weapons, and hunt down the enemy, wherever he is.” There’s a gleam of excitement in his eyes.
“We could try flooding the mines,” the Prof says. “All we need are a few hydro-engineers to divert the river.” He looks around hopefully. “There’s also a pack of lycanthropes around somewhere if I remember rightly.”
John looks up. “How do we locate the Master and, if we do, how do we kill him?” he asks. No one answers.
Gradually, the rumbling stops. The sky clears a fraction although the low-hanging clouds are still black with the promise of thunder. Cautiously, Peter steps out from his hiding place. There is no sign of Breit, no sign of anyone else alive there at all. Peter walks forward, testing each step. In a few places he finds the ground giving way into nothing and he has to jump back quickly. Loose rubble blocks the entrance to the mine. He digs out some of the stones with his hands. The blockage doesn’t go back very far, he reckons. If he can shift just a couple of the large rocks he can make enough of a gap to squeeze through.
Heart beating hard with excitement, he begins to tug and pull, ignoring the ominous sounds of creaking. The mines are the key, he thinks feverishly. The crystals are the solution. Whether the mines have caved in beyond the opening or not will not affect the Master. The only course now is to go in and search.
A gap opens up, wide enough to squeeze through. Peter waves his arm through experimentally then pulls back. Time to call in the others, he thinks. He takes out his phone.
“What about the paperwork from Breit’s house?” Sam suggests tentatively. “There might be something useful there.”
Isobel glances at him briefly. “I think it’d be better if you stayed with the others.” She doesn’t need to add that it’s because she doesn’t trust him on his own. She picks up one of the eye crystals and peers through it. Whatever magic was operating seems to have disappeared from it now. The world looks distorted but ordinary. Concentrating hard, she senses a slight tingle of energy but even this fades.
Sam goes back to his task of searching the bodies along with Mark and the Professor. Not one of the mimers is a normal human. Some are too short or have misshapen limbs. The faces of some look more like animals than people behind the masks and more than once they pull off a black glove to find a hand equipped with sharp claws. None of them were carrying weapons but without exception they have crystals sewn into their costumes at various points. It is slow work cutting them all out.
John sits by himself, his eyes half closed. He is listening – listening to the earth, the castle walls, the air around them. Everything is part of nature, everything came from the earth at one time. He lays his hands flat on the ground and listens.
The land is dying. It is cursed, sick and it no longer has the strength to heal itself. It feels tired, in need of energy. John can sense the grass curling over on itself, the earth slowly drying, everything drooping in the heat of the afternoon.
Silently, a wolf pads in front of him. Her eyes are like crystal. “It doesn’t have to die,” she says.
“I think the crystal is a container for psychic energy,” Isobel announces. “If I’m right, it could have been stored in them and released over the course of the play to make people see what the Master wanted them to.”
“Crystals can be used for healing, can’t they?” Sam says. “If we found enough crystals could we undo the curse?”
Mark’s phone rings, the shrilling making them all jump. “It’s Peter,” he says. “He’s at the mine.”
Some, small rational part of Matt’s mind tells him he should be with the others, exploring the mine and destroying the ghost train. But right now he doesn’t care what the others do. He doesn’t particularly care if he doesn’t see them again.
Quickly he catches up with the tail end of the crowd, discussing the play in hushed voices. He pushes through them, ignoring them all, and skirts around the edge of the village until he finds a place he can sit and be hidden. His hands are trembling as he opens his mobile phone and keys in SITU’s contact number and when he speaks it is with exaggerated, measured calm.
“It’s Culver. I’m not feeling too good. I’m going to tell you what’s happened here, then I’m going to ask you some questions. I really, really want you to answer them as honestly as you can.”
He tells Blaize what has happened – the Play, the effects of the voodoo spell, the broken spear. Blaize is silent when he finishes. Matt draws in a deep and unsteady breath.
“Tell me now, Blaize, who’s your superior? Who – or what – operates from the Republic of Nauru?”
“What?” Blaize, caught completely off guard, stammers. “Culver, you know I can’t…”
Matt doesn’t let him get any further. “No. You’re being evasive. I talk to the other missions; I’ve heard some of the cryptic comments – ‘You don’t even know who you’re working for.’ Who are we working for? Are we working for another Ylid? Tell me or, God help me, I’ll go to Birdshit Island and find out for myself. I’m on the point of walking out of this mission as it is, Blaize. I need a damn good reason to stay. Give me proof – proof that SITU isn’t just another Ylid trick. Now.”
“There we are then,” Twitchin says. “You young guns can get off to the mine. Isobel and I will find Matt and do anything else that needs doing.”
They make preparations quickly, Sam picking up the pieces of the Spear of Longinus and a few crystals and complaining that there isn’t an ice-cream seller to hand. When they are ready to go, Andrew takes charge. “We’ll collect all our weaponry first then go straight on to the mine. We should collect these bodies up too – leaving them here will only cause us trouble with the police. Likely places for the Master to be are the mine, Breit’s house or the circus. If he was here at the castle we’d know about it. So we check the mine first and pick up Peter.” He starts hauling the first of the bodies over to the jeep. “What are you waiting for? Let’s move.”
Peter is waiting by the mine entrance when the others arrive. “Breit’s in there,” he says, looking pale. “Or rather, his body is. It looks like it’s been mauled.”
John pauses at the entrance and sniffs. He can smell blood and the vague musky scent of wolves. Or things that are almost wolves. His pack is heavy on his back. He shifts it slightly, easing the weight, before he slides through the narrow gap between fallen rocks and walks in. Andrew, M4 Colt Commando assault rifle over his shoulder, goes next. The others file in behind, Sam barely able to get through the opening.
John is kneeling over Breit’s body. It stinks of wolf and the tears in clothing and flesh were definitely made by claws. Running his hands over some of them he feels the sharp edges of broken bones. Right arm, several ribs, the back, too, he thinks. He looks up. “He was dead before the creatures found him. But why did they drag him here?”
“As a warning?” Mark asks. He is pale as he looks around. A low howl winds up from somewhere below their feet. Mark shifts uneasily then his face sets in determination and he checks his shotgun. “Whatever we’re looking for is down there. I suggest we go and find it.”
Passing a post box, Professor Twitchin drops in a padded envelope containing the video of the day’s events.
“I wonder what SITU will make of it, hmmm,” he mumbles. His stomach gives a rumble and he pats it. “Time for a spot of lunch, my dear.”
Isobel follows reluctantly. The first cafe they find is closed. So is the second. When they come across a third one locked and shuttered Isobel starts to look worried. “I want to go to the church,” she says. “Let’s forget lunch and go straight there.”
The central square of the village is still busy with tourists, but, once again, all the hot food stands and all the souvenir stalls appear to have packed up and moved on. The sound of clanking and hammering fills the air, coming from the direction of the carnival field.
Pretorius’s mimers look like mourners at a funeral as they move between tents and rides, slowly dismantling everything. Silent as ever, their heads are bowed and they work without once looking at what they are doing. Automatic, seemingly without conscious thought, they are removing all sign that the carnival was ever there. Some of the black vans and caravans are already gone, leaving only a few, shallow ridges in the hard ground. As Isobel and Twitchin watch, the big top folds in on itself with a sigh. Only the ghost train remains untouched. The mimers skirt around this, never going within ten paces of it.
“The church, then?” Isobel queries. Twitchin nods.
“Whatever you say, my dear.”
“We’re looking for a cave deep under the ground,” Andrew says. Peter agrees eagerly.
“The mines have always been the key to everything. We need to get down there and gather as much evidence as we can.” He avoids looking at Breit’s body as he goes past.
The lift to the lower levels is still working. Indeed, the damage to the mine appears to be no more than superficial, the rockfall at the entrance being the worst of it. The lower level looks more or less untouched. In the narrow corridor John pauses a moment, sniffing the air and listening. In the distance he can hear animals sounds, only just audible – and then something else. A mind, hurt, sick and yet still stronger than anything else he has ever known and fuelled wholly by the desire for revenge.
“This way,” he says. He sets off confidently.
The others can hear the noises now – scrapings of claws on rock, occasional snufflings and low, animal cries. In the wavering torchlight, the pin pricks of crystal on the walls look like eyes glaring at them. The path is taking them down, Mickey realises, turning sharply and becoming steeper until it ends in a solid, unmined sheet of crystal. They stop. A sharp howl rends the air behind them.
“What now?” Mickey asks.
In answer, John strikes the crystal wall in front of them. It shudders. “It doesn’t appear to be solid,” he comments. A flurry of movement at the corner of his vision makes him spin round. The others have seen it too.
Mickey readies his shotgun. “Here they come.”
The next few minutes are a confused mixture of gunfire and shadows that leap without warning. Claws slash across Mark’s chest, drawing blood before a blast from his gun sends the creature spinning back. Two more leap forward to take its place. Mickey fires shot after shot, his gun loaded with crystals. Blood – not his own – splashes across his face. He gags and spits, blinded for a moment, then fires again. John feels a low growl rising in his throat. A silver knife in each hand, he springs at the nearest creature. He has just enough time to register that it is more cat than wolf before his knives open its throat and he rolls clear to come up facing a thing that is almost entirely wolf. Blood rage wells up in his mind. Fleetingly he catches sight of a mind behind the creatures’ actions urging them on to maim and kill. Then it is gone and all that matters is the need to survive.
Peter raises a gun with shaking hands. So far in his life survival has always meant running but now there is nowhere to run. The only way out is through the creatures and they will tear him apart before he makes it. How many of them are there, he wonders? He cannot count the shadows. He shoots twice, three times more, breathing heavily. ‘They’ – the conspiracy – have never managed to kill him yet, and they won’t succeed now.
The creatures are drawing back into the shadows, watching, wary now and waiting their time to strike again. There is no way back through them, and no way forward either.
“I think…” Mickey begins.
A blast of gunfire obliterates the rest of what he says. Deafeningly loud in the confined space, the whole place trembles with it. Bullets and shards of crystal ricochet off the walls.
At the end of it, only Andrew is standing. A thin line of blood marks one cheek where a sliver of crystal hit him. Slowly, he lowers his rifle and smiles.
Where the wall was is now a gaping hole, opening onto blackness. Faint pulses of psychic energy come through in waves that only John can sense. The air beyond the hole feels warm to him as if the walls themselves are giving off heat.
“The obstacle is removed,” Andrew says.
The skies over the village are thick with cloud.
“Gloomy, isn’t it?” Twitchin comments as he and Isobel come out of the church.
Unsure what to do next, their footsteps take them away from the church and out of the village. It is there that they find Matt. He is sitting with his back to a tree, twirling his Ezili fetish round and round on its leather thong.
August 17th 2pm
Isobel, Matt, Twitchin – outside the village
John, Mickey, Mark, Peter, Sam, Andrew – the mine.
PETER: Before the others arrive at the mine…
Disturbed by the Master’s logic you need to know more. Not waiting for the others to arrive at the mine, you squeeze through the opening you have made and venture inside.
Despite the light of your torch, the sense of darkness is almost overpowering. You are reminded of your worst moments in the jungles of South America. You are battling panic as you carry on. Thoughts pummel your mind – whether they are your own fears given words or the voice of the Master you can’t tell. People are no more than animals, eating the flesh of other animals to survive. What happens to them is of no consequence. The whole human race will die out or destroy itself one day. Can they really complain then if a superior being chooses to make use of them or destroy them as he sees fit?
At that moment your foot catches on something and, looking down, you see Breit’s body, so badly mutilated it looks as he was torn apart by wild animals. All the old panic returns and now there is no fighting it. Laughter echoes in your ears and a voice shouting ‘Go!’ as you turn and run.
ISOBEL AND TWITCH: The village church…
Spending some time in prayer and meditation, Isobel focuses her thoughts on the land around them, opening her mind to the feelings that come.
First there is a strong sense of decay and sickness. Then comes a sullen resentment together with confusion and hurt. The strongest impression is that of a whipped dog, punished for something that wasn’t its fault.
Probing for the thoughts of Peter and Sam, she gets mixed emotions. Sam allowed himself to feel sorry for the Master, Peter was beginning to be won over by the logic of his arguments. Both of them, though, are still determined to seek out the truth above all things. She just hopes they’ll be able to recognise the truth when they see it.
Twitchin tugs at her arm. “We’ve been here ages, Isobel dear. I think it’s time we went.”
She shakes her head. “Another couple of minutes. I might be able to find something out about the Master.”
Rage hits her all at once. There is no reason behind it. Isobel suddenly finds herself wanting to hit out at everything in sight, not caring who she hurts or even if she hurts herself further. The whole world can die cursed for all she cares. The only thing that matters is revenge. She pulls herself back to herself with an effort. She is shaking, she realises.
She smiles for Twitch’s sake. “Finished.”
“Good.” The Prof doesn’t look at all reassured. “You went quite pale there… gave me quite a fright. Maybe we should see if we can find Matt. The others will be in the mine by now, no doubt.”
MATT, ISOBEL, TWITCH: Matt is sitting alone, twirling his Ezili fetish and wondering what to do next when Isobel and the Prof arrive.
Twitchin sits down beside him. “Matthew my boy, we’ve been through a lot together these last couple of years… you and I are the only remnants of the old Middlechase posse… can’t say we’ve always seen eye to eye… especially on dress sense and controlled substances... However I trust you and have become a little fond of you. We should consider getting out of here now that weve been compromised by Sam Iscariot… he who fights and runs away is wasting good running time in my book… what do you say.. shall we scarper… maybe steal a motorbike and head for the Swiss border like in the great escape…”
Matt looks at him without humour. “Frankly, I’m thinking of catching the next plane to Nauru and finding out exactly what is going on.”
MATT: This is what Blaize tells you (in strictest confidence.)
1. In all probability your mind is linked to the Master’s so he can keep track of you. If you go to Nauru now you risk giving away Situ’s base to him.
2. Evidence that Situ isn’t controlled by an Ylid – what evidence is there that you will accept, he asks. You know Situ’s whole aim is to bring down Ylids, but if the organisation is being run by another Ylid who wants to do away with rivals/enemies, it would operate along much the same lines. He can remind you of Situ’s aims and how those aims have been carried out. He can point to the various missions, designed to expose Ylid activity, and the later missions in which Ylids have been attacked directly, but if it’s hard proof you want there’s little he can give you.
3. Eventually, after a lot of insistence on your part, he becomes angry. Situ, he says, was set up by ancient enemies of the Ylid and friends of humanity. He cannot tell you more than that because he doesn’t know any more himself. When he signed up he knew only that Situ was a crusade of right versus wrong and since then he’s been content to know only what is necessary. The people ultimately in charge of Situ, whoever they are, oppose the Ylids. That is all he knows and all he needs to know. If you can’t accept that you are welcome to go to Nauru and check things out for yourself.