The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The SITU operatives, and Melissa, look at the spectre with a mixture of surprise and fear, according to their personalities - except Michael. 'Can you hear that?' he asks curiously.
'That scream?' says Sam. 'Course I can, and I'd rather not be hearing it, know what I mean?' He seems perhaps the most perturbed of the group.
'No, not the scream,' says Michael dismissively. 'That voice. It's been bugging me for the past couple of days now.' He describes what he is hearing. 'I think we're looking at the spirit of Roger Branston here.'
'From the legend?' exclaims Sam. 'Michael, you have one hell of an imagination.'
'No, I think he's right,' says Russell. 'Roger was thrown down the hole by his brother, wasn't he? Michael, why don't you try and communicate with it - reassure it, to start with?'
'No,' says Ross firmly, 'we should get out of here as soon as possible - not mess with it. We need to get after Essawi. Come on.' He starts moving back towards the trapdoor.
'So who made you God all of a sudden?' exclaims Michael furiously, his hands on his hips. 'You're just going to tell us all what we should do, right?'
Ross turns back, annoyed. 'Listen, mate, you may have noticed that things have started to get done just lately, since SITU sent me here to help you lot out. Are you going to go along with my plan, or aren't you?'
'Fuck you, Ross!... Fuck you!' Michael says defiantly, before stalking off back towards the trapdoor himself, his shoulders hunched.
The remaining operatives look at each other uneasily. 'Give us one of those pieces, Ross,' says Sam, 'and tell me where the money is: I'm going to have a word with Frank.'
Ross complies, and Sam leaves. Ross looks at Russell, over whose shoulder the ghost can still be seen hovering patiently. 'Look, Russell, you try and talk to it if you want to, but I think we're losing time here with Essawi.'
'And what about Melissa? Is she just supposed to stay down here? And what about Tony?' asks Russell.
Ross waves a hand. 'All right, you look after them too, then. I'm off.' And he heads for the trapdoor too.
Russell turns to Melissa, with whom he is now alone, not counting the spectre and the unconscious Tony. She has watched all this with interest, particularly the part where Ross handed the gun to Sam. 'Don't worry, I'll make sure nothing happens,' he says with little conviction.
'Why was everyone in such a bad mood?' she asks curiously.
'I don't know... the tension... perhaps it's the atmosphere down here, making people snappy...'
Russell hears the faintest whisper of a voice in the back of his mind. '...brother against brother, aye...' and a ghostly chuckle.
'Can you hear me, spirit?' he asks cautiously.
There is no response.
'What do you want us to do? You said kill Miles - but he's already dead, isn't he? Destroy his works - the books Jenny found? Destroy the inheritance he stole - burn down the Hall? Is that what you want?'
'...slay him, aye, destroy the foul workings, aye, leave the inheritance to rot as ash on the fields, the brother-killer, Cain to my Abel, aye...' comes the faint voice.
Russell shakes his head in frustration. 'He's not making much sense. I guess he does want us to do those things - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to, does it?'
'Not if he's loopy,' agrees Melissa.
Tony stirs feebly at their feet.
'I'd better get you two some food,' says Russell.
Sam takes a length of orange twine with him as he leaves the hole. Back up in the Hall everything is quiet, and there is a smell of petrol throughout: little knots of Keepers huddle in the darkened rooms, awaiting the police assault. George Windsor is trying to marshal them and support their morale, although he seems very unhappy indeed about the turn events have taken.
'Have you seen Frank?' asks Sam.
'Those ruffians dragged him off to one of the upstairs rooms, and locked him in, the bounders,' says Windsor, eyeing Sam suspiciously. 'Are you part of this mutinous cadre that now seems to lead us, Mr Trend? I tell you straight, if so, I'd like to register my protest at the way Mr Gupper has been deposed.'
'No, I'm not with them,' says Sam reassuringly, 'I want to free Frank and put him back in charge - he's the only guy who can bring all these people out of here safely, I reckon.'
Windsor's eyes gleam with delight. 'Well spoken! I must confess, I had you marked out for a troublemaker, Mr Trend - your bearing and demeanour are rather furtive, they count against you - but I'm glad to perceive that your heart at least is in the right place. I'll do what I can rallying people down here, but they're all rather afraid of Nina and that sinister Egyptian chap.'
'I'll leave you to it, then,' says Sam, not sure whether to feel flattered or insulted, and he heads up to look for Frank.
He finds him after no more than twenty minutes or so, in a locked room at the end of the landing. Frank stirs and starts protesting feebly as he hears Sam's voice outside. 'Hold on a sec,' says Sam, 'I've got to spring this lock.'
He gets onto his knees and starts jiggling the lock mechanism with a pair of small screwdrivers, and within a minute there is a click as the tumblers fall back. 'Right then, let's be getting you out of here,' he says cheerily to Frank, who is hunched up in the corner, hugging his knees and looking extremely miserable.
Michael strides along the corridor, adrenaline coursing through his veins at having finally stood up to Ross's bullying tactics. 'Jumped-up bloody Hitler,' he mutters to himself. For a second down there, he had thought about zapping the Londoner to oblivion, but now... The counsellor had told him it would take months, maybe even years to get over that incident. Michael had scoffed at this. He was a Necromancer, student of the dark powers. A few deaths here and there didn't matter... or at least he had thought they didn't. Michael thinks back to that dark house in Cape Baye. Screams echo in his mind. He sees Demora fall, the strange shadow-creature rolling like a giant bowling-ball towards her. Michael, hesitating at the steps to the house, screams for her to get up. She doesn't... As the creature rolls over her, blood spurts out from underneath like the juice of a squashed tomato... He winces in despair at the mental image. Ever since he had been like a ticking time-bomb. So far he hadn't gone off, but he was sure one day someone would suffer the full extent of his inner fury.
He turns the corner, and sees Nina heading towards him, sprinkling petrol on the carpet. That's another thing, he thinks to himself. Everyone here could end up looking like barbecued chicken if that bitch makes good her threat. Looking at her, he allows the dark energy to rise within him.
'Michael? How's it going? No sign of the filth yet - must be waiting outside, though, it'll be any minute now!'
With a mental click of his fingers, Michael releases the power, aiming it straight at Nina. She pales, staggering, drops the can of petrol and claps a hand to her temple. 'My God, Michael, I just had the weirdest feeling - bloody hell, that hurts.' She looks weak and scared.
Just at that point Sam appears round the corner. He sees Nina and says 'Oh, there you are.'
'Sam, hi... I'm not feeling too good, actually.' She puts out a hand towards him.
'That's OK, come along with me - there's something I wanted you to see,' says Sam. As she pushes herself off the wall towards him, he smacks her behind the ear with the butt of his pistol.
Michael watches with satisfaction as Sam trusses Nina, gagging her with his handkerchief, and starts to drag her off. When she eventually wakes up, she'll be so far gone they'll cart her off to the nearest asylum and chuck the key away, he thinks to himself.
There are more footsteps, and Ross appears on the scene. He looks at Michael a little warily. 'Essawi?' he says.
'What the hell! Let's do it,' says Michael matter-of-factly, with a faintly apologetic smile. He feels as though a great weight has been lifted from him.
Ross grins. 'Come on, then.'
Russell waits for Sam to descend with the unconscious Nina, then sneaks up himself to get some food from the kitchen. He stops by the telephone and places a call to Sheila Morris at the Black Prince.
'Sheila, this is Russell Osbourne - from the Hall. I've found your husband.'
She sobs with a mixture of relief and worry. 'My God, Russell, what's going on up there? The whole village is swarming with cops!'
'Don't worry - Tony's safe.'
'Is... is he OK?'
'He'll be fine,' says Russell confidently. 'A bit of rest is what he needs. He got lost in the tunnels under the house.'
'Thank God for that... you're an angel, Russell, truly, you've really...' More sobs. 'How are you going to get out of there, though? The police here, they're using the pub as their HQ - a guy called Smilie seems to be in charge - they've got firearms and all, they're talking about storming the place just after dawn.'
'You leave that to me. Just wait there, and I'll bring Tony to you as soon as I can.'
As Russell puts the phone down he becomes aware that Abdel Essawi is standing just across the hallway, an enigmatic smile on his face.
'Just a personal call,' he says nervously.
'Will you be attending the service this morning, Mr Osbourne? Dawn is nearly upon us. Such short nights, here in the north, in the summer.'
'Yes, of course I shall,' says Russell. He eyes Essawi carefully, looking for evidence to support his hypothesis that the Egyptian might be Miles Branston, or possibly even Akhenaten, but he can see nothing to point clearly in either direction.
'As we say in my country, every cat contains the lion within it,' remarks Essawi, and for a brief, horrid moment Russell wonders whether the Egyptian has somehow perceived his thoughts. 'It is time to gather together,' Essawi continues, 'so that we can be prepared to start at the first touch of light - eos rhododactylos, rosy-fingered dawn, as the Greek poet had it. Will you start by gathering people together in the dining-hall? That faces East.'
With that he drifts off silently, leaving Russell staring.
Ross and Michael, walking side by side, meet Essawi with the obelisk cradled in his arms, heading towards the top of the stairs. 'Hold it there, you,' says Ross, drawing his gun. He nudges Michael. 'Go on, do what you have to,' he urges.
Michael, taking a deep breath, starts to draw the darkness into him once more. Essawi, though, merely smiles. 'You are wasting your time, my friends,' he says. His outline starts to blur.
Ross fires off a couple of shots, just to keep the Egyptian distracted - again, they inexplicably miss despite the short range. Michael has been disturbed to find that the spirit voice he is accustomed to hearing is now absent, and he is more conscious than ever of the power of the obelisk. He knows he cannot defeat Essawi alone, so he cautiously tries to tap off some of the obelisk's power for himself.
'No!' says Essawi sharply, and he strikes one of his hands flat on the side of the obelisk. At once there is another tremendous silent concussion, and Ross and Michael are both flung from their feet, Michael tumbling down the stairs to the next landing, Ross catching himself on the banisters. Blood is pouring from their noses and ears. Ross looks up groggily to see Essawi stalk past, contemptuously ignoring the unconscious Michael.
'Nina is absent, so we must conduct the ceremony without her,' says Essawi. Russell and the other Keepers shuffle miserably into a circle around him and the obelisk.
'Not so fast, matey,' comes a voice from the door. A gasp of relief runs through the Keepers as they see Frank standing there, drawn up to his full height, Sam at his side carrying a bulky suitcase. 'This has all gone far enough. I'm back, and together we're going to sort this all out.'
Jenny Hammond bursts into tears of relief, and George Windsor and Richard Blood lead a ragged chorus of applause.
'Ah! The esteemed Mr Gupper. How good that you have returned,' says Essawi, smoothly unfazed. 'You should take your place here, at the head of this gathering, to complete the ceremony.'
'Never mind that,' says Frank, 'we need to sort out this police situation pronto. Who's seen the Candless gang? If we can hand them over, they may believe us when we say we haven't got the Bugbee girl.'
'But to help with our deliberations,' says Essawi entreatingly, 'we should call for the Sun's blessing upon us, to help us in our dealings with the police.'
'Fair point,' says Frank. He claps his hands together. 'As you were, then, people - let's make this dawn ceremony one to remember! Really put your backs into it!' As he crosses to the obelisk, he sniffs. 'Why's there this smell of petrol all over the house? It's like the whole place's been soaked in it. That'll take a while to clean up, I can tell you! Tchah! Good thing none of us smokes!'
Outside the sky is paling, and the sounds of engines can be heard. As Frank starts to chant the ancient Egyptian prayers, there is a dreadful tearing crunch from the direction of the front entrance to the grounds. Russell, who is determinedly humming nursery rhymes to himself to keep his mind clear of interference, peers out of the window to see that the metal gate has been pushed in by a bulldozer, and that police vehicles are now cautiously venturing through the gap, with armed police fanning out across the lawns ahead of them.
Michael gradually stirs, looking feebly around him. 'What... where...?'
'Come on, mate,' says Ross firmly. 'We've still got a job to do.' He can hear the noise of a helicopter high overhead, in addition tot he forces making their way through the grounds towards the house.
He picks Michael up in his arms, and heads down the stairs towards the dining-hall. At the foot of the stairs he pauses, seeing the spectre of Roger Branston gleaming faintly before him in the mouth of the passageway. He faintly hears, in the back of his mind, '...all end in flames, my pretty brother, aye...' and then the spirit ghosts ahead of him towards the chanting cultists.
As the prayer rises towards its crescendo, the obelisk starts to glow bright yellow-white, as though it were incredibly hot. The glow pulses in rhythm with the words of the chant. Some of the Keepers are eyeing it uneasily, others are so swept up in the rapture of prayer that they accept it as a sign of the Sun's benediction. A low hum starts to build, emanating from the obelisk, at first barely audible and very deep, but slowly building up to the point where it is the dominant noise in the room, rising in pitch accordingly.
From outside, a loudhailer crackles. 'Frank Gupper! Joey Candless! Lay down your weapons and come out with your hands up!'
From upstairs there is the crack of a pistol shot, and outside the police scurry for cover. Probably only Russell saw the tiny gesture - a mere click of his fingers - that Abdel Essawi made just before the shot sounded.
The obelisk is now glowing and humming steadily, and as the chant comes to an end, Frank looking at it uneasily, Essawi sweeps it up into his arms. The glow lights him up as well, like a human Christmas tree.
'Here, what are you doing with that?' demands Frank.
There is a crash of breaking glass and the sound of a police rifle from outside, and one of the dining-hall windows comes crashing in. Everyone ducks reflexively, except for Essawi, who makes his way casually towards the exit, still carrying the obelisk.
George Windsor stands to bar his way, protesting 'I say, you can't just...', but Essawi sweeps him aside with a motion of his hand.
More rifle shots break further windows. There is the whizz of a ricochet. Someone screams.
Essawi sighs impatiently as he sees Ross and Michael approaching him once more down the corridor. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but the spectre of Roger Branston rushes upon him at that moment. He seems at once surrounded by a twisting, spiralling white mist, and flaps his free hand ineffectually. The obelisk pulses, and it, man, and ghost flash blindingly bright. There is the crack of a small explosion, and for once Ross manages to keep his feet, staggering back a few paces, shielding his eyes.
Another rifle crack as the terrified Keepers start to crawl towards the doorway, and the loudhailer insists 'Lay down your weapons and surrender!' This time, though, the bullet strikes the wrought-iron grate, and there is a shower of sparks.
At once the petrol-soaked hearthrug ignites with a whoosh, and, quicker than it can be described, flame leaps along the walls of the dining hall. Within seconds the doorway is framed in fire, as Sam and Russell frantically usher the last Keepers through, Russell dragging George Windsor and Sam struggling with the suitcase full of money.
Ross and Michael blink their vision back to see that where Essawi was standing there is now a small crater in the floorboards, as though they have been struck by a giant sledgehammer. There is no sign of Essawi, obelisk or ghost. 'Shit!' cries Michael as he smells smoke in the air.
'This way!' calls Sam, leading the panicky Keepers across the hallway towards Frank's office. The whole ground floor is ablaze by now - the combination of ancient timber, dry curtains and wallhangings, and several gallons of petrol have turned Branston Hall into an inferno.
Frank seems to have regained some life, and he slaps away falling sparks as he ushers his charges through ahead of him. There is a tumbling roar as a ceiling beam breaks and falls, and a whoof of flame billows towards him. Russell grabs him into the room. 'Come on!' he shouts to Ross and Michael, who have just appeared on the other side of the hallway. The door of Frank's office is now afire.
Ross and Michael, strewing their courage to the sticking-place, link arms and charge for the office just as the remainder of the hallway collapses behind them. Above the roar of flame and the crash of falling masonry, Michael hears, even though it is just a whisper, '...and so it is repaid...'
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99
To Operatives: Ross Myers, Russell Osbourne, Sam Trend, Michael Williamson
Subject: New cult in Buckinghamshire
Achievement of aims: all surviving Operatives are to be commended on the thorough investigation of the Keepers of the Hidden Circles cult and its key personalities. Operatives' persistence and dedication in the face of considerable unexpected physical threat is particularly worthy of note.
Frank Gupper: the exposure of this 'guru' as a former double-glazing salesman with little occult knowledge raises the question of how he came by the instructions to make the obelisk, a genuine magical artifact. We can only assume that while in Egypt he encountered a force which went on to use him and his cult as a tool. Gupper was not charged with any offences after the blaze and is currently working as a caravan park supervisor in Frinton-on-Sea.
Abdel Essawi: this man appears to be a particularly dangerous servant of the conspiracy we all oppose (see below). The magical powers he evinced to operatives are beyond what has previously been observed from such servants. We may assume that he was sent solely to recover the obelisk once it had become 'fully charged', if this is the explanation for his insistence on one last ritual and its changed behaviour during and after that ritual. We must hope that he and it perished at the hands of the ghost of Roger Branston.
Nina King: has been sectioned under the Mental Health act, suffering from schizophrenia with paranoid delusions. Doctors are hopeful of an eventual recovery.
Joey Candless and his gang: all are thought to have perished in the fire, although some of the identifications of corpses were tentative. Police have declared that the sum of money in connection with which Candless was being sought is also thought to have been destroyed in the blaze. On which subject, commendations to Operatives for obtaining this money: extra funds for SITU's war-chest are always welcome, and we have no objection to each of you keeping a sum of £7500 as a reward for your endeavours.
Tony Morris: is recovering well in hospital from his ordeal. It is believed that he has been reconciled with his wife Sheila, and partially with Gupper. He has explained that he went to see Gupper, a former colleague, in the hope of gaining admission to senior level in the cult and the delights which he supposed that brought. When Gupper refused, Morris threatened to expose his true antecedents, and Gupper panicked, hit him over the head and threw him down through the trapdoor into the very same tunnels where Miles Branston had thrown his brother Roger centuries earlier. SITU assumes that Morris's howlings and demented state were the result of eating too many unsafe cave fungi.
Kate Carpenter: was reunited with her grateful parents, and this term has been admitted to the local comprehensive rather than being sent for further boarding school education.
Melissa Bugbee: has also been reunited with her parents. Her explanation that she had merely become lost in the tunnels, and her praise of Operatives Trend and Osbourne, were major factors in the dropping of charges in the case. Since her experience in the tunnels she has shown considerable interest in the world of spirits, and SITU speculates that she may become a useful medium.
Superintendent Smilie: has been censured for his heavy-handed management of the siege. New guidelines for the use of firearms have been issued to all Thames Valley officers.
Warren Martin: is known to SITU as a private investigator in the Milton Keynes region. Posing as a Daily Mail journalist is one of his favoured covers. The Carpenters discharged him unpaid after the recovery of their daughter by other means.
Splendor Solis and other books: Operatives are again to be commended on obtaining this valuable occult library. SITU will find many uses for its contents.
Operative Jack Callaghan: the loss of this Operative in service is to be deeply regretted, although as he appears from reports to have become effectively a zombie servant of Essawi it is unlikely that he could have been of any further use to SITU.
Operative Tanya Hyde: this Operative's integrity has been compromised by her closeness to Essawi: it seems likely that she may still be under his influence. She has been discharged from SITU.
The Beast of Branston Hall: no more wailings have been heard in the village since the destruction of the Hall. SITU assumes that the ghost of Roger Branston was destroyed in the explosion when it encountered Essawi and the obelisk: this theory is borne out by the growth, on the precise site of this explosion, of a single arum lily, in the midst of the blackened remnants of the Hall.