The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 13th, 12pm,
The coach empties quickly, people pushing in their hurry to be off, then standing and blocking the way for everyone else while they wait for their bags.
“I suggest we meet at my hotel room once we’re all settled,” Culver tells the others.
John Stone shoulders his backpack and stands where he is, ignoring the people around him. His eyes narrow a fraction. He could almost be sniffing the air. Something is not right, he reflects, something that goes beyond the effects of the drought. It is almost as if the wind is sick, and the trees… hanging limp as if they have given up the will to live.
Peter Ramsey’s voice breaks into his thoughts from behind
“…Well, it looks like it is now that our roads part. Here’s my card. It’s got my cellular number and my e-mail, which I check several times daily. Call me to let me know what happens. Perhaps we could get together for dinner tonight? Oh, Andrew and Mark, if you guys are up to going to check out the crystals, perhaps we could do so tomorrow, first thing? Let’s meet for breakfast, my hotel, ok?”
The experienced agents exchange grimaces and John turns, the feeling of wrongness slipping away. First thing they’ll have to do, he thinks, is to warn the newcomers not to discuss things in public.
Peter seems unaware of the tension he has caused. Adjusting his wrinkled tie, combing the yellow strands that pass for hair in his case, he picks up his suitcase and strides off.
Mark Castellan is the last to get off the coach. His expression is thoughtful and the brief glance he gives everybody seems to take in far more than it should. He ignores the rest of the group and turns to the stewardess.
“Where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee?” he asks.
She shrugs, obviously losing interest in her charges now they’re off the coach. “Your hotel will serve drinks. You can take a taxi from over there.” She points to a place where several people are queuing. Mark rewards her with a smile before walking over to join the end of the line.
“And then there were seven,” Culver murmurs to no one in particular. He shields his eyes with one hand and gazes up at the misty outline of the castle, only just visible. He compares the view with the printout he is holding then passes the paper to Twitchin. It is a line drawing by Edmund H. Garrett. ‘Launcelot Beholds The Towers Of Castle Carbonek.’ “I’m no expert,” Culvert says, “always been more Martha than Arthur myself, but I didn’t even think Castle Carbonek existed outside Grail legend. What d’you think?” He smiles bitterly in Sam’s direction. “Then again, I’m beginning to doubt my own ability to decide what exists and what doesn’t. You’ll find SITU does that to you after a while…”
Before anyone can answer, Peter reappears looking flustered, grabs a green holdall and vanishes again.
Matt blinks a few times in the pale sunlight and pulls out a pair of wraparound shades. Black-framed, they make his already pale skin look sickly white.
Sam mutters something about finding a bar and heads off, bumping into Peter who is coming back to see if anyone wants to share a cab to the hotel.
“We need to split,” Andrew says quietly. “We’ll draw far too much attention staying together. Are we at different hotels?”
Isobel confirms this with a nod.
“I’m worried,” she confides. “We must make sure we’re not seen by the Master. And I don’t think any of us should go off alone.”
In the case of two of the new operatives, of course, her comment is too late.
Sitting in the side room of a smoky, little bar, Sam is sitting with his chin on his hands. He must be crazy, he reflects. What was he thinking of, joining this bunch of crackpots. He thought he’d be sitting in a cornfield measuring crop circles, or at worst spending the night in a haunted house. Instead he finds himself in Germany with the whole fate of humanity in his hand.
“I can’t even speak the language, for God’s sake,” he mutters into his empty glass. Taking it to the bar for a refill he wonders how much of this the others believe in. Culver certainly seems to think it’s real enough. When he spoke to him on the coach, Sam remembers, he sounded quite reasonable, but when Sam asked if he thought SITU were being melodramatic he’d just look at him and said ‘no’. Just like that, like he’d seen it all first hand.
Crazy, Sam thinks. One of us has to be. The question is what to do about it. He finishes his drink and looks around. No use running yet, he decides. Nothing dangerous has happened, so he’d might as well stay and enjoy the holiday.
He practises a smile at himself in the mirror. Now to get back to the others before they start to wonder where he is – and act like a detective.
Mickey pauses only to throw his bags onto the hotel bed before he picks up the phone.
“Blaize,” he says without any preamble, “two requests. First I want a pair of repeating shotguns and a pair of semi-automatic pistols to be put on standby for us to send out when we ask for them. And then, some information. You say you traced the Master to this town. How?”
“The usual methods.” Blaize doesn’t sound too happy about the guns, but he doesn’t refuse the request, Mickey notes. “We’ve researched links between him and the village going back centuries. He’s been known to turn up there at odd times in the past – although he never seems to have done any damage there. A few references dating back to the Middle Ages of a man who has arrived, put on a show of magic in exchange for shelter, and usually blessed the village on leaving.”
“Doesn’t sound like him,” Mickey comments.
“I know. No doubt he had his reasons. And no doubt they weren’t good.” Blaize pauses. “Besides that, some of our psychic investigators have reported a higher level of energy in the area – similar patterns to ones they’ve picked up when the Master’s been involved before. It’s not too difficult to put two and two together. Is there anything else?”
“Then I’ll speak to you later,” Blaize says. “Oh, and MIckey…”
“Be careful. The moment he knows you’re there, you lose all advantage.”
“By the way, Matthew old bean,” Professor Twitchin says as the two of them plus Isobel go through the doors of the ‘Hotel Superior,’ “thought I’d best let you know that our chum Benny is safe and in good hands.”
Culver looks relieved. He signs himself in first then waits while the professor announces himself and Isobel as Mr and Mrs Archibald Snodgrass.
“The Berkshire Snodgrasses, don’t you know?” he adds to the bemused receptionist. He touches Isobel’s arm, indicating for her to go first. “What shall we do first dear? A walk around town? A bite of lunch? Maybe we’ll see you later, dear chap,” he adds to Culver.
Matt takes his sunglasses off and blinks around. “Sure, drop by for a drink in an hour.” His mind is already on other things.
The first thing he does when he gets to his room is to establish a modem link for his laptop PC. Then he pulls down all the blinds in the room, takes his usual Prozac pill and flops down onto the bed in the quiet shade. He fumbles with his mobile phone.
“Andre Swahn, please,” he says. “No? Well then, put me through to Geoff Blaize. He’ll have to do.” He crosses and uncrosses his legs. Hello, Blaize? It’s a mobile – is that secure enough? Good. We’ve just arrived and I’ve been reading up on all the Monty Python stuff, as well as the old team debriefings. Look, I’m guessing the Master’s trying to tap into the Galahad myth to heal himself of the damage we did at Whitby. We’re looking for some sort of Grail or Grail-bearer here, right? Is this linked to the ‘Hidden Circles’ mission? What happened to that Grail? And Tanith? It’s my ambition to embark on at least one SITU mission armed with the appropriate info, y’know? Before I die.”
Blaize doesn’t react to the sarcasm in his voice. “The artefact that came to light in Hidden Circles was taken to Egypt by Essawi,” he says. “We’ve got a team chasing him now – the same team that found the Grail at Glastonbury. We’re holding the Grail for their use. What Essawi is planning is anyone’s guess at the moment – except that he’s working for Nefertiti – and Tanith vanished after the Glastonbury mission, she could be anywhere.” Culver can almost hear him frowning as he speaks. “The Grail is actually far less important in the Bad Schlachendorf mystery play. It concentrates on the Fisher King being injured and looks forward to the coming of the hero some time in the future. That said, you could well be right. It’s highly likely that the Master is involved in the play somehow, and he could try to change the ending. If he’s hoping to use the Grail, though, he’ll have to find another one.”
Too tired to argue for more information, Culver thanks him and drops the phone on the bed. Getting up with an effort he searches his bag for the packet of black hair dye he brought and goes into the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Twitchin has acquired a mobile phone as is arranging car hire. That done, he turns to Isobel with a nervous little smile. “Next stop, the post office. I’m going to ask them to hold some money and a pair of air tickets for me. Just in case we need to get away in a hurry.” Remembering to play the part of a husband, he adds, “Coming dear?” and holds the door open for her. Sighing, Isobel goes through it.
Finding himself in the same hotel as Mark, Peter puts his suitcase, still packed, under the bed, strews his belongings from his bag over the bed and sets up his computer to check his email. Then, leaving a good spread of books and papers about crystals and lasers around the room, he locks the door and slides a piece of tape into the crack at the bottom.
“I’m interested in the mine,” he tells the receptionist downstairs. “How do you get there? And have you got any information on it?” She gives him a book and he flicks through it. “So,” he asks, “how big is the place. Is there a shop there?”
“Oh yes. A shop, and guided tours. It is very popular. You are interested in crystals?”
“If it’s possible to use them with lasers, yes.” Peter pauses to smile at her. “I’m here on business.” He checks his watch. The others will be meeting up in an hour, which should give him enough time to have a quick look around town first.
Mark makes his way down to the reception area a few minute later.
“Are you on business or holiday?” the girl asks him.
“Holiday. Definitely. Wanted to get away from dreary England and the stress of work. Seemed like this was a place that wouldn’t be full of sunbathing and drinking teenagers.”
She laughs. “Well, I hope so. Although, you will find plenty of drink if you want it. People always have a good time here.”
“Do you have any books on the play?” Mark asks. “I’d be interested to know something about the history.”
“Of course. We have a bookshop here. They are very cheap. The play began in the Middle Ages and has happened every year since, so there is a lot of history.”
Captain Andrew Weiser waits patiently while his papers are checked and stamped at the entrance to Grafenwoehr’s US 7th army base.
Finally, the officer on duty hands back the papers and salutes. “Your vehicle is ready, sir,” he says. “We’ve assigned you quarters facing the road, I hope that’s all right. Will you want a tour around the base straight away?”
“No.” Andrew can’t help breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Blaize had assured him that SITU could arrange everything but until that moment he hadn’t quite believed it. “No,” he repeats. “I think I’ll drive back to the village first and take a look around. If you want to show me where the Hummer is.”
The army jeep draws a bit of attention when it pulls up outside the Hotel Superior a while later. Andrew goes in to find the others already gathered. Culver’s hair is a strange shade of dark orange and he raises his eyebrows at him.
Culver shrugs. “It might stop the Master recognising me.”
Not unless you change you clothes too, John thinks. It doesn’t matter what his hair colour is, Matt still looks like an extra from Night of the Living Dead. He remains silent, watching, his hand touching the wolf’s tooth pendant hidden in a fold of his shirt.
After a moment’s hesitation, Culver stands up. “Right. I’m I used to be a psychiatrist. Ha-bloody-ha.” Mark summons up a smile and Culver smiles back and unrolls two bundles. “No tittering at the back now,” he warns. The words are jokey, but his tone is serious. He hands everyone an empty water pistol and a Maglite pen torch.
Sam turns his over, staring at it as if it might bite him. “I’ve spent time around vampires, almost was one,” Matt tells him. “Believe me, I know what pisses ‘em off. Garlic-water not included. We can buy bulbs and crush them up. Of course,” he adds, “that’s assuming they are vampires this time. The Master seems to be more ‘all-purpose Gothic’ in theme.” He pauses a moment then tentatively outlines his theory. “The ‘Dolorous Stroke’ comes from the old concept of a king’s sovereignty extending to the actual trees and soil of his kingdom; Balin dealt King Pellam a ‘mortal blow’ so his land was buggered too – until goody-goody Galahad came along and sorted it all out with the Grail. Ylids feed off that sort of archetype. I’m sure the Master’s planning to draw power from the Mystery Play – in which case it’s up to us to stop him.”
“How do we do that,” Sam asks sceptically. Matt shakes his head. “I had a friend like you once – on the last mission. He wouldn’t believe in anything. Until it was too late.” He looks away a moment, then back, his smile bright. “The crystal souvenirs may also be significant. Ylids and crystals seem to go hand-in-hand, I’m not quite sure why. You’ll need to get a sample or two to send home to the folks at SITU.”
“I’m working on that,” Peter cuts in. he explains about the mines, then adds, “I think we should split into three groups. Andrew, Castellan and myself check out the mine tomorrow, the second group go to the castle and the third find out about the play.
“I’m happy to do the play,” Matt says.” Isobel and Twitchin add their agreement at once.
Sam eyes Mickey and John, realising he’s just been teamed up with them by default. Mickey grins at him.
“Hey, don’t worry. Once you’ve had to stab a vampire in the heart on the back of a land rover you can start getting scared.”
Sam licks his lips nervously. “I suppose I’d better introduce myself,” he says in an effort to move the subject away from vampires. “My name’s Sam. I’m a… an Anomalous Detective. I look for anomalies. Using only my own vast powers of observation and reason. I was thinking, if the drought is related to the play, and what Culver says is right, is one of us supposed to play the role of Galahad to heal the land?”
“But not the Master,” Isobel says in an undertone.
John watches her thoughtfully. She seems afraid more than anything, he thinks. Especially whenever the Master is mentioned. Culver looks as if he doesn’t care any more. Almost like the trees outside that had lost the will to live.
“I spent the journey here looking over notes about Balin and the Grail and so on,” Mark says, breaking the silence. “I didn’t think it would be a lot of use, but seeing what the countryside is like… It’s something to think about at any rate.” He looks at Andrew. “No offence, but wouldn’t it be better if we new operatives stay away from the rest of you?”
“It could be more of a risk letting the three of you wander when you don’t know the first thing about the Enemy,” Andrew counters. “We can change groupings later as the need arises. In the meantime, we should all stay low, feel the vibes of this place before we move on.”
“Everyone who’s already known to the Master must keep in the background,” Isobel warns. “I mean myself, and especially Culver. We need to find out as much as we can before we get close to him.”
“And hey,” Culver adds in his best ‘Hill Street Blues’ voice. “Lets be careful out there.”
“So the idea is just to take a quick look around and see what we can see,” Sam queries, trotting along behind Mickey and John. “Can anyone speak German, by the way, else we’re going to have to buy a dictionary. And a map and tourist leaflets, all that sort of thing.”
Mickey nods. “Next stop the bookshop.” He stops next to wall covered with trailing clematis, brown and wilting in the heat. “That brings back memories. What do you know about honeysuckle, Sam?”
The little man gives him a puzzled look. “That it smells nice?”
After a bit of searching, they find a shop with a selection of English books in the window and go in. While Sam and Mickey start looking through them, John wanders to the counter where a smiling, middle-aged man is on duty.
“Here for the play?” the man asks. His English is accented but understandable. John nods.
“That’s right. We just arrived today. You must do good business here while the play’s on.”
The man’s eyes light up in a grin. “It is the best time of year. Tourists come from all over, so many different languages and they all need maps, books – and the book explaining the play, of course.”
Reading the man’s expression, John picks up the book and looks at it. It begins with three passages from Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’
Book 2, Chapter 11: “Also he [Merlin] told Arthur how Balin the worshipful knight shall give the Dolorous Stroke, whereof shall fall great vengeance.”
Book 2, Chapter 15: “And when Balin was weaponless he ran into a chamber for to seek some weapon and so from chamber to chamber, and no weapon could he find, and always King Pellam after him. And at the last he entered into a chamber that was marvellously well dight and richly, and a bed arrayed with cloth of gold the richest that might be thought, and one lying therein, and thereby stood a table of clean gold with four pillars of silver that bare up the table, and upon the table stood a marvellous spear strangely wrought.
“And when Balin saw that spear, he gat it in his hand and turned him to King Pellam, and smote him passiingly sore with that spear, that King Pellam fell down in a swoon, and therewith the castle roof and walls brake and fell to the earth, and Balin fell down so that he might not stir foot nor hand. And so the most part of the castle, that was fall down through that Dolorous Stroke, lay upon Pellam and Balin three days.”
Book 2 Chapter 1: “And King Pellam lay so, many years, sore wounded, and might never be whole till Galahad the Haut Prince healed him in the quest of the Sangrail…. And that was the same spear that Logius smote our Lord to the heart.”
John buys two copies of the book and turns to the others. Mickey and Sam between them have collected a dictionary, phrase book, guide book to the mine, and tourist map. “Is it always this hot here?” Sam asks, putting them down on the counter. The shopkeeper shakes his head.
“This is unusual. I saw the weather forecast on television yesterday, and they said there hasn’t been a summer like it for more than two hundred years.”
“Maybe you need Galahad to come and heal it,” John jokes.
“Maybe we do.”
In that moment, John catches something in the man’s eyes. Hope? Belief?
Professor Twitchin tags along after Isobel, jostling his way through the crowds. He’s doing his best to look like an English tourist. A ‘genuine Bavarian hat’ perches on his head, the feather dangling over his ear. He keeps a camcorder up to one shoulder and clutches a large packet of ready-cooked bratwurst to his chest. “Come along my dear, so much to see, so much to see. Sorry, excuse me there. Just take a look at those FNGs over there,” he adds to Isobel in an undertone. “Tut tut just what is SITU coming to?”
In contrast, people seem to leave a space around Matt Culver, either because of the way he is dressed, or because they sense his illness and unconsciously avoid it.
After a fruitless search for churches with holy relics – there are no local monasteries and most of the churches in the village are Protestant and plainly decorated – they head for the main market square. Culver stops at a stand to buy several heads of garlic and gestures for the storekeeper to wrap them in two paper bags before he accepts them. A poster pinned to a tree announces. “Mystery play. August 17th. Start time 10am. Carnival opens August 14th.” Various photographs show people wearing huge papier mache heads, the faces badly painted, garish.
“All made by local school children and students,” Isobel reads. “Charming.” She begins to explain something of the Grail legend to the other two. “… So after Balin strikes the Dolorous Stroke, he is freed from the ruins of the castle by Merlin and rides off, only to encounter his own brother, Balan. Not recognising each other, the two fight and both die. And King Pellam is finally healed when Galahad reaches the castle at the end of the Grail Quest and anoints him with blood that has mysteriously appeared on the spear. The spear was supposed to be the one that was thrust into Christ during the crucifixion so the implication is that it is Christ’s blood. The wounding of the land and the king are very closely linked, of course, but you know that.”
The professor nods absently.
Matt has stopped to talk to someone selling hot dogs. “I’m here for the play myself – me and every other tourist, it seems. Do the same actors act it every year?”
“Yes and no.” The girl behind the stall gives him a big grin. “The village performs it. We all take part, but maybe not the same parts. I’m one of the women at castle Carbonek. There are a hundred of us. I made my costume myself.”
“Really?” Matt latches onto the mention of the castle. “What about the castle – does it play any part in the event? Who lives there now, by the way?”
She looks puzzled, then laughs. “No one. It is too old, too cold. One of the walls has fallen down completely. It is only a small castle.” She grins again, her eyes sparkling. “You are a tourist so I should tell you the castle really is Castle Carbonek from the story, but no one knows. I think it isn’t, but when the play is happening, then everyone believes and then… then it really is Castle Carbonek. You understand?”
“Perfectly.” The power of blind faith, Matt thinks.
“I can speak a little German,” Andrew tells Peter and Mark. “No much, and not for a long time, but I should be able to manage if I have to.” He has left the jeep at the hotel and the three men are walking through the village together.
Mark is limping slightly, the long coach journey leaving his ankle stiff. A business man, a military officer on leave and a straightforward holiday-maker, he thinks. At least they have their cover stories well worked out. He wonders whether Andrew really is in the army, and more importantly, where he can get his next cup of coffee. And some chocolate – might as well try all the local varieties while he’s here.
Most of the souvenir shops have displays of crystals in the window. Peter picks one at random and goes in. Explaining carefully that he’s looking at the possibility of using the crystals commercially, he brings the subject around to the mine.
“It is… medium sized,” he is told. “Large for a village, but maybe you will think it is small. Four… no, five companies work there, taking the crystal. We buy from two of them. Uppers levels are open for tour, and the miners are at work on levels below that. We only buy the best crystal, if you want to buy samples..?”
Peter takes the hint and selects two large pieces. “I don’t suppose you know the name of the mine-owner, do you?” he asks as he pays.
“Certainly. Herr Breit. Johann Breit. Enjoy your stay.”
The rest of the day passes quietly. The group meet up for dinner to compare notes, then split up to their respective hotels, and Andrew to the army base. Several of the operatives spend time checking over the hotel corridors and individual rooms and find everything reassuringly normal.
Or maybe, unreassuringly normal. Twitchin, as he sits up late that night, watching Isobel sleep, and John, meditating in his room, can’t shake off the restless feeling that the windless air is holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
The next day dawns to the same heavy blanket of heat and the same sense of tense anticipation.
August 14th, 8am
Bad Schlachendorf, hotels and army base
Mickey: Surveillance research poses no problem. SITU give you access to their records. You find various accounts of unexplained disappearances and deaths which could be attributed to aliens, nothing that specifically mentions the creature that killed your wife and daughter. What it was remains a mystery.
Prof Twitchin: You arrange for Benedict Riggs care with the minimum of fuss. He is happily settled in a psychiatric unit when you leave for Germany. As happily as can be expected under the circumstances, anyway.
Isobel: Matt asks you about your psychic flashes. You tell him, truthfully, you haven’t had any since Whitby. You ring Edward. Maybe you’re imagining it, but he sounds a little annoyed that you’re having a good time and when he tells you to ‘hurry back’ it sounds like an order.
Matt: You ask Isobel about psychic flashes. She responds with a frown and says she hasn’t had an episode since Whitby.
Peter: (Sorry there wasn’t room for the mine visit this turn. I will hold it over for next time!) You make a careful note of where everyone is staying. Andrew’s army base is outside the village, but all the hotels are within walking distance of each other.
Andrew: You have no problem buying a cottage, and arranging for the postcards to be sent. No one comes asking questions all the time you’re at the cottage. You believe your combat skills – with and without weapons – have improved tremendously.