The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 17th, 2pm
Isobel, Matt, Twitchin – outside the village
John, Mickey, Mark, Peter, Sam, Andrew – the mine.
In the gloom of the mine the only sound is the empty clip from Andrew’s gun hitting the floor. He slams a new one into place and smiles grimly at the others.
“So? All ready?” he says. Without waiting for an answer he moves forward, into the tunnel beyond the crystal wall. One by one, the others follow.
Sam goes last. He is trembling, covered in blood – most of which doesn’t seem to be his, thank goodness. Just for a moment he wonders whether he should volunteer to stay behind and keep the wolf creatures at bay. A picture of himself, hurling the broken bits of the Spear of Longinus away and shouting ‘fetch’, before being ripped to pieces, comes to mind and he shudders. It might be the best thing all round, at that, he thinks. He has managed to upset an awful lot of people: the rest of the team, the villagers, the Master, Culver… a tight spasm creases his chest and he gasps then sighs. He can’t expect any of the others to understand he was only doing what seemed right – and he hasn’t got any magical powers to tell when people are lying to him. All he can do is judge them by their actions.
“I mean,” he mutters as Mickey passes, “I’m not saying the Master is all sweetness and light, far from it. But I think we’re missing a glorious chance here. Has anyone actually tried to communicate with him? Ask him what he wants, or feels? A being like that could offer so much to Mankind if we could be allies. If we try to exterminate him and his kind on nothing more than the say-so of a couple of paranoid nuts who half of us haven’t even met, what does that make us? At best, I’d say fearful, ignorant savages, no better than those we brand as ‘evil’. I want no part of it.”
Mickey scowls and slows, forcing Sam to slow with him. “You not working as part of the team screwed things up on the surface. A little word of advice – down here it’s also my life on the line, and if you jeopardise it in the slightest for your own reasons, I’m going to put you in so, so, much pain.” The scowl gives way to a warm smile that makes Sam squeak in terror. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll put it down to teething troubles this time shall we?” Raising his voice, he adds, ““Has anyone got any idea how to kill the Master, or even what it looks like?”
No one knows, but Andrew raises his gun a fraction more. Sam gives a resigned shrug and casts a despairing glance at the stump of the Spear he is clutching. “I’ll need a better weapon than this stick, that’s for sure.”
Onward into darkness. Occasional howling punctuates the silence.
Matt replaces the Ezili fetish around his neck and gazes searchingly at the professor and Isobel. Twitchin looks scared, Isobel is pale, silent.
Matt allows himself to smile for the first time. “You’re a good man, Twitch,” he says. “I’m tempted – more than tempted – to just bugger off into the wild blue yonder.” He lets out a sigh. “Looks like the Master and I are joined at the hip, though. I don’t think I can just walk out on him.”
Isobel looks relieved. “We need you here,” she says. “You know the Master best. If we’re to stand any chance at all, we need you.”
“We don’t need any of this,” the Prof mumbles, putting his hand on her arm. “Come on my dear, let’s go home. Not much we can do here in the middle of a battle, an old codger and a sweet thing like you. I’ve seen too many of my friends hurt now. Stephen and young Benni. I don’t want to see you end up like them.”
Matt is frowning, pulling out his mobile phone. He gives Twitchin a quick glance then dials SITU’s number.
“Blaize?” he says. “I’m staying put. On one condition: when this is all over – if I’m still alive – I want you to arrange for me to meet one of…” he hesitates. “One of your superiors. On Nauru, if need be. Can you do that for me?”
There is a long silence, so long that Matt thinks Blaize is not going to answer. But then he hears his voice.
“One of my superiors? Matt, I’m sorry, I’m not sure I have to authority to grant you that. I can arrange a meeting here with us – in fact, that might benefit the whole team. But as to whether I can persuade…”
“Please,” Matt interrupts him. “I need to know. And don’t you think I’ll have deserved it?”
Another silence. Isobel and Twitchin wait anxiously. Eventually, Matt purses his lips in annoyance, snaps the phone closed and gets up.
“He’s agreed to a meeting with all the team back in London when this is over,” he says. “I’m going back to the mine. Isobel, could you, um, bless me? To make it past those wolves, I’m gonna need the help of all the Gods going.”
She doesn’t argue, she just raises her hand, making the sign of the cross and murmuring a prayer.
Matt smiles, embraces her and Twitchin together then turns and strides away, purposefully towards the mine.
“It would be a good idea to go back into town and find out what the locals are doing at the moment,” Isobel suggests.
Twitchin shakes his head distractedly. “We need to get our things from the hotel, then get out of here. First flight back to London.”
Isobel looks at him aghast. “We can’t! We can’t just leave everyone. What happens if the mine collapses, or if the Master escapes, or anything.”
“Please, Isobel.” Twitch tugs at her, willing her to move. “There’s nothing we can do, and if we stay here we’ll only get hurt.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps, more impatiently than she’d intended. The professor looks genuinely distressed, she thinks. She tries to smile. “There’s plenty we can do. The merry-go-round, for example, or we can try and locate the Master.”
Twitchin blinks at her pathetically. “Please…”
“No,” she says firmly. “I’m staying here.”
A flush of colour rises into Twitchin’s face, some mix of embarrassment and anger. “Right,” he says. His voice is shaking. “Right.”
“Twitch, what are you..?”
He swings away from her. “I’ll show ’em all. Yes, indeedee, I’ll show ’em.” He adjusts his hat firmly then takes it off and flings it away. “The time for disguise is over. Now it’s time for action.”
Isobel follows, helpless.
John prowls rather than walks, stopping every now and then to sniff the air. “There’s no smell of those creatures,” he says. “Nothing recent, anyway.”
“It’s getting warm.” Mark sheds his long coat, leaving it on the ground behind him. He and Peter are sticking close together, both of them with guns at the ready. John can smell their fear, sharp and tasting of blood.
Maybe it’s possible to sense things after all, Sam muses, watching him. He clutches his shards of crystal tight and closes his eyes, feeling his way along. Blood pounds in his temples. Blood drying on his face, his hands. Blood on Culver’s hands. Does the Master’s blood flow in Matt’s veins now, he wonders. Does it flow in his own? The thought startles him. He tries to breathe in rhythm with his pulse beat. In, out. In… out.
Then the pulse is coming from outside of himself, from the walls of the caverns themselves, from the crystal and the length of broken spear in his hand.
“Steady,” Andrew murmurs. “The Enemy may attack us more directly the closer we get to him. Or he could lay down illusions to get us to hurt each other.”
“Or traps,” Mickey responds. He has been checking every inch of the tunnels as they walk. He frowns. Everything is far too quiet. They must be heading towards the heart of the Master’s lair, so why is he not trying to stop them?
“Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,” a voice whispers in his mind.
Matt is panting by the time he reaches the mine, partly with the effort of the climb and partly with trying to open himself to the Master.
The area is deserted, the office closed. A tree has fallen across the path – or what remains of the path. Everywhere, the ground is split. Deep cracks show, leading down into blackness. Matt peers into one of them then jumps lightly across it. “I know you’re there,” he says aloud. His mind is pushing the words outwards, trying to reach the Master with a conscious message. “I know you’re there, and I know you’re hurting pretty badly. I tried to use your healing power for myself and now we’re both dying. I was wrong.”
He pauses. There is no response, and he wonders if the Ylid can even hear him. “I’ve split with SITU; Blaize can’t give me any answers. Perhaps we can still help each other – cut a deal. Let me pass your wolves. My colleagues are already on their way. I can stop them.”
Matt breathes in deeply. Sweat is running down his face and he wipes it away. “I want to know the truth before I die. Please. We need to talk.”
Getting answers out of Blaize is easy compared to this, he thinks sardonically. He waits a moment then walks to the mine entrance.
The ground shudders beneath his feet.
It is not too late to heal. Matt isn’t sure where the thought comes from. The power is still there, stored in crystal. There is still a chance.
Eager now, he pulls himself over the rubble at the mine entrance. The stink of blood is thick on the air and he wrinkles his nose. Culver in the Underworld, he thinks to himself grimly. He wonders whether the wolves will come. Frankly, the thought of being torn apart doesn’t seem too bad a death considering the other possibilities.
But there are no wolves. There are claw marks everywhere, and blood, but Matt walks on unhindered. Eventually, he comes to a broken wall where the smell of blood is fresh and heavy and red trails on the ground show where bodies have been dragged away. Wondering whether they were the bodies of his colleagues or of the wolves, Matt touches his fingers to his Ezili fetish and passes through the broken wall to the corridor beyond. What will he ask the Master? Where did he come from? Who is it that runs SITU? Would he consider making a deal?
His mind buzzing with questions, Matt walks on.
The Professor has gone mad.
That is the only rational explanation for it – because there is not a trace of rationality in Twitchin’s face. Grimly, he loads petrol cans into the boot of the hire car, muttering to himself the whole time. When he runs out of space in the boot he begins filling the back seat.
“Twitch, will you stop a moment?” Isobel pleads. He shakes her off.
“This is your fault. You wanted me to help, well I’m helping.” He turns to face her, a steely glint in his eye. “The name’s Twitchin. Professor Twitchin.” His shoulders straighten a fraction. “Licensed agent to fight evil wherever it appears.” Another petrol can joins the growing pile on the back seat.
“A publicity stunt,” Isobel explains to the bemused onlookers. “Maybe you could stand back? Thank you. We’ll be bringing the cameras through just as soon as we’re set up.” In between arguing with Twitchin, she tries to gauge the mood around her. The tourists, those who are still hanging around, all seem happy, joking about the bad weather and the obvious mix up at the end of the play. There are very few locals out at all, and none within sight of the carnival. The ones they passed on the way all hurried by with their heads down as if they wanted to avoid looking at the sky at all costs.
She wonders where the Master is now – somewhere close by, that’s for sure. She hopes Matt will be all right. She’s not sure she can trust any of the others – she doesn’t know what they’re doing, or whose side they’re on any more. Matt and Twitch are the only two she can trust at the moment, and Twitch appears to be losing his mind.
“Adam, will you listen?” she hisses, hoping the use of his first name will get his attention.
He slams the car door shut, and has to open it again because he closed it on his jacket. “Stand back, my dear,” he says kindly. “This might get a little rough.” He brandishes a flare in her vague direction and climbs into the driving seat.
“He’s close,” Sam mutters suddenly. He’s not sure how he knows, he just knows.
John nods agreement. “And there’s someone following us. Not one of the creatures – someone else. I can’t feel any more than that.”
It feels that they have been walking for days, but it cannot be much more than an hour. The corridors slope gently, leading always downward and glowing crystals light up the way with a pale phosphorescence. Mickey checks over his weapons. Still plenty of ammo left, thank goodness. With luck, it’ll prove enough.
Another blank wall bars their way. Andrew levels his gun. “Stand back,” he orders harshly.
They all duck as the tunnel explodes.
When the last few pieces of crystal have settled, they get up cautiously and move forward.
“Wow,” Peter whispers.
The wall has shattered, just like the last one, and beyond it is a cavern. Small, probably no more than twenty metres across, it appears to have been carved out of a single crystal. Transparent stalactites hang from the ceiling, glittering with rainbow colours in the half light. The whole floor reverberates with their footsteps and when Mark clears his throat the sound echoes for ages before dying. Recesses have been dug into every wall to form narrow shelves and these are crammed with more crystals, flashing like jewels with every colour imaginable. Only one corner is bare of shelves, and that is a point of absolute blackness that appears to be a tunnel leading down and down forever.
John puts his hand to his head in sudden pain. The pulsing of energy here is almost unbearable – as if the life force of a thousand souls has been trapped and is struggling to escape. Flashes of light cross his vision and he sees the castle, the village, the open space by the river.
“The spider’s lair,” Mark says. His breath hangs mist-like in the icy air.
The echo of a whisper comes back in reply. “Welcome.”
Andrew looks around eagerly, his gun swinging from side to side. A mist slowly gathers on the far side of the chamber and he fires. Crystals shatter. The scream of it is deafening in the enclosed space.
“Wait!” Mickey yells. White fog is slowly solidifying into a human shape. He faces it. “What are the ghoul creatures?”
A soft chuckle of laughter. “Is that your most pressing question? They are my servants. I created them and they do what I say.”
Mickey weighs a silver dagger in his hand. “Are you responsible for the death of my wife and the kidnap of my daughter?”
The Master’s face is slowly coming into focus. Long, pale. Dark eyes that appear sunken look at them all in turn. Slowly, he nods.
Mickey’s knuckles turn white on the hilt of the knife. “Where is she you bastard, what have you done to her?” He takes a quick step forward. It is only John stepping in front of him that prevents him from flinging himself at the Ylid there and then.
“One of my ‘ghouls’ as you call them took her,” the Master says. “It wasn’t until I encountered you that I realised she was yours.”
“Where is she?”
“Safe.” His lips curve in what might be a smile. “I am not a killer. I gave her to a family in Oxford.” White teeth show for a moment. “I could give you the address if you wanted.”
“For a price,” Mickey snarls. But everyone can sense his eagerness.
“Enough!” Andrew shouts. And he shoots.
The violence, so sudden, so unexpected, shocks everyone. Andrew fires randomly, aiming not just at the Master but at the crystals around him, shattering them all.
“Andrew, stop!” John shouts.
An explosion rips through the blackness just where the Master is standing. The Ylid shouts once in panic then his voice is lost in the roar of noise. Wolf creatures leap into the cavern, a dozen or more of them. And Matt steps in through the shattered wall behind.
The steering wheel is secured with rope, the accelerator pedal jammed down fast with a length of wood.
“Wish me luck, my dear,” Twitchin says. He kisses Isobel on the cheek and revs the engine. Behind him, a score of petrol cans jiggle and slosh.
“Adam, wait…” Isobel begins. The car begins to move.
Twitch heads straight for the ghost train. A few of the black-clad mimers are still there but he doesn’t swerve. Let them be knocked down if that’s what they want. The front of the ghost train looms up large before him. He pulls a flare out of the bundle and lights it with one hand, groping for the car door handle with the other.
The door gives. Eyes closed tight, special agent Adam Twitchin thrusts the flare behind him and flings himself out of the car.
The explosion blows the ghost train fifty feet into the air.
“Where’s the Master?” Matt asks. His gaze flicks to the wolves creeping closer. He can’t feel him, he realises. All sense of the Ylid’s presence is gone. Dead, he wonders? He looks around. “The crystals. He said something about the power to heal everything being stored in crystal. Damn, why isn’t Isobel here?”
The first wolf crouches, ready to leap.
August 17th, 5pm
Twitchin – by the ruins of the ghost train
Isobel – at the carnival
Everyone else – in the cave of the Master
MATT – Blaize agrees to the meeting. After he has met the whole team in London, he says, he will accompany you to Nauru and do his best to persuade one of his superiors to speak with you. “Though don’t get your hopes up,” he adds. “They might not agree.”