The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
Christmas Day 9am.
Greg sinks down heavily onto the edge of the bed. He feels like he’s going to be sick. Blood pounds in his temples, making his veins stand out, flushing his face with purple.
“Easy,” Daniel murmurs.
Greg looks up at him. “I will kill her myself,” he says. His voice is soft, dangerously so. His hands tremble slightly. He clenches them together, hard. “I don’t know how, but I shall find a way. Preferably by means of tearing her limb from limb. We know a Ylid can die.”
Louis lays a hand on his shoulder, his face reflecting grief and anger. He knows now that he won’t be making his promised phone calls this morning. Having come so close to death already, and now seeing what Sophia has done, he cannot face the prospect of saying goodbye to the people he loves most, knowing it may be forever.
On the other side of the room, Ned and Vera are still looking at the box Vera holds in her hands. With a sound of annoyance, she tears the paper off it, opens the lid and drops the whole thing on the floor. She stands back and stares at it, breathing heavily.
One long, hairy leg eases through the gap between lid and box. Then another. Then another. Vera shrieks and stamps on the box, grinding her foot down until all that is left is a mangled pulp of flesh and cardboard.
“Imaginative,” Ned comments, looking down at the remains. He stoops to retrieve the wrapping paper. “There’s a message for you. It says ‘a present from Henry Blyth.’“ He looks at Vera, eyebrows raised. “Now, why would that nice, dead man be wanting to send you spiders?”
Cold with shock, Sam staggers to the bed where Ross is lying and tries to close the gaping hole in his throat. The blood has stopped flowing now. Maybe it’s a good sign, Sam thinks desperately. He presses the edges of skin together. “Don’t worry, Ross, it’s only a scratch. I bet you had worse when you were in the marines.”
Ross makes no response. Sam lets out a moan. “Oh God, oh God, oh God. You can’t die. It’s Christmas! I’ve brought you a present – look.”
He realises he is still clutching the dagger-shaped letter opener in his other hand. He stumbles back from the bed, seeing patches of blood on his hands and clothes. For an instant, panic suffocates him and he has to fight the impulse to bolt from the room. He makes himself put the letter opener in his pocket and reach out to close Ross’s sightless eyes. In one last moment of rational thought, he wipes the door knob free of fingerprints and blood and hangs a ‘do not disturb’ sign on it. Then he bolts.
By the time he makes it back to the others, the edge has gone off his panic. Now he just feels like he wants to pass out. He falls through the door, vaguely registering Greg sitting on the bed, Daniel and Louis next to him while Ned and Vera are looking at a smashed gift box on the floor.
Sam staggers to the table, grabs the bottle of scotch he gave Ned only minutes ago and drinks a quarter of it on one go.
“I hate to break up the party,” he announces to the ashen-faced group, “but I think it’s time we found another hotel.”
It is Louis who takes charge, calling the police and ambulance teams and breaking the news to the hotel manager, who by now seems close to a nervous breakdown. When the police arrive, the group recognises the officer who interviewed Vera and Ned the previous night.
“We believe the killer came in through the window,” he says. “There are signs of a brief struggle but your friend must have been overpowered quickly. We also found some pieces of rope under the bed. It looks as if they’d been snapped. There are some blood stains on them so we’ll take them in for analysis along with your friend’s belongings and other things in the room.” He stops, looking at the group curiously. “First we have a report of a dead snake hanging from a lamppost outside this hotel. Then a bedroom explodes. Now this. What exactly are you people involved in?”
“I didn’t do it!” Sam squeaks. “I found him like that. It wasn’t me!” He takes another swallow of whiskey.
“No one’s blaming you, sir,” the officer says. “All I’m suggesting is you appear to have made some bad enemies. If you are in trouble, we may be able to help.”
“We weren’t aware of any trouble until all this started,” Ned says smoothly. “Maybe someone has got a grudge against the hotel. In any case, we’re checking out today.”
The police officer doesn’t look convinced. “Yes, well. I want you to keep in touch with my department. We cannot have these sorts of things happening at Christmas. If anything else happens – anything at all – you will call me.”
It is not a request; it is an order.
“It wasn’t me,” Sam repeats guiltily. No one is paying him any attention, too wrapped up in their own troubles. He stares at the half finished bottle of whisky. Sophia nearly made him kill himself last night, he thinks. What if she took control of his mind again. He’d been thinking about releasing Perez, hadn’t he? Could Sophia have used that, made him kill Ross? Sam shakes his head. No: impossible. It must have been Perez.
“Perez,” he says aloud, getting to his feet. Yes, the killer was Perez and he’s going to pay. “So Vera thinks I’m too soft?” he slurs. “Just let her see me in action when we meet that miserable Frenchman again.”
“Blaize here.” He sounds tired, his voice sharper than normal. Good, Greg thinks. Let him suffer a bit, seeing as the rest of them are.
Aloud, he says, “I want to know how to kill an Ylid.”
“Pardon?” Blaize’s voice rises in surprise. Greg keeps his low, calm. Daniel said he ought to be calm, he remembers. Then he will be: calm as death.
“I am going to kill Sophia,” he explains. “I would like to know the best way of going about it.”
“Greg, what has happened?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He brushes the question aside. “All I want to know is how to kill Sophia.”
Blaize sighs. “Listen, Greg, whatever has happened, killing an Ylid is not easy. Sophia has never used the dubhium serum, so the anti-dubhium won’t have any effect. Firepower might do it, but it would take an awful lot, and she’d probably kill you first if you attacked her directly. If you’re serious about this, I’d suggest setting a trap with a load of high-powered explosive. Even that might not work, but it would have the best chance. Other than that, find another Ylid to do the job for you. Now, are you going to tell me what is going on?”
But Greg has already hung up.
While the rest of the team finish talking to the police and pack up their belongings, Louis makes his way to the phones in the hotel lobby.
“Tregalier here,” he says, phoning SITU.
Blaize’s sigh of relief is audible. “Louis. What is going on there? I have a dead Viscount in London, ley lines that are shifting towards Stonehenge, and now I’ve just had Greg on the phone asking how to kill Sophia.”
“They have killed Ross this morning,” Louis says flatly. “We are being watched, at every juncture. In truth, I should be dead also, in what amounted to a rather brazen bombing attempt of the hotel. Perhaps it made the news on CNN?”
Blaize starts to make some noise. Louis doesn’t give him chance to interrupt. “They have us at an advantage this day – for we are to meet Liza, at the Sacre Coeur church in but a few scant hours. It is a trap, most certainly, but one that we cannot help but enter. But tell me this however, and tell it to me straight… why does everything lead back to Oxford in this matter? Liza has received fertility treatment at a clinic there – the last appointment, some weeks ago. She met with Sophia there, a year ago, in the Roseway hotel. And Sophia knew exactly when and where the grail would be on the day she stormed Situ’s headquarters in the shadow of those ‘gleaming spires’ to take it from you. How did that come to pass exactly?”
There is uneasy quiet for a moment. “We may have a traitor in our midst,” Blaize admits quietly. “Paul’s essence has been tampered with – some of it removed, I believe. That will account for Liza’s baby, and also, possibly for the baby born to Isobel Blyth. We have found references to someone called ‘S’. We assumed the initial referred to Sophia. Now we believe it could mean SITU, or someone within SITU.”
“Swahn?” Louis wonders.
“We don’t know.” Blaize sounds shattered. “We’re still trying to work it out. I want the matter kept quiet for the moment. If we have got a traitor, I want to find out who it is – doing anything at this stage would only alert them.”
Louis absorbs this news in silence. “I keep hearing a name mentioned – this ‘Trismegistus’ club – a body who have taken it upon themselves to engineer through selective breeding a superhuman, non? The files I have found on them are vague in the extreme, but I know that you have formed some kind of understanding and perhaps worked co-operatively with them in the past. We are going to need as much information on them as you can give us – their aims, their methods, members.”
“I’ll email you the full package,” Blaize promises.
“Good. One last thing…” Louis hesitates. “No, never mind for now. I’ll talk to you again later. After we’ve met Sophia.”
He replaces the handset before Blaize has a chance to say any more.
“This meeting stinks of a trap,” Daniel says.
Greg stares at him stubbornly. “I don’t care. I’m going.”
“I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t.” Daniel pauses then sits down beside his friend. “All I’m saying is we should go together – the whole group – and we should be ready for anything.”
“I know.” Greg manages a bleak smile. “We have weapons, don’t we? And bullet-proof jackets. How much use they’ll be against Sophia, I don’t know, but I’m willing to put them to the test.” He pauses, looking down at his hands. “Daniel,” he says suddenly, “when this is over will you be best man at my wedding?”
Daniel has to swallow hard before he can answer. “Sure. I’d be honoured.”
At Louis’ suggestion, the group move out of the hotel to a vacant university hall of residence.
“The buildings are mostly empty for the holiday period,” he explains. “They’re not as comfortable as a hotel, maybe, but they benefit from being out of the way of things. There’s also the advantage of the university history library which will do for any more research we may need.”
Although outwardly in control, his head is spinning with the shock of last night’s explosion and Ross’s death. He looks at the others, wondering who will want to be at the meeting with Liza/Sophia today. Greg, certainly, and Vera. But surely they can’t all risk going. If this is a trap, they can’t walk into it together.
Nevertheless, Louis decides, he will go. He has to see Sophia again.
To Louis Tregalier et al
From Geoff Blaize
Information you requested is attached.
The Trismegistus Club is an organisation going back several centuries. Its stated aim is to create the perfect human through a long process of breeding. According to the Club, short-cuts always lead to disaster.
Vera Godchild is an example of a short-cut, her parents making a deal with some otherworldly force for which they paid with their lives. Martyn Keyes is another example of a failed experiment. Neither are members of the Trismegistus Club as such, although the Club does maintain an active interest in them.
The current leader of the Club is Anita Rohinder, following the death of Edward Lloyd. Edward Lloyd who was SITU agent Isobel Blyth’s guardian, and her husband, Henry Blyth were both active in the Club for many decades. Henry Blyth died some years back in a drowning accident in Oxford following a psychic conference that was attended by a SITU team including Ned Numenor and Vera Goodchild. The accident has never been fully explained.
We believe that in Isobel Blyth’s child, Arthur, the Trismegistus Club have found their perfect human. Certainly, they believe it too. Isobel Blyth received fertility treatment at the same clinic that Liza Petherton attended, and the babies appear to have been born within weeks, maybe even days, of each other, so there is a very definite connection between the two.
The Trismegistus Club have stated themselves to be enemies of the Ylids, in particular the one known as the Watcher whose base is in the UK. They have been working towards developing a weapon to use against him and Isobel’s child may be that weapon. How they intend to use him, we do not know. Their methods are generally ‘quaint’ for want of a better word. They shun new developments and are wary of anything that smacks of modern technology. They make use of magic and have a deep interest in the psychic realms, yet they refuse to use magic in the furtherance of the breeding programme that is the reason for their existence. On the whole they are old-fashioned, a little eccentric, and SITU has always regarded them as harmless.
One other thing: the clinic Liza and Isobel attended is partly funded by the genetics organisation, Harvest.
It is nearing eleven o’clock when the group reach the university buildings. Louis books them in as a group of foreign lecturers and leaves them to settle while he goes off to make his second phone call of the morning.
“Philippe? Louis…. Tregalier, oui. Ecoutez…. “
A relative on his cousin’s side of the family, Philippe is a steady, reliable man, and a man of principle. More importantly, he is a police officer.
“Listen,” Louis says, “I need a favour. I have to go to the Sacre Coeur today. I’d like you to be in a street close by and, at exactly twelve-twenty, to switch your siren on and come towards the church – but on no account come within sight of it.”
“A strange request,” Philippe muses. “Are you in trouble?”
“No. It is nothing. Just this one thing, Philippe. Please.”
Louis waits anxiously.
“Very well,” Philippe says. “I will do it. Louis – whatever it is you’re doing, be careful.”
“I will,” Louis promises. Going back up to the room to meet the others, he checks on his body jacket, gun and ammunition. Placing the fully loaded gun back into its holster the thought comes into his mind that he could not hope to use it to take the life of another human being. Even if it meant saving his own life. Louis sighs. He can only hope that it does not come to that.
“We’ll split into two groups,” Ned says, looking around the group for agreement. “Greg, Vera, Daniel and Louis – you know Liza and Sophia, don’t you, Louis, it might give us an edge – will go and talk to her. The rest of us will wait somewhere out of sight but where we can see what’s going on.”
That means him, Sam realises with a sense of relief that he’s not expected to meet the Ylid face to face.
“The main question is what does Liza want?” Louis asks. No one can answer that.
Sam looks up. “She signed herself Liza, not Sophia. That might mean something.” He sounds hopeful, but no one answers and he falls back to muttering to himself.
Greg stands up. “We’re not getting anywhere sitting here. I suggest we move, especially if some of you want to find somewhere to hide.”
A clock somewhere strikes midday. The steps outside the Sacre Coeur are empty. Greg paces restlessly while Sam, Ned and Michael watch from their vantage point some way back from the church.
Then there are footsteps running up the steps. A blonde woman, her hair swinging loose. Greg starts forward with a snarl of rage, caught by Daniel and Vera.
“Liza,” Greg says.
She stops short of him, looking at the group with wide, frightened eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
“Yeah, sure. It was Sophia, right? She made you do everything? She made you kill Ross and kidnap Marie-Claude.”
Liza shakes her head. “She’s strongest in the night. In the day I can take over from her but I don’t really try any more. She’s so lonely. If you knew…”
Vera cracks her knuckles. “Enough. What’s going on, Liza? Or shall we see whether having an Ylid in your mind protects your pretty face from harm.”
Liza turns towards her. Her eyes are blank and frightened. “They took her baby,” she whispered. “They stole Paul. She’s been trying for so long, then some people offered to help. She had to agree; she had no choice. She was so happy when he was born. But SITU drew her to Oxford with talk of magic and psychic powers and while her attention was there, they burned her tower and stole her baby.” Her expression changes, becoming hard and cold. “I want him back,” she says. “He is mine. I have waited millennia for him. I have suffered failure after failure but I will not suffer this. Marie-Claude for my baby, Greg. That is your choice.”
Greg’s hands are twitching again. Daniel pushes in front of him quickly. “Wait a minute. You say your baby was stolen. We believe you, but SITU has nothing to do with it. How was the child stolen?”
“I was in Oxford.” Liza is speaking slowly, seeming confused. “There was a gathering – psychic forces from all over the world gathered in one place. I… Sophia had to see. She sent me and watched through me. She thought that, in her tower, her baby would be safe.” She smiles slightly. “She had done nothing but look at him for months. She was… restless, wanting something else. So she came to Oxford in me. But she returned to her tower in the night and found it burning, and the baby gone. She ran to the Prieure. Paul told her what had happened. SITU sent its agents in the night and stole her child.”
“Paul?” Greg queries.
Liza is clearly struggling for words. “He is… the other one. The first one. He lives. But… He came out wrong. Sophia can’t bear to look at him. She put… a mask… on his face and sent him to Paris. He is the leader. The Prieure. The Sacre Coeur…” Her voice falters. She turns, her gaze falling on Louis.
He steps forward eagerly. “Liza,” he calls softly. “We’ve found him. We’ve found John.”
“John?” Liza’s eyes light up with hope. All traces of the goddess vanish from her. For that moment she is an ordinary woman, tired, afraid. She runs to him.
“Louis, you have to help me find the baby. It’s the only way she’ll leave us alone.”
A siren sounds, close by and getting closer. Liza stiffens and pulls away, preparing to run.
12:20pm 25th December
The Sacre Coeur
LOUIS: Blaize will arrange the passport and papers you requested for Liza. None of the rest of the group know about this as yet.
DANIEL: You talk to Greg about the appointment card and then find Ned alone. His view is that Perez obviously knows enough that Sophia though he was worth rescuing. The explosion could well have been a diversion, or equally well a separate attack. He doesn’t seem so sure that the attacks against Vera are coming from Sophia. Liza probably chose Greg because the fact that he’s in love with Marie-Claude makes him an easy target for Sophia’s emotional manipulations.
GREG: Daniel asks to speak to you alone and tells you he’s suspicious of the appointment card he found in Liza’s flat. He mentions that he’s going to try to get Ned alone to talk to him about the whole mission.