The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Like a Thief in the Night
The safe house, Avebury
10am 30th December
Eric breaks the silence. “John, remember the insignia on the robe that Twitch found among the druids’ things: a representation of the Earth with silver rays coming off of it and something like a huge, silver eagle flying past. Sounds like a spaceship to me.”
He pauses briefly, and turns to face the entire group, speaking as ever in his mild, soft-spoken way. “Both the police and the emergency teams which have arrived at Stonehenge have taken up places alongside the cultists. Now, the government has decided to send the Army in. If the soldiers too are ensnared, and there’s no reason I can see to suppose that they wouldn’t be, the problem grows considerably greater, and the Watcher gains significantly in the destructive power that his ensorcelled minions wield. Whoever stays behind must try to stop the government from putting its troops too close to Stonehenge. If we can persuade the authorities to start scanning for approaching spacecraft that would be a bonus, but it’s probably asking for too much.”
TR smiles as he accepts the talisman from John’s hands. A year ago – a month ago, he thinks – if any one had suggested he needed a protection talisman he’d have laughed in their faces. Even now, he can’t quite hide his feeling of embarrassment as he hangs the wolf’s tooth around his neck. “Sure, whatever,” he says. “Will it keep back bullets too? So what do you guys want me to do now? Should I stay here and keep watch while you are on your spirit journey or should I take right off to Stonehenge and try to stop the druids? I don’t want you all getting hurt, but I don’t know how much time we have before things go crazy at Stonehenge.”
“Someone should stay with Arthur in this realm,” John replies. “And our own bodies will need to be well protected. I do not quite understand why Arthur’s spirit has been taken. Any suggestions?”
No one has any.
“My best guess is that it’s for protection,” Isabelle Kingston says eventually. “Or, rather, the Watcher is making it as difficult as he can for you to get Arthur back. While he holds his spirit prisoner, he can still kill him.” She sees the glare on Isobel’s face and adds quickly, “We won’t give him the chance, of course.”
“Who’s for a visit to the spirit world then?” John asks. “Looks like we are going to have to go get Arthur from this Castle. Anybody got any ideas how we tackle the giant snake?”
“It sounds to me like it’s the Infinity Serpent,” Eric muses. “Therefore, it might be easier, in the context of the magical environment, to go through the serpent somehow than to get past it. All of us are part of Infinity, after all, and so is Arthur, whom we must remove from the island.” He looks from John to Eric. “We shouldn’t forget that Rohinder may be depending on us to bring Arthur out from Avalon. Is the boy safer where he is?”
“Of course he’s not,” Isobel cuts in.
Eric nods. “He does seem to have come there through the Watcher’s manipulations. If this is true, however, we should expect the Watcher to have formidable guardians protecting his custody of the child; he might also be planning to remove Arthur from Avalon and take him to Stonehenge somehow. If so, we may need to hurry.” He doesn’t add that they may already be too late.
“I’d like to do the ‘spirit world’ thing too, I think,” Matt says. “I’m pretty useless with a gun but I’ve been on the sharp end of an Ylid ritual often enough to know the lie of the land. Besides, I’m sort of curious to know what the Watcher actually looks like…”
Mickey looks at Holly. “Well, Holly, do you think I should accompany you in to the spirit world or do you think I would be better protecting the group and upsetting the Watchers plans?”
Holly chews her lip thoughtfully. “I think you should stay here. You can help stop the bad things happening at Stonehenge. Then when we get back everything will be all right.”
Twitch sits silent, hardly listening to any of this. He’s halfway through a fresh bottle of whiskey but even that doesn’t stop the disturbing images in his head. Tent flaps. A face peering in, then vanishing. He shakes his head sadly. Escaping from the real world into the spirit world seems a good idea to him. It occurs to him that that is where Margaret will be. He wonders if he’ll find her there. He sighs and stubs out his hand-rolled cigarette. “Oh well, silly old fool’ll tag along. No fears about that spirity realmy beyond the veily stuff any longer….after you oh great wise ones. He smiles at Holly and holds his hand out. “Come along little Miss Moonbeam, let’s find little Arthur… Stick close to old Twitchy and if I do anything too foolish pay me no attention. Chin up now.”
Eric interrupts preparations for the ritual to call a quick, secretive group meeting of John, Matt, TR and Isabelle Kingston.
“I wanted to talk to you while Isobel wasn’t here,” he explains. “I hate to admit it, but I find I have doubts about her husband, Henry. First of all, do we really know that it was her husband’s spirit she spoke to? Isobel herself seems convinced of it, but the Ylids have tricked people in the past. And, even if it was Henry, we can’t be sure that he’s on our side. He was a member of the Trismegistus Club, after all.”
“The feeling I got about it was that he was all right,” John says slowly. Concentrating his mind on Isobel for a moment, he doesn’t think that anything is wrong. “You’re right, though, we can’t take any chances. When we go into the spirit world, Isobel will try to contact him. We’ll have to be ready to protect her if need be.”
Eric gives him a smile of gratitude. “The other thing I was wondering about is Anita Rohinder. I woke her from her coma before all this started, and I wonder whether I could reclaim that gift – and, if so, whether the consequences of that might be more undesirable than the benefit of taking her off the battlefield, so to speak?” He glances round the group, frowning slightly. “In any event, we don’t want to remove her too soon – she seems to be moving against the Watcher, and if she and her organization do not interfere with the Watcher’s plans, we might not be able to stop him by ourselves.”
The ritual that is to take the group into the spirit world is to take place in one of the bedrooms of the house. Upstairs is safer than down, Isabelle Kingston explains, and the house is as safe as anywhere else in Avebury.
“With luck,” she says, “the Watcher’s attention will be focussed on Stonehenge and he won’t know what we’re doing until he’s too late to stop us.” She ushers the group into the room ahead of her. She has pushed the bed up against one wall. On the carpet is a chalked star, with a candle set at each of its seven points.
Eric lingers with TR at the door. “I remember that mass suicide you were talking about, in Rancho Santa Fe,” he says. “It took place just before Easter, during Holy Week. More holidays, and not too far from the Mexican Ylids’ strength – remember that the whole southwest of the United States used to be a part of Mexico. It’s possible that it bears looking into, but we’ve got other things to do now.”
“We’re ready,” Kingston calls. Eric steps reluctantly back from the door. “One other thing. The sword Twitch found in the Stonehenge camp could be Excalibur, or Sequence or some other enchanted weapon. It could help us, or it could be used against us. It might even be the sacrificial weapon.” Quickly, he passes TR a silver letter-opener in the shape of a sword. “It’s the best we could do at short notice, I’m afraid. Isabelle’s magnetised it, so to speak. Lay it flat on your hand and it should swing round to point in the direction of the sword. I don’t know how well it will work, but it might be some use.”
“It might be,” TR agrees, weighing the thing sceptically in the palm of his hand. He stands aside to let Matt into the room. The Englishman is wearing an array of talismans, including his own pink Ezili fetish, which he keeps hold of all the time, and an exaggerated grin of confidence. “Okay,” he says, “watch out for the Trismegistus Club; they’ve never been our allies but things are in the open, now. Try to save some of the healing energy for Darius, yeah? He’s a good bloke, really.”
“Sit down, one of you at each point of the star,” Isabelle Kingston instructs. She moves around them, lighting the candles. Almost at once the air is filled with a soft, musky scent.
“Well, at least I’m wearing clean underpants,” Matt jokes. It is the last thing Andrew, TR and Mickey hear him say before he closes the door.
John, Matt, Isobel and Eric sit calmly, though Holly is jigging excitedly and Twitch is muttering to himself, gazing at a battered photograph of his wife, Margaret. When John tries to loop a talisman around his wrist he shrugs him away. “Thanks young chap, not much you can do for me now I think.” He glances up with a gaze that is surprisingly sober. “Look after the others and find the babe. I’ll take my own chances from now on I think….”
John realises there is no point arguing. His friend has chosen his own path, as must all of them. He bows his head and begins to pray.
“Mother, teach me how to see,
The shining light of stars,
The faces of the Ancestors,
In worlds both near and far.
Show me how to welcome
The visions appearing to me,
Seeing the truth in detail,
Unravelling each mystery.
Walk me through the Dreamtime of altered time and space,
That I may share these visions with every creed and race.
Doorkeeper of all dimensions, I seek your medicine ways
Of how to earth my visions, Seeing truth, inside me, today.”
“Legba and Ezili watch over me…” Matt adds in a mutter. The scent of the candles, and Isabelle’s voice, lulls him to sleep until…
…They are standing on a swathe of grass, mountains rising up to one side of them and a wide river flowing on the other. A large, white wolf pads up to them as they wait and greets John silently.
“We are on the path between worlds,” Isabelle Kingston says. “From here we can go anywhere.” She looks around at the group, making sure they are all there. “It is vital that we stay together. Our enemies may try to split us up, but if any of us becomes separated from the others, that person may never find a way back to our own world. The second thing is – and I’m sure you realise it already – that if you are killed in this reality, you will die in reality. So be careful.”
Twitch squeezes Holly’s hand reassuringly as they make their way to the head of the group to join John. Matt, meanwhile, looks about with interest. John and Eric, he sees, are in full plate armour. Eric has a sword strapped to his side, John carries a spear. Twitch is wearing shabby robes and a crown that keeps sliding down over his eyes. Holly, still holding on tight to his hand, appears in a long, silver dress with a veil. Isobel is dressed in the grey garb of a nun. Glancing down at himself Matt is relieved to see the Ezili fetish and John’s talismans, though his usual clothes are replaced by a plain, black robe and a short cloak. His right hand is curled around a staff. Matt thumps it on the ground experimentally. “I guess the old ‘spirit plane’s likely to be on the busy side – especially if other Ylids have any interest in this ritual,” he says speculatively. “I wonder if other humans’ll be travelling too. The ‘Druids’, for example, or the Bamworth Witches…”
The room has been silent for a full twenty minutes. Andrew pushes the door open a crack and peers in. The group are sitting rigid at the points of the chalk star, a candle burning steadily beside each one of them. He shuts the door gently.
Mickey hangs a rabbit’s paw over the door handle. “From John,” he says. “It’ll serve as protection for them. And, talking of protection, I’ve booby-trapped all the outside doors and windows, so don’t go near them without telling me. I’m not taking any chances with Holly’s life.”
He says it is such a way that TR is sure he’d kill anyone who set foot in the house without permission. TR moves to the top of the stairs and sits down. “It seems to me,” he says, “that one of us should stay here and watch the bodies of our friends while they – ah – sleep, and the other two could go to Stonehenge.”
“What have you got in mind?” Mickey asks.
TR takes a gun out of his pocket, looks at it and puts it back. “I’d rather not start shooting people. I was thinking maybe we could steal a truck and drive it into the druids.”
Mickey grins. Stolen trucks. That’s something he can do. “Are you all right with standing guard, Andrew?” he asks.
Andrew’s eyes gleam. He’s probably hoping somebody will attack so he can have a fight, TR thinks to himself. He gets up. “You could always phone the Ministry of Defence, or whatever it is, while we’re away. Tell them to keep their army away from Stonehenge unless they want to lose it.”
Eric takes his sword out of its scabbard and examines it as they walk. It looks perfectly ordinary: a plain, steel blade and a hilt that curved on either side of his hands, like the handles of a cup. He wonders whether it is to be used for healing or killing.
“It’s a pity TR’s not here,” he says. “He’s the only one of us who’s ever been to Avalon… At least, to the one on Catalina Island. Well, Isabelle, you said that we could take command of the energy the Watcher is using and disperse it. If we can do that much, it might at least release the police and the New Agers. If we can turn that energy against the Watcher, or against the Trismegistus Club, however, it might be very effective – and devastating.”
Isobel scowls. “I’m not interested in capturing energy. I thought we were here to find my son.” Then she stiffens, staring at something over Eric’s shoulder. “Henry?” They all swing round at once.
Henry Blyth is standing a short distance away. His clothes are wet for some reason. Matt steps in front of Isobel quickly. Henry bows his head. “You don’t trust me,” he says. “You think I’d want to harm my own wife, when I’d give my life to protect her.” He smiles sadly. “Assuming I had a life to give, that is.”
“Henry, what’s going on?” Isobel asks. She tries to push past Matt but the others hold her back. “They’ve stolen Arthur’s spirit from him, we’re trying to get it back. Who is Arthur? What do the Trismegistus Club want with him?”
“They want to kill him,” Henry says. “They think by destroying him they will release a burst of energy sufficient to kill the Watcher. This is what they’ve been trying to do all along. The centuries of planning, of breeding. They never intended to let the White Alchemist live.”
John walks to face him, sword in hand. “So why tell us now? You’ve had plenty of time to warn Isobel.”
Water drips steadily from Henry’s hands. “I didn’t know. Most of us in the Club thought the White Alchemist would be our ultimate leader. I had to track Edward Lloyd down on the spirit plane and get the truth out of him.” He shrugs, scattering more water. “And considering I was murdered by a SITU agent, you have to agree that I had little enough reason to trust the organisation.”
“Murdered?” Isobel echoes.
Henry nods. “Vera Goodchild – it hardly matters now. Isobel, I’ve come to warn you. Arthur is here, in Avalon, and you may yet find him. But when you do, the greatest danger will come from someone you know.”
“You can’t be more specific?” Matt asks sarcastically. But Henry’s form is already fading.
“I cannot. There are rules here, too, and I may not break them. Events must be left to run their own course.”
“So much for that,” Matt says as Henry disappears. “One of us is a traitor, then. Who is it? Ms Kingston?”
“If I was going to betray you, I’d have left you here without a guide,” she says coldly, striding on.
“Hello, Ministry of Defence.”
“Hello.” Andrew clears his throat. All is quiet in the house. “I wanted to talk to someone about the Stonehenge situation,” he says. “I’m at the site now, and I have reason to believe the leaders of the riot are using some sort of mass hypnosis. If the army are sent in, they will come under the same influence.”
The voice at the other end of the line is silent for a moment. “Mass hypnosis? What exactly is your involvement with this? Who are you?”
Andrew breathes a sigh. He didn’t think Eric’s idea of notifying the authorities would do anything. Just as well he didn’t mention the spaceship. He deepens his voice to a growl. “Listen, you bastards, this is the Real IRA. We have planted a bomb at the site and we will detonate it the moment the armed forces arrive. Do you understand?”
Silence. The phone is dropped. Andrew grins and hangs up. Taking his katana, he stands in the middle of the room and begins going through a series of exercises. The blade swirls effortlessly. Andrew feels like shouting aloud. Let the enemy come. He’ll be ready for them.
“Act like a zombie,” TR whispers. He demonstrates, affecting the blank-eyed stare that the rest of the people at the campsite are wearing. Most of them are carrying weapons openly, and Mickey and TR see a number of uniforms amongst the dirty jeans and jumpers. Police, firemen and ambulance workers are walking to and fro, carrying rifles.
Mickey slings his own rifle over his shoulder and scans the campsite with narrowed eyes. The main congregation of people seems to be towards the northern edge. He jerks his head in that direction. “Shall we go?”
A hard edge of metal in his pocket reminds TR of the magnetised letter opener Eric gave him. He has to duck his head to hide his amusement. Magnetised, indeed. He takes it out and lays it flat on his hand, watching as the blade slowly swings round to point in the direction they are walking.
A few moments later, Mickey touches his arm. “There.”
A pair of fire engines stand abandoned at the edge of the crowd, the door of one still swinging open.
Twitch looks down at Holly. “Tell me, my dear, what exactly did happen to me last night? The old memory’s a bit fuzzy, you know.”
Holly looks at him uneasily. “I don’t know. I don’t think it was your fault. You were under a spell.”
“Was I now?” Twitch beams at her, but somewhere at the back of his mind, the images are stirring again. He was in a tent and someone looked in, and then something happened. He can’t remember what. All he can think is that he saw things he can’t even begin to understand, never mind fight. Betrayed by SITU (he’s not sure how, only that he feels betrayed), Benni Riggs and Sidestep both gone, and now he finds he’s too old, that no one wants him any more.
It is as nature intended, he thinks miserably. Attention must turn to the next generation and people like him have to go away and die quietly. Maybe he ought to just stay here, search the spirit world for Margaret and never return. After all, what is there to go back to?
Holly tugs on his hand. “Grandfather. We’re here!”
‘And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.’
The words seem to echo around them. Moonlight is everywhere on the water, turning it silver and gold. A dark boat is waiting, a woman dressed in black sitting in the prow. She stands up as the group approaches. They recognise her at once as the Grail Maiden.
“They have taken Arthur,” she says.
Eric takes her hand. “We are here to find him.” He looks at John. “Where now?”
John stares into the distance. “Across the water. There is an island.”
A feeling of unreality steals over them as they get into the boat. But then, this whole thing is unreal, Matt remembers. His real body is sitting beside a burning candle. He shifts a fraction to allow John’s white wolf to settle down beside him. Then he takes an oar and begins to row.
Daylight is fading when they see the island rising out of the mist. They draw close slowly, scanning the white shore as it comes into focus.
The first thing they see is a ring of uneven hills, undulating around the shore like the back of a huge serpent.
“It’s asleep,” Holly says quietly. “As long as we don’t wake it we’ll be all right.” She points. “I think he may be the real enemy.”
A knight in black armour is waiting at the place where the boat will land.
There’s a guard standing by the fire engines. Mickey grabs him from behind and pulls him back, knocking him out with a swift blow to the head. That’s one less person to fight, he thinks. Following TR into the cab, he catches sight of the group of druids. They are standing in a circle, in the middle of a crowd of people. They all have their arms raised, and white mist is pouring up into the sky. TR gives Mickey a tight grin. “Ready?” he asks. Then he starts the engine.
No one reacts to the sound. TR edges the truck forward slowly, not wanting to actually hit anyone. People drift out of the way. But then one of the druids lets out a shout and they begin to close ranks again.
“Keep going,” Mickey orders. He leaps out of the cab and hurls two people aside. A gun goes off, missing him wildly. He shoves another three people out of the way. Then he leaps onto the back of the truck and unreels the fire hose.
The sudden force of the water coming on throws Mickey back. He scrambles to his feet and straddles the hose. It fights him like a snake but he gets a grip on it and directs the water out over the crowd. People stagger back as the spray hits them.
The druids are immediately aware that something is happening. As one they turn their attention on the truck. Three of them together point at Mickey. He feels a slight tingle of energy surround him for a moment and thanks John silently for the protection charms.
“Kill!” the druids shout.
The command is taken up as a shriek, coming from all sides. The crowd surges at the truck, people grabbing hold of the sides and hauling themselves up, others trying to get into the cabin. Mickey turns the hose on them all. Many of them are knocked away, but there are more coming.
The cabin door swings open. TR finds himself fending off a girl with one hand while fighting to keep the fire engine going in a straight line. Sharp teeth sink into his palm. He shakes himself free, cursing, pushes the girl away and slams the door. He looks up. Cultists, soaked and screaming, hammer on the windscreen.
But the druid circle is within reach. Mickey swings himself up onto the roof of the cab, pulls the hose after him and turns it on them.
The water washes over them like a sea. One of them screams, two others are knocked right off their feet. Floundering in the suddenly muddy ground, they are unable to regain their footing. The air crackles with energy; the water sparks with it.
“Where am I?” someone asks. Mickey lowers the hose a fraction. Cultists, fire-fighters and police are picking themselves up, looking at each other and the weapons they hold in disbelief, rubbing their eyes as if they’ve just woken up.
“You may not take the child,” the black knight says. “My master has claimed him. His life, given up, will become a signal that even those in the far reaches of space will take note and come to see.”
John steps out of the boat. Hanging in a tree, a hundred metres or so beyond the black knight, is a baby’s cradle. It is swing slowly back and forth in the wind. He breathes in, feeling power fill him. This is the centre of it all, he thinks, the source of the life-power that he can only experience in snatches. Confidently he walks forward to meet the knight.
“We are taking the child,” he says calmly. “You may stand aside, or you may fight here and now. But we will take him.”
The black knight draws his sword.
The first clang of metal on metal makes Holly jump. Twitch smiles at her. “It’s all right. Uncle John will kill the bad knight and we’ll take Arthur home. As long as the dragon doesn’t wake.”
Twitch shakes his head, his smile fading. John is holding his own well, using his spear alternately to thrust and parry. But there is most definitely something wrong. Something to do with the black knight, the way he’s standing. Something familiar…
John’s spear pierces the black armour, sending his enemy stumbling back. In that moment, something clicks into place in Twitchin’s mind. “Sidestep,” he shouts. “John, stop! It’s Sidestep.”
He pushes Holly aside and rushes between them, just as the sword and spear and swinging in to meet each other again.
The two weapons meet inside Twitch’s body.
“… Armed forces are on stand-by today after talk that an IRA bomb might be planted at Stonehenge. Officials believe a phone call received this morning was a hoax, but they say they will not send in any more personnel until the matter has been investigated thoroughly.”
Andrew turns the radio off and goes upstairs. In the bedroom all is as before, almost. Twitchin’s candle has gone out, he notices. He wonders whether he ought to light it again, but before he decides one way or another, he hears footsteps on the path outside. Grabbing his katana, he runs down the stairs two at a time.
“Matt, Eric, Andrew,” Anita Rohinder’s voice calls. “We don’t know how many of you are in there, and frankly it makes no difference. I’m here for Arthur, so if I were you, I’d hand him over.”
Glancing out of the window, Andrew sees at least a dozen people outside.
Sidestep lets out a strangled cry and drops to his knees. “Twitch, no!” He tears off his helmet and stares at John hopelessly. “I didn’t mean it. The Watcher captured me and forced me to guard the child. I didn’t even know it was you until…”
Blood bubbles from Twitch’s lips. He pats Sidestep’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry. Had to happen… might as well be now… don’t blame yourself. Just hope I can find Margaret…” His voice trails off into a hoarse rasp of breath, his eyes closing.
The rest of the group join them. Eric immediately kneels down beside Twitch, feeling his wrist for a pulse. There is none. Holly wipes away tears. “I think he’s happy,” she says in a whisper. “I think he doesn’t want to be healed.”
Isobel walks past them all. The cradle is hanging on a lower branch of the tree, within easy reach. She hears a baby’s laughter coming from within. Arthur. Eagerly, she reaches up to unhook it.
“Isobel, don’t!” Sidestep cries out in alarm.
It is too late. She lifts the cradle down. There is a deep hush for a moment. Holly lets out a whimper.
“Oh dear. I think the dragon’s waking.”
Around the island, the hills begin to shimmer. What the group thought to be rock and patches of mud, they can now see are scales. The ground trembles, hills sliding into each other, becoming coil upon coil of sinuous body.
The dragon turns its head towards them. Its face is scaled, elongated jaws containing rows of jagged teeth. But the eyes are the eyes of an Ylid.
4pm 30th December.
Mickey, TR – Stonehenge
Andrew – the house
Matt, John, Isobel, Twitch, Eric – the spirit world.
JOHN – Twitch appears to have a death wish and is very confused after the previous night’s happenings. You have very little time to commune with your wolf totem before embarking on the spirit journey with the others. When you ask about the dragon, he tells you the dragon is often the symbol of the Ylids, and dragons are the traditional guardians of valued objects. In Arthurian legend, they are generally hostile once wakened.