The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Like a Thief in the Night
4pm 30th December.
Mickey, TR – Stonehenge
Andrew – the house
Matt, John, Isobel, Twitch, Eric – the spirit world.
Matt tears his eyes away from Twitchin’s stricken form and faces the dragon. Touching the Ezili fetish once for luck, his knuckles whiten around his staff.
Eric rises from where he kneels to stand next to him. There is no time for more than a quick, silent hope that wherever Twitch has gone, he will find Margaret waiting for him. “You were curious about the Watcher’s true appearance, Matt?” he murmurs, gazing up at the dragon. “I suspect that you need wonder no longer.”
Isobel stays beside Twitch, clutching Arthur, her lips moving in a silent prayer. John steps forward to put himself between her and the massive form of the Ylid. He waits calmly. Glancing at his spear, he sees it glow with energy. I am on the point where the ley lines meet, he thinks, where the power of nature, of existence, comes together. The earth and everything on it is made from the same thing. To become one with that, to worship the essence itself…
He begins to speak, his voice a low, hypnotic chant. “Caution, There is a silence. A stillness, deep within. An absence of patterns, Where light and shadow blend. Hearken to the darkness of the Void of the unknown. Hearing total nothingness that thunders all alone. Travel into the pulsing of silent time or space. The quiet mind brings calmness. Infinite, eternal grace. Born inside silence, is the will – to be. Chaos becoming order, the holiness of life – the unfolding of the great mystery.”
The dragon turns its eyes upon them.
There is a brief pause, John’s chant fading, all of them caught in the terrible, hypnotic glare. Then Matt steps forward.
“The Watcher, I presume,” he says, coldly. He utters a short laugh that sounds painful. “I wondered what form you’d take. Guess you’ve been reading The Hobbit, eh?” Keeping his eyes on the dragon, he edges away from the group. As he’d hoped, the Watcher’s head turns to follow him, the golden eyes fixed on him. The expression in them is distant, no anger, no curiosity. The Watcher is watching with the same calm detachment that Matt would watch an ant. Matt feels his fingers tighten on his staff, gripping into the wood hard enough to hurt. His lips move in a whispered invocation to Ezili, the Haitian Madonna. Let the power come into the staff, Matt thinks. Let Ezili protect him now, and give him a weapon he can use against the dragon’s fire.
A curl of flame comes from the dragon’s nostrils. Matt swings his staff into it. Heat scorches his knuckles, making him gasp sharply in pain. The Watcher’s laughter echoes in his mind. “You cannot stand against me. Give me the child and I will let you live.”
Matt grits his teeth and shakes his head.
They are all going to die, Eric thinks. He feels a brief pang of regret that it will end like this then he straightens his shoulders, draws his sword and walks forward to join Matt. A feeling of lightness comes over him, a feeling that anything is possible here. In the real world, he’d never be able to bear the weight of the armour upon him, but in this place it is no burden at all. Fleetingly, he wonders why, when it was not so for Twitch. But there is no time now for idle wonderings. He plants his sword in the ground where he stands.
“Ylid!” he calls in a loud voice, addressing the monster. “Your enemies move against you, and there is no one to stop them. Your plans are failing, one by one, while those of your rival Ylids are moving forward, and your time is running out. We represent one of your few hopes of a reliable and useful alliance. We are both completely opposed to the efforts of the Trisgimestus Club to destroy you, for we will never let them kill this child. If you can go forward with your plans without harm to the child, can we make common cause?”
The dragon makes no reply. Eric keeps his eyes fixed on the massive head above him. He has no hope at all that the Watcher will agree. Their only hope is that they can delay him long enough that one of them will see something, or think of something that will help them.
“Why are you called the Watcher,” he asks. “What are you watching for and why?”
The way through peril often lies along the path of wisdom. The thought comes into Eric’s head unbidden. He smiles grimly, curling both hands around the jewelled hilt of the sword.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Isobel murmurs. She glances up at the Watcher with wondering eyes. “I’m not afraid of you,” she says. “God has already defeated you. There’s nothing you can do to us.”
The dragon hisses out a tongue of flame. It shatters like glass against Matt’s staff, throwing him back with the impact. John leaps forward, putting his spear up as a barrier. Turning his head quickly, he sees Sidestep circling round. That’s something to be thankful for, anyway: it will be good to fight beside Sidestep one last time.
“What are you watching for,” Matt asks, repeating Eric’s question. The words are a challenge this time. “The rest of your race coming back? How’d you manage to miss the boat in the first place? How’d you get stuck on Clachantyre?” He swings his staff in a circle. The dragon turns its head to follow the movement. “Always the enigmatic one,” Matt taunts. “You really let the place slide, though, didn’t you? If it hadn’t been for us, the Master would be sitting pretty in Whitby – and I’m sure you know both Sophia and Nefertiti are carving out chunks of your territory as we speak.” He shrugs. “Nefertiti’s got her eye on the Throne, and I’ve heard she’s got one of the discs in her possession…” He turns to face the dragon directly, pointing his staff at one of its large Ylid eyes. “Why? You’ve watched the skies for centuries, you’ve sacrificed at Stonehenge, you’ve sat idle while the other Ylids divide up the British Isles. Why? Are you trying to leave this planet? Or… or are the others trying to return?”
“He’s thinking about the spaceship,” Holly says. “I can see the picture. It’s a huge, silver ship, and it’s flying close by but it doesn’t know we’re here. He needs to send a signal so it’ll see us and then it will come. It’s full of people just like him, and they will-” she breaks off with a cry of pain, reeling back.
“Leave her alone!” Isabelle Kingston shouts. The force of her cry sends ripples through the air. John sees them: small, silver waves, disturbing the flow of power around the island. With a flash, his vision expands to encompass the whole world. All of existence is one, and he is one with it. One with the earth, the sea. One with Sidestep, with Matt, with Eric. One, even, with the dragon.
The Watcher’s voice rolls around him like thunder. “The child is mine. He was created as a weapon to destroy me, but his death will send such as signal to my own people that they must come. And once they are here, nothing in this world will stop us. It is time to end this.”
The dragon lunges forward.
“Come on,” T.R. tells Mickey softly, “We’d better find the sword before the police wake up enough to realize we were on that firetruck. If it is Excalibur, I guess Isobel’s baby king is gonna need it.” He looks down at the “magnetized” letter-opener in his hand and then hurries in the direction it points.
Mickey pauses a moment before following. The field looks like the aftermath of battle. Cultists and police are staring about confused. Unheeded, the druids are picking themselves up again, drawing together into a circle. Another minute and they might start this whole thing off again, he thinks. Leaving TR to go ahead for a moment, he grabs a policeman by the arm and pulls him round. “Undercover Police!” he shouts, flashing one of his fake IDs in his face. “Quickly, arrest those druids.” The policeman stares at him blankly. Mickey shakes him hard. “Come on, man. Wake up and get moving. Before they have time to reorganise.”
To his relief, something of what he says seems to get through. The policeman stares at him a moment longer then nods and pulls away, moving purposefully in the direction of the white-clad druids. Mickey hears him bark an order at some of the others. They close in. Several of the cultists move to stop them. Most, confused, just stand and watch. Torn between wanting to help and needing to go after TR, Mickey hovers for a moment then turns away.
TR is threading his way quietly through the crowd. No one challenges him. In fact, no one really seems to notice him. He balances the letter-opener flat across both palms, watching it carefully as it swings first one way then the other. He knows, without having to look, that he is walking towards the henge itself. The ring of stones casts long shadows in the glare of the artificial lights that surround it. TR hurries on, Mickey close behind him. The miniature sword lies still in his hands now, pointing straight ahead.
Climbing the barrier, the two men walk between two stones. The grass is soft under their feet, streaked with shadow. The altar stone in the centre looks like a tomb. Slowly, TR walks across to it. As he does, the letter-opener tips downwards so fast it cuts the side of his hand. He curses and jerks back, staring at the patch of ground at his feet. “Here,” he says. Grabbing the letter-opening, he begins to dig.
Mickey runs his fingers over the grass. Even knowing what he’s looking for, he almost misses the line where the turf has been cut before. He slides his fingers in and pulls. A whole section of grass comes away at once. Beneath it is a glint of silver.
TR lets out a soft whistle. They lift the sword out of the earth together. The hilt is black with mud, but the blade gleams softly, perfectly clean. Perfectly sharp, Mickey discovers when he tests the edge against his finger.
TR takes off his jacket and wraps the weapon in it. Confused shouting comes from behind them. A gun goes off. “There they are!” someone shouts. “Stop them.”
Mickey stands up, drawing his gun. “I suggest we leave,” he says grimly. “Now might be a good time.”
The back door shudders from top to bottom. A crack opens up and an axe blade appears for a moment, before being withdrawn. Another crash comes from the front of the house, and then a yell of pain. Andrew grins to himself. Someone has found one of Mickey’s booby traps. He knocks a hole in the kitchen window and leans out, firing off a couple of quick shots at the man with the axe. None of them hit, but it’s enough to make him retreat for the moment. Andrew takes the opportunity to race back upstairs and check on the group. They are all sitting as he left them, the room heavy with the scent of burning candles. Andrew wonders how much longer they’ll be like that – and how much longer it will be until the Tri Club break their way into the house. Leaving the room, he picks up his cellphone and takes up position by the front window, phoning TR as he goes.
“Yeah, this is Andrew,” he says. “I could do with some backup here.” He glances outside. Another grenade explodes with a flash of light and fire. Through the glare, he sees a figure striding forward, arms outstretched. Anita Rohinder, he realises. “Ten minutes?” he says to TR. “Okay, do your best to get here. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”
Around Rohinder, the air is beginning to shimmer. “I summon thee,” Andrew hears her say. “Take this house and all that is in it. Give us the child that is ours.”
The window rattles. Andrew opens it quickly and lobs a flash grenade at her. Her voice falters but then resumes. Something is beginning to take shape in front of her. A form Andrew can’t quite work out, but it doesn’t look good. He swings away from the window and grabs his katana. Something tells him that if Rohinder finishes the spell, there’ll be nothing he can do to stop her. He has to take her down now.
Andrew’s eyes glint with anticipation.
The dragon lunges. Matt parries a blast of fire aside with his staff. John moves warily to the side, waiting for an opening, probing the dragon with his thoughts. Power surges against him in waves that almost make him stagger, but he keeps his feet. Dragons always have a vulnerable spot, he thinks. And even Ylids can die – they know that. There has to be a way.
Isobel begins to pray. “…In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
“We need the sword!” Holly exclaims. “I must tell daddy.” She hunches over, eyes closed.
Isobel continues praying, her voice joining the prayers that Matt and John are reciting. The dragon draws back. The huge head lifts up high and fire boils out of its open mouth. Matt’s staff, John’s spear and Eric’s sword meet in front of it. The fire is pushed back on itself with a startling surge of energy.
Matt stands back. His arms are aching with the shock of the blow but he forces himself to smile. “What now?” he mocks the Watcher. “You’re not getting Arthur Henry. He’s not a homing beacon for your species. He’s not a psychic bomb. He’s a child, Isobel’s son. You can’t have him.”
“I will have him and the world,” the Watcher replies.
The dragon shifts its coils closer. Matt, John and Eric stand together, ready for another assault. Then Sidestep lets out an angry yell.
“You made me kill my friend!” He wrenches his sword out of its scabbard and rushes forward.
Sibilant laughter echoes. “Your friend wanted to die. Do you?”
Flame engulfs him. His black armour glows red as he raises his sword and plunges it into the dragon’s side. The tip of the blade pierces the scales then the weapon snaps in two. The dragon swings its tail, sending Sidestep flying to land in a heap against a rock. Eric immediately rushes to his side. John and Matt tense. The Ylid draws back, regarding them all with yellow eyes. “I will offer you terms. Leave the child and go now, back to your own world. I will not harm you. Or pledge yourselves to my service and you will be rewarded when the gods of this world return.”
“He’s lying,” Eric says. His hands hover over Sidestep’s still form.
John shakes his head. “No, he means it. He is a god. Our obedience is far more valuable to him than our deaths.” He faces the dragon. “You have lost,” he shouts. “We have the grail and we have Arthur. There is no one in this world who will serve you.”
The dragon’s eyes narrow, gold slits of pure malice. “You have made your choice,” it says. “You will not live to see my people come.” Its head darts forward, jaws snapping on John’s spear and tearing it out of his hands. John staggers, falls and rolls clear as a blast of fire scorches a black track in the grass. Matt leaps forward with a cry, jabbing at the golden eyes with his staff. Blue flashes of light crackle around him. John picks himself up slowly, grunting in pain and shaking his head to clear it. His right hand gropes out, feeling for the broken end of his spear.
The front door bursts open. Two gunmen who were standing outside it are flung back. Andrew shoots one of them in the head, throws himself into a forward roll to avoid the other and cuts back at him. The katana connects and the gunman goes down with a cry.
Andrew rolls to his feet in the middle of the path. A few paces away, Anita Rohinder looks at him and smiles.
“Kill him,” she commands something invisible. Andrew catches a quick glimpse of something black and throws himself flat. A clawed hand appears from nowhere and skims across his shoulder, missing him by a fraction. He launches himself at Rohinder, but something heavy swings into him from behind and knocks him flying. He comes back to his feet, gasping for breath. Rohinder steps back, watching.
Andrew sweeps his katana in a circle. His left hand comes to rest of one of the protection charms John gave him. The demon, or creature, or whatever it is, comes into focus for a moment – an impression of long jaws and hands that end in vicious claws. Tensing a moment, Andrew leaps between the creature’s legs. Claws rake his back, but then he is past, facing Rohinder. He smiles. She puts up her hands, her eyes widening in fear for the first time.
“Listen,” she says, “we can talk about this. We can-”
Claws pierce Andrew’s leg. Screaming, he draws the katana back and thrusts it up through Rohinder’s body. She stiffens. The creature screams. Its claws tighten in Andrew’s leg for a moment then vanish. Rohinder’s eyes cloud over. She slides back off Andrew’s blade and lands in a crumpled heap.
Andrew looks down at the blood that is soaking his leg. His shirt is sticking to his back as well, he realises. He hears shouts. Four, five people are running towards him. All of them have guns.
They who fight and run away live to fight another day, Andrew thinks. Ignoring the sharp agony in his leg, he sprints for the house. As he does, he hears the sound of a car approaching fast.
Gunshots ring out.
There are four people around the front of the house. Two of them have guns trained on the windows. The other two are trying to break through the door. TR swerves the car towards them, crunching over a flowerbed on the way. All four people turn round and begin firing. Bullets ping off the car, one of them cracks the front windshield. TR slews the car to a halt and grabs the sword from the back seat. “A bit ironic that TR the unbeliever should be wielding Excalibur,” he comments.
Mickey’s only answer is to take his gun out and flick the safety catch off. He leans out of the shattered window and shoots one of the gunmen in the chest then kicks the car door open and rolls out. TR slides out of the car on the other side and barges into one of the other attackers, knocking his gun away with the flat of the sword before bringing his knee up sharply into his stomach.
A crash comes from the house, and then a cry of pain. “Holly,” Mickey mutters. He begins to run, keeping low and swerving as bullets strike the ground behind him. He leaps over the body of Anita Rohinder without registering that it’s there. A shape looms up in front of him and he shoots without thinking. Behind him, TR swings his sword at the fourth attacker: a clumsy arc, but he connects.
Mickey suddenly collapses, his hands to his head. TR runs to him.
There is no blood, but Mickey is white, shaking. “I’m all right,” he mutters, pushing TR aside. “It’s Holly. They need the sword.”
Mickey staggers to his feet. “Come on.”
Andrew is standing inside the front door. His shirt and one trouser leg are soaked with blood.
“It’s all right, it’s us,” Mickey says. Leaving TR to deal with him, he snatches the sword and races upstairs.
The room is quiet, all candles burning steadily save Twitch’s. Mickey hesitates then eases the sword into John’s hand and stands back. Nothing happens. He waits a few moments more then limps out of the room and back down the stairs to join TR and Andrew.
TR has persuaded Andrew to let go of the katana and has found a first aid box. “The situation at Stonehenge is under control for now,” he’s saying, doing his best to bandage the gashes in Andrew’s leg. “We should go back when things calm down, though. What’s been happening here?”
“The Tri Club.” Andrew sighs, exhausted. “Twelve, fifteen of them, I’m not sure. I killed three, another four were taken out by Mickey’s booby traps. Rohinder’s dead. She summoned some sort of demon but it vanished when I killed her. I don’t know how many more are out there.” He struggles to stand. TR pushes him back down.
“I think it’s all clear,” Mickey says, coming in. “I’ll go out and check. One of you should phone SITU, I suppose.” He glances at Andrew’s back. “And a doctor.”
“…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one,” Isobel whispers.
Isabelle Kingston joins her, raising her voice to cast a spell of protection around them.
“Look out!” Matt shouts.
John flings himself backwards just in time. The dragon’s jaws snap together in front of his face. As his right arms slams into the ground, his hand connects with something hard.
“Legba and Ezili protect me,” Matt whispers. He leaps. The power surrounding him has given him strength. He flies upward. His hand strikes the dragon’s neck and he curls his arm around, clinging on, heaving his body around to straddle the creature just below the massive head.
John has a sword in his hand. It glows pure silver, rippling with magical energy. All the pain falls from his body as he lifts it up. The power flooding through him makes him forget everything except the need to stand his ground and fight and die if necessary. Anything as long as the Watcher does not take the child.
Eric feels it too. He places one hand on Sidestep. The black armour cracks and fades and then Sidestep himself disappears, his spirit released, whether to return to his body or to rest in death, Eric doesn’t know. He stands up slowly and turns to face John. The power of the Ylid is all around him: a power that can be harnessed and turned.
“Deliver us from the evil one,” Isobel prays again.
Eric knows what to do. He cups his hands in front of him and raises them high. It is as if he is at the head of an army, a thousand warriors standing behind him, lending their strength to the battle. Sheets of lightning bend the sky. The dragon rears back, shaking its head. Somehow, Matt clings on.
“Now!” Isabelle shouts.
Matt drives his staff at the dragon’s eye. In the same moment, John stabs upward, driving Excalibur through scales and flesh. Blood gushes out, spattering John’s hands and arms in a burning rain. He turns his face aside and stands his ground, thrusting up with the sword until he thinks his arms will break with the effort.
Matt’s staff bursts into flame in his hands. He feels no pain, but the dragon screams. Fire pours down its face, mingling with the blood.
All the Watcher’s power turned back on himself, Eric thinks. Blood is dripping from his hands onto his upturned face. He blinks it aside. For a moment he sees the Grail Maiden standing in front of him. She smiles, leans forward to kiss his cheek.
“I knew you would win, Percival,” she whispers.
In a rush, all power, all life, all sense of determination and need is caught up and driven through John, through the sword in his hands. Flames race along its blade. John cries out in pain as the brilliance cuts through his eyes. His ears ring with pressure. The dragon writhes above him, fighting to escape now, not to kill. With one last effort he twists the sword deep into the dragon’s flesh, feeling the power of the place surge through him and adding to it everything that is inside himself. His cry turns to one of triumph.
Matt feels the dragon shudder beneath him. He lets go of the staff and rolls clear. His arm feels like it is broken.
The dragon begins to fade. A last gush of blood from its mouth turns to mist and drifts away. Eric sinks to his knees. Isobel runs to catch John as his knees buckle.
“Is the dragon dead?” Holly asks.
Isabelle Kingston puts an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Yes,” she says. “The dragon is dead. Let’s go home, shall we?”
When they open their eyes, they are sitting in the bedroom of the safehouse. Matt climbs to his feet, clutching his damaged arm. Twitch topples sideways. Eric knows he is dead even before he goes to him. John remains where he is, staring straight ahead. Isobel is shocked to see that his face is a mass of burns.
“I’m blind,” John says slowly. “It doesn’t matter. There are more ways of seeing than with the eyes.”
Baby Arthur draws in a deep breath and begins to cry.
According to the evening’s news, the riot at Stonehenge ended more or less peacefully. There is talk of mass hypnosis and calls for an enquiry, but by the evening all that remains of the campsite are a couple of vehicles and wood and ashes from the fires.
SITU agents have already visited the safehouse by then to collect the bodies of Anita Rohinder and the Tri Club members killed in the attack. They also transfer Twitch’s body to the Avebury hospital. The official story is that he died of a heart attack.
“Poor guy,” TR comments. “I was really getting to like him.”
No one else feels like talking. Eric’s powers of healing means that none of them has suffered any lasting damage, but as John points out, physical hurts are often the most easily healed.
Isobel refuses all offers of help with Arthur, reluctant, even, to let the rest of the group touch him. Despite John’s reassurances that Sidestep was the traitor Henry warned her of, she is not ready to trust anyone yet.
Darius comes that night. Eric realises as he heals him that the power of the grail is not going to last in him forever. He can sense it fading. He wonders how much longer he will have it. A year, a month, maybe not even that long. He pushes aside regret. He has held the grail in his hands and felt its power. It is more than most people are granted.
New Year’s Day.
“Well,” TR says, shaking hands once again. “It’s been fun, kids. Maybe we can do it again some day. Next time you’re in California, look me up. We can take a boat trip out to Catalina Island and I can show you the real Avalon. There are no dragons there. I promise.”
He gets into his car and starts the engine. As he pulls away, he takes out his mobile phone and dials a number, one-handed. “Hey, Jane. It’s T.R. Look, I was gonna head back home soon, but I was wondering if you had any vacation time coming in the near future. I thought maybe you ‘d like to join me in Hawaii for a couple of weeks. I know it’s a long way from here, but I can spring for the plane ticket. And I have a friend who lets me use his beach house on Maui whenever I want. I thought maybe we could search for an Ylid volcano goddess, or the ghost of Elvis, or something.”
Twitch opens his eyes. He’s lying back in his old bed at home. He sits up, struggling to remember quite how he got there, then the door opens and he jerks straight out of bed.
“You’re awake,” Margaret says, smiling at him. “You were snoring, you know.”
“Was I?” Twitch scratches his head. “I was dreaming. Some strange nonsense about you being gone away somewhere.”
“Gone?” Margaret laughs softly and takes both his hands in hers. “This is our home. Where would I go?”
In a hospital bed in London, a man opens his eyes.
“Where am I?” Sidestep asks. Then, for no apparent reason, he begins to cry.
Finally. November 2001.
The lecture room is full. A few people are missing, Eric notes – people he’d expected to be there. Matt is one. SITU had become his life, and since the visit to Nauru earlier in the year, he’s needed time to adjust to a life that is not wholly focussed on killing Ylids. Mickey and Holly have stayed away, too. Probably because of that million pound expense sheet Mickey sent to Blaize after the last mission. Although, from what he’s heard of Mickey and Holly’s current lifestyle, either Blaize paid up, or Mickey’s skill at poker has improved dramatically now he has Holly to mind-read for him. John is there, though, and TR, though he resolutely refuses to believe in any of this.
Smiling to himself, Eric picks up the wooden gavel and brings it down sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “It gives me great pleasure to declare the 2001 International Conference for Parapsychology open.”