Report to the Thaneson, from the City of Rome.
Midsummer’s Day (As Chance Would Have It), Year Unknown
Well met, and I hope this missive finds you in good spirits with your world not all in pieces at your feet. Whether or not you come one day to read this letter, I feel compelled to write it from beyond the Void, for thus have we travelled, through the Great Black Abyss, pursued by wormy things and such like, but here we are now and still somehow alive and in possession of our courage and senses.
On the brink of Deagh’s Great Work we stand, looking down the sheer sides into its dark depths, hoping and praying that we have the strength within us to bring his fairy tale to a better end. For Hayden Deagh is an alchemist and his plan is revealed to us – to shape the known planes of the universe into a vessel of some kind, reflecting his own self therein, and with that power, to overthrow the Lord of the Summer Isles and take his place on that timeless throne.
Of the five of us who began this journey, four remain active in the fight. Luana has joined the Sisterhood, but Ballantine, Roggen, Sanguine and myself still stand. And last I saw him, Deagh was bleeding.
Having shifted through the Void to the City of Rome on the advice of Preston Elliott, sent to us as usual from a different time, there we acquainted ourselves with this strange new world in chaos and made our way north from our ‘landing’ point towards the military base Theta3.
It was a tall old building protected by mines and other traps, and after scaring off some strange monkey-like creatures the four of us climbed the rope ladder which had been dropped down from the second-storey window and clambered in to meet Lieutenant Weekes. Exuding efficiency, she took us to see her commander, a certain Major Fuller, whose officious manner was easily dealt with by Ballantine’s own military bearing.
Fuller was the last obstacle between us and the Tank, the strategic arm of Rome’s military masses, and the people we needed to talk to about the stuff which had been preoccupying us. Such as, where the hell was Deagh’s estate of Winshire, and how soon could we get there and rip the guy a new reality? Deciding not to take up Fuller’s offer of giving up our weapons and assuming prisoner-of-war status, we instead came up with a message for him to send to the Tank itself, to prove our bona fides.
We were there when the Rise and the Five Cities we destroyed, and we know
who did it. And this is his home world.
Cunningly, we left out the part about us being partly responsible for Turen’s destruction, although of course this was only through what we didn’t do, and not through anything we actually did. It wasn’t our fault gov. And no doubt history will show our heroic role in this episode, our best intentions undermined by the faction-riven Caldbeck Rise and the patently unfair deviousness of Deagh. Especially if we write the history. Good riddance to those Rise idiots anyway, huh?
In any case, the message to the Tank got a swift reaction, and we were summoned into their presence, though sadly the summoning took a little longer than we had hoped, entailing as it did the death of Weekes at the hands of an ethereal creature called a sniper, a trip to the Roman airship Theta4 on levitation globes, and en route a close encounter with a giant ocean-dwelling monster the size of Ashwell which rose up out of the ocean as these things tend to do and tried to snare us with its tree-trunk thick tentacles.
Fortunately, though we were in danger of being dragged to our deaths, Ballantine did the right thing and shot himself point blank in the head. Even more fortunately, he missed, and hit the tentacle strangling him in the neck, releasing us back into the air. Whereafter it was a comparative formality snagging ourselves on the airship’s netting above.
On Theta4 we met Commodore Ottavia, another woman in uniform, this one still alive, and with her we ‘teleported’ to the Tank – though not in the strict sense of the word. Rather, our psyches were transported into the bodies of others, and via this artifice we found ourselves remotely in a large subterranean chamber. People hurried here and there, or else sat working at their arcane researches. By coincidence, in charge of the operation was this world’s Ballantine, and while Ballantine and Ballantine discussed the state of play and compared notes on their porn collections, Roggen and I wandered about peering intelligently at this and that. In one corner was a large three-dimensional ‘map’ which plotted the connection between the various planes and realities and revealed those which had been destroyed.
Thinking that we should at least be able to trust a Ballantine, we told him what we knew about Deagh, and our desire to find Winshire and make him dead. At first he was skeptical that just one man – and a largely anonymous figure in his own plane – could be responsible for so much destruction through the realms of reality. His skepticism grew tenfold when Sanguine and our Ballantine began their eloquent yet highly implausible description of exactly what Deagh was trying to achieve – an alchemical Great Work using an alignment of planar realities sympathetic to his own chakra sequence. Yet even as they spoke, their passion outweighing all else, our attention was drawn to the three-dimensional planar map.
As we looked upon the scant few realities still in existence, we saw Deagh’s great plan revealed before us. With the Five Cities gone, a clear line ran through the heart of the map – a line of worlds that matched Deagh’s chakra. Rome’s Ballantine saw that it was true, the apparent nonsense which Sanguine and Ashwell’s Ballantine had been spouting. The universe really was in peril. Suddenly, there was no time to lose.
It was snow, not fog, which greeted us as we dropped on our levitation pods from Theta4 into the woods of Winshire, Deagh’s ancestral estate. Snow, on Midsummer’s Day. Midsummer’s Day, when the gateway to the Summer Isles is open.
We trudged through the thick forest drifts until Winshire Lodge came into view, a decrepit old mansion long since fallen into disrepair. Daylight grew, yet still we saw the flickering light in the window at the rear of the house. We entered from the opposite side, from as far away as possible, and approached through a maze of ruined halls and corridors.
Soon, though, we had reached the glimmering light. I padded softly down the last passage until I could see at least something through the open door. I was looking into a large den with a fire burning in the grate…and something moving in the shadows, shambling back and forth without aim. Something big. Something nasty. It was the crystal golem which had, in another time a long time ago, torn another Sanguine into pieces. Quite easily.
Suddenly, things seemed kinda bad. Brave as we all were, and cunning and clever, a strange paralysis took over as we realized that the 10-foot golem which we had spent so much time running from in the past, was now precisely where we had to be. While I crouched shadow-like in the passageway, Sanguine crept outside and peered in through the windows. He confirmed it was the golem, but also that there was someone sitting in a chair, reading, their back to him. It was impossible to say who it was.
The floor of the fire-lit room was covered in books left lying open, and on the walls were hung paintings of many kinds – including one which depicted the four of us. On the space above the fireplace, a mosaic of notes and scribbles had been pasted, much of it also concerning ourselves and our past.
Though Sanguine seemed adamant that this vast collection of books, papers and paintings which Deagh had gathered around him for intensive study was in no way related to either us, our mission, or Deagh’s aims, I myself was not so sure. Was there not perhaps the possibility that there was a reason Deagh had gathered all this material in the one place at this crucial time? Or was it simply (as Sanguine insisted) a random collection of stuff of no value to Deagh or anyone else?
Whatever the case, the whole set-up seemed very reminiscent of something Preston Elliott might be working on, and for a moment, the hope flared – Elliott was here, not Deagh! Somehow Elliott was alive, and was hanging out with a giant pink crystal-festooned evil golem in Deagh’s house! Or maybe it was just some other guy! One way or the other, we needed to know for certain. Sanguine and I traded places – he now in the corridor, myself outside peering in. And I saw – it was indeed Hayden Deagh, sitting in the chair reading, and he was surrounded by bubbles of transparent glowing energy, like the layers of an onion.
Though Sanguine was convinced that these ‘onion layers’ were Hayden’s realities, whatever that might mean, I myself was not so sure. What if they were layers of protection? In any case, bad was now worse, and our indecision became stifling. Plans were thrown back and forth, one after the other. Roggen favoured the idea of going out into the woods and causing a diversion, drawing the golem out and taking the chance to slay Deagh without his protection. Sanguine and Ballantine thought that I should sneak into the room, past the golem, and kill Deagh while they filled the golem full of magical lead. As for myself, I wanted to use the telekinesis orbs to float the golem into the air out of harm’s way.
But, as they say, the worst-laid plans oft lead to best result, and so it happened here. Even as we argued amongst ourselves, the voice of Deagh sounded in our minds – he had known we were there all along, and had been listening in on our scheming. Even if we had come up with a brilliant plan, he would have known of it beforehand. This way, the spontaneity of blundering confusion was on our side, and as the golem at last stirred from its torpor and lurched down the corridor towards us, I sprinted back out of the house and around to the windows, determined to confront Deagh while he remained undefended.
The massive golem, controlled by Deagh’s mind, waded in towards Ballantine and Sanguine, but they stood their ground and peppered him with magic bullets and spells. Roggen, meanwhile, had a new toy – a repeating rifle, which she used to great effect, spraying bullets into the creature time after time, ripping crystal and clay from it with every shot. She seemed possessed, unable to miss, pulling the trigger and reloading, trigger, reload, trigger, reload, as though in one motion. Roggen the Slayer! Roggen the Decimator! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!
With the golem so diverted – an accidental master stroke! – I broke the window with my rune-inscribed knuckledusters and leapt through into the study. Across the room, Deagh stood staring into the flames, indifferent to my presence. The nine magical layers which surrounded him could almost have been a physical manifestation of his consuming self-regard, the profound turning inward which had caused this whole sorry mess in the first place. What kind of man could have conceived of such a plan, to wipe entire realities from existence, consigning millions of souls to oblivion, all for the sake of self-aggrandizement? As I charged towards him, the anger welled up inside me – anger at the years we had spent chasing the Deaghs, at the many times they had gulled us, at the worlds they had conspired to destroy.
Still he stood there, unmoving. I drew back my fist to strike, and…an etheric blade appeared in front of me! Though Sanguine was convinced that this magical blade would aid me, and had cast it upon my weapon despite my protests, I was not so certain, and sure enough, the blue glowing sword shattered harmlessly against the outer shield. Deagh turned to me, scornfully, speaking direct to my mind.
“Your bitch is out there somewhere,” he said. “She’s been skulking around for weeks now.”
My bitch? Who was my bitch? I though all my bitches were back in Swarkstone. It made me even angrier, hearing Deagh talk about women like that. I pulled back my fist and struck again. It was like the first time I had used the knuckledusters, before I had even known what they were. When in the House of Saines, all those months ago, I had torn them from the bottle of Deathwine and put them on, and with my first blow had destroyed the face of Incruentes Staines, then I had seen their power.
Now, it was as though the knucks had taken charge of me, were drawing back my arm, tensing my fingers around their cool metal. It seemed for a moment that the worlds breathed in, and held that breathe while my hand was poised, and then, as I launched the blow, life and hope and the desire for justice exhaled, brushing away the magical shields which cocooned Deagh. For an instant he was exposed, and the knuckledusters slammed into his face. It was as though the fist of God had smote down the Devil, merrily burning in the smug complacency of his Hell.
The whole side of Deagh’s head caved in. I saw blood, and teeth, and bone, all mixed together in the mangled flesh. As the shields returned to protect him once more, I heard his shriek, of pain, and indignation…and perhaps, of fear. At last, we had wounded Hayden Deagh. At last he knew what it felt like, to have his own blood on his hands.
Like a madman he raved and gibbered, crawling on the floor, and suddenly, as I pursued him, there was a shriek from outside, a war cry the like of which has rare been heard. Our old friend the Drow, Askafa, leapt in through the window and without pause began to rain down blows on the crawling mage with her twin Drow blades. The twin blades and the knuckledusters, they struck time and time again, but though we smashed through a layer or two, Deagh’s protection held strong. Still he raved on, and, dragging himself to his feet, began pulling paintings from the wall, tearing at them with hands like claws, ripping them to shreds.
Summoned at the sore blow he had been dealt, the golem charged back into the room, but Deagh held the creature there with a raised hand, while with the other he ripped and tore at the canvasses. Back also ran Ballantine and Roggen, still tearing chunks from the mindless beast. Sanguine appeared too and turned his attention to Deagh, using his magix to break through a third of the protection spells. Six remained – so many still! – but now Deagh’s ravings had ceased, and as he turned, his mangled face half-healed and his inner calm restored, we saw that only one painting remained. It was of us.
“Thank you,” said Deagh to me, then with a gesture, released the golem from its chains, setting it upon us before he fled.
We tracked him through the house, chased ourselves by the golem, even as its insides melted and merged, even as the million tiny crystals shattered, shattering the creature too. Yet still it came on, held together by the magic which had created it. Askafa was battered to one side, then I was thrust down, and lastly, Sanguine found himself right beneath the giant thing, about to die by its hand a second time. Then the mage saw – a dozen exploding bullets were stuck in the beast, and had not blown. The mage had not lit the fuse! but now he did, triggering the spell, and as he lay there, watching as the great clay foot was raised to crush him, the bullets blew. And so did the golem, it blew apart at last, crystal and clay turned to mud and dust, and that which had never been alive was finally dead.
We took stock and caught our breaths. Deagh had flown, but we needed rest and healing. Back in the study, we took the chance to examine the books and paintings which had up Deagh’s research. A common thread joined them all. Each was the same story, and the story was this:
The son of man finds his way, having honed his skills, to challenge the King of Summer, and if victorious, to set himself upon his Throne.
Here was the fairytale come true before our very eyes. Deagh was making for the Summer Isles, to fight with the King. And so, we must go there too.
Picking up his trail, of footstep and blood, we followed outside, then through the snow towards the woods. Though Sanguine was convinced that Ballantine should shoot the frozen grounds with a Change Weather bullet, thus obliterating the very tracks we were using, I myself was not so sure. Fortunately, the missile from Ballantine’s gun went reassuringly wide, and the path remained.
It led us to an ancient cemetery, a burial place for Deaghs from ages past. To a maze, by now familiar to our feet.
And, My Liege, it leads us to now, to the Summer Isles, where our last fight will be fought, against our greatest foe. What will become of us here in the Summer Lands I do not know, nor what the part laid out for us, actors from the start in this, the greatest play of all. But whatever happens, remember Ballantine the Soldier and Roggen the Dwarf, remember Sanguine the Mage, and remember your servant Scrylash. Remember us in a kindly light, remember Askafa too, for though not all we tried succeeded, yet we aimed high, and our hearts did not fail.