I am on board the Amoroso. It is night and I am outside the door to the hold, trying to break in. The Shard is beyond the door, but the lock is complex, more difficult than any I have ever picked before. I feel a presence coming up behind me in the passageway. Frantically I try to get through the door, but my pick breaks off in the lock just as I feel a heavy hand upon my shoulder....
....I am in a warm, well-appointed room. It is luxurious. Everything I could wish for is there. A beautiful woman (my wife?) is at my side. There is a comforting glow in the lamps, a fine glass of brandy on the chess table beside my armchair. The woman says 'I'm going up now dear', and leaves the room. The clock strikes the hour....
....the bell rings in the distance, the hunt is on, and it is I who is being hunted. I am struggling through the marshes. It is heavy going, and I am losing hope. I can hear the dogs baying close now, but I am exhausted, and I sink into the slime....
....underneath the water, I am swimming above the deck of the Amoroso, clawing at the hatch to the hold. It is dark, I am probably drowning. At last I manage to rip the cover from the hold. Down below, I can see the face of the Beast, as Sister Luana's voice rings out in the distance....
....the Amoroso is going down, but I am in corridor outside the
hold. I am still trying to pick the lock. Water is rushing in from everywhere.
At last, the tumblers click over and the door opens. Beyond is the Shard.
I feel warm and secure in its glow as the wave hits me, bringing oblivion....
Second Report to Thaneson Rancliffe
Some time has passed since the events described in this report took place, so there can be no guarantee of the accuracy of this record. It may, however, serve as a broad picture of the events following on from my previous despatch. You will recall that my last report ended with the news that a giant hedgehog had attacked Cottlesmore Castle. Thankfully, this proved to be no more than a rumour, and we left Cottlesmore in safety, headed for Millview and the unknown. Our first stop was at the Church of Sol, where I made contact with Sergeant Grover, from whom I discovered that whatever treacherous plans Duke Cottlesmore may have entertained had evaporated in the wake of his new and fulfilling embrace of the local sun cult, which had undergone a recent revival thanks to a happy accident involving a ghoul and its apprehension.
We travelled overland in the company of Captain Delamaine of Falfax, a soldier of honour and, it would seem, loyal to the idea of the marriage between yourself and Leona Dale. As for the Shard of the Sun, as soon as we reached the border and had met up with the Falfaxian contingent, it was encased in a great metal box, and thus shielded, was transported to Millview along with ourselves and a large contingent of Falfaxian troops.
The journey to the Falfaxian capital was long and without incident, but as we travelled it became plain that there was a difference between our two nations - Falfax is strangely devoid of all non-human sentient life (i.e. the pointy-eared brigade and others) and this fact seems to go without comment here. It raises an interesting question: are elven or dwarven types discouraged from living in Falfax, consciously or otherwise, or do they feel unwelcomed by the land itself? And another question which deserves attention: how long has it been this way? These questions were put to Delamaine, albeit indirectly, yet the doughty Captain could not provide us with the answers
Millview itself seems a pleasant burg, if somewhat dull. Rumour has it, however, that it is built on a place of power, and strange happenings are said to abound in the region. One strange happening there was even as we entered the town, yet not connected with the nature of the place. We were amazed to see the normally stoic Deagh break down and we watched dumbstruck as the vile, cowardly priest let forth with a veritable torrent of emotion as he disappeared behind the main hall alongside the Shard of the Sun, still protected in its metal casing, and under the escort of a squadron of armed men. Our greeting by King Kearney was in keeping with the demands of protocol, but it was clear that he had other things on his mind, for he left the reception at the earliest possible moment.
Our stay in Millview was certainly without diplomatic incident. The plans for the wedding were formulated almost too easily. In fact, King Kearney seemed quite disinterested in the entire affair. He seemed more interested in the Shard of the Sun than the upcoming nuptials. The reason for this became clear - it was on our first night in Millview that we met the man who we assumed at the first to be Deagh's twin. He oozed down into the near-deserted banqueting hall from the surrounding balcony and proceeded to discretely and politely interrogate us. This was Haydn Deagh, Alston's younger brother - he said - but of an appearance very like unto the ill-humoured priest. It appears that Haydn Deagh is the power behind the throne in Falfax - undoubtedly in collusion with Alston, but the stronger of the two. You know from my first report the strange effect that the Shard of the Sun has on the leading figure in its closest sphere of influence. The lives of both Captain Thomas and Captain Plummer were preserved, but they were rendered ineffectual as leaders. We could surmise that the same will befall King Kearney, leaving the Deaghs to behave as they will. If up until now they have been no more than influential advisers, I suggest that henceforth they will take a more active role in formulating policy - and that this does not include your wedding.
As luck would have it, while out riding with the gang I was able to pass your letter on to Leona Dale and am entrusted with the reply. Did you know that your future wife has a cat? (Pusskins? Fleabag? I can't recall). Be wary, sire, for it is a loathsome thing and inseparable from its mistress. At one point it seemed that Leona had shot it dead - sadly this was no more than a ruse designed to test our true intentions - which test of course we passed with flying colours. Sister Luana, perhaps, got the highest score in this 'test'. Sanguine, after we realised that Leona Dale had not in fact shot herself, made one of a long series of impassioned speeches which brought the tears to my eyes, or would have, had I not been forced to run and vomit in the bushes. Unfortunately, the sound of my lunch, as it spattered onto curious woodland creatures, partly drowned out the latter part of his discourse, but I think the substance was as follows:
Your Highness, the successful realisation of your marriage to the
Thaneson and the bond that will be formed between our two countries is
the single most important thing in my life, and always has been, and
always will be. We are trustworthy and worthy to be thus trusted, for
believe me when I say that the attaining of your mutual happiness, guides
me in everything I do and will ever do henceforth and so forth, and by the
way, can I scrape that mud off your boots with my tongue? (Hic)
We did succeed (somehow - your guess is as good as mine) in gaining
the trust of Leona Dale (but not her cat) and it was Leona that confirmed
that her father had been losing interest in the wedding for some time.
It was perhaps for this reason that she seemed cynical about the wedding
itself - but let me add that as soon as she had read your letter she appeared
mollified. She also passed on some intelligence she had gleaned. Apparently
Alston Deagh was worried that the minor crystals were important to the
great Shard in some way, but in the view of Haydn, this was not so. Perhaps
your investigations into the nature of the ten small crystals can shed
some light on this. She has no love for these two strange men who, in her
view, and most likely correctly, have turned her father from a profitable
course. This is not to say that the wedding will not proceed with the blessing
of Kearney, only that, in the greater scheme of things, I fear it has become
irrelevant to the designs of Haydn and Alston Deagh.
We did not sight the Shard again after it had been carted away on that first evening. It was to be transported to Haydn Deagh's residence, a haunted church some distance from Millview and by all reports a place of psychic disturbance and ancient power. In fact, our stay in Millview was little more than three or four days, and with the documents we had come for, the blessing of Leona Dale and the indifference of her father, we set out for home soil.
The journey was uneventful in the main. I spent the time assiduously trying to tame my imp, feeding it and looking to its needs with great devotion - such is my love for and interest in the small creature which, I confess, has become like a miniature blue son to me. The nearer we came to Lagoner, the more our Falfaxian escort dropped away, until we were surprised to find ourselves left alone to cross the wilderland and meet up with Ballantine's force of soldiers. I myself feared (and, in truth, suspected) nothing, but others in the party quaked in terror at the thought of a few days' unprotected travel. Laughing off their ridiculous fears, I fell into an easy slumber that night in our makeshift camp under the stars....
Ambush! We were woken by flames (not, sadly, the bedazzled watch) and it was thanks to Sanguine - who fought fire with fire and turned himself into a human torch (and all his clothes and possessions into a small pile of ashes) - and Luana - through the judicious use of her spellcraft - and Ballantine - ever the fearless warrior - that we escaped with our lives. As for Roggan, she bravely halted the charge of a mounted brigand by deflecting his lance through her armour and into her chest. And I? Er...well, needless to say I sharpened my blade on the air until my opponent ran away into the night. One among our attackers was a weasel-faced shape-shifter whom we recognised as being a lackey of Haydn Deagh. He stabbed Luana with a charmed blade specifically designed to negate her powers, but when the odds of the battle began to even up, turned tail and ran howling into the night in the shape of a black cur.
We were lucky to escape this treacherous attack with our lives, but perhaps more fortunate that my master Chiselmeat managed to save the more important of the wedding documents from the inferno. Chastened, we struck what remained of our camp at once and made for friendlier climes.
From Cottlesmore we travelled to Swarkstone without interruption. While I had some matters to attend to with certain business people, and others took the opportunity for cultural improvement that such a centre of population offers, Sanguine paid a visit to the great library, and discovered that some books had been pinched. This was a bad thing, not least because apparently it was impossible.
From Swarkstone, we intend to make our way directly home. It has been a long and eventful journey, and I must confess that the prospect of putting my feet up in Ashwell and forgetting for a while the cares of the world is a welcome one.
Third Report to Thaneson Rancliffe of Ashwell
Although the odds may seem against it at the time of my writing this, I hope this report finds you safe and well. Indeed, I hope it finds you at all. Much that is strange and disorienting has happened since I last wrote. I shall try to record faithfully and dispassionately the details of the events of the last few months, but let me begin by saying, get us the fuck out of here! I know it's a dirty job and someone has to do it, but gee, us? But perhaps we are not such a sorry ragtag bunch as we may have at first thought, for though the kamikaze mage Sanguine lies bleeding from a thousand cuts and I have had very recent problems with substance abuse, we are still alive and yea, verily, the fat man is slain.
To explain, sire.
You will recall that Chiselmeet and five others - Sanguine, Ballantine, Roggan, Luana and myself, Scrylashe Tirk, scribe to your good self - returned from our long journey to Millview, the capital of Falfax, where we helped to secure your matrimonial future and that of one other, to wit, Leona Dale, daughter of Kearney, the King of Falfax. The time of our return to Ashwell was early April of the year 1359. You will also recall that after our joyous reunion and subsequent debriefing, we left your home to take rest after our long travels. There follows the account of what has befallen us since we walked out your front door and into a maelstrom of confusion (and a world of hurt).
As soon as we left your chambers that night, a strange and disturbing sensation came over us. The mage Sanguine seemed the worst affected, doubling over and barfing onto the ground under the spreading boughs of the oak that stands proudly in the square, but we put that down to the copious skins of wine he had been pouring down his throat during the debriefing. It tooks us a while to remember that Ashwell is named after an ash (Fraxinus species) and not an oak (most likely it was Quercus robur but of course it could have been Q. palustris, the Pin Oak, whose leaves turn a lovely deep and shiny red in autumn, and which keeps its leaves until the following spring, although by this time they have of course lost their beautiful colour, which is actually only a pigment left behind after the chloroplasts stop producing chlorophyll - or so I have heard it said) and when we did, we began to think that maybe something was not quite right. Roggan was the first to react, panicking in great style, and soon we had all joined her in her confusion and wonder, except for Sanguine, who was too pissed to do anything other than cough sigils of blood and diced carrots. I went back into the house, but everyone had gone. It all seemed a bit spooky. I had to have you roused from sleep by the servants - in itself strange - and you claimed not to have seen us at all that evening. You seemed removed, almost as though caught in a dream, and before returning to your chambers, you said you thought that we had died. 'Ehh?' I replied, but by then you had retreated sleepily into the night. Sanguine, meanwhile, dragged his frame up the stairs and began to bash on his master's door. There was no reply. We were tempted to dither some more, but thankfully Sister Luana was able to compose herself for long enough to psychically contact Morgan.
The great priestess was ashen-faced when she arrived in what we soon found was the town of Oakwell. We had slipped through into another plane, but one so like our own as to be almost exactly the same, and yet not quite. Morgan stood before us, but it was not the Morgan that Luana knew so well, although in truth she was alike as to be the same, and yet not, and yet almost so, if not quite, but nearly indeed. She too thought that we had perished (obviously our small band's Oakwell alter-egos were pretty crap compared to us, who had survived covered in glory) and to check our story, read our chakras. The 'signature' differed from her own, which confirmed our tale. She told us that there had been great sadness in Oakwell, for she had sensed our deaths. Thus, in this plane, the wedding between Rancliffe and Leona Dale had never been arranged. It all seemed a bit grim compared to our own heroic successes, and we began to wonder what sort of pathetic losers inhabited the Oakwell milieu, who could not even organise something as simple as a wedding.
Morgan, although glad to see us, was somewhat overcome by the meeting - for the Oakwell Luana had perished, and yet here was the elfen priestess again, standing before Morgan as though come back to life. To be so confronted must have opened anew a deep wound, and soon Morgan left to return to her temple. As for ourselves, we were still rendered incapable of any constructive action by our confusion and disorientation, except for the wily Ballantine, who returned to his alter-ego's quarters and requisitioned whatever there was of value. Sanguine had been unable to rouse Hamlin, and his friend Gwen, surprised to see her stumbling phlegm-covered friend, could not help. Eventually the noble yet incoherent mage collapsed in a pile of his own vomit, his bloodied hands torn to shreds by his beating futilely on Hamiln's door. We spent an uneasy night, and the morning brought more bad news.
I determined to convince you (the Oakwell version of your personage) that I was not the Scrylashe you thought I was, but by the end of my explanation you had somehow reached the conclusion I was a barking loon. Indeed, you had no memory of having seen us the previous night, but for fleeting dreamlike images which you could barely recall. Eventually you went off to get the bailiffs, so, just to be on the safe side, I scarpered. Then came the news that Hamlin had been seen leaving Oakwell at about six that morning on a horse, apparently in something of a hurry. Sanguine and Ballantine took up the chase, and returned some hours later with the news that they had uncovered the mage's body! This was a dire turn of events. They had found the corpse a few miles distant, buried not far from the road, but of the mage's horse there had been no sign.
Sanguine had performed a necromantic ritual to relive the mage's last moments and thereby determine by whom the mage had been slain. It is a risky spell, and thus Sanguine is perfectly suited to use it as often as he can. In this case, the result was unexpected - Hamlin had been slain by Hamlin, and there was no sign of Hamlin. This revelation left us with a further unsolved mystery - which Hamlin had slain which, and why had he done so? (As it turned out, it was the Oakwell Hamlin who had been inadvertently slain by the Ashwell Hamlin, providing more evidence that our Oakwell alter-egos were pretty useless and maybe not up to it). In any case, there was no sign of Hamlin. We determined to ride out to Morgan's temple, but first we checked Hamlin's quarters.
By this time we had managed to convince Rancliffe - not you, my Lord, the Oakwell Thaneson - that our story perhaps held more water than its sieve-like appearance might at first have indicated. He joined us as we broke into Hamlin's rooms, and found the signs of an explosion, but little more. Then, the air shimmered and crackled, and it seemed that a bubble formed from the air appeared in the room. You will recall this episode - for you were there on the 'outside' of this inter-planar connection. There is little of this incident I can relate to you that you do not already know, except that we received the crystals safely, and the fact that you were able to forge this link from Ashwell is yet more evidence of the ability of we Ashwellians compared with the loutish Oakwell brood.
That you had been able to contact us, however, had given us renewed hope, and it was at least with a sense of vague purpose that we headed out to the Temple. The High Priestess Morgan seemed to be expecting us. She too had 'forgotten' our meeting of the previous evening, but had taken the precaution of taking note of what had happened, so that there was proof, to her at least, of our existence. It appeared that our presence in this plane was somehow more in the realms of supposition and possibility than fact. Even we had been having tiny doubts about the existence of Ashwell. Interestingly, the small crystals solved this problem, serving to 'consolidate' our existence, although they created another: Sanguine found close proximity to the fragment of the Shard difficult. He was prone to nausea and fainting, and this was before he started drinking. As it turned out, however, this was the least of Sanguine's troubles: in truth, he had been having a bad time of it, and things weren't improved by the emergence of the dead Hamlin inside his mind, a result of the necromantic incantation he had performed that morning. Suddenly, the sword-wielding bloodthirsty mage had the personality of an ill-humoured old whitebeard. There was some debate amongst the rest of us which was the preferable, but it soon became clear that the Oakwell Hamlin had no desire to remain trapped in Sanguine's body, so we had no choice. It took some little time and effort to quell the rancour of the deceased wizard, but he readily consented to his spirit being held in a box or jar until a more appropriate vessel could be found.
Although Morgan offered her support, there was frankly little she could do to aid us. I and the others were keen to leave for Swarkstone. Luana, however, had business with the High Priestess, and accompanied her to a sacred place. On her return we were joined by your alter-ego and the young apprentice mage Gwen, and soon we were travelling east, bound for Swarkstone, to seek the arcane texts which we hoped would shed some light on our situation, and to find the Diridian Bridge.
All was well in an uneventful journey until the twenty-fourth of April. Seven of us fell asleep in the comfort of a cosy roadside inn, but there were only five of us who woke up in a grain silo a few hundred yards from the highway. Your alter-ego, the Oakwell Thaneson, and Sanguine's young friend Gwen had been left behind in the Oakwell plane. Naturally, our sense of disorientation was once again manifest, but we were in some measure accustomed to this sort of thing, and we surmised that we had once again shifted planes.
From what we have deduced, it would appear that initially it was our previous long exposure to the great Shard that forced us to shift from Ashwell to Oakwell. I say 'forced': it was an involuntary act, and it is reasonable to assume that some process or mechanism drove us out, rather than considering it to be the result of a random occurrence. Remember that Aston Deagh took great pains to hide the Shard behind a wall of metal in its transference from the Amoroso to Hillview, as though he did not wish others to be near it. By the time we shifted from the Oakwell plane (once more not of our own volition), we were in possession of a small piece of the crystal each, and the two who remained behind had no such items. It may be speculated that the small crystals help us to preserve our link with the Shard, a link which so far has forced us out of two planes. What this implies for the planes from which we are expelled, I shall touch upon later.
The road still led to Swarkstone, but it was no empty highway. Dust rose from beneath a thousand wagon wheels, and the bleating of animals and merchants filled the air. We contrived to hitch a ride with a simple sheep trader, and soon learned that the Swarkstone which lay before us was a far cry from the one in which we had tarried scant months before. We were headed for a major mercantile centre, the capital of a fiefdom. There was no Ashwell or Oakwell in this plane - indeed, there was no Lagonier or Falfax. Things were similar enough for us to get by, but there were confusing differences which became readily apparent. For one thing, the money was of a different sort, although thankfully our gold was still worth its weight in itself; but the people seemed crass and stupid, and the women were ugly.
Cshca (pronounced 'cashcard') we met by the canals which serve as transport routes in this great city - although naturally there are roads as well. It is a thriving metropolis, a melting pot of races and cultures, not unlike our own way of life, and yet differing greatly in the nuances of custom and form. To protect ourselves in this strange environment, and to disguise our ignorance of local ways, we decided, almost in sport, to take on the guise of a travelling theatre troupe of the absurd called Eats His Pupil (after the mage Sanguine's proclivity for eyeball-gulping). We hoped that this would serve to stifle enquiries about us - for we travelled armed and were obviously no rag-tag bunch - and perhaps, by drawing attention to ourselves in this way, we could divert suspicious eyes from our true (and deadly) nature. Cshca (pronounced 'cshca') was the barge driver we chose as our guide, perhaps because she seemed most in keeping with this disguise, perhaps because she was a young woman with great legs and a sharp tongue. We engaged her services for the coming week, and would soon come to know her colleagues Baxter, Benjamin and Squeeb as well.
The next day, we set out for the library, in search of books that related to The Shard or Planar Magic. We had little success. There were several titles which were of no use at all - books of legends and fiction - and we discovered in due course that any useful book on the subject had been destroyed with a potent concoction. In addition, there was one tome which had been stolen - this, as Sanguine put it, was an impossibility, but as the same had happened to the library in the Ashwellian Swarkstone, it seemed that in these times the impossible was becoming commonplace. The volume we needed was called The Shard At The Centre - Spheres Of Influence. Naturally we suspected intervention by the Deaghs, intent on gaining control of all learning on the subject of planar travelling as they strove to take control of such means of travel, and naturally we were eager to get our hands on this book. Our inquiries came to the attention of the head librarian, and we were brought into his presence. He had little to say, but he did make a point of revealing to us the identity of the man he suspected of having committed the wanton destruction. At least we had a name: Arthur Webber. We also had an address, but this proved to be a dead end: a house in the suburbs which had been rented by Webber but long since vacated, and was now the home of a poor sloven and her squawking brats. The trail was cold, but we still had the address of Webber's real estate agent.
In the meantime, however, Luana had confided in me that she wished to perform a ritual of magic - it was the eve of the dark moon, when her connections with the world of sprites and faerie folk were strong. She needed to find a quiet forest glade or a stream of running water. Naturally, I wanted to aid her all I could - over the months I had developed a bond of trust with the pointy-eared one, and we had both been of service to each other at various times. And, after all, what harm could come from a peaceful nature ceremony? Cshca (pronounced 'zaqxyfffffplik') took us by canal to one of the great private parks in the wealthier part of Swarkstone, and we clambered over the spiked gate. Such a trespass was forbidden by city ordinances, but we would only be there for a few minutes, and there was little chance of Luana disturbing anyone with her quiet nature-spells.
Things, however, did not go quite as I had hoped. Although the sight of Luana prancing naked around the pool in the moonlight wielding a silver blade is one which I won't forget in a hurry, the otherwordly singing which sprang from her lips and echoed through the darkness soon brought a squad of local militia to investigate the commotion. We were in trouble, and in the dark, our confusion was manifest. It seemed somehow unwise to attack these soldiers, but Cshca ('klimzphotwlspignob') had no such reservations. Nor, for that matter, did Luana. Holding aloft her blessed sword, she set about our attackers, and moving almost swifter that the eye could see, she carved them into pieces before our very eyes. Whatever spirit was acting through her was fairly handy with a blade. Now we had some breathing space, and made our way to the gates. Cshca had been badly wounded in the leg, but otherwise our party was more or less intact, and as we gained to the boat, all that remained was to convince the pixilated and prancing Luana to join us. This task fell to me, and thus I approached the good priestess to calm her down and impress upon her the need for our swift departure. After she had stabbed me twice in the gut, almost killing me, she came to her senses and joined us in the barge, where she used what remained of her magic to tend to the wounds of everyone but myself, who lay bleeding like a stuck pig, drained of all life.
Somehow I survived, and we rested up that night at Cshca's warehouse, where our wounds were tended. We met the feisty barge-chick's friends: Baxter, Benjamin, and Squeeb, the boss. Thankfully, there were no hard feelings about the danger in which we had inadvertently placed Cshca - those were the risks of the job - and Benjamin took over as our bargeman for the next day while Cshca recuperated. First stop: the library once more, to research the Caldbeck Rise. Here is what we found:
The Caldbeck Rise are a very secretive organisation who have their base of operations on the hidden Caldbeck Island. They have operatives in all major cities, but, as befits a secret society, they are difficult to locate. The reference material we found indicated that the Caldbeck Rise tend to view themselves as the unofficial police force of the interplanar realms.
This was all very well, but it didn't help us find the Rise, and in any case, what would we do even if we found them? Perhaps it was more a case of them finding us, but in the meantime, we had another lead to follow. We still sought the mysterious Arthur Webber, and it was at the office of his real astate agent that evening that we found what we were looking for, and more besides: the name of an establishment in the Quarter - The Silver Spike - where we might find Mr Webber, and a large quantity of high-grade cocaine, which we were certain would not be missed by the proprietor ( the same goes for the wad of travellers' cheques I stuffed into my pockets).
It was late on the Mayday when I and Sanguine slipped out the window of the Effrin Estate Agents and rejoined Ballantine, Luana and Roggan as they kept watch for us in the streets outside. Celebrations were in full swing when we reached Feal St and located the Silver Spike, recognisable only by the small silver spindle which hung over the door. It turned out to be a message drop. Ballantine and Roggan entered and tried to glean some information from the burly proprietor, saying they were friends of Arthur Webber who were looking for him. The man seemed suspicious, and gave nothing away. The offices were on the fourth floor, so after Sanguine had thaumaturgically improved my manual dexterity (not that such was necessary), I scaled the wall and lowered myself from the roof to eavesdrop outside the fourth-storey window. Three men sat talking inside. They were obviously concerned that Arthur Webber was being sought. Subsequently, Ballantine and Roggan paid the establishment another visit while I was in position outside the window. I saw a lean rat-like fellow writing out a note in the back room, which was moments later passed off to Ballantine as a newly-arrived message for Webber. 'The Leech - Feal St - tomorrow lunchtime' read the note. It was clear where we must go, but we would not be waiting until the next day.
It was two a.m. when we stood outside The Leech, an inn not far down from the Silver Spike. The building was in darkness and seemed deserted, but an hour earlier we had observed a ferret-faced man from the Silver Spike go in through the front door. I picked the lock and we made our way inside. The upper chambers were empty, and, it seemed, the lower likewise, but after some searching we found a secret door at the back of one of the booths in the main bar area. We carefully opened this door and, listening, heard the sounds of revelry rising from below. What to do? It would have been rash to charge down into an unknown force of what were likely to be brigands and cut-throats, so it was odd that we did not opt for this plan, but Roggan it was who came up with the superior idea of sending someone outside to knock on the front door while the rest of us remained inside, thus drawing some of the force from below out into the open. Roggan left the building while the rest of us stationed ourselves in various positions of vantage in the darkened inn. I was excited, because it seemed that at last I would have the chance to test out one of my custom-made tools - the remarkable string-bag strangler hood!
Roggan's tremendous banging on the front door at last brought a response from below, and a burly thug, evidently disgruntled at this interruption to his celebrations, emerged from behind the secret door and came past me in the darkness. I leapt forward and brought the string-bag down upon the thug's head. Through an extraordinary instance of misfortune this remarkable implement failed to find its mark, and the brute turned towards me and raised his glinting sword. At that moment, Roggan, who had heard the disturbance, opened the door with great force, catching the villain full in the head and knocking him to the floor. Where my trusty string-bag had surprisingly failed, Roggan's clever mind had prevailed, and it was with great relish that we both set about our prone victim and beat him to a pulp.
The commotion brought others of the brigade from the depths, and we fought them in the doorway of the stairs leading down. It became clear that we held the advantage - two of their number soon lay bleeding on the ground - and they conceded us the victory. No doubt to them it had seemed a gross impertinence to be thus attacked without warning or reason, and, somewhat chagrined, they asked what we wanted. When we told them we sought Arthur Webber, one of their number immediately made a bolt for freedom. Clearly, this was our man, and, obviously content to give up their friend if it meant they could avoid tangling once more with our trusty blades, the rest of them let us pass freely. Sanguine, Ballantine and myself gave chase, while Luana and Roggan repaired to the streets outside, intending to apprehend the fellow if he came their way.
The man led us a merry chase through the subterranean stronghold and up a spiral staircase towards the rooftops of Swarkstone. We were half way to the top of these stairs when we heard a sound from above - an object of size was rolling down from above. Ballantine and I stood as though transfixed, like rabbits frozen before the lanterns of a moving cart. Only Sanguine had the presence of mind to act, grabbing hold of the rail and leaping over it to hang above the distant floor; and, after we had followed suit, only Sanguine was hit by the stone ball as it rolled harmlessly past Ballantine and myself. The wounded mage kept his feet, however, and joined us at the top of the stairs, where we pondered a mystery. In a secret alcove we found a ledge filled with empty wineskins, and it seemed two were missing. We failed to solve this riddle, but Ballantine grabbed a couple of the skins for good measure, and we pushed out through an ancient dovecote and onto the roof of The Leech. A steel ladder led down to an empty canal. Moments later we stood on the brink of the stream, pondering our quarry's disappearance, but then noticed a disturbance of the water near the entrance to a submerged drain. It was clear what must be done: Ballantine and myself would bravely stand guard while, using magix to aid him, Sanguine would take the wineskins and use them for air as he swam through the effluent in search of our man.
I am not in possession of the details of Sanguine's swim through the sewer - for some reason he seems reluctant to say much about it - but suffice to say, he emerged a few minutes later holding Webber by the neck, covered in glory, not to mention other things.
We interrogated Arthur Webber there and then on the rooftop. He was clearly vermin, and he smelled rank to boot. But then, so did Sanguine, so we tried not to hold it against him. Eventually, under the pressure of dark threats, which some in our party may have been reluctant to issue, but I sincerely intended to carry out, the story began to emerge. Arthur Webber was not an individual, but a name which was employed by the group of thieves we had stumbled upon. The Webber persona had evidently been used extensively in the past - and this explained rumours we had heard of an Arthur Webber being sought by a constable from the town of Mafton - but most recently, the rogue before us had used it in the vandalism and theft which had taken place in Swarkstone library. It begged the question, for it was clear that a man would need help to bypass the library's security system - who had aided the thief, and who had received the stolen book? At this point, the interrogation broke down. Webber was stricken by fear, and we had to promise him twenty-four hours to escape before he would break his silence. The name he mentioned was that of Randolph Dean Cargille.
Strangers in this Swarkstone, Cargille's name was unknown to us, but from what we could glean from Webber's pathetic gibbering, he was the local big nob, an obese tyrant whose very name struck fear. As the Mayor of Swarkstone, Cargille had extraordinary power, and spies everywhere, and even sat on the Board of the library - which in itself provided the answer to one of our questions. But for Cargille to have been behind the destruction and theft of the books, it made sense that he was in some way connected with the Deaghs and their plot. In which case, it was imperative that we find out what we could about him. Cargille's estate lay 40 miles down the Far Roads out of Swarkstone, but the big man spent much of his time running the affairs of state from the city's finest hotel, The Monarch. According to Webber, Cargille had not kept the book, but passed it on to others. He had made sure, however, to have certain pages of the text copied for his own use by a scribe called Sams, and it was possible that the copied pages might be found out at his estate. That was reason enough for us to start thinking about going out to Cargille's place, at least to have a look from a distance.
Eventually we let Webber go, and he went fast. We had promised to wait twenty-four hours before we took any action in the matter of the library books, and although I was against this wasteful delay, the vote in the party was against me. As a result of this rank sentimentality (in this case for an unscrupulous thief and liar!), it was not until the morning two days hence that we set out for Cargille's estate. Of all the barge riders, only Cshca had the guts to accompany us. And yet, maybe she was the bravest of us all, for of the six who came along that day, only she knew what Cargille was truly capable of.
Forty miles out of Swarkstone, we came to a thick and forbidding forest. A mile or two later and we had passed the great gates of the Cargille estate themselves. We kept on for a little distance before taking our leave of Cshca, who remained behind in charge of the wagon - she snapped one of the vehicle's axles to give herself an excuse for being by the roadside. Then the five of us struck out into the wood. It was hard going. There were brambles and thornbushes growing everywhere, and the sun beat down upon us. After some time we came to a steep ditch, a moat filled with gorse and prickles. Evidently designed to discourage interlopers, we ploughed on and it was not far off dusk when we emerged from the wood and found ourselves on a paved road. It was the driveway leading from the main gates to the house itself. Ever more wary, we kept to the wooded margin by the path as we headed for the mansion, and soon enough it came into view - a big three-storey place four hundred yards away in the centre of rolling green lawns. It was impressive. We were impressed. There was no sign of life, either in the garden or in the house itself. We had a scant fifteen minutes before darkness fell, so I determined to circle the house from the perimeter of the lawn. It was a fine plan, but even finer was the idea to place an enchantment upon me - 'Catsarse' - so that I would see better in the fading light. Sanguine cast the spell, but with his magician's intuition sensed a sudden disturbance. Someone, or something else, was casting magic.
We were not many yards into our frantic bolt back down the driveway before we realised that we were in the power of an enchanment. As much as we might run away from the mansion, so we were somehow drawn towards it. We tried everything: gibbering at random, closing our eyes, walking in circles, walking backwards, thinking we were walking forwards while we were walking backwards, sitting doing nothing, standing doing nothing, alternately sitting then standing doing nothing, attaching ropes to our waists and pulling each other at odd angles in no specific direction, but it all led to the same thing: we were either drawn to the house, or stayed in the same place. In desperation, Ballantine, Roggan and Luana tried actually walking towards the house. This, they actually succeeded in doing. Night had fallen, and we were in deep shit, stuck on Cargille's lawn concocting in our own heads a series of lame and unlikely excuses for our trespass. After our constant shouting and calling to each other, it was no surprise that a light came on in a window of the house, and eventually we were being led meekly towards our doom by an ancient retainer who introduced himself as McDowell. He seemed a kind enough old chap, but certain that Cargille would soon be back to slay us for trespass. Accordingly, he pandered to our desires for foodstuffs of all kinds, fine wines and tremendous cigars (I can personally vouch for their outstanding quality), a last meal fit for kings and queens, being served to the greatest surrealist theatre company Swarkstone had ever seen. We would have the chance for one last performance, or so we thought.
When Cargille arrived in his horse-drawn carriage and poured his balloon-frame out onto the lawn, he called us out to face our deaths. It is odd to think of it now, but I must confess here that we all obeyed without question, heading out to face him like lambs to the slaughter. And then, as we looked upon him, we knew. Hidden in the folds of the great moon plate of his face were the features of Haydn and Alston Deagh. Randolph Dean Cargille was none other than one of that evil breed who were plotting the enslavement of worlds by taking for their own the power of the Shard of the Sun.
Luana pranced forward as the fat slug gloated over us, trying to distract him with elven prancing, and yes, a display of coquettry. It served some purpose, for the bloated Cargille looked upon her with bemusement, before pronoucing that only two of us must die. Ah! the generosity of it! The chosen two were Ballantine and Roggan. Naturally the three of us that Cargille had for the moment consented to spare leapt at once to the defence of Ballantine and Roggan and protested that such punishment could not be countenanced, except for...er...Luana, and so it was decreed that Sanguine and myself, the protesters, would perish instead. So be it, I thought to myself, but not before I spill some your black pig blood, you evil cunt! or maybe it was actually something along the lines of oh jeez no don't hurt me. Yet, whatever we were thinking, we had had enough. The fat man must die.
And so the battle began, and the battle raged, across the lawns of the Cargille estate on that day in May. He was a powerful magician, and no doubt he could have killed us with great ease, but his weakness was his cruelty, and so he toyed with us as we tried our feeble attacks against him, floating and gloating still above us. He played with our minds so that the ground seemed to tilt, and those that could not secure themselves to the lawn tumbled down away from the house. Luana he confounded, leaving her lying helpless and distressed in a ragged pile near the forest. Roggan's crystal he took from her, and though it enraged her, anger alone was to no avail. Ballantine hung from the skewed lawn as if from the top of a cliff, unable to draw blade. My own puny darts, dipped in poison, did not find their mark, and time and again I tumbled down the illusory slope, only to drag myself back up for a further futile attack against the fat man. Only the mage Sanguine had the sheer insane bravado and skill to take the fight to the floating heap of blubber. Like a beserker was the elementalist, proving once again that as magicians go, he makes a great warrior. Yet in this fight, it seemed to matter little whether we thrust or parried - for it was clear to my mind at least that we were doomed to fall here at the hands of this beast. But then, when all seemed lost, and all of us bled from many cuts while the fat man floated unharmed, healing his wounds as soon as they appeared, as if by some miracle the tide of the battle turned.
And so it was, when drained of all but the last of life, I lay waiting for a chance to inflict one more wound upon him. I dipped a barb in kota and looked for my chance, watching as the great bulk of our enemy sank down upon the battered body of Sanguine, a foul grin upon the fat man's face. Sanguine, in one last effort, cast a spell which caused flames to fly up around them both, but the fat man just laughed, and flames of his own making sprouted forth, greater and hotter than Sanguine's. But now it was Sanguine's turn to laugh. He cast again, this time a spell which caused freezing, and the impact of the cold on the flames was like...um....ice on fire. Cargille lurched back with a bitter and surprised groan, his skin white and frozen, shock upon his face. He turned away from me, and I took my chance to leap to my feet undetected. Was this the time for the string-bag strangler hood? Mayhap so, and yet I had not thought of it! I had only my poisoned barb, which I clasped in both hands. Leaping into the air, I straddled Cargille's mighty back and thrust the point deep into the thick, exposed neck before me, so that his head arched back and a foul scream escaped his lips. Even as he might have turned to crush me, Roggan stepped forward and swung her battle axe mightily, and it clove through his rib cage into the very heart of him. Ballantine too stepped up and thrust with his blade, piercing deep.
Cargille stood there, tottering, and we stood about him, each of us barely able to breathe. We saw as his great body toppled over and landed with a shuddering jolt on the lawn, and even as we watched, his life seemed to rush out of him like a foul wind, and he lay there, unmoving. And Roggan walked forward, and took back her crystal from his clammy hand, holding it aloft in a gesture of terrible triumph, and Luana came forth to see that it was true, beyond all hope. The fat man had been slain.
Sanguine stood before the intricately carved sigil, his brow furrowed,
yet with the glitter of anticipation - or was that the sparkle of foolhardiness?
- in his eyes. He knew the danger. Sigils were the personal protective
emblems of individual practitioners of the arcane arts, and not to be trifled
with at the best of times. This one was on the door of the wall safe in
the study of none other than Randolph Dean Cargille, Mayor of Swarkstone,
a powerful and psychopathically evil magician. If anything went wrong.....BOOM!!!
There was no danger of being interrupted by the Mayor himself. It had been touch and go, but at the last they had brought the fucker down through a combination of luck and the sheer pig-headed refusal to accept defeat. He lay dead on the lawn outside, his head severed from his behemoth body. There would be a scratch game of footy afterwards in the park, but for the moment, there was still the small matter of the safe. Maybe the pages were inside, maybe not. Either way, they had to know.
Beads of sweat ran down Sanguine's brow as he hefted Cargille's severed hand and angled the square signet ring, still attached to its chubby finger, towards the beckoning depression in the centre of the metal plate which bore the complex sigil.
"It looks like a perfect fit," he said.
"How much do you know about this sort of stuff?" asked Scrylashe, standing at his shoulder.
"Put it this way. Why don't you see if you can round up a dustpan and broom and a body bag?"
The squat dwarf, Roggan, smiled up at them generously.
"I'll do it," she offered.
"Yeah," nodded Scrylashe. "Naturally I'd offer as well, but if I lose any more blood I'm fertilizer." The slender scribe-cum-thief had all but fallen in their fight with Cargille. Even as he stood there his wounds were smarting.
"No," said Sanguine tersely. "It has to be me. I at least have some understanding of such matters, and perhaps having the signet ring still attached to Cargille's hand will be enough to protect me. In any case, what's the worst that can happen to me?"
Roggan and Scrylashe exchanged glances.
"Here, take me shield," said Roggan, handing it to the mage as they backed out of the room into the shelter of the hall.
"You're a mad fuck!" Scrylashe called out to his friend.
Alone now, Sanguine stood gazing into the heart of the sigil. It's interwoven paths formed half-familiar shapes, almost recognisable, as though he were studying a complex text, the true meaning of which was just beyond the reach of his understanding. I really should take a copy of this and spend a few weeks studying it, he thought to himself. Maybe then I could minimize the risk. Then again, what the hell....?
Bracing himself, half-crouching behind the shield, he slammed the signet ring home into the central aperture. For a split second he laboured under the misapprehension that all was well. That's odd, he thought. The sigil seems to be shrinking....It was not until his progress through the air was briefly halted by the great circular window in the northern wall of the study that the sound of the blast caught up with him, and at once he was deafened by the combined sounds of the detonation and the shattering of glass, as he shot out of the house and began his graceful arcing fall to the hard ground thirty feet below, a thousand slivers of glass pincushioning his shattered body.
Roggan and myself rushed downstairs and out onto the lawn, hastily swathing Sanguine in bandages, but in truth, it looked grim for the madcap mage. Covered in blood, bones twisted and broken, life was ebbing from him fast. Of us all, only Luana had any potential to heal him of his wounds, and she had collapsed after the horror of the fight with Cargille and was lying unconscious in a bed inside the house. Ballantine had already left to inform Cshca ('shchchshscaahchaa') of our safety. In desperation, we carried Sanguine upstairs and tried to rouse Luana from her torpor. Once again, Sanguine's luck held. Luana woke long enough to take the battered mage in a healing embrace, and then the two of them fell into deep sleep.
Roggan and myself returned to Cargille's study to examine the contents of the safe. Amongst other things, we found what we sought - the copied pages from The Shard At The Centre - Spheres Of Influence - but there was one other document, sealed inside an envelope with what appeared to be Cargille's personal seal. As I scanned through the pages of the book, Roggan tore open the envelope and began to read. The sealed document was a letter, sweetly perfumed. I include the whole of its substance below:
My Dear Heydn,
Should you be reading this I am dead. Whether by your hand or not is, I suppose, immaterial and yet I assume if anyone is to end my life it shall be you.
Since I will by then have nothing further to lose or gain I would hope that you might take these last words more seriously than my continued existence would preclude.
The brotherhood is in clandestine communication; no doubt you are aware of this fact or at least have assumed that this so. Do not take this to mean that they are against you or your work; althouhg some are bitter and others openly hostile, the majority, from what I can gather, are compliant and willing to carry out your commands.
The crumbs of knowledge and power that you bestow on those of us you feel will serve you best not only make us more secure in our respective homes but harbour mistrust and resentment amongst the brotherhood (as I write these words it strikes me that this may be your intent) but those of us with fragments of insight have begun to pool our resources and we hope yet than one may arise to confront and replace you.
Tread carefully my brother; those you do not fully break to your will are both your greatest allies and meanest foes combined. You expect that we be willing to lay down our lives for the work and yet none would be so foolish to think that this tenet holds true for you also. We have heard of our brothers' deaths and not one among us has not wondered when our time will come. I fear that the irresistible thirst for knowledge that the work has had upon me will ultimately be my undoing. I will not be the last.
From beyond the grave, free of your tyranny, I wish you and the brotherhood every success. From here and now, a victim of fear and bitter rage, I can only hope you were foolish enough to overlook the toxin contained within the perfume.
My love to you dear brother, etc etc.
I was badly affected by the poisoned letter - Roggan was saved by her dwarven constitution - but (else, how could I write this?) I survived. The details of the episode are not important - suffice to say that, although the whole thing was a bummer, I was saved by Roggan's quick-thinking and the timely administration of strong stimulants.
The letter is in itself of great interest, but perhaps more cogent are the pages from the book (copies of which I shall attach at the end of this missive). No doubt Hamlin has the skill and knowledge to decipher their meaning, if they should ever come into his hands.
In the meantime, this report nears its conclusion. There remains only one episode to relate, which is more in the way of a dream than anything else, but which had many of the characteristics of what we consider to be waking life, and was shared by Sanguine and myself.
I wake to a bright morning, and all my wounds have been healed. I feel in the peak of health. Sanguine is sleeping in the same room - we are still in Cargille's house - and a small imp is perched upon the end of his bed, as though watching over him. Leaving the imp to its own devices, I wake my friend, and we begin an exploration of the house. We have nothing with us but our bedclothes. We hear music coming from outside. There, on the lawn, is Randolph Dean Cargille, not dead as we last saw him, but sitting playing the piano in the bright morning sunshine. We speak with him. In contrast to the man we slew, this Deagh seems almost congenial, if perhaps unctuous and somewhat disingenuous. He describes himself as a businessman, and speaks of visitations he has received from a 'dark spirit', terrifying him in the night. The last visitation he received was the previous evening, and then, this morning he finds himself out on his lawn playing the piano. It is all unquestionably strange, but Deagh takes it in his stride. It seems we have plane-shifted yet again, and yet there is the dreamlike quality of the surreal in all that is happening.
As we begin to explore the area, things begin to change, seemingly at random, as though we are shifting through many planes in quick succession, or parts of different planes are intermingling where we happen to be. Trees grow out of the lapping waves at the edge of a great sea, and we espy a boat not far from these strange wooded shallows. We make for this vessel, all three of us, and it takes us far away, until we come to a pirate vessel like unto that of Captain Thomas, the pirate of whom I have spoken elsewhere. We watch the death of the crew as though we are ghosts peering in from another world. We see them hoist an invisible object out of the hold, and sense an explosion, and witness the beginnings of the slaughter, as we guessed it must have happened on the other pirate craft. Yet, although similar, this is not the same world. Strangely, we cannot see the crystal.
Now the pirate ship is still, and a great vessel approaches, similar
in style to the Amoroso, yet crewed differently. The invisible artefact
is transported across from the pirate ship, and we see a shapeshifting
creature acompany it. We try to make contact with the crew, but, although
some of them can sense us - in particular an Elf - they cannot hear
what we say. It is as though we are disembodied spirits. There is another
Deagh on board, and I follow him and the ship's Captain down into the hold.
From their conversation, I learn that the item is spherical, and amber-coloured.
At one point the Captain fancies he can see something moving inside the
great sphere, yet only from a particular angle. Deagh places magical wards
around the item. This is all too familiar. When they have left the hold,
I try to stand 'in' the amber sphere. My small crystal glows with an amber
light, and I begin to vibrate. Why, in this plane, is this not a Shard,
but a sphere? What did the Captain see moving inside? Is the colour significant?
Deagh locks himself in his cabin, but Cargille cleverly forces him out onto the decks. Deagh is frustrated and angry, and foolishly looks into the plane where we are. He sees the shapeshifting creature, but it rips his heart out. Another Deagh is dead! Go team!
After this, we shift again, this time to an empty boat. We land on a sandy beach. There is a silver spear with a ribbon tied to it sticking out of the ground. I take the spear. We walk through a gate along a marble path. In a clearing we come upon small hobbit-like creatures lying drunk beneath the boughs of a spreading tree. Beyond them, we meet a satyr-like creature fleeing from a band of Amazons. We walk on, coming to rolling hills, and are met by a centaur, who says we must be tried by the King for trespassing. Men are forbidden from entering this realm. We walk a long spiral path through a great forest and come at last to a clearing where all manner of strange creatures lie sleeping. There is a giant wrapped around a tall Maypole, slumbering. We are brought before the King, who must be woken from sleep. There has been a great celebration, for the Mayday, and he has a splitting headache. The King is tall and slender and has a goat-like head, with spiralling horns growing from the side of his head. His body is purple-blue. He shows no hesitation in making it clear that he thinks men are weak and foolish. This seems a bit rough, considering how strong and wise we are. His wife is very slender and beautiful. Sanguine gets a hard-on. So does Cargille. So do I. After I challenge him for rulership of his Kingdom (a challenge which he turns down - was he scared?), the King says we can either serve him forever, or else play in the Mayday games. The games have already ended, however, so we must face the champions in fields of our own choosing, except for Cargille and Sanguine, who must do as he tells them.
Cargille has to fight the great invulnerable giant and pulls the old invulnerable-beings-cannot-harm-themselves trick out of the bag. He stabs himself in the side - being a businessman this is probably the best he can manage anyway - and thwarts the giant, who seems a bit miffed. Sanguine must match the most beautiful offerings which have been made to the King's wife by the most skilled artists in the realm. She is sympathetic to our plight, and saves Sanguine by taking one of his tears as a gift. Why was Sanguine crying? Maybe because he was scared shitless. I alone can choose my contest, and select scribing. The King has an ancient blind scribe in his employ, obviously an expert in the field. This wizened prune-face has been writing down with great alacrity everything which has been said. My task is daunting. At first I can't think of much to say, but then I tell our tale, from the start, and soon the old scribe stops writing. In this case, the tale is not in the telling - for the last fucking hour we have been trying to convince the King of the importance of the quest we have embarked upon, and it is only when he stops his arrogant and kingly gasbagging long enough to actually listen that he begins to comprehend the gravity of the situation - his as well as ours. Still, maybe I shouldn't be so hard on him - after all, are not goats stubborn by nature?
After I have finished, the King is more conciliatory, and I think his wife gives Sanguine the come-on, though I can't be sure. Whatever the case, the mage is sporting a stag, and his trousers look like a very very very small tent. The King shows us the swimming pool in the back yard. It is shiny silver, like mercury, but black slime has been gathering at the silvery waters' edge. The King says that this is a recent development, a sign that something is threatening his Realm - does he reign over the Elysian Fields? He asks if we know his name. Incorrectly, I guess Pan. It is Sanguine's turn to guess next, and he guesses Pan. Sanguine is wrong too.Then, last of all, Cargille has a guess, and opts for Pan. Wrong. The King advises us to learn his name, and then call upon him. It would have been easier if he had simply told us, but at least we have eliminated Pan.
Fourth Report To Thaneson Rancliffe Of Ashwell
We did not tarry long at Cargille's stately mansion - yet long enough for me to avail myself of a souvenir or two courtesy of the deceased behemoth Randolph Dean Cargille himself. Was it a necklace I took, or perhaps a bejewelled goblet or gem-encrusted dagger pilfered from the fat man's endless coffers? No, actually, I took possession of one of his eyeballs and his right hand. I have them with me to this day.
My memory of the exact sequence of events around this juncture is hazy, so the report will perforce be brief until the point we reach the plane in which we now travel.
From the Cargille mansion we returned to Swarkstone, there to make our rendezvous on the Diridian Bridge, as had been planned what seemed so long ago. And may actually have been. A fact which I would no doubt have more of a take on, were my memory of the exact sequence of events around this juncture not so hazy. Roggan and Ballantine had had some intercourse (social, as far as I know) with a man known as Preston Elliot. They considered him to be one of the good guys. He had warned them about the meeting on the bridge (Q: How did he know about it? Did we tell him?). Apparently, there was danger involved. Needless to say, we turned up on time, oblivious to all threat. A swirling blue mirror appeared on the span, and four black-leather-clad mercenaries issued forth to attack us. After a close struggle, we bested them and chased their leader as fled through the streets of Swarkstone. We cornered him in the forecourt of the great library itself, and there, rather than give himself up to us, he ripped a shard of crystal from a leather thong around his neck, and in doing so, began to fade, as it were, from existence!
The implications of this are clear: the crystal shards serve as a link with the plane of origin. Removed from this link, the individual dissolves out of the reality which is that plane, for they cannot properly be said to exist in that reality. Simply, they should not be there, and so, they are not. The case is the same for us, which should be further warning.
I took the magical bracers from the man before he vanished, but foolishly neglected to grab the boots, which had enabled the man to leap great distances.
A crowd had gathered, and a fiery blue cord appeared and began
to drag us in towards a nasty-looking hole in the sky. Preston Elliot appeared
and, in the way of so many of our so-called 'allies', with what seemed
great reluctance helped us to escape. (Q: If he is really an ally, why
does he not act like it? Trust no-one, especially not yourself.)
Almost by accident, we plane-shifted again and ended up in what seemed an endless field. We found a road, and then a caravan that travelled along it, headed on a long journey towards a city called Adipsicor. We got work as guards. We got to know the people and a talking ape, desecrated a tomb, unleashed an undead creature. I got off with a cool fortune-teller babe.
On Midsummer, we partied big-time. The drugs must have been something, because they transported us, literally. At first it seemed that we looked through a window into a room of horror. There, a Mage (a Deagh?) layed spells upon a great red clay monster, ten foot tall, its body pierced everywhere with shards of pink crystal. The scene changed, and we found ourselves in a tall tower overlooking a great city. Was this Adipsicor? In the top of the tower, a Black Elven man with bright white eyes sat in a bath.
Then it seemed that we walked along the wooded banks of a talking stream. We followed the melody of its voice, and came to a village. A wicked monster sat upon the bridge that crossed the river into the Summer Isles, and would let none pass unless they could guess at its riddle. It seemed that some force was in the process of sealing off the faerie realm from the more prosaic planes of existence. It didn't seem the right thing to do, really. Unluckily failing to guess the answer to the creature's riddle, instead we blew the monster up, quicker than any of us could have imagined possible .
Able to cross the bridge now, Luana and I did so. It led us yet again into the lands of Spook. As far as I know, this was Luana's first trip into faerieland, but I of course had been there before, in the strange dream-not-dream that I had shared with Sanguine and the not-completely-evil Deagh. This time we met up with all sorts of odd creatures. Luana turned a troll to stone, and I had glad chance to speak once more with the centaur Giridion, and his wife Jaffriel. Giridion told me that Midsummer was the best time to get in touch with Pan. It is when his energies are strongest. I think it was by chance that we found the source of the talking stream. It was a deep pool, and there in the waters dwelt Grandfather Trout, who apparently knows all things. This is what he told us:
- Life has no meaning as such. Everything is relative.
- There is a hole in my underwear.
- Deagh's motives are secret even from himself. Apparently, quite a few years ago, the head evil dude Deagh set into motion a plan of such mind-boggling evil that he had to hide its design even from himself. Heavy.
- The Caldbeck Rise are bad news for us. I think we can safely assume that any black-leather clad mercenaries who jump out of strange planes to attack us are of the Caldbeck Rise.
- Preston Elliott is one of the good guys, believe it or not.
- It is important to saty hidden from Deagh.
- The Black Elf that we saw in the vision is an ally.
(Whatever you do, don't read the next bit, it's too depressing)
He also told us that it didn't matter a pouch of beans what we actually did, Deagh would succeed in his mission in the long run. All we could do was carry on, inexorably wound up in our own fate, and that the Hand of Glory was somehow important in the final resolution of things.
(Don't say I didn't warn you)
Naturally, it's a philosophical rather than practical question whether or not we can alter the future as it is apparently laid out before us, but it's a practical rather than philosophical one whether or not there is any point in trying. If the future is in fact mapped out before us, then someone please turn me over and shove some cocaine up my arse. I've heard it's quite enjoyable, although (as far as I know) I've never tried myself.
Anyway, after we grilled the Trout (geddit?) and it told us that the universe was doomed, I really began to feel like a pint, so Luana and I (and her Keanu Reeves-like little chum Pogle) trecked out of the Summer Isles and were at once attacked by a few black-leather clad assassins. Luana killed them while I stood by mercilessly stabbing the air with my trust blade, and on one - in a fresh wound - we found some small fragments of pink crystal. I immediately thought of Big Red, the evil beastie we had seen in the vision.
At some point, we went back into the land of Faerie to find Roggan and Ballantine, who were apparently in danger of losing themselves in the magical world (I can think of worse fates), and we also found out (how? I can't recall) that Sanguine had been killed in a fight with Big Red, along with another of these black leather clad assassins (BLCAs). Was this part of the vision?
And then.....we woke up!
It was all a dream!! yet not really. We 'woke up' in the same spot we had been sitting on Midsummer's Eve. The only thing was, Sanguine was not there. Sighing with relief, we burnt his things and went back to the caravan. It was not long after this that the undead creature we had unleashed caught up with the caravan and began to suck some souls. We were forced to hunt it down bravely and nobly slay it in a bold fashion. Sometime around here, I started work on the Hand of Glory, using Deagh's severed hand sealed in wax as the basis for what I hope to make into a weapon that we can one day use against Deagh (see above for why this is a noble yet futile gesture).
One night, we sat down to see if we had the skills yet to shift planes
on our own. And we did!
Fifth Report to Thaneson Rancliffe of Ashwell
I look out the window onto the spreading lawns here in the Gatehouse
- must be a big gate, it's a big Gatehouse - at Matheson and think, arachnids,
don't you just love them? More on that later.
So, Sanguine is gone now. We think this, but we are not sure. Let this be the watchword: nothing is certain. Are you certain you're happy with that as a watchword? It appears that Sanguine is gone.
We landed in a strange realm, devoid, as we thought, of magic.
We appeared on a village common and caused consternation amongst the locals.
Communications and constabulary both are well organised in this sphere.
It was not long before we had been captured and transported in a strange
carriage to cells many miles from the place we arrived.