Yulong folds his arms into the sleeves of his robe, carefully studying the faces of his new companions. “Then it is agreed, we will go to this first house in force. It seems abundantly clear that our first priority is to rescue the ork young by any means. It is my hope that we can do so without bloodshed—ignorance and bigotry should be tempered with reform, not death. Violence will only beget more violence, and if these communities must live so close together, it would be better they were in harmony than otherwise.” The monk sighs, rubbing the crest of his bald head. “Given the reputation of this ‘brotherhood’ however, such a feat may prove impossible. . . .”
He shrugs, adjusting the hang of the broadsword slung across his shoulder. “I think it would be best to approach at a distance, scout them out before we proceed, to learn where they are keeping the children and their strength of arms. I will admit I have little talent for espionage; my skills of voice and blade are of little use without my foe before me. Surely at least one of you has the means to see and stay unseen?”
Alexander raises his hand, for the first time talkative. “The street life of a city gang doesn’t attract the talents of the Awakened. I would bet that they are quite unprotected on the astral plane. When we know where our destination lies, we can ask for spiritual guidance to lead us to our quarry. It may also be possible to trick these shallow minds into simply handing the children back to us. Of course, either way, no information must be left which could lead back to the ork neighborhoods or to our group. I will take care of that.”
Linus looks up, having been scribbling some completely unrelated equations on his datapad. “I certainly agree!” he begins. “A cycle of retribution is exactly what these bloody troglodytes are looking for. We need to either strike so decisively that nothing is left of the group, which frankly is a ridiculous idea and beyond consideration, or use our wits to play them against each other.”
He pauses. “Alexander, are you suggesting that you have ability to scout their location? I myself have access to such means but my astral kindred are of a … fuck, what’s the word … a luminescent nature. I can bring them to our aid but it may be the less subtle of our options.”
Yulong listens intently, stroking his chin. “Yes, I very much like the idea of some sort of diversion, turning them against another group so they would not think to retaliate against the community again. My friend in the lab coat, I’m sorry I don’t know your name, could you possibly find more information on other groups in the area, maybe a rival supremacist gang who we could pose as or frame?” The monk checks himself, and bows to the group, clasping his fist in greeting. “I apologize for my rudeness, I had not thought to introduce myself. I am Zhuang Yulong, of the Shaolin Order.”He turns to the shaman. “And you seem to have insinuated that you can control their thoughts. Can you describe exactly what you can do, so we can fully explore our options?”
Alexander smooths his long, shiny black hair and pushes his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose. “Controlling thoughts is one talent I possess, yes. But it is the least subtle of tricks, and leaves the victim completely aware of the manipulation. The most believable way to control another person is to make them want what you want; but there are far more ways of doing this than simply willing them to action. I control what people see, hear and feel, even what they remember. Convincing them to release a few worthless children will be beyond child’s play. Since we are introducing ourselves, I am Alexander, follower of Asclepius, at your service.” He smiles around the circle of runners.
“And I am Linus Ruthhh….. let’s just go with Linus for now. I will conjure a small friend from the “astral plane” as you call it. To be perfectly honest with you I think the astrality business sets completely the wrong tone, but that’s a totally different discussion and I’ll just leave it for another time. If you gentlemen will kindly wait for a moment," Linus steps away from the group, looking up and down the street for observers.
[Presuming no one is around besides the members of the group, Linus attempts to conjure a Watcher to look for the children.]
Alexander sits on the ground, cross-legged, and places his hands in his lap. “I will join your watcher on the astral. Let it go first, that they might be distracted—tell it to look for a group of children. I will follow and see what I can discover.” Rocking back on his haunches, his body goes slack as he projects himself into the astral plane.
Yulong centers his mind and body, sending his qi up from his dantian to pool at his forehead, activating the third eye chakra. He opens this third eye upon the astral plane to see Linus perform his conjuration and watch the astral forms depart.
The monk cries out to his teammates, and points up into a nearby tree. “Look, on the astral plane! What is it. . .” The monk warily draws his claymore, the blade humming as it clears the scabbard, as if it were struck by a tuning fork.
The cyborg comes to life, clearly his mind might be missing but his combat reflexes haven’t dulled. His left fist clenches and un-clenches, and he glances about more rapidly than a human should be able to manage.
Linus quickly whispers to his watcher: “hold here, I have need of you.” He then turns to look into the tree. Holding his hand against his head, he assenses what is there, and its purpose.
Asclepius flexes his astral form—half snake, half man—and assenses the bird in the tree. If it is a spirit sent to watch them, better to know who bound it and gave it its task.
Turning from his new pet, Linus looks up into the tree.
Zin looks confused, but tries to figure out whatever the hell is going on. “Fucking astral bullshit.” He puts a hand on the pistol at his side as he does his best to look at what Yulong is freaking out about.
Yulong lowers his sword. “I do not think it means to harm us.” He turns to Zin and the cyborg, to fill them in. “It appears to be some sort of astral being, with the appearance of a crow, black as night.” He regards Asclepius’ fearsome astral form. “I cannot get close enough to communicate with it. Should we even try? I’m afraid I have little experience with the metaplanes.”
Asclepius materializes on the physical plane in order to communicate with his teammates. His form shimmers in the air on the physical plane, translucent, a muscular, reticulated tail replacing his legs, and forked tongue flicking in and out. “Let’s leave it be, for now. If it appears to be tracking us we can destroy it easily. Linus, if you will instruct your spirit to investigate in the direction of the kidnappers, I will follow it.”
Linus jerks his head as he re-emerges in the physical plane. “Indeed, though that creature was … magnificent. I have never seen anything quite like it. We must hope that whoever sent it is not somehow allied with the Brotherhood of Cain. Though I doubt anyone so exquisitely skilled could be.”
He turns to his astral watcher, a macaque monkey with flaming hands.
“I have need for your service, little one. Some ork children have been taken by a group of men and are being held captive. We believe that they are being held in a house up the road. Go to the house and seek the children. Please also look for any being with a strong Astral presence in the house, being sure to keep your distance since it may be an enemy. See what you can see, and report back to me here.”
Linus shows his watcher the destination on his datapad and jestures up the road.
“Make haste, we will wait for you here.”
And off they go, a strange sight to be sure. A tiny monkey with flaming paws followed by a terrifying serpent man. At speeds unimaginable in the material plane, their shimmerings fade from sight in a matter of moments. From here the story will be between Nick and the Watcher for a moment, though probably not too terribly long.]
With a sigh, Yulong returns his sight to the material plane. He sheaths his broadsword with a flourish, which ceases its low ringing as soon as it leaves his hands. “Ah,” he says to no one in particular, “the thrills of working with magicians. Never a dull moment guarding an unconscious body while they soar off on great adventures in a land unseen.”
He takes a seat against a nearby maple, resting his claymore across his lap. “Perhaps we can get to know each other more while Alexander does his work. Linus, you strike me as a man of knowledge and integrity. What brings you to the life of a shadowrunner?”
“Lab equipment does not come cheap, and my studies have taken me far afield from the safe playpens the university could support,” Linus says. “And as you might expect, a man with a wife and children can’t take too much out from his paycheck for his higher pursuits, lest it be noticed. Frankly I can’t believe its come to this but I’ve developed… debts… that must be paid. And really, would we call this ‘Shadowrunning’? That’s quite dramatic. We’re not really ‘Shadowrunning’, are we?”
The monk produces a throwing knife from the folds of his sleeve and begins to whittle carefully at a twig. “No, this particular job I suppose I would not call shadowrunning. Public service perhaps. Although I believe the general act of collecting with other transient men to perform freelance jobs could fall under the category.”
He pauses for a moment to cut two small notches at the end of his stick before continuing. “What about you, my elven friend? I have yet to hear your name, but I can tell by your sharp attire that you are not a poor man. What brings you to the life of shadows, however you might define it?”
Zin tries to be nonchalant about leaving his hand in his coat, but it isn’t terribly subtle. “Jeez, you know how to give an elf a heart attack. You guys can call me Zin, I basically fell into this stuff through work, which is a long story. I should tell it to you some time. Basically I found out the world wasn’t as nice as I thought it was, and now I’m finding out more. Speaking of heart attacks, I’m wondering what happened to metal-man over here and whether he’s actually trustworthy. I guess he can hear, since he hurt his arm when I pissed him off earlier.”
The cyborg glares at Zin again. “Be careful what you say, elf, or next time my arm won’t seize.”
There’s a pause where the cyborg appears to be struggling internally with something, but the moment passes, and he looks up and states, “I need ammunition. Shotgun shells. I don’t see the point of searching for orclings.”
Zin let’s his arm off his gun: “He speaks! Glad to know you care about the little ones, too. Should I keep calling you metal-man, or do you have a better name I can use?”
The cyborg stirs. “there is no name for me. not any more. it’s all gone.”
Linus eyes the man/machine with some trepidation.
“Yes, let’s be sure to go in fully prepared” Linus says, “But I am beginning to wonder if this Brotherhood doesn’t have connections we should be thinking about. If we must begin shooting… and I can’t believe I am saying this, but these child abductors may leave us no choice… we should shoot to kill, and shoot to kill everyone.”
“You all,” he jestures at the cyborg and the monk, “may have no life in this city besides ’running, but I must be very careful not to betray myself.” Linus points his finger emphatically to emphasize the point. He looks out through the trees towards the bird-watcher.
“What the hell have I gotten myself into…” he mutters.
Turning back to the cyborg he breathes deep, then nods his head as if he as made a very serious decision. “Right then, nameless one, I think it would be wise for us to make an ammunition run. We can take my vehicle. What do you say?”
“Hold up, aren’t you waiting on your little whatever to return?” Zin asks. “I’ll take Mr. Metal, if he doesn’t mind, and if he fits in my ride. And Linus, remember that a nameless robot man is likely to attract a bit too much attention at your regular gun store.”
Zin calls Bob again, asking if there’s a place that would help out.
Alexander snaps back to life, returned from his astral journey. “Well, it looks like the closest point on the map—house #2—is just an underground gambling ring. There are some guards outside and some unhappy men inside, but I couldn’t see any of the ork kids. There was one man in a back room, looked like he was monitoring the place, but his eyes were blind to our familiar and I. We might be able to get some information out of him but I’d like to check out the other known locations first.”
Linus looks concerned.
“Yes, right. Now where is Zenodotus? I hope he hasn’t landed himself in trouble.”
The cyborg looks from Linus to the elf and shrugs. He shambles over to the elf’s side and looks at him expectantly.
As your group begins to pair up and split off, the body of Alexander twitches, as if startled in the night. A few moments later, Linus’ head turns to regard something you can’t hear. He appears to listen intently for about a minute, then…
Concerned, Yulong activates his third eye chakra to see what is happening to Asclepius on the astral plane.
Zin’s hand goes for his gun again. “Metal-man, all I can get you is a pistol for… Oh now what?”
Yulong waves away Zinedine’s worries. “Relax Zin, there is no immediate danger—it’s only that our shaman seems to have had a less than pleasant astral journey. Alex, are you hurt? What happened?”
Linus finishes his chat with Zenodotus, his astral aatcher.
“I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it seems that the ork children are not where we’d hoped. We’ll have to either look in the other houses astrally or … well … or find a way to interrogate someone from the Brotherhood who might know. Is… Alex alright? Bloody hell what is wrong?”
[Linus assenses Alex to try to determine the nature of any possible injuries.]
The snake shaman recollects himself. “I felt… a strangeness while entering my body. Like the world grew dim for a moment. I feel fine, however; maybe this has to do with the astral bird nearby. I’d rather not project again while it’s here. Linus, did you see a spiritual bond from it to another magician, or is it a free spirit?”
Linus looks off at the bird with a strange look of wonder but also, maybe, jealousy.
“That creature is a watcher for someone, or something, more powerful that I have ever seen or known before. What it is doing here and what association it may have with this business with which we currently find ourselves engaged… that is beyond me. It behaves as though our being here is a … curiosity, not the reason for its presence. I wonder whether or not it will follow us if we move from this place. It may… be wise to move from this place.”
Yulong picks himself up from the ground and adjusts his robe. “If you think that is best, then we should go. Yet I fear there might be an opportunity lost if we go without inspecting it or trying to communicate. We assume it is hostile, yet have no evidence either way.”
The monk leans against his broadsword. " I know little of the spirit world, but I do know that watchers are of the weakest category of astral being, even if it was summoned by a magician of great power. Surely the three of us could defend ourselves if it did respond with violence. What is the worst that could happen?"
Zin scowls impatiently. “If it isn’t really interested in us, then why is it watching the location where the kids were abducted? What else is here to watch? Also, if it’s so weak, how did it make Asclepius feel a ‘strangeness’ whatever that means. Let’s bail. We can come back if we have too.”
Linus reaches in and pulls out his authoritative voice, the voice of the professor lecturing his students. The edge of condescension rings through.
“Frankly I wouldn’t expect anyone here to understand the nature of an astral Watcher in all of its particularities, nor would I expect you to notice the tell-tale signs of a watcher’s surprise and curiosity upon encountering a subject different from that expected. That watcher,” he points to the tree line, “is not here for us, though having found us I can not predict the consequences. I do not know for whom he works but I detected no malice of intent. We are being watched, that is certain, by someone or something of powerful magics.”
Linus pauses for breath.
“I can ascend to the astral plane and try and converse with the watcher, or I could send my own spirits to converse with it. Either of these are options. I will not conceal my apprehension at these notions, having witnessed Alex’s difficulty emerging into the physical realm, affected apparently by the mere presence and deep magical aura of the small creature barely even within our sight. He is unharmed, and of that we should be thankful.”
Another breath is taken.
“I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that we must try one more time to engage with this watching bird. It’s master is clearly powerful, and we put ourselves at grave risk to continue without decyphering whether he or she may be friend or foe in this endeavor.”
Linus sighs… having worked out for himself his next move.
“Friends, guard my body, I do not know what to expect from this next encounter”
Linus sits on the ground, then lays back into a comfortable position. Closing his eyes, he brings his hand up to his temple as though engaging in a complex calculation.
[Linus ascends to the astral plane.]
As Linus drifts out, the bird takes note. A few moments later, it swoops down, quickly, startlingly, and lands a few feet from Linus. Cawing, the bird begins to pace near the body.
Yulong projects his sight onto the astral plane, to appear in both spectrums to the dual-natured bird. He crouches down to the creature’s height, holding his palm out down and low in a gesture of greeting. He calms his thoughts and breath, letting his astral signature emote calm and benevolence. “If you can understand my words, black watcher, then know that we mean you know harm. Who is your creator, and why have you come?”
The creature regards him with beady eyes and caws once in response.
Yulong puts his hands up and takes a step back. “I will not hurt you, little bird. Be calm. Are you afflicted? Do you suffer?”
The bird caws at him again, more irritated this time.
The monk eyes the bird suspiciously. “Did someone send you after us?”
You get the distinct impression the bird is beginning to get agitated, frustrated, ornery.
“Not you. Not matter. I stay, you go. No see me. Not again.”
Yulong straightens his back and shakes his head at the bird. “Cheeky little creature. I don’t think we’ll get much more from him.”
He slings his broadsword over one shoulder and looks around at the group. “Shall we proceed to the second house? The three of you seem to have your own cars; Asclepius and I will need a lift. I will ride with you, Linus, if you don’t mind. There is something comforting about a minivan. They remind me of home.”
Zin shrugs his shoulders in boredom. “Well at least it’s not turning into a fiery demon or something. Metal-man, how does a 500nY pistol sound to you? You have the money on you, or is this coming out of your cut of the bounty? That’s right he doesn’t talk much… nod once if you already have the money.”
Zin looks expectantly at the cyborg, reaching for his keys.
Linus wakes and shakes is head a bit.
“What a bizarre creature. A Watcher of some sort, maybe, and oddly ornery. We should be on our guard for astrally aware creatures in the road ahead, but I hopefully it hasn’t been ordered to follow us. Yes, why don’t we take my van.”
There’s a rustling in the bushes. Skip emerges with some leaves in his hair, and burps loudly. He zips up his fly.
“Y’all headed o’er ta get them kids? Can I drive?”
Linus raises an eyebrow, then thinks for a second. “Fine, we may need to walk the planes again before we enter the house, and I certainly can’t be behind the wheel to do that. You can drive, the monk comes with us… who else can drive? And to which house are we going?”
Yulong nods to Skip. “Welcome, friend. There is another house nearby—it’s on your map, Linus. East of here, I think. I believe Zin and his short-tempered friend were trying to buy more guns, but I cannot speak for them. Whoever is coming to look for the children, we should begin. There are only so many hours left in the day.” The monk starts off toward the parking lot.
Alex throws his lot in with the woodsman, Skip, and Linus the scientist. He says to the mage, “Perhaps we can journey ahead during the trip and secure what information we can from the spirit world.”
“Is there to be an ammunition run?” Linus asks. “I sure would like to know that if that hulk is on our side, that it is packing.”
The cyborg looks confused for a moment…nods…and then shakes his head. He seems perplexed by his own ambiguity.
“It will be worth it,” he croaks.
Zin turns to the group. “Alright, we’ll catch you all up at the next house. Neither of us seem to be helpful astrally speaking anyway. See you soon.”
Linus nods. “Very good. We will certainly not take any action until you arrive.”
The scientist grabs his keys and chases after Yulong.
The cyborg man climbs into the passenger side of Zin’s car, and the two quickly motor away, Zin clearly enjoying displaying his rather expensive ride. Yulong and Alexander accompany Linus to his minivan, within which Skip has already begun adjusting mirrors, seats, and radio stations. Leaving behind Skip’s original ride, the group go their separate ways.
[what now, folks? Where to? I’ll be doing separated updates from here on until we reconnect.]