The Shadow and the Flame
No don’t pity me, I couldn’t suffer that. That fire of yours though, you wouldn’t mind if I warmed myself and some food by it would you? No I won’t take any of your food. I just want a couple of moments to warm myself and get something hot that’s all. I’ll leave straight after that. You don’t know me I don’t know you. Yeah we could talk.”
“My name? That’s a long story, bit embarrassing to be honest. Just call me… Yeah we can come back to that one if you don’t mind.”
“This, this is just something I picked up. It makes problems go away if you know what I mean? I don’t know how it works, it just does. I point the thing and then boom, damn big hole in something. I picked it up a couple of stairwells across and several hundred doors over. Must have been a couple of years back. You must have seen the door? The one with the chair wedged under the handle.”
“Anyway thanks for the fire I’d better go. My name? Like I said it’s a long story and I like you. Maybe next time we meet. Be safe…”
I’m the Raggedy man. You may have heard of me. To be fair you probably haven’t. The Worlds are infinite and I’m just one man. Whatever the case I’m still me. I’m looking for something and I’m not sure what it is. I’m running from something and I’m not sure what they are. I have rules, they are mine and they are what keep me sane. Every now and then though, every now and then I meet someone and that makes it all better. Not just anyone, someone that I can be myself around. Someone I don’t have to be worried about. Someone I’m sure can get away if they find me. Yeah I’m that shallow.
Times past and times yet to come. I met someone several doors ago. I’d been looking into the matter and got what I thought had been a lead. I’d wandered through a way into a burnt place. You know the places- ruined towns and barren lands. As if some petulant God had thrown fire down from on high and levelled the place. All that is left is plant life and beetles. Nothing higher than just the basics. Anyway I felt the pull and turned the door, couldn’t find a damn thing of note. Some rusted metal plates of scale, ebonised bone, shattered swords and broken charms. Nothing of use or perhaps nothing I understood.
Then I felt it, that moment before the storm when it all goes quiet when the wind drops and I ran. I felt them as they opened the door and surged through. Thankfully I had a head start on them and made it to another door. The stairway opened in front of me and I threw my will at the door to hold it in place for as long as I could.
I managed a stairwell before I felt the door give way and then my choices were limited. There was something at the end of a corridor and it felt fell, then to one side I saw it. Almost hidden by ivy and moss, old stone forming the sides and lintel and the door itself rotted and tired almost to dust. It gave me an opening and I took it.
Inside another scorched world this time though someone had set camp. A well appointed tent and chair next to a fire, off to one side a folding desk all inside some ruined tower and then I saw her. Sword over her back some inches bigger than myself, brigandine I think covering her. Conversation was brief and I jammed the desk under the latch on the door before holding it as best I can. I wish I’d listened to the old man more he’d have known how to hold the door for longer. I could feel another way off aways and we ran.
The stairwell spilled sideways and downwards, it took me a moment and then I knew where I was. There’s a place off from the main areas, quiet and a river runs through it. We made it and then talked. I got to be me again. I got to be Michael for a while and not just the Raggedy man. We drank beer and ate fish whilst she trawled for information and I gave her what she wanted.
Interesting lady – she was proud of her telescope, all wrapped in brass and the lenses ground by hand. Fine work if you’d just made it almost to an industrial age. Her steel? Well let us just say it may have not been a long way along Young’s modulus. Other than that she came from one of those Imperialist realms. Advanced but thankfully not that far, probably a dominion of a half dozen or so similar worlds fingers in others. Unlikely to have ever met serious threats to their expansion. I quoted Heraclitus and got a blank look then when she thought about it she grasped some of it. Sylvia, nice lady who hid as much as she pretended to show. I left her there with the idea of the Lighthouse and her pretence she was going to catch fish in the river. Back to the search and perhaps some small breather before they find me again.
Transcript from the archives of the Order of the Pillar
In attendance: Master Cadwallan, Initiate Michael, Scrivener Phillips
Subject: Initiate Michael’s exploration of the Grand Stair – Dark Landings through Broken Well
Cross reference: ’Sail, Exploration, Immortality, Burnt Worlds.
MC: Write that up formally and index it later Michael. What about this woman‘Sail you met.
IM: Ah, yes, well you see.
MC: Not really although your scribbled note was particularly obscure even for you. To quote you, “The thing about ‘Sail is she scared the shit out of me. Brilliant but terrifying, like watching a child with a magnifying glass, a sunny day and an endless supply of insects. No malice just an almost unawareness of just how powerful she could be. Now me I’m just a walker, stairs I can do stairs, ’Sail she can do all the other stuff.”
Initiate you are not a “Walker”, even though your actions would suggest otherwise you are not an itinerant. You are of the Order and you have services to perform. Now perhaps I should look in on Master Hengist and bring him the good news.
IM: Perhaps you would let me finish Master. I apologise for the ad hoc nature of the missive.
MC: You wrote it on the back of what I can only assume to be some advertisement for a brothel.
IM: I can explain.
MC: Yes? I’m waiting.
IM: It started what eight or nine years back. You recall the reports we had of a series of linked worlds randomly sealing themselves off and then signs of vast immigration/ emigration/ genocide?
MC: The Pale Worlds?
IM: Yes Master, the Pale Worlds.
MC: Why were you investigating the Pale Worlds? They are not even close to your forte.
IM: Investigate is a word that might prove unfair. I was as they say passing through.
MC: The Pale Worlds are you mad?
IM: I was trying to get to Dark Landings and then I’d recalled being told once that there was more than one door from Darujistahn onto the Stair.
MC: Who told you that?
IM: Does it matter?
MC: Yes it rather does, now who told you?
IM: He’s dead.
MC: Hide it in the footnotes then. Now of this woman ‘Sail.
IM: As I was saying I found the doorway on one of the cross landings, 33a or 33c I can’t recall exactly which. That entire section always confuses me, what with the split levels and branching side routes. Anyway I got to the door and found it open. Which is what made me stop for a moment before stepping through. There was something altogether peculiar about the entire thing. Something felt odd.
MC: So you walked through and then…
IM: Actually worse than that I heard something on the Stair behind me, made an educated guess as to what it might be and decided that the other side of the door would prove safer. The problem being of course closing the door was damn near impossible. It was as if the Stair itself was wanting the World to spill outwards onto the Stair. I stood on the threshold for some moments wrestling with the door before getting it closed then behind me I heard a cough. Now I was damn sure I was still within the threshold. Anyway I turned and saw‘Sail stood there. Pretty as paint all silks and come to bed eyes.
“He was not really there… not fully in our world, a ghost, a spirit? Except, he had not the aura of any of those things, he was flesh and blood… and filthy. A Bone collector, a camp follower… a tramp of some sorts. Except, none of those things. The eyes were not the eyes of the poor and unknowing. They were full of knowing, and it appeared much of it he did not want to know. Fear, except…”
“Except? Another except? Are you deliberately talking in riddles? The glass clunked onto the table, the breeze deep with the ozone of an oncoming storm threw the curtains into the room, “And he just appeared at your door, just like that?”
The display of jealousy made her smile, “Mock please, do I look like a woman with a rag man fetish?”
“Lesser men would question.”
“You are not a lesser man.”
“Mmm, and you are not a woman with a fetish for the great unwashed.”
“Indeed. A moment, “My Captain tells me he looked well afeared of you.”
“Really? Your Captain is not on a ship, I doubt it was much of a perception.” She wrinkled her nose at him, “Not sure… not so sure that fear was of me.”
“Hrumph… then what?”
She ignored the real question and answered the simpler one for him.
“Do you normally entire a lady’s chambers unannounced?”
“Not intentionally, this I was sure was meant to go somewhere else. Out of interest where am I?”
A raised eyebrow, “You do not know? You are the one who arrives unannounced. My chambers. Consequently, as they are my chambers, you have two oncoming future engagements… one with a lovely set of Men who are all rather fond of me. Or if you prefer one with imminent incineration.”
“Woah there Nelly.”
“An idiom, a turn of phrase much like your “…imminent incineration.” Wasn’t a literal term was it?”
“Quite literal. Though if it helps, it is a consequent choice… rather than an immediate situation.”
“Ah. Well then perhaps I should erm, take a seat over this way.”
“Ah. A Third option with a possible stipend of the first. Well then, feel free and pour me some wine whilst you’re at it, help yourself.”
“Thanks. Here you go. So as I was saying I’m the Raggedy Man.”
“Your real name, none of this nom de guerre nonsense.”
“Michael. Excellent wine where does it come from?”
“Michael, my chambers my questions. So where did you come from and how did you get in here through a door I hadn’t previously noticed.”
“You are aware of the Grand Stair?”
“Ah. Well then, erm, it is a Stair.”
“Hence the name the Grand Stair one imagines?”
“Yeah you’re not helping.”
“Neither are you. Grand Stair hhmm? Singular is that?”
“My mother warned me about women like you.”
“Them too. Powerful ones.”
“Whatever makes you think I’m powerful? I’m just a lady of talents.” A Smile, “You generally tend to avoid questions you do not like with prattle?”
“Maybe. You’re a mage and that places you a significant order of magnitude above most things, myself included.”
“For a man who appeared out of thin air you seem to be in a rush to debase yourself before me? I am to take that given that I struggle to align ‘lesser talent’ as a concept with opening and closing a door I hadn’t noticed and more importantly doing so obscured, with barely a hint of power drawn to you. Which Warren are you using?”
“Warren? No idea. Anyway the Grand Stair it links the universe together. I walk the Stair, open doors; generally poke my nose in places it probably shouldn’t go.”
“He avoided questioning easily then. Not like you.”
“His mind was slippery.”
“What is all this talk of stairs?”
“No idea… but it sounds like Starvald Demelain, the First Warren, the Warren from which all others are born. But he does not look like a Dragon now does he? Though to be honest they can look like what they want… however he hardly talked like one either…”
“Like lady’s chambers?”
“As I said, unintentionally. May I top you up madam?”
“Hardly. Will you interrupt this telling every five seconds?”
“Very kind. Well at least your manners are marginally better than your dress. I note though the quality of that sword you have and whatever that lump of metal is on your right hip is that is significant.”
“Always good to have good piece of metal nearby. Just in case of…”
“So you haven’t heard of Warrens and you claim to have wandered into my chambers from a magical invisible staircase that links the Worlds together? Whilst I love a good story what are you really doing here and who sent you?”
“My name is Michael and I honestly thought this would lead me to Darujistahn and from there I could go through a side door and then out to a stairwell nearer to Dark Landings.”
“Who, do, you, work for?”
“I am an initiate of the Order of the Pillar – we search in the darkness and cold places.”
“And what are you searching for?”
“We search for the… What the…Tutore Animus!”
“Nice counter spell, I almost had you. I could force it from you.”
“You madam are a very bad lady.”
“Yes, sometimes but not always. Put your sword away, you wouldn’t get to me in time. Wine? Here let me pour you seem somewhat shaken up.”
“Easily. To be honest I thought it would be one of his from Quon Tali. But now – no… and besides what he did let slip was the truth. Though I have no idea who or what the Order of the Pillar are. I have sent a few enquiries… but nothing. I would dismiss it as nonsense… but he was definitely telling the truth… for what that is worth. It makes no sense to me.”
“Not him then?”
“No. Its mad enough to be… but it was pointless… and besides he pressed me for nothing beyond a location, and he genuinely had no idea where he was.”
“A fucking long way from Darujhistan is what he was.”
“Ah that… that I think he realized. If nothing else he probably smelt his proximity to sea.”
At this point there was a knocking on the door and a couple of hired killer types walked in. All armour and knives and the look of willingness to murder. She said something to them and for that I’m eternally grateful. They did have the look of killers.
“The wards are overactive, just an unexpected traveler with news for me. We are fine. I will join you shortly as arranged.”
There is a nod and a hand signal of sorts.
A few gestures exchanged.
“As you like.”
“Thanks. So how did you notice me?”
She waves dismissively, “None needed. It has been sometime since your last bath hasn’t it Michael? That and your clothes could do with a wash that doesn’t only involve the rain.”
“Ah. Fair answer it has been a bit of a slog recently.”
“So this Stair of yours,”
“What my invisible, magical one? The one you didn’t believe in?”
“Didn’t, do now though.”
“You can tell from even so brief a contact?”
“I am a lady of talents.”
“The Grand Stair permeates the Gossamer Worlds every Gossamer World has at least one door that leads out onto the stair.”
“But not all Worlds are Gossamer?”
“Good question, we don’t think so but the matter is up for debate.”
“Well that’ll resolve the issue. Nothing like a good bit of academic debate to get to the truth of a matter quickly. Why don’t some of you go and…”
“It would explain your appearance I suppose.”
“Thanks. I’d always thought my appearance was down to my parents you live and learn. So what out of interest are you doing lodged in a brothel?”
“How’d you know it’s a brothel?”
“Same way I know a duck when I see it?”
“Idiom , don’t worry about it. The décor doesn’t quite match the lady within. Add that to the hired muscle nearby and the general perfumed odour of the entire place. I’m calling it a home for brazen strumpets or brassy crumpets if you prefer. Either way it’s a brothel.
“It came with a roof, running water and out of range of the main tower.”
“The one we’re laying siege to.”
“Ah indeed, care to look.”
“Is it going to involve burning houses and siege engines.”
“I’ll live without it if you don’t mind. Seen one siege seen them all.”
“No, it’s never like that. Not until you’re all dead inside.”
“So why do you keep the windows shuttered?”
“Seen one siege seen them all.”
“I should go shouldn’t I?”
“Yes just do it slowly so I can see how you open the doorway.”
“I’ll leave it ajar at my end for a while, you can feel the breeze if you stand close enough. So what was your name?”
“Bye ‘Sail. Come find me when you come onto the Stair.”
“Some how I feel I won’t have to come find you Michael… if I ever do visit this Stair of yours.”
I left after that sir.
“And do you think you will see it, this Stair? Will you leave for this?”
“No, I know that much. I do not leave you Mock. You leave me. This much we both already know.”
“And you won’t consult the deck further?”
“I did… but it knows little of him. A traveller, a seeker… nothing solid. There is something insistent in the card of the Tower – nothing to do with the Siege. That went as expected. But I do not understand it. I think, its out of place… out of time? I am … unsure.”
“That is not, quite, what I meant, and you know it ‘Sail….”
“No Mock. Some things you do not want to know in advance… it is never to your advantage.”
“How do you know?”