The party steeled itself outside the doors to the surgery ward. They had laid waste to five of the residents of the Cradle, but the primum movens of the Orphanage/Insane Asylum that had lain abandoned these past fifty years was inside.
She was called the Grey Lady. Parents wishing their children to sleep promptly would tell them about the Grey Lady – but she doesn’t exist. Here, the horrors committed by the doctors, the surgeons, and the patients gave rise both to the fire that claimed the building and to the Grey Lady herself.
The party pooled their knowledge. The creature in the next room could take the form of anything it has killed – and could invade the dreams of anyone who saw it. Marrick tightened a leather strap on his equipment, and spoke:
“You know, we don’t have to go and do this. We could just get out the way Laurel told us.”
Anjaara refused to leave without dealing with the problem at hand. “If we leave now, someone with ill intent could return after us, and take these surgeons’ tools for themselves, using them for great evil.”
The door creaked open on its’ hinges, spreading a half-circle of dust on the ground before the door. The bare lightbulbs lit the room with odd angles of shadow and light, their paper coverings having been burnt away during the fire. A flicker of movement at the back of the room draws Jal’s attention upwards, and he notices about a dozen corpses hanging from the ceiling. Hidden among them, a small girl.
“Laurel, is that the Grey Lady?”
The wisp that had been following them since they discovered her spoke softly.
“yes, that’s the Grey Lady. She killed me. She might look like me, but she’s not.”
Marrick stepped forward cautiously, and started to gather the silver surgeons’ tools up in a cloth. The Lady dropped onto the surgery table right in front of him, and attacked him viciously, though ineffectively. Jal loosed an arrow, knocking her off the table and into shadow.
She seemed to have disappeared – but as Marrick started packing up the tools again, she clawed him across the arm. He managed to finish putting them in his pack as Jal approached and struck the Grey Lady across the face, slicing deeply with his shortsword. She screamed and tackled him, knocking the wind out of him and biting at his neck. He rolled to one side, causing her to bite herself on the arm.
“She’s heavier than she looks, guys! Get her off me!”
Anjaara moved her hands in an intricate pattern in front of her. The bolt of cold missed the Lady, but froze the ground underneath the two grappling with each other.
Wilhorn did a similar gesture, and his hands seemed to take on a fiery aspect to them. He flung the flames from his hands over the two on the ground. This gave Jal the time he needed to drive one of his swords up through the Grey Lady’s ribs.
She shrieked in pain and wrestled her way off of him, only to provoke Marrick, who ran her through again, and carved a sickly line through her neck, leaving her paralyzed. Her frantic eyes followed Jal as he stepped forward and with one deft motion, severed the head from the body.
When the Grey Lady died, she lost the shape she had given herself. The stringy, partially-decayed flesh practically hangs from the old bones.
“Are those rings?” Marrick wondered, touching the Lady’s claw with a boot.
Anjaara bent down to pick them up, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. It was Jal’s.
“Don’t touch it. It could have some contagion still.” He took out a hammer and crushed the ring fingers with it, removing the rings from the decaying flesh.
Anjaara choked back the urge to vomit, and gingerly picked up the rings.
“These look like the rings you told me about – those worn by Jimmy the Knife, that thief.”
“Yes – this one must be what she used to blend in and almost disappear. I think we have what we came for, those surgeon’s tools. We should make our way out as fast as possible.”
Anjaara started to move towards the front of the building, but stopped. “Which was the way out again? The front door was blocked and impassable, and the Administration Tower seemed to be blocked by rubble.”
“Laurel?” Marrick turned to the only friendly entity they had met in the day since entering the Cradle.
“I told you, you have to go through the fire.”
“You mean through the Cradle’s memories – the horrible thing that happened to this place.”
“Yes, back fifty years ago. The cage in the basement.”
They made their way, beaten and bruised, to the cage they found in the basement once more. This was where they kept new arrivals temporarily, Laurel had told them. It was their only way out. The cage would take them into the memories of the cradle – fifty years ago, in the fire that claimed the lives of all within the walls.
They closed the cage door behind them, and instantly everything changed. There was no longer an inch of water on the floor, and many items appeared to have been returned to their shelves.
The party carefully mounted the stairs for the third time that day, and heard sounds of struggle to the north, towards the Inner Cradle. There was a riot in progress beyond the second set of gates, and several guards and doctors were gathered there watching the “patients” tear into everything they could get their hands on.
In whispered tones, Jal spoke. “It looks like they’re distracted. We should be able to get up those stairs to the Tower, now that there’s no rubble blocking the way.”
He crouched low, moving slowly and silently across the hallway and up the stairs before motioning for the rest to follow.
Wilhorn did just as well, and Anjaara. But Marrick slipped on a loose stone and went sprawling, the contents of his backpack spilling across the tiles. A doctor and three of the guards turned around.
“Halt! You, there, go back to your dormitory. There’s no need for your help, at the moment. We have this entirely under control.”
The three guards started moving towards Marrick as he scrambled to collect everything that had fallen out of his backpack. Anjaara turned towards them, and made a quick motion with her hands, mumbling a short set of syllables under her breath.
Marrick looked up, and saw the sprawled forms of the three guards in front of him. He finished collecting his things, and raced up the stairs after his comrades. “Sleep?”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Anjaara said, motioning to the President’s office.
“There’ll be the open window through there, we can jump out.”
“Hold on, I recognize the name on this door.” Jal rummaged through his pockets before withdrawing the memo he had found in the treasurer’s office before. Reading aloud, he said: “More can be learnt from an operation performed incorrectly, so we’ll keep lobotomy training to a minimum. Moreover, this may have the additional consequence of quieting down some of our more rowdy patients.” He looked up at the door. “Dr. Hanscombe’s office.”
He opened the door, and immediately noticed a short man dressed in doctor’s clothes huddled shaking in the corner.
Jal drew himself to his full height, and poked the figure with a blade. “Are you Doctor Hanscombe, the head surgeon of Cranbow Cradle?”
The man looked up and said softly, “yes.”
Without hesitation, Jal drove his short sword through Hanscombe’s neck before collecting the gold from the desk and a ledger of patients admitted.
Anjaara retched the contents of her stomach onto the floor, and glared at Jal. “He was an evil man, and much of the horrors here was directly his fault. He deserves hell.” Jal pushed past the 16-year-old, and wondered aloud, “Where’s Wilhorn?”
They stepped into the President’s office, and Wilhorn was waiting, tapping his foot anxiously. He looked up at them. “Come on, we have to get out of here right now.” “Why’s th-“ Marrick was about to say, when an explosion sounded somewhere below.
“Well, I noticed that when we left, there was no rubble at the base of the tower – and I figured that maybe we were the cause. So I left a small explosive device there with a five minute fuse.”
Marrick tossed a rope out the window, and stepped out. The rest followed.
They found themselves once more in the present – having ventured beyond the Cradle’s memories, they stood together on the grass outside.
“Hey, I don’t have Laurel’s sweater anymore.” Anjaara noticed.
“It looks like none of us have anything of Laurel’s. We must have succeeded in setting her free.”
They were interrupted by a well-dressed nobleman approaching from across the bridge.
“Hello, sirs, madam.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Well, I was tasked by my… associates, you might say, to observe this bridge to the Cradle, that notorious Asylum and Orphanage. And you are the first to exit. I have this to give to you.” He bowed slightly and held out a small note written on fine brown paper. It was an invitation to a reception being held in their honour, at Baron Macrin’s estate.
“We won’t be coming.” Marrick said, pushing the man aside.
“Why not? It is a special occasion.”
“Who are your associates, anyhow?”
“Well…” the nobleman said, suddenly unsure of himself. “the Experientialists.”
Marrick snarled uncharacteristically, putting his finger in the chest of the nobleman to emphasize his point. “Then we definitely won’t be coming.”
The party moved on without another word.
Later on, at Jal and Jerero’s house, the whole party reconvened to discuss what had happened amongst themselves. Marrick seemed more anxious than the others, and played with antique coin absent-mindedly.
“Marrick. We’re talking to you. We asked, why did you refuse immediately the man’s offer? It seemed suspicious, but you pushed him aside without a second thought.”
The other four’s eyes were on him now, and he sighed and slumped down in his chair.
“Remember how I said I was avoiding my father while I was here in Stilthe?” The party nodded. “Well, my father is Baron Macrin. My full name is Marrick Macrin. The last time I was in town was just six weeks ago, and my father failed to have me killed, but not for lack of trying. I barely escaped.”
Jerero spoke. “It seems like we may be wandering into a trap – but it also seems like we have no other choice. While you were conquering the Cradle in South Quarter, I was meditating on this verse from the writings of the Smith-in-Exile – Book 43, Chapter 2.”
“I haven’t read that book of the Smith’s writings. I seem to recall it full of such frivolous prophetic writing better left to more theologically-minded Brothers.” Wilhorn said. “What does that chapter say?”
Jerero cleared his throat, and passed to the party a page copied from the writings.
Writings of the Smith-in-Exile, Book 43:Chapter 2.
And lo, the foundation beams of the world grew weak – not through any inadequacy of the Builder, but by the Trickster’s hand.
Two who saw the beams will lead the five that did not, and four will be left but that one may save them all. But The Five will save all.
And did the trickster grow more powerful, and ever more bold, even as the greater power of the world waned. And did artifacts appear not from this world but from others.
And did the five enter many doors and venture forth through many worlds. The key that is not a key opened the first, and the key that was a key no longer opened the last.
The Five saw many wonders, and beheld many sights – tasting of the pleasures of many worlds. But their calling was greater than all of these.
These things are all to come before the end. But did the five enter the tower in End-World, and stop the trickster at the heart of his deeds.
“So it seems, my friends, that we are the Five that it speaks of. But as far as I know, only one of us can see the Leylines.”
Jerero looked around the circle gathered, and caught his brother’s eye.
“Well, I can, too.” Jal said. “Ever since I can remember.”
“My friends,” Jerero spoke excitedly. “The Master Builder truly is the One True God, and we are His chosen ones. We have no choice but to do the Builder’s work in this. I do not know the road that lies between here and the end of the world, but we must walk it.”