September 22, 2012

Billie's Journal - Never trust an elf

Seattle, 2 Jan 2051
Having had to abandon our safe house, we are bunking down in Seaside's warehouse amidst an eclectic collection of vehicles, ranging from an armoured personnel carriers to a couple of classic cars, all in various states of repair. Still, I could sure use a few hours sleep, even if it's on an army cot in a cold warehouse.

When I wake later, Finlay's looking grim. Seems Helm's bossy assistant has one more job for us before we get paid. We are to pick up Jane Foster tomorrow morning at some sarariman hotel on down by the airport and deliver her to our real employer.

For some reason he doesn't want to take our van. I think it might be something to do with it's inability to stop a round from anything heavier than a streeline special, but I'm just guessing. Seaside comes to the rescue, offering us the use of one of the three hum-vees he has in the garage. But only if we help him put the engine back in the one he's going to loan us. That should be easy, right?

Fortunately, between him and Zero it does actually only take a couple of hours. I get to help out by fetching tools and generally being kept out of harm's way. Truth be told, I don't really know much about cars beyond where to put the gas. We get the car running and that seems to cheer Finlay up somewhat. Seaside even digs out some documents for the car, including a real old-fashioned paper pink slip.

Seattle, 3 Jan 2051
It's still dark when arrive at the pick-up point. Finlay finds a quiet place to park, suitably far from the hotel's entrance. Around 8 AM, a non-descript town car pulls up next to us and Mrs Johnson steps out. She looks like she don't like mornings either, but I get the feeling there ain't much she does like.

I do a double-take at the asian goons that also get out with the girl. Dances reckons they are 'Samsungs', Koreans not Yaks. The girl seems resigned and Dances helps her into the back of the hum-vee between him and me. She sits slump-shouldered and follows orders silently. While we secure the 'package', Mrs Johnson is feeding Finlay one last piece of bad news. We have to baby-sit the girl until our employer calls with the drop-off point. She says we should hear from him later in the day.

Not wanting to sit around in a hotel car park all day, Finlay drives us down to Touristville to find somewhere to hole up. The motel we end up doesn't seem to have a name and looks like it's run by one of the local gangs. But at least no-one will sell us out to the cops down here. Dances stops of at a nearby stuffer shack to pick up some food and drinks and then we settle in to wait.

After a couple of hours, Jane asks if she can use the bathroom. I let her in but warn her not to try getting away. She tries anyway. Luckily Zero's got good ears and less manners than me, pushing the door open to catch Jane standing on the toilet trying to force the little window open.

Eventually, Finlay gets the call. Drop is tomorrow at dawn - what is it with all these early mornings - down in Tarislar, the elven ghetto in Puyallup. To give you an idea how bad it is, Puyallup is a toxic hellhole due to shit that went down in the Great Ghost Dance and Tarislar is the shitty part of Puyallup.

Seattle, 4 Jan 2051
The ash makes it look like it's been snowing, which strangely enough for the time of year it hasn't. Everything is grey, even the people. They watch us silently as we drive by, the only vehicle on the road in this part of town. It's kinda creepy and I have to keep adjusting my eyes to compensate for the lack of contrast. The locals seem to know somethings going down and have turned out along the roads to watch our one car parade as Finlay eases it along junk-covered roads of cracked tarmac.

Our destination is the old Southwind complex, abandoned when the volcanoes erupted. Three towers slowly emerge out of the gloom and there seems to be a waiting committee. In addition to a crowd of grubby locals, there is this one old guy, a cyberpunk gandalf with blind eyes much like Zero's. He talks some nonsense at us, but the gist of it is that we are gonna have to climb the central tower, the tallest one, to deliver the package.

Even in the car we could smell and taste the ash, but outside it catches in your lungs. Most of us have scarfs against the cold, except for Jane Foster. Dances uses his medkit to rig up a mask for her with some gauze and surgical tape and we head into the ruined tower.

It's a long climb, some forty stories and even with the makeshift masks we are coughing and wheezing by floor twenty. The place is quiet and gloomy, with just some grey light filtering down from above to light the cracked walls and stairs. As we get close to the top, there are phrases scrawled on the wall. Recent too. Most of them are philosophical mumbo-jumbo but one, a phrase from George Orwell's 1984, triggers a memory of when I was a girl at school.

It kind of freaked me out then, but the things I've seen and done since would freak out Mr Orwell. Shortly after things get even more freaky. Dances starts whistling a tune and when I shush him he looks at me kind of confused. But a couple of floors later we can all hear it. Someone up there is playing a guitar and playing it well. Not my kind of music, something complex and latin.

Finally we reach the top. We are all on edge wondering what to expect, but none of us are ready for what we see. Most of the partition walls are gone, as are the windows. There is a den, like you'd find in some trendy loft appartment. A beat up old sofa and a coffee table with some glasses and a decanter on it. However, that's not what gets us going. No, it's the dude, our employer I presume. A tall, lean elf standing with his back to us. He seems to sense our presence, bringing his tune to a crescendo then with a deft flick twisting the guitar around and placing it in a rack. He turns and bows, light glinting off one pointed ear that seems to be made of silver. His smile doesn't quite reach his eyes. Eyes that are framed by makeup in an extravagant diamond pattern. He welcomes us with an open arm gesture and introduces himself as Harlequin. No, not just Harlequin but THE Harlequin.

He ignores the four guns pointed at him, striding up to me and addressing me with my real name, then deftly plucking my real hand from the Colt's barrel grip and planting a chaste kiss on the back of it. I am still staring at my hand as he moves on to Zero, addressing her as Nimue Something-or-other and repeating the hand kissing thing. Finlay is next, just a firm handshake and then he looks at Dances with a sort of despairing look and a shrug. The injun has backed away from the elf and is still holding his shotgun aimed centre mass on him with a wild look in his eyes.

Seeming to lose interest in convincing Dances to shake hands, the elf spins back to the rest of and offers us drinks. He gives Zero a genuine Coca Cola, something that aint been on the market for maybe 20 years and then offers a glass of 50 year old single malt to both Finlay and me. I start to decline, but he simply nods and pours just a tiny taste into a cracked crystal glass and then two more substantial measures into two other glasses. He hands one to Finlay and the tiny measure to me, saying that I should at least savour the flavour.

It's a strange tableau, three of us standing there with a glass in one hand and a gun in the other. Dances' shotgun never leaves the elf, who is seemingly non-plussed by the weirdness of the whole situation. He starts talking then, something about Jane Foster being the daughter of Ehran, one the big chiefs of the elves. Something about a competition or feud between him and Ehran that he is going to win. And something about one last thing he needs us to do. He needs us to sing.

Well I aint to keen on singing but its a long way from the worst I've done for a few nuyen. He coaxes a note out of me, higher than I thought I could hold, then an even higher tone from Zero and a deep bass note from Finlay. Dances is still being stubborn, so the elf adds one more himself and then somehow manages to harmonise with himself. He takes Jane's hands in his own and leads her to the centre of the room.

Finlay stops singing to say he'll shoot if Harlequin harms her, saving me the trouble of doing the same. The elf makes a dismissive gesture and tells us to keep singing. Then there is a pulse, not something visible but something we all can feel going out from Harley and the girl. And then something comes back. There is a flash as a magic circle becomes visible for a second and then Jane collapse as light bursts from her leg. The return pulse tosses Harley across the room. Finlay's gun follows him spitting lead, while Dances moves towards the girl.

Harley twists in the air, Finlay's bullets seeming to twist around from him, gathering into a swirling ball in the elf's hand as he lands on his feet, his eyes blazing. Finlay's gun clicks empty and he draws his spear and charges the elf who is now also moving back towards the girl. As Finlay strikes, Harley seems to take a half step back, catches the haft of the spear and smacks the ork squarely between the eyes with his own weapon. Finlay staggers back stunned and I put my hand across his chest and shake my head. He gets it and relaxes.

Dances is working on the girl and after a few minutes, seems to have stopped the worst of the bleeding. Harley explains angrily that whatever Ehran had done may also have cost him and that if he is hurt, then Harley loses at whatever willy-waving game they are playing.

He pretty much orders us to go check on his adversary, pointing to a plume of smoke coming from Mount St Helens and saying that that is where Ehran will be. Great! Now we get to go find another crazy elf in his secret lair in a fragging active volcano. There better be a fragging big bonus for this job!

He then scoops Jane Foster into his arms and steps off the side of the building. By the time we get to where he was and look over, he is nowhere to be seen. Fragger could at least have given us a lift back to the ground floor.

As we head back down the stairs, Finlay contacts Seaside to see if Osprey is available for a hotdrop on an active volcano. He is. We swing past a REI store on our way back to Seaside's and pick up some respirators. Finlay was hoping for gas masks, but we don't really want to keep the crazy elf waiting too long. It's a short trip from Seaside's by boat to Osprey's landing pad and an even quicker trip to the mountain. Fortunately, there is plenty of air traffic trying to get close, mainly media helicopters, so the Salish security are run off their feet and Osprey slips us through easily.

Dances has downloaded some GPS data on the mountain and reckons the visitor centre will be the best route into the lava tunnels under the mountain. We climb carefully up the scree, avoiding ground patrols. The visitor centre has been abandoned in a hurry, the doors to the main entrance standing open. We slip inside and Dances leads us to the tunnels.

In contrast to the cold weather outside, it's warm in the tunnels, stifling even in some places. It's also dark and the lava throws off thermo, so we have to rely on torches and low-light. After some wandering around lava tubes for a while we pretty much stumble on a worked tunnel leading in the right direction.

It comes out into a larger opening, with a stone span across a deep drop. Finlay edges out over the natural bridge, testing the ground with his spear, when something drops on him from above. It's an embracer, a gorilla-like creature that is sheathed in fire. I've heard stories of them from the injuns but never seen one till now.

Finlay struggles to escape its grasp. I try to get a shot in but in trying not to hit the orc also miss the beast. Dances aim is better and his SPAS barks in the gloom. The thing roars but at least it lets go of Finlay who tumbles off the bridge and rolls to put out his burning armour. Dances second shot kills the thing and it tumbles off the bridge.

We carefully cross the bridge. The tunnel on the far side flickers like a broken holo, one minute there, the next not. Dances thinks its some sort of broken illusion. Finlay edges through it until his spear hits an invisible barrier and is ripped from his hand and flung back down the corridor, it's powers apparently disrupted. The same happens to Dances, although in his case his spell focus is on a leather thong and nearly chokes him as it is repelled by the invisible field. The barrier doesn't seems to prevent people passing through and with their magic items inert, both Finlay and Dances make it through on their second attempts.

The walls beyond the barrier are beautiful white marble inlaid with streaks of what looks like real gold. Opulent and classical are the best description of the furnishings. As we come round a corner there is a set of double doors with a four short creatures waiting, each in a distinctly coloured outfit. They look like munchkins, a sort of monkey-like creature that walks on its hind legs. There is some dispute about whether they are fully sentient or not, but then the green clad one talks and I guess that confirms that. Not that anyone will ever believe us.

It offers us food (real strawberries) and drinks (champagne). I decline the booze but the strawberries are delicous. It then leads us through the doors. The complex here is large. I wonder how the hell Ehran managed to build it here and keep it concealed. In the main lounge, we find the elf's body.

Dances checks him out but shakes his head saying he's been dead for hours. He reckons that either the pulse Harlequin sent or the one that Ehran sent back killed him. Frag, guess that means that Harley loses too. Just hope he doesn't kill the messenger even through he did say that as his agents in this stupid game, we were not supposed to be harmed. Yeah, right.

We move the body from the floor and lay it out on one of the antique loungers in the room. Then we wait. I ask one of the munchkins if there's anything to eat or drink and after asking what we would like, he escorts us to a dining room and pretty soon we're tucking into real beefburgers, steaks and fries. Finlay doesn't want to leave the body alone while we eat, so he takes his plate back to the lounge and sure enough, just as we're finishing up, Harlequin arrives. We hurry back to the main room in time to catch the end of his rant. I can't follow half of what he's saying but he don't seem too happy. He then questions us about how we found him and Dances give him the low down.

I'm starting to think we're screwed when another Ehran turns up carrying a pair of rapiers, one resting on each shoulder. Yep, another one. Turns out the first body was a fake, some sort of simulacrum good enough to fool both Dances and Harley. Just then, one of the munchkins turns up and announces that some new guests have arrived. Both Harley and Ehran seem keen to finish of their little contest so Ehran tells us to delay them but warns us that while they are on his property they are technically under his protection and although we are supposedly protected by the rules of the game, if anything were to happen to them, bad things would happen to us.

We hustle off to delay the dudes who might have no qualms about killing us but who we can't harm. In terms of non-lethal, I've got a tazer with four rounds and Dances has a handful of gel rounds for his shotgun. Finaly will just have to beat them senseless. We arrive at the main entrance just in time to hear one of the munchkins say 'This way!'

Looking around I spot a big ass antique dresser agianst the wall and a plan forms in my mind. I subvocalise to Dances to hold the door for a moment and turning to Finlay, nod towards the dresser. He smiles. Frag is it heavy. Desperation helps me trigger my enhanced strength, the first time I have consciously managed to do it, and we haul it across in front of the door just as the munchkin announces 'door stuck' to the mystery guests. All three of us get behind it and push it hard against the doors.

There is some discussion on the other side of the door in a singsong language. Dances says it's Sperethiel, the elf language and that he can make out some of what they are saying. Something about having to deliver something personally or the prince will be pissed. They ask the munchkin why the doors won't open, but it sure doesn't know why. They try to push it open but between the three of us and the heavy dresser, we keep it firmly closed. Eventually a letter is slipped under the door and a few moments later we can hear footsteps retreating.

Finlay scoops up the letter and we return to the main room in time to see the main event. Jesus, but do these boys know how to wield a blade. They are blindingly fast and as I watch I realise that they are not just fighting with the blades, but that magic, misdirection and plain old insults are flowing back and forth between them. I don't quite catch the turn, but suddenly there is a roar of pain from Ehran and he clutches at his head. Blood flows from where his ear was but a moment before. Harlequin howls in victory, his moment dampened only slighty by Ehran screeching that he hadn't won, just evened the score. Then Ehran sort of folds in on himself and disappears.

Harlequin bows and winks at us, then casually lobs his blade towards Zero before pulling the same stunt. There is silence for a moment, then from behind us comes a slow hand clap. I spin, bringing my pistol to bear on the sound. It's the fragging elf woman I spotted as we fled from the house where we were tortured when we were captured a couple of months ago.

I lower the pistol as I have the feeling she can pull the same sort of magic tricks as Harlequin and Ehran. She actually compliments us for getting so far, but warns that the magic that normally protects this place will soon be back online and it would be best if we were not here when that happened. We take her at her word and scram.

Seattle, 15 Jan 2051
I guess the rapier was our payment. It's a genuine antique and worth a bundle. Zero got it appraised by some guy from New York. Cost several grand just to get him to look at it. Of course, without any papers, finding a buyer for it might be a problem.

Today, I got a package from Harlequin. There was a picture of him in some desert bowing towards the camera. A woman that looked like Jane Foster was there too, off to one side talking to someone out of the picture. On the back he had written, 'It's hot as hell where we are. Wish you were here' and signed it 'H'. The package also included a set of keys and the address of a lock-up garage. I got Jamal to give me a ride over in his cab. The garage contained a green car with black stripes on the hood. I recognised it immediately. It is the car that rammed the yaks that were tailing me a while back. It's a classic, no electronics, no grid guide and a growling engine that won't run on anything but real gas. When I drove it back to Seaside's the old man nearly had a heart attack. He tells me it's an 1964 Ford Mustang from before they got fat and slow and when car designers still knew how to build a car with looks. It certainly has that, and a V8 engine that scares the crap out of pedestrians and passengers when you floor the gas.

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