Liminal – The Grey King (Session #3)

Participating Players
Game Master – Simon
Alexander Bogdanov – Fred
Celene Forrester – Freddie
Elena Zieliński – Kai
Leah Joseph – Leonie

Date played
15 September 2022

Date in game
Sunday, 25 October 2019, night – Monday, 26 October 2019, late afternoon

Details
After the gig, Elena, from up on stage, spots Celene and Alexander standing at the back of the pub, and she beckons them to come backstage so that they can chat a little bit. The two mages make their way through the crowd and to the small storage room that doubles as the backstage area for tonight and where the changeling is waiting for them already. „Hi, Celene,“ she calls, a big smile on her face, which dissipates when she turns to the academic mage. „Hey, Alex.“

„Well, that was… interesting,“ the gutter mage greets her friend.

„What? Why?“ She frowns: „What do you mean, interesting?“

„You know it’s not my kind of music! But you seemed to be enjoying yourself.“

„Of course I did,“ a still pumped Elena laughs. „And you’ve been to one of my gigs already, haven’t you?“

„Back in London, yeah.“

„So you knew what you were getting yourself into.“ She turns to Alexander. „But what were you doing here?“

„I invited him along,“ Celene chuckles.

„Well… we all do appear in places we haven’t been invited to occasionally,“ the academic mage stiffly replies. „Don’t we?“

The changeling sighs: „Right.“

„But I must say, this place is much more… inviting… than others, I have to say. In a certain way, of course.“ This remark earns him weird looks from all the band members, and an especially filthy look from Carl, in response to which Alexander gives them a nervous half-smile.

Having noticed the looks, Elena decides that now’s the time for some payback. „By the way,“ she turns to both her on/off-boyfriend and the academic mage, „Alexander, this is Carl. Carl, this is Alexander.“ 

With the curtest of nods, the drummer turns away, just as Alexander says: „Err… nice to meet you… nice to make your acquaintance…“

The changeling puts an arm around Carl’s shoulder and smiles: „This is the guy I told you about, you know? The one I was in Egypt with.“

„Yeah, I guessed that,“ he quietly replies.

„What’s up, darling?“

„Nothing. I thought you were mad with me.“

„I’m never mad with you,“ she says in her sweetest voice. „Why would I?“ 

Upon hearing this, Celene gives Alexander a worried look and raises an eyebrow. In return, the academic mage whispers back, still with that frozen half-smile on his face: „What is this all about?“

Putting her other (and still a bit sweaty) arm around Alexander’s shoulder, Elena pulls both men close to her — they both go stiff and try to pull away from her, but she doesn’t let go and says: „You know, why don’t we have a drink to celebrate the occasion?“

Glaring at Alexander, Carl snarls: „Well, he’s buying!“

„Oh, is it that late already,“ the academic mage calls, checking his watch. „It’s a long trip to Portmeirion tomorrow…“

„Leaving so soon, Alexander?“ The changeling pouts a bit.

„You can’t go without buying us all a drink, mate,“ Carl agrees.

After quickly estimating how much this is gonna cost him, Alexander reluctantly nods: „Well, sure… you… uhm… certainly earned it, I think.“ He laughs anxiously.

„Yeah, thanks.“ The drummer is still glaring at him. „Mine’s a triple vodka.“

„And the others?“

„A pint for me,“ Elena tells, him, which is what all the other band members and Nick go for as well.

„Fine then, five pints and a triple vodka it is.“ Taking advantage of the opportunity, Alexander wiggles free of Elena’s arm and quickly heads towards the bar.

Carl gets up and says: „I’ll give you a hand.“

„Oh, I gotta see this,“ Elena chuckles, as the two men leave the room. She holds back Celene, who was about to follow the academic mage, and adds: „No, we wait.“

Raising an eyebrow, the gutter mage sits down on one of the rickety chairs and folds her arms. „What are you up to?“

„He messed around with another girl. Again! So he needs to be taught a lesson,“ the changeling coldly explains.

„That seems all well and good, but what’s Alexander got to do with it?“

„He’s just getting caught in the crossfire.“

„But that doesn’t seem very fair on his part!“

Elena shrugs: „Were there pickles again on your sandwich today?“

„You know there were pickles on the sandwiches,“ Celene calls.

„So why are that concerned about his wellbeing then, when he’s obviously not that concerned about yours?“

„But… pickles on the sandwiches or not, he doesn’t deserve this!“

„I think he can handle himself.“

„That may be true, but you put him in a difficult situation!“

Defiantly, Elena just shrugs: „Whatever.“

***

As they’re walking to the bar, Alexander says: „So… Carl was it, right? What do you do for a living?“

The drummer gives him a look that very obviously says ‚you fucking twat‘ and then coolly replies: „I play the drums. In a band. With my girlfriend Elena!“

„Oh! You’re together, well, congratulations! That’s a very interesting occupation, yes! And… uhm…“

„So what do you do then, mate?“

„Uhm, I have a bookstore. Mostly antiquarian books. Do you read books?“

„Uhm… I read a book once. You were out in Egypt with Elena, is that right?“

„Well…“ Alexander gives the other man a puzzled look and wonders what the changeling told him. „So, uhm, yeah, with Celene and another friend, yes.“

„With Elena, right,“ Carl quietly nods. „So what did you do out there?“

„Well, uhm… you know, Egypt… the pyramids and, well, Egypt…“

„Yeah, right. So what hotel did you stay in then?“

„Err… in Cairo…“

„You’re all in the same room, or…?“

Alexander looks increasingly confused: „No… we had, uhm, separate rooms…“

„Okay, like two of you in one room, and two of you in another room, right?“

„I don’t quite follow…“

„I was just wondering if you were sharing a room with Elena whilst you were in Egypt!“ Carl is looming slowly towards the academic mage and is very much in his face at this point.

„Oh! I see where this is going… but… uhm… I’m… uhm… she’s not my type,“ Alexander hurriedly calls. „She’s not my type at all! Trust me on this! I… no, just no!“

„You think she’s ugly?“ He glares at the academic mage. „You think my girlfriend’s ugly?“

„No, I just said that she’s not my type! We… don’t get along at all, I think!“

„Since Egypt, you mean!“

„Well… uhm…,“ For a moment, Alexander looks daggers at the door to the backstage area, behind which he knows Elena is sitting. „Uhm…“

Finally, the barman comes to the mage’s rescue: „That’ll be a £153, mate.“

„Oh, right,“ Alexander takes out his wallet and pushes the glasses over to Carl. „Would you mind getting these back to the band?“ Then he suddenly frowns — £153 is definitely way too much money for seven pints and a triple vodka. „Excuse me, can you show me the bill, please? I’m not entirely sure we got my order right.“

The barman rings out the bill. „There you go.“

As he goes over the bill, the academic mage can see a whole load more drinks in there than he actually bought. „Excuse me, sir, I think there’s been a mistake. I just ordered seven pints and a triple vodka.“

„Yeah, well this is the rest of the drinks for the band. You’re the manager, right?“

Shocked, he calls: „No! No, not at all! What gave you that impression?“

„The suit, you know?“ The barman winks at him. „There’s nobody else in this place wearing a suit apart from you, so I just assumed… and since you’re with Carl here…“

„No, I’m not the manager of their band! I just happened to have been invited here by a friend… and I kind of regret getting into this situation at all… so, yeah, I’ll just pay for these drinks then, and I’ll send the manager over to you, okay?“

„Yeah, point him my way, because I need to get that paid. I’ll just redo your bill, sorry about that misunderstanding.“

„No harm done, so everything’s fine.“ Alexander looks for Carl, hoping that the drummer has already returned to the backstage area, which he apparently did, because some of the drinks are gone already. Letting out a sigh of relief, he grabs the remaining drinks and then heads to the backstage area as well, muttering along the way: „Elena, just what did you tell him? How could he even think that I would…“

***

Once the academic mage is back in the backstage area, he distributes the drinks and says to Celene: „I think it’s getting late… and also a bit uncomfortable  for me…“

„Yeah, it is getting late,“ she agrees and then turns to Elena. „Where are you stopping?“

„Tour bus,“ the changeling replies, pointing out the window.

The gutter mage looks out the window and is surprised to see a quite decent three-quarter-sized bus parked outside the pub, when she had expected the band to tour in a banged-up Ford Transit. „Oh, okay. And where are you heading in the morning?“

For a moment, Elena frowns, then she grabs one of the tour shirts Nick had printed and checks the list of venues on the back. „Caernarfon.“

„Ah, that’s good! Got someone I need to see in Caernarfon, so… we’ll probably be following closer behind then.“

„Yeah, well, thanks for stopping.“

„No problem.“ Celene looks over at Alexander and Carl. „Thanks for an interesting night.“

„Maybe you want to come by tomorrow again?“

„Sure, if we have time! It’s good to support a friend.“

„I know, thanks.“ The changeling hugs first Celene and then Alexander as well.

Feeling very uncomfortable, the academic mage forces a smile: „It was a pleasure meeting you all and… uhm… keep up the good music… and, uhm, rock on…“ The hug he gets is not only slightly too long, but Elena also rests her head on his shoulder for a few moments, making him stiffen up even more.

Seeing this, the gutter mage grabs hold of her crewmate’s arm and calls: „Come on, Alexander, we need to go!“

„Yeah, bye,“ Alexander grumbles.

„Bye!“ The changeling waves after them, when out of the corner of her eye she can see Carl making a wanking gesture towards the other band members — and, for her, that does it. If he wants to be an asshole, she’s going to treat him like one.

As they’re walking out the door, Celene hisses between her teeth at Alexander: „Don’t play into her games!“

„Oh, dear… just what was she thinking? Thanks for saving my neck!“ He glances over his shoulder back into the room, where, just as Gordon shuts the door behind them, he can see Elena give Carl a violent shove and yell at him: „You fucking piece of shit! Just what do you think…“ Then the door closes and he can hear only muffled shouts.

The gutter mage sighs: „Look, whatever problems she has, don’t get caught up in the middle of them.“

„She seems to have a lot of them!“ He shakes his head in disbelief. „I mean, how could he even think that I… and her… ew, the mere thought…! EW! I think I’m starting to get a migraine, so let’s get to bed early.“

„Whatever you might think of her, she’s not that bad.“

„Well, yeah… I probably…“

Crossing her arms, she adds: „But definitely not your type! And you’re not hers!“

„Well, that’s what I told him!“

„If Carl’s foolish enough to think that, then… well, I guess he kinda deserves everything he gets. If I was Elena… well… I’d just break it off.“

„Well, I don’t know if playing games is a good way to salvage one’s relationship, but…“

„Probably not.“

„They’re both adults, so… they’ll have to deal with it.“

„She doesn’t need us telling her what to do, but… any mistakes she makes, well, I guess we’re the ones who are going to have to be there for her.“ She yawns. „Come on, let’s go back to the hotel.“

***

After she has parted ways with Mr Davies, Leah returns to the car, where Edward is still waiting for her. When she gets back in, he gives her a curious look: „How did it go?“

„He’s not here, unfortunately,“ the teacher sighs. „But I’ve had a good talk and they’ll keep an eye out. I’ve left a picture, so…“

„Did you get any clues as to where he might have gone, or did he know anything about him at all?“

„No, he… well, there might have been someone that maybe looked like him, but… no, I’ll have to keep looking for him.“

„That’s a shame.“

„Maybe I’ll find him, but…,“ Leah sighs again, „I don’t know if I want to find him right now! He’s… done some things I… well, uhm, never mind, he’s still family…“ After taking a look at the watch on the dashboard, she calls: „We have to be there for the kids, by the way, so maybe we should hurry!“

„Yeah,“ Edward agrees. „Look, it’s none of my business anyway, but if you ever want to talk about it, then I’m here to listen.“

For a moment, she puts her hand on his and smiles gently: „I appreciate that. We really need to talk, but… now’s not the moment.“

„Of course. Well, look, let’s get going.“ He puts the car into reverse, clears the car park, and then heads out down the road.

***

It’s beginning to get dark as Leah and Edward drive across the mountains. A blustery wind is pushing against the car, and the low clouds indicate that it might start to rain soon. „Will we reach there before dark, you think?“ Leah again checks her watch. „I’d like to be there in time.“

„I don’t think we’re gonna get there before dark,“ her friend replies, while concentrating on the road.

She just nods and puts on some music, while also keeping an eye on the road — Leah is not a fan of driving in the dark.

After about three quarters of an hour and just before it starts getting really dark, they get into the Snowdonia National Park, with Mount Snowden far off to the right. They’re driving through narrow roads in the mountains in the dark, but Edward seems to be a good driver and is quietly confident at the wheel. 

They arrive a little bit later than they’d intended at the location — it’s called the Aberdunant Hall Holiday Park, a 4-star boutique hotel. The bus is pulling in almost right behind them and moments later the children are exiting the bus, looking all very excited.

Once Leah has gotten out of the car, the first thing she does is to count all the children, just to make sure that no one’s missing. Once she’s satisfied that they’re all complete, they check in, get everyone to their respective rooms, and then agree to meet for dinner about half an hour later. The children’s dorms, one for the girls and one for the boys, are down the hallway from the teachers’ rooms, meaning that the kids will have to pass by their rooms when they want to get to the lobby. Leah is a bit miffed though, when she sees that there are quite a few cats around, but none of the these acts in any way strange, so she decides to ignore them for now.

As she’s unpacking and occasionally checking her phone, Leah absentmindedly plays with the bell she got from Mr Davies. The only message she got was from Alexander — it contained a few pictures from Elena’s gig in Mold, but she doesn’t feel like commenting on these. Instead, she informs Sergeant Glinwald that she has arrived in Wales, but that so far there is no sign of her uncle yet. She also points him in Emily Blake’s direction, suggesting that they might want to get someone versed in Old Irish, so that they can talk to her and maybe learn a bit more about what happened at the British Museum. The one thing she doesn’t mention in her message is the bell — no need for that, she thinks. A similar message gets added to the crew’s group chat, so that her fellow crewmates are up to speed as well.

After freshening up, she gets ready to head for dinner, when she gets a text from Alexander that just reads: ‚Emily? From the British Museum?‘ Immediately, she texts back: ‚The one and only. She’s apparently from Mold. This may sound weird, but I think it’s just her body and not her soul.‘ His return message reads: ‚It does indeed sound weird.‘ She laughs slightly, puts her phone away for now, and walks downstairs to the dining room to have dinner.

Once the teachers and the accompanying parents have settled the children off to bed at the end of the evening, Leah decides to go out for a walk with Edward. It’s not raining, but they both agree that a short walk of about half an hour will suffice for tonight — it’s been a long day after all. There are mountains all around them, but they can barely see them — it’s a fairly dark night, and there are only few lights along the road and only for a short stretch of it. As they’re walking, Leah trips over one of the cats, and the animal scurries away with a slight yowl. „Sorry,“ she calls — but as she glances up again, she just sees, where the moon is briefly uncovered by some clouds scudding across the sky, a shadow pass over the moon very briefly. She doesn’t even get the sense just what shape it was, she just saw something pass across the moon’s face, and when she tries to take a closer look, it’s gone already. Unsettled, she stammers: „Maybe we should head back…“

„D-d-did you see that?“ Edward still looks up at the moon’s face.

„You saw it too?“

„Yeah, that was strange! I don’t know if it was, like, a much higher cloud, but it was going much faster than the clouds as well! Really strange…“

„I don’t think it’s a cloud, Edward,“ Leah whispers. „There are weird things in this world… really weird things…“

He gives her a surprised look: „What makes you say that?“

„Maybe we should go back first and have a cup of tea. I’m not really comfortable talking about it outside.“

„Yeah, I know what you mean.“ He takes her arm in his and walks at a fairly brisk pace back towards the house.

Once they’re up in Leah’s room, she makes some tea and they both sit down. Over a cup of tea, she briefly mentions a bit about her last adventure, and then says: „Well, and my uncle… he works for a specialised department that deals with… uhm, let’s say everything outside of the ordinary…“

„Paranormal investigations?“ Edward frowns.

„Yeah, kind of.“

„Wow! I… kind of seen films and fiction about that, but,“ he laughs anxiously, „I didn’t think it really existed!“

„Yeah, apparently it does. Even in London, so…“

„That’s mad!“

„Yeah, it is,“ she sighs.

„So what did your uncle have to do with it? What’s his role?“

„Researching them, as far as I know. I mean, I got help when I needed it. But now he’s missing and that might be the doing of some of the people that were in that investigation as well.“

Edward’s eyes go wide: „You got caught up in it?“

„Yeah. I’ve seen stuff you wouldn’t believe, so I won’t even try.“

„What was the… was that yellow feather thing related to it?“

„Mhmm. So if I… sometimes… uhm… have to go… it’s not because I have to go to the toilet,“ she laughs anxiously. „And my uncle… he has gone missing now, I mean that’s true, and he might be around here… so…“

„Look, if you need some time off, sure, the rest of us can cover for you. If you need to try and find your uncle, just say the word, I’ll help.“

„Yeah, well, I need to have a logical reason for it, right? I can’t say I’m chasing ghosts!“

He gives her a reassuring smile. „Yeah, I mean, look… but I’m just saying, if… if you find a lead to where he is and you need to go talk to him, and you have to disappear for a few hours, then just let me know and we’ll sort it out between us!“

„See, that’s why I love you,“ she says — and the instant she has spoken these words, she quickly covers her mouth, as if trying to recapture them. „Oops…“

Edward’s eyes go wide and he takes a step back — and then his eyes soften, he steps towards her and reaches out his arms…

***

Back at the pub, Elena has Carl with his back to the wall by now, as he gets the dressing-down of his life. „So if you whore around, that’s fine, but if I wanna have some fun with another guy, that’s the ultimate no-no for you, you little fuck? Talk about fucking double standards!“

Angrily, he tries to walk away from her: „I’ve had enough of your shit, I don’t wanna hear it! That fucking wanker comes in here, you’re putting your head all over him! I’ve seen enough, I don’t wanna talk about it anymore!“

She violently grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him back. „You don’t walk away from me like that, you asshole! Whenever a pretty face comes even remotely near, all you can think about is shoving your dick in her! But you’re giving me shit for this now?“

„I just haven’t got time for this!“

„Get the fuck out, you little fuck!“

„I’m getting to bed,“ he barks.

„Yeah, outside! Fine a nice puddle to sleep in!“

„I’m going to fucking bed!“

„Fuck off!“

„You fuck off!“ With that, he storms out, while everybody else has gone deathly quiet.

The changeling shakes her head and mutters: „That piece of shit…“ Looking at he remaining band members, who are all staring at the floor, she barks: „Anybody got anything to say?“

Nick is the first one to respond: „Look, he was out of order, Elena, and he’s been out of order for some time.“

„I know.“

„But, look, we’re on a tour, there’s a lot of money invested here… I need you to at least play together.“

„I can do that,“ she coldly shrugs. „I don’t think he can though. I’m done with him. We’ll finish the tour and then he’s out.“

„Let me talk to him and I’ll see what I can do to get him to play,“ the manager pleads with her.

„All right.“ As he starts walking to the door, Elena calls after him: „Nick?“

He stops and turns around: „What?“

Her voice icy-cold, she whispers: „If you have to coke him… I’m fine with that.“

The manager shiftily looks her way, then away from her, and then gives her the briefest of chin lifts to show that he heard her and understood.

Once he’s gone, Elena turns to the others: „And what about you?“

„Uhm… it’s between you and Carl,“ Mitch uneasily remarks.

„Good. And that’s where it stays.“ When she sees them exchanging nervous glances, she starts feeling a bit anxious as well and, her harsh tone hiding her own anxiety, barks: „If one of us has to go, who’s out?“

„Uhm… we’ll have to think about it…“

„Right. Let’s have a vote then.“

Gordon sighs: „We need to finish the tour either way. We’ll vote at the end of the tour.“

„Are you worried that I wouldn’t be giving it my all if you wanted me to leave?“

„No, we know that you’re dedicated to the band, Elena,“ Kevin, the second guitarist, says. „That’s not the problem.“

„What is the problem then?“

„Well, this shit between you and Carl that’s been going on for god knows how long! And everybody can see that it’s not working out!“

She sighs: „So you think it’s my fault?“

„No, I didn’t say that! He’s an asshole! You know he is! Why are you staying with him anyway in the first place?“

A strange expression appears on her face: „I don’t know, Kev… I really don’t know…“

„Look, it’s time you split up,“ Mitch calls. „But… just now’s the worst time… just starting the tour…“

„Okay, we’ll handle this professionally,“ the changeling agrees. „We continue as planned, we play, and we go out every night and tear this place down. That’s what we’re here for.“

„Yeah, exactly, let’s do it! At the end, we’ll sort it all out.“

„Okay.“ She walks over to them and they do a group hug, after which Elena walks out towards the bus. Off in the distance, she can see Carl walking further and further down the road, as Nick is talking to him — it seems they never got in the bus. This is actually a relief, she feels, as she climbs into the bus, and just goes to bed. Still, she lies awake for quite some time, occasionally blinking a few tears away — she feels simply terrible…

***

As they’re walking to their hotel, Alexander is getting ever more angry: „I mean, what was she thinking? Am I just a boy toy for her, to get entangled in her games? I mean… I get it, I have… I cannot help it, I have this… this manly appearance to others…“

At that, Celene folds her arms and narrows her eyes at him: „Really?“ She shakes her head. „Look, Alexander, I don’t know what kind of woman… or person… you’re interested in… whatever, but I know that Elena isn’t it, and you know that she likes to play her games. The idea is not to get caught up in them! But… I don’t know, she… she causes herself harm more often than not.“

„Well, I thought we got over these little attacks, after all we’ve been through together,“ he heatedly calls.

„Yeah, but just think about everything that Elena’s experienced as well. You know, the Toymaster, and…“

„Well, yeah,“ he agrees, a bit calmer now. „And to think of the dangers that lie just ahead of us…“

„The things she’s been through leave a mark… just think of the kind of scars that it leaves behind, so… I guess you have to cut her some slack, but just be aware of the kind of stuff she can get up to.“

„So, I never really got the background of this Toymaster story, I think. Has she told you anything about it?“

The gutter mage shakes her head: „That’s not for me to say. That’s for Elena to tell you, if she feels like it.“

„As if she would!“

„Well, maybe you need to build some trust and stop treating her like a child.“

„Well, then she better treat me like a grown-up man, instead of playing these games!“

She puts a hand on his arm: „Just know that she went through a lot, and none of it was particularly good.“ Straightening herself, she continues: „Anyway, they’re heading to Caernarfon tomorrow, and I have some business there as well. The Lady of Flowers gave me the name of somebody that I should make contact with there. Eve Goodman, that’s what she’s called. I need to look for a caravan of shells by the harbour walls.“

„A caravan of shells… what’s that?“

„I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll spot it when we see it! Sounds like it might stand out!“

„Interesting. I guess that’s something to dig in deeper then.“ Alexander takes out his phone. „Oh, by the way, did you get that message from Leah as well?“

Checking her phone, the gutter mage says: „Oh… it sounds like she’s been having an interesting time as well!“

„Who would’ve thought that this Emily from the British Museum would show up around here of all places! But that was something we never really looked into, and I guess it’s good to know where she ended up. At some point, I think, we might arrange for a journey back to the Ghost Realm for her.“

„Maybe.“ Celene shrugs. „Maybe it still holds some answers for us… maybe it is connected in some way, but I just can’t see it right now.“

„Well, we have other things on our mind right now.“

„Yeah, first things first. So let’s head to Caernarfon tomorrow — it sounds like everybody’s going in that direction anyway. Let’s see if we can find this Eve Goodman and see what she can tell us.“

„All right.“

Pensively, she shakes her head: „Everything we’re looking into seems to be connected in some way, so… we need to find what ties it all together.“

„Yes, and I’m very curious how our run-in with the Winter King will turn out in the end,“ Alexander calls.

The gutter mage involuntarily shivers and pulls her coat tight around her: „Yeah, well… let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the meeting…! But, come on, let’s head back to the hotel and get some sleep.“

„Yes, that’s probably for the best.“ He follows her, as she walks ahead of him, almost hurrying to get back.

***

The following morning, some of the students immediately catch on to the looks Leah and Edward are giving each other, and by the end of breakfast the two teachers are the talk of the day already, albeit only behind their backs. Still, they do a long hike in the morning with all the students. After around ninety minutes, they come over the top of a hill overlooking the extremely pretty village of Portmeirion, where they make a stop at Portmeirion Village for some tea and scones and then everyone has got an hour to themselves in the village to wander around and have some fun.

As Leah is sitting in a tea room by the port, she suddenly remembers the shadow she saw move across the moon’s face, so she sends a text to the group chat, informing them about what she saw and that she thinks it didn’t feel natural at all. After finishing her tea she heads over to a nearby bookstore and buys a few books on the local lore. As she’s skimming these, she comes across an interesting piece on the myth of two dragons, where a medieval lord tried to build a castle and it kept on falling down. Eventually, Merlin, who was just a boy at the time, came to the castle and said that it was because two dragons were fighting in a pool beneath the castle, and every time they fought it caused the earth to shake and the castle to fall down, so they had to drain the pool to get the dragons to leave. When they dug underneath the castle, they indeed found a pool, and once they drained that, they were able to rebuild the castle and it stayed up forever. Smiling, the teacher makes a quick note of this legend — they will be visiting that castle in the upcoming days and now she has some knowledge to share already! She also buys a paper map of the area and then, for the remainder of the morning, she walks up and down the marina with Edward, chatting, looking at the boats, and enjoying these few moments of silence.

***

After having a hearty breakfast at their hotel, Celene and Alexander get in Leah’s car and make their way over to Caernarfon. It takes them just over an hour to reach the town, where the academic mage had already booked a room in the Anglesey Arms Hotel. As Alexander picks up his bags and hustles off to go upstairs, the gutter mage turns to the young woman behind the reception desk of the hotel and asks: „Excuse me, while we’re stopping here in Caernarfon, I’m looking to meet up with someone called Eve Goodman. You don’t know the name, do you?“

A slightly shocked look appears on the receptionist’s face. „Oh! Yes, Eve’s one of my friends! How do you know her?“

„Somebody who knows her said she might be able to help me with something. There’s too much to go into, but if you know where I could meet her, I’d really appreciate it!“

„Yes, yes, she… she actually has a shop, where she sells earrings and necklaces and things made out of shells,“ she points to an earring she herself is wearing. „It’s a caravan, and it’s along by the harbour wall.“

„I see.“ Celene smiles knowingly. „Okay, well, maybe I’ll pop by then. I could always use some new jewellery as well.“

„And we’ll be drinking here tonight. I’m getting off my shift about seven o’clock this evening, and Eve’s coming over. So if you want to meet her here… we’re going for a few drinks here, and maybe we’re going to a club afterwards, if you wanna come?“

„Ah, well, I’ll try and catch her in the shop. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your night out with my business, but if I miss her, then I’ll know where to find her. Thank you very much!“

„Exactly, exactly! Look, you’re more than welcome, it’s just a bit of laugh with a few friends, so it’s no harm!“

„Thank you,“ the gutter mage again says. „I’ll better go and put my stuff in my room, but, yeah, no, thank you again!“ She quickly heads upstairs as well and towards her room.

About halfway up the stairs, she finds her colleague angrily glaring in turns at his large Samsonite suitcase and the very narrow flight of stairs, where he got his suitcase stuck. „Move, you stupid…,“ he calls, again pulling on the handle, but then he notices her: „Oh, there you are! And? Any luck?“

„Yes,“ she nods, while at the same time helping him getting his suitcase unstuck. „The girl behind the desk knows where Eve Goodman can be found, and, as the Lady Verbena told me, we need to look for the caravan and the seashells on the harbour front. That’s where she can be found. But if we miss her there, then apparently the girl behind the desk is friends with her, so they’ll be drinking here tonight. But I think we should try and head down to the harbour first. I don’t really want to be discussing the kind of business that I have to discuss in front of others.“

„Okay, I agree,“ he nods as they walk towards their respective rooms.

Indicating the now unstuck suitcase, she asks: „You okay with that now?“

„Yeah, thank you, that’s just a minor nuisance. So… do we head off right now, or would you like to wait a bit?“

„Well, let’s get the stuff in our rooms first, and then, yeah, find some lunch, and then we’ll head down to the harbour.“

As Alexander puts all his stuff into the cupboards, Celene wanders over to the window and takes a look out to see what the view is like — and as she stands by the window, she sees a man with bleached blonde hair turning away from looking up at the hotel and disappear around the corner of the street. Shocked, she lets a muffled scream and takes a step backwards.

Confused, Alexander looks up, when he feels her pulling him over to the window: „What is it?”

Pointing down into the street, the gutter mage calls: „I think I saw Koshchei Ledski! I’m sure I saw him out there, or somebody who looked like him!”

„You sure? That’s an awful lot of coincidences for just one day!”

„Well, he’s supposed to be looking for me.”

The academic mage peeks out the window, but Ledski is nowhere to be seen. „Where exactly did you see him?”

She again points down the street. „There. He walked down the road that runs from the hotel to the castle and then he disappeared round the castle wall.”

„Did it look like he was leaving the hotel? Or did he come from a different direction?”

„I got the impression that he was looking at the hotel, like he was staking the place out,” an increasingly anxious Celene calls.

Alexander shakes his head: „That’s… that’s really strange… I hope he…”

„I think we need to be extra careful while we’re here!”

„Yes… yes, indeed…” He looks her up and down. „You have your protections in place?”

„Yeah.” She picks her coat up and puts it on again — it’s cool outside, so the weather definitely warrants a coat anyway.

„We should be very careful around here!”

They head downstairs to the reception again, where Alexander invokes his powers of the Sight to see if the receptionist is maybe under some kind of spell — this could explain how Ledski knew that they were staying at the Anglesey Arms Hotel. There’s nothing odd about the girl behind the desk though, but he notices that around the edge of the front door there is a rapidly dissipating aura of magic. To him, this indicates that someone might have cast a spell on the door.

After leaving the hotel, the two mages cautiously wander down to the waterfront, picking up some Fish ‘n’ Chips along the way, and then they try and find Eve Goodman and her caravan of shells. As they walk down the pier, Celene compliments Alexander on picking an excellent spot: „The hotel’s very picturesque, sitting right next to the castle.“

The academic mage smiles: „It’s got raving reviews on Tripadvisor.“

„You use Tripadvisor?“ She raises an eyebrow.

„I’m quite open to modern technology!“

„But… you’re so stuck up sometimes!“

„You don’t have to embrace everything…!“

Laughing, she suggests: „Like modern clothing?“ For a moment, he just stares at her, but then he laughs as well, albeit slightly forced. Sitting down on a wall outside the Fish ‘n’ Chips shop, they look out over the harbour, trying to figure out what to do about Ledski and where to find Ms Goodman.

***

It’s late morning when Elena wakes up in her bunk in the tourbus, just as Nick tries to get the bus on the road. Carl is sitting quietly in the front and drinking a cup of tea — he’s not really paying attention to anybody else, instead just looking out the window. Since last night the drummer seems to have calmed down, and he’s also on the bus with them, which means that he hasn’t left the band yet, but she can sense a tension to him, possibly even a restrained anger, but she’s not entirely sure about that. For a moment, she considers walking over to him, but then she shakes her head — if he wants to pout, then she will let him pout to his heart’s content, she is not going to go running around after him!

Finally, early in the afternoon, the bus gets on the road and within ninety minutes it’s in Caernarfon. The band (sans Carl) has spent the ride at the back of the bus, working on a new song that has come along nicely so far, but when they reach the town, they all just stare out the windows at the very impressive looking town in general, and the massive castle in particular.

Once Nick has parked the bus, Elena steps out and stretches. It’s a cold but sunny day, and there is a reasonably strong breeze that has the flags on the castle fluttering and that is sending fairly strong waves into the harbour. The sight of the castle suddenly sends a shiver down the changeling’s spine — she has bad memories of castles… and the tensions in the bus aren’t helping either… but then her dark thoughts are interrupted by the buzzing of her phone. It’s a text from Alexander to the group chat: ‘Koshchei Ledski is in Caernarfon!’

As the changeling has a bit of time to spare before she has to be at the venue for the soundcheck, she goes wandering around the centre of town a bit — and, lo and behold, she spots Celene and Alexander sitting on a wall close to a Fish ‘n’ Chips shop, where the gutter mage’s red hair stands out clearly amongst the general townsfolk.

Sneaking up to her friends, Elena snags a few chips from Celene’s lunch and quickly gulps them down. Pulling her package away, an exasperated Celene calls: „Hey! Oh… oh, it’s you.”

With the last remaining chip the changeling points at the gutter mage’s red hair and says: „You should do something about that.”

„Why?”

“You stand out like a sore thumb.”

„Other people have ginger hair,” she protests.

Looking around at the mainly black or brown-haired townspeople, Elena chuckles: “Sure, but they’ve all gone on vacation to Cornwall, it seems.”

„Well, I managed to make my way around with my hair just the way it is perfectly fine before!”

„But, right now, someone very powerful and very dangerous is after you. So, at least for now, you should do something about it.”

Alexander nods: „She does have a point, Celene.”

„Well, as far as I’m aware, somebody very powerful and very dangerous has been after me for a long time,” the young gutter mage protests.

„If you wanna be casual about it, sure,” Elena shrugs. „Just saying.”

Celene reaches up as if to stroke her ginger hair, but then she looks at her grease-stained fingers and thinks better of it. „Well, I’ll consider it, but… I’m not doing anything rash!”

„Of course not.” Elena sighs, and then snags a few more chips from her friend’s package.

„Hey, get your own!” She waves the changeling’s hand away.

„Okay, okay…” Now, Elena turns her attention to Alexander’s package and snags a few chips from there.

„Yeah, be my guest,” the academic mage growls. „I hope your boyfriend is not around, I don’t fancy a knife in my back!”

„He’s my ex! Currently at least.”

„The more dangerous he is, I guess!”

„He’s not dangerous, he’s an idiot!”

Celene shakes her head: „Still, whatever your problems with him, it’s not really fair to drag Alexander into it!”

„Oh, shut up!” The changeling puts on an innocent face. „I didn’t drag him into it!”

„Really?” Her friend gives her a pointed look.

„Yeah, really!”

„Well, I didn’t volunteer either,” the academic mage calls. „But, please, let’s leave these squabbles behind us for now.” Shaking his head, he continues: „I’m very concerned that Ledski is around here, and we haven’t managed to find Celene’s contact in Caernarfon yet.”

„Yeah, I saw your text,” Elena nods, as a worried look appears on her face. „Where exactly did you see him?”

“I saw him across the street, when we were checking into our hotel, but he vanished round a corner of the castle,” the gutter mage explains. “But he’s too close for comfort really!”

„So you saw him outside your hotel? What was he doing there?”

„Like, he was watching.”

“But that means that he knows where you’re stopping!”

“Maybe,” Celene nods.

„When we exited the hotel,” Alexander explains, „I was under the impression that something magical… some kind of aura was almost tangible in the room, but it dissipated before I had the chance to examine it any further. But, still, this is very… very worrying!”

The changeling frowns: „Some kind of magical alarm bell maybe?”

„Probably. But I think it’s obvious that the enemy knows that we are here!”

„Well, great!”

The gutter mage shrugs: „Well, even if they didn’t know who we were to begin with, they knew that we were coming.”

„But I was expecting him to show up in Portmeirion,” Alexander calls, „not here in Caernarfon!”

„This doesn’t change anything, we knew that somebody out there was after us. Now, we just need to make sure that we’re one step ahead of them.”

„But if Ledski is here, then Leah’s uncle might be here as well!”

„Maybe, but I didn’t see him outside.” Celene stands and looks around. „Let’s find this Eve Goodman, find out what she knows or what she can tell us.”

Elena frowns: „And who’s Even Goodman?”

„She’s somebody… well, the Lady Verbena said she might know something. We’re heading down to the harbour now to try and find her. We have a good lead on where she might be. You wanna join us, Elena?”

„Sure, but I have to get back to the venue pretty soon for the sound check.”

„Okay, I just thought you could do with a distraction. Things seemed pretty tense at the moment. Are you sure you’re okay?”

The changeling forces a smile and nods: „Yeah, I’m fine. And… well, you don’t know the half of it: Carl’s gonna be fired once the tour is done. Either he leaves, or I do.”

Her friend just nods and says: „Yeah, well, hopefully the band can stay together in some form.”

„I hope so as well, but… well, we’ll see…”

„Well, this way.” The gutter mage starts walking in the direction of he harbour, eating her chips and constantly trying to wave Elena away, who every so often tries to snag some chips away from her. At some point, Alexander offers his barely touched Fish ‘n’ Chips to the changeling, which she happily takes, while he gets out some alcohol-based disinfectant to get the grease off his fingers. Upon seeing this, both women roll their eyes at him behind his back and start chuckling… this is so Alexander…

***

Shortly after lunch, the group from CATS College leaves Portmeirion and heads back to the holiday park. According to the schedule, the parents are going to take the kids pony-trekking for the afternoon, so Leah takes the opportunity to take care of some of her own business. There’s not much she can do about her uncle Greg currently, and Emily Blake is also something she will have to deal with once the kids are back at CATS College, so she decides to ask Edward out for a little boating trip with an included picnic. It’s quite cold and breezy, but the sun is still shining and they have a nice time together on their sailing boat.

When the two teachers get back to Aberdunant Hall Holiday Park for the evening meal, the boys are sitting all around the table already, ready to have dinner, whilst all of the girls are still up in their dorm for some reason. Walking upstairs to the girls’ room, Leah can hear some chattering from behind the door, so she decides to give them another five minutes — girls can get really chatty after all — but then the door opens and one of the girls spots the teacher standing in the hallway. „Miss, miss,“ she calls, „look what we found!“ 

Looking in through the door, Leah can see that one of the girls has an almost life-sized doll about the size of a three or four year old child — and just now she pulls the string on the back. „Hello, my name’s Nelly,“ the doll says, „hello, my name’s Nelly.“

„Isn’t it lovely, miss? It looks so lifelike!“ 

A cold shiver runs down the teacher’s spine, and, with her voice shaking, she stammers: „Where did you find this?“

„It was just lying on the bed when we came in, miss.“

„Uhm… you know what, it’s time for dinner anyway,“ she sternly says, „so why don’t you girls head for dinner? The boys are already waiting, and your dinner’s getting cold!“

„Oh, okay, miss,“ the girls call, clearly very disappointed. „We were having such fun! Isn’t she lovely?“

„I guess she is… she looks very well…“

As the kids are filing out, Leah can tell that two or three of the girls are obviously enchanted by the doll, while another three or four of them seem like they’re not quite sure about this, and another three or four really don’t want to go near this doll at all and are looking at it very concerned. The only reason that the last group is not saying anything is that the girls that are enchanted by it are the queen bees and the cool kids, and the other ones don’t want to be seen being scared of a doll.

„You girls go to dinner now,“ the teacher barks. „For the moment, I’ll take care of the doll, and after the holiday, if there’s anyone who’s interested in the doll, we can see whether we raffle or not, okay? Only fair. So, hop along, come on!“

„Oh…“ The kids troop downstairs, some of them very quickly, some of them very slowly and looking back at the doll.

Once the girls are all gone, Leah quickly brings the doll to her own room, where she sits it on the couch, and then makes a short video of the doll doing her thing, which she posts in the group chat, accompanied by a short message: ‚We’ve got something here…‘ She’s especially curious what Elena will have to say about this…

***

As they’re walking down the harbour on the lookout for Eve Goodman, Elena stops dead in her tracks when she reads Leah’s message — she knows that doll, and she knew the little girl called Nelly as well that was turned into this doll. „Shit,“ she whispers, and then immediately writes a message back: ‚Leah, where did you find this doll?‘ The reply message comes quickly: ‚In the dorm of the girls! It was just laying there!‘

Motioning for the others to come closer, the changeling calls Leah, puts her on speaker and, without even saying hello, just hisses: „That thing is from the Toymaster!“

„I guess it is,“ the teacher shrugs.

„No, Leah, it definitely is!“

„But why is it here?“

„Because the Toymaster’s here!“

„What he’s gotta do with me?! If he was after anyone, it would be you, wouldn’t it?“

„Well, guess, who stabbed him,“ Elena coldly reminds her. „That was not just me, that was you as well. And both of us saved Angharad Rees from him. He had to answer to the Winter King for that, for failing to bring his chosen bride to him, and I don’t think he enjoyed that, Leah.“

The teacher grumbles: „Great, so I’m not safe here now?“

„No, you’re not, and the kids aren’t either.“

„We just arrived here, I can’t send them off!“

„Leah, if you stay, they might end up just like Nelly!“

„If I leave, would they be safe?“

„No.“

„Great!“

Elena sighs: „That fucker wants to hurt you, Leah.“

„And he’s gonna hurt the kids to do so,“ she agrees.

„Exactly.“

„I need help.“

„Yeah, we all do. Alexander and Celene saw this Ledski fellow in Caernarfon.“

„In Caernarfon?“

„Yeah.“

The teachers shakes her head: „We’re spread out now… so how can I protect the girls? I can hardly protect myself, let alone all the kids! And what do I do with this doll?“

„Bring it with you,“ Celene suggests — she doesn’t notice Elena suddenly going slightly pale, as she says this.

„Whereto?“

„Well, if you bring it here, then maybe Alexander can look at it. See if we can find out anything about it, whether it’s magical, or…“

„Yeah, but I need to protect these kids,“ Leah protests. „Can’t you come and get it?“

Pointedly, the changeling reminds her friend: „Celene, that doll is not a doll. Well, no, it is a doll now, but it wasn’t always a doll…!“

„Like the others that you told me about then?“ The gutter mage frowns.

„Yeah.“ Elena grimly nods. „Exactly like them.“

There is moment of silence, before Leah calls: „Look, guys, I’m getting scared here! How do I protect the kids and get that doll away from here?“

The gutter mage asks: „Are we sure that the Toymaster is gonna harm the children? Or is he just after you?““

„If he’s after me, he can still hurt the children, and that will hurt me!“

„But who says he’s gonna hurt the children?“

„It’s a possibility!“

„But maybe you hanging about with the children puts them at risk anyway,“ Celene points out.

„I need someone to protect them then, someone who knows what’s going on here!“

Glumly, Elena says: „But if Leah’s not around, then the children might be in danger as well. And, without Leah, they have no one to protect them.“

Looking at Alexander and the changeling backwards and forwards, the gutter mage calls: „But we can’t be responsible for a whole class of children! Not with what we’ve got hanging over us! Us being there puts them all in even more danger!“

„Fine, you figure out how to get that doll from me, while I’m gonna call that guy from Scotland Yard,“ the teacher snaps. „Maybe he can help out! But I’m not leaving these kids!“

The academic mage inquires: „Leah, did you get any protection, as I advised you?“

„Yeah, but it’s tiny, it’s like a little bell! I mean, what can that do?“

„A bell? What kind of bell?“

„A bell that I can put on my necklace! It’s just a small bell!“

„And what is it supposed to do?“

„I don’t know! I think the thing even had a name… uhm… what did he say?“ The teacher wracks her brain to remember the name. „The bell of St Idfan, I think?“

„Hm… doesn’t ring a bell… err… I don’t think it has any powers at all… it’s just a little bell. I mean, I don’t know anything about it, so it can’t be of any importance,“ he dismissively says. „Little tinkly bell, hardly makes a sound…“

„Okay,“ a slightly miffed Leah replies. „But can you get the doll? I mean, the kids were acting strange around it already!“

The academic mage checks the distance and the current traffic on the road to Portmeirion. „Well, I think we can…“

„I’m not gonna get anywhere near that fucking doll,“ Elena whispers.

„So they’ll just have to deal with it on their own?“

„You figure this out,“ Leah angrily replies. „I have to go to dinner now!“ She hangs up and gets ready to head downstairs.

***

Before the teacher goes to dinners she puts the doll in an empty big bin bag that she took with her on the trip for her dirty laundry, ties it at the top, and then locks it up in her closet — and as she puts the doll away, she can feel that it’s watching her. „Don’t do that to me,“ she quietly says to the doll. Once she’s down in the dining room, she informs Edward that there might be something going on and that she might have to go away soon for a bit.

„Yeah, of course,“ he says. „Look, whatever you need to do. And I know that things are difficult at the moment with you and your uncle, so… whatever you need me to do, just let me know!“

„Thanks.“ She pats him on the cheek and sits down with the children to have dinner.

***

Back in Caernarfon, the three crewmates wander on down the pier, until they eventually see a caravan in the distance up against the harbour wall. Outside, there is a table with jewellery set on it and a woman sat there, playing an acoustic guitar and singing in Welsh, with a soft guitar case on the ground in front of her for collecting money from passersby. The woman has got a very nice voice, and occasionally she stops and says thank you to passersby — and when somebody shows some interest in the jewellery she’s selling, she stops making music entirely and sees to that person, after which she returns to her song. With their Power of the Sight, both Elena and Alexander can clearly tell that this woman is a fae.

Walking up to the woman, Celene says: „Excuse me, are you Eve Goodman?“

„Yes, yes, I’m Eve,“ the woman nods, putting her guitar down for a moment. „I’m sorry, who are you?“

„My name’s Celene, I serve…“

Cutting her off, Eve calls: „Hi Celene!“ Then her eyes go as wide as saucers and she stares, not at the gutter mage, but at her coat.

„I serve under the Lady of Flowers.“ It’s like Ms Goodman hasn’t even heard her, so she waves her hand in front of her face. „Hello?“

The fae gets up and gently puts a hand out to touch the coat: „Good grief, the Mantle of Tegau Eurfon! It’s been lost for decades! Where on earth did you get this?“

„I think we’ve probably got a lot to talk about,“ the gutter mage says, taking a step back so that Ms Goodman cannot touch her any longer. „But… I got this from my aunt Serena’s house. She was killed and her partner Helen disappeared. I took the coat in order to keep me safe.“

„And how…“ She stops herself in the middle of the sentence and shakes her head. „Yes, I knew your aunt. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.“

Now, Celene’s eyes go wide: „You knew my aunt Serena? Then I think we’ve got a lot to talk about!“

„Indeed. You’re aware of your heritage, are you?“

„My heritage?“ The young woman looks confused. „I know that my aunt was… well, well-versed in the ways of magic and taught me some of the art, but she never really talked about anything… where she’d learned it from, or…“

„By all the lords and ladies, girl, we need to talk! We need to talk! Now and here’s not the time nor the place. Meet me… damn, I have something on tonight, I’ll need to phone around and cancel it! I need to talk to you urgently!“

„At the hotel?“

„Yes, how did you know?“

„I met one of your friends, I think. That’s where we’re stopping.“

„Oh, yes, yes, Bronwen.“

„If you’re heading there anyway, we’ve got rooms booked. Maybe we can talk there?“

„Fine, fine,“ Eve agrees. „I’ll come to your rooms early, and then go and meet my friends afterwards. What time would suit you? I have to meet my friends at 19:30.“

„Let’s say six o’clock?“ Celene quickly writes the room details down and hands it over.

Suddenly, Alexander interjects: „Wait!“ He turns to Ms Goodman. „I’m sorry, my name’s Alexander Bogdanov, and I believe that there’s someone very dangerous around this town, and that you should be very careful!“ 

„In what way?“ The fae looks a bit confused. „Who is this dangerous person and why would he be dangerous to me?“

„His name is Koshchei Ledski.“ He shows her the picture Celene got from the porter.

Celene nods: „He’s after me on behalf of the Winter King!“

„After the coat, you mean?“

„I don’t know, maybe. Maybe he’s after the coat, or after me, or maybe both. But he’s working on behalf of,“ she keeps her voice low, „the Winter King. But he’s obviously very old and powerful, I think… and dangerous!“

„And he has corrupted others before,“ the academic mage calls.

„Okay, well, look, thank you for the warning. I’ll keep an eye out and make sure that I am difficult to be seen.“ She pockets the details of the room. „Right, see you at six. And as very wise wizard once said: keep it secret, keep it safe!“

In response, Celene just smiles and nods. As the three crewmates walk back up the harbour road, Eve starts playing a song — it’s Moonlight Shadow, by Mike Oldfield.

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