THe DICE MEN
The church stood on the umbral corner of Broadway Mews, between a sweaty Chinese takeaway and a crumbling Norman wall. It had been years since he had seen them, but they were there nonetheless. The man-size bats and the grubby Napoleons, the survivalists and the exhibitionists and the limp wisterias. The gates to the underworld had been finally breached and a horde of giddy malcontents set free to roam the world.
They were there. Sucking down ice pops and dancing in denim.
The dice men.
He wasn’t sure where to go, what to do. Tables were strewn across the yellowing floorboards, chattering crowds sharing plans for the evening ahead. A man with oily hair noted his name in barbed-wire scrawl, babbling all the while about Lady Blackbird on table one and Shadowrun on two.
Somebody was laughing when the man was gone, and the air smelled of must and Doritos. It seemed for a moment that he had woken from a very real dream into another of equal substance, had gatecrashed his own past and found it wanting.
He was thinking about leaving, when a hand came down upon his shoulder and Godefroy said with glee, ‘It’s your favourite boy!’
They’d met at school, and learnt to game in the court of Tobin Browne, a biker who ran with a pack of feral mediaeval revivalists, men who gave themselves names like Wolf or Jarek and cultivated wild, scrub-like neckbeards. When you were fourteen, everyone older seemed like they came from another planet.
They went their own way in the end, picking up Sausage Roll and Jordan through contacts in the scene. From there it was classic after classic; the sacking of Theradon, the Chambers of Dis, their year-long exile in the deserts of Xor-Mulkor. They had private jokes and private stories. They had crisps and diet coke. Sean turned eighteen in the summer of 1994, with nothing to show for it. There was a brief moment, like the flicker between two reels of film, when he had wondered what he might become, but it faded just as fast beneath the glare of office halogens. The time that passed afterward coalesced into one sluggish myth, a saga of bad food, bad TV, abstract plumbing and deep procrastination. He closed his eyes and let the film flicker. When he opened them again, Emma had been and gone. That was life. It was time to roll again.
They found a table and sat down together. Godefroy hadn’t changed much. He’d been able to buy beer back when they were kids, and had finally come to own his haggard face. ‘Jammie fucking Dodgers,’ he snorted, tearing at the wrapper of Sean’s paltry offering. ‘You must be nervous.’
‘They were on 2-for-1.’
‘Bollocks. You’ve back, and you’re desperate for my approval. That’s what this is.’
Two lads on another table launched into an argument about line-of-sight. Sean chuckled as their tape measures shrieked in despair.
‘So how was the Big Smoke?’ said Godefroy, cramming a biscuit into his mouth. ‘Sean Wescote, bold navigator of the world’s bright baubles!’
Sean smiled. Godefroy had never had much truck with the real world. You could be beaten up, killed, anything like that, it could just happen and there was nothing you could do. In the end, even your anger would be reduced to apparatus.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘London. Too many bad choices. Or good choices that went bad. Do you ever really know?’
Godefroy laughed. ‘Nothing good stays clean for long,’ he said. ‘Half the moon is dirty tonight. Cup of tea?’
There was another man waiting when Godefroy approached the kitchen. On another body, the man’s elemental size might have been clay for an Adonis; here, everything dropped towards the middle. In another time he’d have been a Viking;
here, he was just another schlub.
Sean watched them talk, Godefroy laughing, the man unflinching, mute and monstrous in his chunky leather jacket. Godefroy pointed to their table and smiled.
Sean wondered if he should have mentioned Emma. It would have been good to talk to someone. Last Christmas, she had bought him the crappy Dungeons and Dragons film. He’d tried to hide his dismay with a smile and succeeded only in pissing her off. She was trying to be nice, in her own way. She’d wanted to understand the game ever since they’d bumped into Jordan at Adam’s wedding.
Sean didn’t like to talk about it. It would have been easier to confess to a love of stalking and eating children. He’d only tried once, early in the relationship, to sit her down and explain. Roleplaying, he said, is basically a game of lets pretend with rules and a fixed setting. One person decides what happens in the world (the Gamesmaster) and the players (who play characters) react to it (and yes, he admitted, sometimes it involves the slaying of dragons or the slaughter of orcs, generally the deaths of numerous indigenous species). You use dice to determine the odds of success on any given action. They come in many forms. D6s, D8s – it’s all very exciting.
He explained that Jordan was the GM among the four of them, noting that TSR preferred the term Dungeon Master and White Wolf opted for Storyteller but that it was a slippery slope from there. When it works, he said, it’s like watching the best film ever, except that you’re the star. Emma said it sounded like fun and never mentioned it again. Sometimes he wanted another shot at convincing her. If she’d asked Godefroy about Raithian the thief, he’d have reeled off the story of his life.
His life. Were any men ever so beloved?
The man’s name was Mitchell. He carried a ring binder full of crisp white sheets and lined his dice up like little soldiers. He did not seem pleased to see either of them.
‘I usually don’t run one-offs,’ he said. ‘Usual group’s at a stag do though.’
‘Greg Bell,’ said Godefroy. ‘If you can believe that. It was Uno and wanking ‘til you got here.’
Mitchell placed a sheet of paper upon the table and began to swipe at imagined dust. ‘Things have changed a bit since you last played,’ he said. ‘You might find it a bit off-putting.’
‘Nah,’ said Sean. ‘I’m up for whatever. Just fancied a bit of old-school spell slinging.’
‘Oh,’ said Mitchell, and it seemed that his eyebrow might arch forever.
Godefroy threw up his hands in disgust. ‘It’s only for tonight Mitchell. Let him play a cocking mage.’
Mitchell remained impassive. ‘It’s not a school night Godefroy, and this isn’t Wide-Eyed Fantasy Encounter. There are no mages in my world because magic – as it should be – is a rare and dangerous force harnessed only by the gods and godkind. No dwarves, no hobbits, and very little in the way of elves, prancing or otherwise.’
Sean nodded. ‘So what can we play?’
‘Soldiers, mercenaries, maybe some men-at-arms. I’m not going to drop you into years of carefully developed plotlines just so you can piss about and get your bum out Godefroy. You get what you’re given alright?’
He pushed the dice towards Sean. ‘Roll your stats. No takebacks.’
‘Can I reroll the ones?’
‘Did you reroll the ones when you botched your first driving test? Or when you buggered up that massive interview?’
‘I don’t drive actually.’
‘You live with the ones Sean. We all do. Let’s get cracking shall we?’
The Hunnlang came down from the northern hills like a blood-red dream of the past, swiftly made indelible by the ferocity of their deeds. The spears they threw were limitless and nested in limitless droves.
The Duke of Leynland fled to Kislova. Lost in reverie, he dreamed of seeking out the Countess Peirond and rekindling their past affair. Four days later, the city was afire and his head placed upon a pike. Dogs ate his body and shat out his dream.
The men of Kislova were put to the sword. ‘What of our pacts?’ they cried. ‘What of the ancient borders?’
A skullcapped brute lifted a body aloft and began to puppet a brief charade. ‘There is no country,’ said the dead man. ‘There never was.’
The colourless mud. The ashes of the mayweed. The cold and pallid fish. There is no country.
Winter belonged to the Northmen. Those who did not flee were killed or enslaved; forced to swallow the inelegant Hunnlang creed. Although each warrior had only D10 hit points, the horde itself seemed numberless. The Hunnlang were like Tories or Republicans (or agents of HYDRA); you killed one and two more took its place.
Leynland was one of the six great provinces of Gauldamon, a rolling land of black forests and iron rain. It was a fantastically detailed world, built upon a functioning ecosystem and deft economics. Sean was impressed. Most of Jordan’s worlds were a mish-mash of historical tropes relating to medieval Europe, or Robert E. Howard, or whatever vague recollections he had of Shakespeare.
The nobles of Gauldamon had convened in the city of Paragon. Lord Arkwright offered a casket of gold to the men who unravelled the fate of the Duke. The Countess had miraculously survived the assault, and Arkwright suspected her hand in his passing. Few believed in his gamble, much less the men he came to consider.
Crowen stood at the tavern window, listening to the hum of cicadas. The lanterns of the waterfront flickered on the shore, perched upon stilts of Bromwood oak and draped in pulpy gull dung. The Countess was bred from Felisian stock, and was rumoured to make her second home in Duphonse, a port city founded on pillaged swampland by the nobles of Felise. Its chief exports were mosquitoes, whores, and death.
They passed through Truxham en route to Duphonse. So much had been lost.
In their stories, the Hunnlang described how they were the last children created by the beautiful gods, who abandoned them for their ugliness. Only Nordvac, the god of entropy, saw fit to take them in. The Hunnlang were proud to spread his word. They had decimated Truxham as a warm-up for Kislova, reducing the town’s environs to a very simple sum; things that were already broken and things that would soon be so.
It was funny to think about really. It made Sean feel strange, even sad. The hatred of the North. The dry bones of livestock littering the fields. All that death, all that destruction for a game.
Contradictions, fictions, visions. Twilight maneuvers, armour.
The Countess would be in league with the horde, that much was obvious. A one-off left precious time for nuance. Plot beef was the in-joke term, and Jordan had served up only the stodgiest in between bouts of manic genius.
Mitchell placed a die in front of Godefroy. ‘Roll your Information Gathering,’ he said.
Godefroy bit back on his laughter. ‘We’re only here tonight mate. Wouldn’t it be quicker if you just say I passed?’
‘Just roll Godefroy.’
Tankards came together across rough-hewn tables. Pouches of fine white powder passed between shaking hungry hands. Filthy jokes and curses hung in the damp and malodourous air. A man in the corner began to sing.
Mitchell looked up from his notes. ‘It’s an old song you think,’ he said, ‘full of sadness and regret.’
Sean blew through his lips. ‘I know a girl like that.’
Godefroy snorted. ‘In this house,’ he said, ‘we expect you to observe the tenets of repression like any good Englishman, thank you very much.’
The old man’s song was about slavery. Slaves had built much of Duphonse, back when it was legal to own other humans. Thousands died during its construction from exhaustion, starvation and exposure. Duphonse was a city built on blood.
Sometimes, it occurred to Sean that a GM was in the perfect position to create a wonderful and beneficent society, and almost always chose to replicate the very worst aspects of human civilization. A good game never came easy. It could hound you in your bed, tie you down and work you over until your head was white-hot feverish and your eyes bled perspiration. It seemed odd to spend so much time cooking up misery.
At least it made for good drama. You had to give it that. The road was dark, but you knew you would follow, because every turn was a brand new beginning, a chance to rewrite all your sins and join the splendid disappeared.
Raithian knocked back his beer and headed for the door (Sean had felt a secret thrill to see Godefroy resurrect the name). ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘The old bat probably owns half the city. Off to the house at Moan Pond then.’
‘How did you know that?’ asked Crowen.
‘It’s the song isn’t it? They made us moan and built their homes something something bones rich bastards.’
The old man frowned, singing no longer. ‘I was going to tell you if you made your roll. And it’s a lake anyway.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Right; sixteen. Do we find out anything else? Preferably not hidden in a song or an old tramp’s pants.’
‘You put your ear to the ground in the alleys of Miserite. Much of what you hear is conjecture, but one thing is very clear. The Countess has been receiving strange visitors in the night…’
‘Sounds familiar. Fuck it, we’ll bite. Chuck us a biscuit matey.’
‘Bloody hell,’ said the old man. ‘Stay in character.’
The manor was captivating, less for its content, than the perfect and disquieting placing of its wealth. The walls were panelled in cedar and fading gold, decorated sparsely with hangings displaying surrealist images of twinned butchery and eroticism.
The Countess threw up her arms. ‘Oh, what might be done,’ she cried, ‘about this consummate dragon? See his teeth! His perfect breath! There is nothing he might not crush if he sees fit!’
Crowen stared back. ‘Sorry?’ he said.
The Countess’s lip quivered. Her arms flapped like useless wings. ‘It’s a metaphor,’ she hissed.
Raithian tugged at a silken hanging. ‘I might be mistaken love,’ he said. ‘But didn’t you run this guff by Rob Walker’s group last month? Something about nutters on the stairwell? I don’t think we’ll be staying long.’
She made a noise in her throat. ‘I bloody well think you are. Unless you’ve forgotten about the barbarian bloody horde?’
He shrugged. ‘Dragons make excellent tyrants,’ he said, ‘but they rarely conquer themselves.’
The Countess stamped her feet on the pelt of a monstrous bear. ‘This is the initial informant Godefroy! Are you blind as well as mental?’
‘I told you he was only down for a week. That’s why I asked for something special. Chopping up twats and nicking their gold. This – ’ he gestured around the room, ‘this is last month’s brown hand-me-downs. It’s a bit fucking rich.’
‘Well, you get what you pay for, which in this case is absolutely nothing – ’
‘Well whatever, I guess we’re leaving – ’
‘Uh, no. You’ll have to deal the assassins hiding in the stairwell first.’
‘Assassins? Maybe they fancy a chat instead – ’
‘Roll for initiative Godefroy.’
They dispatched the assassins with relative ease. The leader – an angel-faced duellist with appalling teeth – thought himself wise to goad them into single-file, and was astonished to find his heart in quarters before he could think to soil his breeches.
It was fun to go back-to-back with Godefroy like the good old days, regardless of the mood around the table. The dice had been as mercurial as ever. Raithian suffered double damage from a wonky natural twenty and spent much of the trip down the Crynland sea-road in a wavering knot of pain.
They corralled their horses in a bowl-shaped lowland and climbed a limestone plateau, surrounded on three sides by white oak and pine. In the valley below, sun-dappled forests gave way to shallow pools and fields of swaying wheat. Perhaps they would burn soon.
‘So,’ said Crowen. ‘Are we going anywhere in particular?’
Raithian spat on the ground. ‘I dunno. You tell me chief.’
‘Well what about the Countess? Shouldn’t we have asked some questions?’
‘What, after she legged it down that tunnel? You’ve obviously not smelled the Luire before. I’m not getting the pox just so we can bash some posh tart’s head in.’
‘Okay. So we go back to town and look for another lead.’
‘Oh yeah. Another ripping instalment of Carry On Up Rob Walker. Men are their promises Crowen, nothing more.’
Crowen laughed. ‘Holy shit. The hermit at Xur-Mulkor right?’
Raithian’s hands became fists. ‘Fucking hell… it was the Silver Magister! But the point still stands!’
Crowen turned away. The smell of treeflesh reached his nostrils, raw and damp and dazzling.
‘Quiet here,’ he said. ‘Some of those farms have been deserted in a hurry.’
Raithian said nothing. He stared into the valley and smiled.
Godefroy had cocked up, that was certain. You didn’t shoot the informant before the game began. Back in the day, it was Roll who did things like that. Shooting the messenger, wading through fire; anything to look cool or maintain his apparent objectivism. It wasn’t that big a deal. Sean had the force field of delusion but what did Sausage Roll have? A weakness for barbeque Nik Naks and his studded leather armbands. What good were they against the Ultimate Blow?
The game floundered for an hour, as Mitchell attempted to tell them what they needed to know; that the Hunnlang had inducted the Countess into their vile cult, that the Duke had become Nordvac’s prize. Communication was a drag in Gauldamon. In Jordan-ville, a Romagnan blood-mage would have divined their presence from some opalescent spire, and shit would be on by now.
For his part, Godefroy seemed happy pottering around the valley, asking questions about the woodland, or the abandoned farmhouse they found by the fallow field.
‘This’ll do nicely,’ he said, as Raithian decorated a thatch of saddleroot with stems of coppery piss. ‘I’m gonna make a farming roll, see what info I can get.’
Mitchell swallowed. ‘You don’t have any points in farming Godefroy.’
‘Yeah I do. I didn’t have much else to put them in, so I figured I’d be a farmer’s son. Rustic boy turns big-city hero.’
A black twenty-sider fell loose across the table. ‘Made it by six,’ said Godefroy. ‘Okay big boy, show me what you got.’
Crowen didn’t fight the farm, much to his own surprise. He gave up asking about the Hunnlang after their fifth trip to the village of Amberley, where Raithian intended to barter for swine. He’d returned to the Countess’s cellar shortly after their exodus, where the walls were coated in fading burgundy and the floorboards eaten by dust, and slabs of teak furniture sulked in the alcoves, draped by papery cloth.
They bought an ox and put it to work. They sowed seeds traded with neighbours who had not been afraid to remain. They woke every morning at the cock’s crow and made haste with sickle and scythe. Crowen spent his days on the borderlands of thought. It was strange, and strangely wonderful. Only when they gave up on the fight against life had life itself appeared to them.
Mitchell was having none of it. He demanded that they adhere to the plot. What was heroic about abandoning a war to grow lugworts and whitegrain? Sean couldn’t blame him. It was what the game did to you. Made you think there was a through-line to everything, a purpose to be discerned. They had had few such concerns when they were younger. They stole things from garages that made them laugh; novelty hats and flamingo keyrings. They watched films about madness and horror, and only thought about houses when they burned to the ground. They knew the worth of lugworts.
Spring became summer and the farm thrived. If nothing else, Mitchell was a solid professional. He conjured pastoral industry with the same crisp precision that he might have a week-long siege. It had to be killing him.
When Crowen could plough no longer on account of his lousy stamina (a miserable nine), he busied himself with visiting the scattershot settlements that peppered the land. He was careful to avoid the vast sprawl of Bromwood Forest. Few men championed its dismal thickets. None but the desperate called it home.
In Amberley, he met a weaver named Flora. She was quick to laugh, and quicker to forgive. They shared furtive glances at the Kadesh market and made promises they intended to keep. She reminded him of the cleric Jolande, whose faith had proved so vital to his Eagle Knight after the massacre at Fortresse de Leon. Somewhere she poured a glass of white Felisian wine and slowly shaved her legs. It was the last night of her affection.
Sean twitched in his seat. Much had been left unspoken between the two of them. It was difficult for any male gamer to admit to himself, let alone others, exactly how affecting the love between a fictional man (who was being portrayed by another man) and a fictional woman (who was also being portrayed by a man could be). Sean did not know what it said about him as a person. Jordan had always made her lust for his character sound so very convincing. In the world outside the game, he could not blame his poor diet or his secondhand socks on a life spent boldly adventuring. He could not tell a girl he fancied that a welkor had eaten his gold. Contrary to the romance they so often imbibed, not every bloke shouting on the corner was being torn apart by love. Most were being torn apart by cash. Magic was magic, but money was magic too. Money was the oldest form there was.
‘What if you break a wheel on the road to Brancaig?’ said Flora, as they lay awake in bed. ‘You’d be gone for days.’ She laughed and ruffled his hair. ‘Don’t make me miss you.’
Crowen blinked in the dark. ‘You never will,’ he said.
Mitchell glowered and fell away, seeking oblivion in his hands. A group of teenagers whispered at their table and went back to blowing up spacemen.
‘I mean think about it,’ said Godefroy, lifting his feet onto the table, ‘bandits aren’t going to just launch into a fight if they can help it. They’re not nutters. We give them the cash, they fuck off home, and everybody’s happy. Socialism at its finest.’
Mitchell groaned. ‘I’m just trying to liven things up Godefroy. Jesus, how about some rolls on the monster table?’
‘We’ve been over that chief. Not very realistic is it? If we’d known there were monsters here, we’d not have settled down. Now, your Hunnlang geezers are sucking each other off in the backwoods a hundred miles away, so how about you pick up your notepad and figure out what’s going on with old man Varney’s warmblood?’
Mitchell exhaled. His hand was twitching as it popped the cap on a Biro. ‘The horse is dead Godefroy,’ he said. ‘It looks like it was painful.’
They took five minutes while Godefroy popped to the shops. Sean caught him on the way back, languishing by the Saxon wall in his battered leather coat. Godefroy had been wearing that thing for years. Once it had seemed like the kind of thing a poet would wear, or maybe a famous actor. Now it lent him the air of a deranged hitchhiker.
He smiled as he crossed the churchyard, relishing the cold, resplendent breath of hometown on his face. The moon was a broken coin between them.
‘You little rebel. A farm!’
‘That’s me. Mark Chapman, full of surprises.’
They stood against the wall, staring into the lightless alley where Roll had lost his wallet to a pack of nihilistic twelve year olds. Sean shook his head, no longer astonished by the notion.
He remembered long walks in the autumn air. The colour of the leaves and the soft glow of houses. Walking to the cremo on their way back from college, talking about Fear Factory and the X-Files and whether Dominik Diamond was a twat. Bad alleys, bad moons – bollocks to all that. He wanted hope. Or maybe just a shag. He couldn’t be certain anymore.
‘I've got to say,' he said, 'I was a little surprised to find you still here.'
Godefroy bit into a chocolate bar. ‘Oh yes?’
‘I dunno. I just – Jordan was already gone, Roll went off to Wales. I thought we’d all move on from here.'
'What, ‘cause the story demanded it?'
'No... Yes. It’s stupid isn’t it?'
Sean bit back on a surge of relief and waited for the shame to follow. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘remember that weird floating city game when you rolled those twenties against the vampire? What was it you said? That was hilarious.’
Godefroy nodded. ‘Rolled a few yourself didn’t you mate?’
Greasy static flickered in a street light. A fence rattled behind the mouldering wall. Sean said nothing for a while.
He ran a hand through his hair and wondered if Godefroy had ever seen it so short. 'It felt that way for a bit,' he said. 'Up until the promotion. I think the late nights protected us from the worst of our problems. Once we were over the peak it was like there was nowhere to go but down. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men receive shit Christmas presents.'
‘You need a woman with some crust,’ said Godefroy, twisting the skull ring on his thumb. ‘With an eyepatch and tattoos. Pissed off at the world. Not at slave traders and racists. Like retarded youth anger.’
‘Like the rebel kid from Boy Meets World.’
‘Yeah. Break a few of his teeth and we’re good to go.’
Sean chuckled. ‘I lost half my tooth once.’
‘You did,’ said Godefroy. ‘You ran into a mirror on holiday.’
‘I don’t know why I did that.’
Godefroy shrugged. ‘You were young.’
He walked towards the door, stopping to kick a rusty can into the road beyond the wall. It failed to clear the summit, returning to the darkness at the corners of the yard. He grinned. ‘Think that’s a sign?’
Mitchell smiled as he eyed up the die. ‘You need seventeen or under to succeed,’ he said, ‘and that looks like a big fat one nine to me.’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ said Godefroy, ‘I’ve been doing this shit for years – ’
‘You’ve been adventuring for years. Evidently young Mr. Raithian has neglected his daddy’s skills somewhat. Though frankly, you’d have to be a fucking pleb not to see the signs. Who knows, maybe you fell out of a tree in your youth. Probably harvesting plums when you should have been making with the stabby-stabby.’
‘It’s two over. Jesus, you don’t think I would have noticed?’
‘Well you apparently didn’t. The dice have spoken Godefroy. You are hip deep in early winter and your seeds are dead in the dirt. Make a survival check and we’ll see how much horsemeat you can scavenge from dead Mr. Ed.’
The Hunnlang returned with the winter. They brought great beasts from the hollows of the world; firesnakes, giant boars, and things inarguably worse. The great river that flanked Benn Denu gave them passage into Crynland, where the men of Brancaig denied them glory. These were the days of woe. There were dark anniversaries, pregnant cosmologies; a wolf grew fat at the door. For seven days shields were sundered. Six more did the fates betray. Those who are brothers may rest without names, for together they share one voice.
Crowen found old man Varney face down in the snow a week after the pigs died. His heart had been cut into quarters, and a coarse cloth pouch stuffed into his bloody mouth.
It contained three fingers. One of them wore a ring Crowen had given Flora at the market. He looked inside and knew that it had been foolish to pretend.
Godefroy stared across the table. ‘Lay it out for me,’ he said.
Mitchell shook his head. ‘Do you really need to hear it? Jesus Ollie, it’s only a one-off – ’
‘Lay it out.’
The big man stiffened. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Let’s say that the assassin in the stairwell was a consort of the Countess, a beloved consort who she would see avenged through an appropriate agent. In this case, the Hunnlang – remember them? – who consider an early winter to be particularly favourable auspice. Being nihilistic marauding types, one place to raid is as good as any, and Bromwood Forest is an excellent place to hide, provided you don’t care about dirt and cold, for which I refer you to my earlier description vis a vis the profound, Godefroy-esque nihilism. No doubt I’d be reduced to the same if I had to wander between games each week like a fucking tramp.’
Godefroy opened his mouth and said nothing.
Sean turned his attention to Mitchell’s map of the land. It was exceptionally crafted, a far cry from Jordan’s scratchy diagrams. Names sung out to him; great sunlit citadels, mountains that devoured time. Their wrinkled paths had been forever stained by blood and grief and tea. He thought about tearing them to pieces.
He cleared his throat. ‘You couldn’t let it lie.’
‘You wouldn’t go to the adventure, so I brought the adventure to you. You’ve no idea what I had to dance around to get here.’
‘What about the horses? And the pigs? What was that, Nordvac magic?’
‘Magic, poison, sickness. What does it matter?’
‘No magic, that’s what you said. A realistic world.’
Mitchell flexed his brow and smiled. ‘It’s a bugger isn’t it?’
The ground was hard, the wheat entombed in frost. Bromwood lurked behind a shawl of mist, sovereign of the wide horizon. The sky heaved as though ready to burst, shot through with clouds of silver and grey like some vast deposit of iron. Amberley burned far behind them.
The way up the hill was stiff with ice, forcing them to move in delicate steps to maintain their balance. Raithian had said little since their departure, but Crowen had no doubt he would persevere. Something mightier than gravity worked on them now, mightier than dream and mightier than time and mightier than the sea-lanes of Hel.
They made their way towards a bare highland, where curls of smoke rose like fog. A haphazard ring of stones emerged from the night, each ten to twenty feet in diameter. Crowen counted nine, each of them towering over a mound of embers like keepers of some ancient flame.
The two men froze in the moonlight. Whatever was sacred in this place, it was sacred no longer. Something had been born in maleficence and ashes.
The vile horde lay all about, feasting, rutting, splitting the skulls of their fellows. Dirt caked their mutilated bodies. Crowen watched in disgust as a lesioned brute devoured a whining mare’s afterbirth.
Raithian’s eyes were bright with fury. With devastation and loss. It was too much to hope they might not be seen. They were expected after all. As Crowen reached for his sword, time seemed to slow around him. Strange, he thought, that life
could seem so sweet and sudden, and truly like some alien gift.
Sean drew a line through the number on the paper, replacing it below with a far lower sum. ‘How are you holding up?’ he said.
Godefroy smiled, as savage as Sean had ever seen him, ‘You know me,’ he said, ‘always on one fucking hit point.’
Sean shook his head. The good luck and the bad luck; the dice rule everything. He thought about characters lost and gone; William Kimo, Rilcidar the satyr, Jolande and her final prayer. History was poison, remedy, poison. There was only one game, and it never really ended.
Mitchell cleared his throat. ‘While we’re young.’
Sean glanced around the room, at the neckbeards and the poets and the dole queue angels. He remembered the lights of the Co-op bright outside as Jordan called them to arms, and reached for the dice.
‘Boom!’ he cried, as the numbers came up. ‘Two hits to the chest.’
Godefroy threw up his fist in triumph. ‘Yes!’
Mitchell scrawled in his binder. ‘One more down,’ he said, ‘that leaves about nineteen.’
Sean held a die between his thumb and finger and raised it to Mitchell’s eye. It shone, for a moment, like a royal pearl. ‘Don’t worry about us,’ he said. ‘We roll twenties.’
The horde came down upon them.
They gave it hell.