OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Persia Khaz

57. Puppets in the Dark

ne by one the heroes regain consciousness. Hank of course, never loses his awareness, but waits patiently for the others. Each of them feels a strange presence in their heads, as if there were a little creature living up there with its hands on all the buttons and levers. Nevertheless, they seem to be moving of their own volition. Their situation is made clear to them by a female stone-skinned riven who names herself Quarra.

They are now slaves of a riven thing that calls itself the Pupeteer. It will leave them pretty much free most of the time, but can control them in an instant if need be. It has placed little "copies" of itself within their psyches. These copies cannot communicate with the puppeteer itself, but they are nevertheless expressions of its will. If the puppeteer gives them an order, the little thing in their heads, which she calls the driver, will force them to comply. Likewise , the driver will not allow them to do anything it deems to be not in the puppeteer's best interests.

The next days are rather boring. They are tested and made to perform for the Puppteer's amusement, particularly Hank. It seems a rich source of humor to make Hank keep his head underwater for hours at a time. Tira demonstrates the uses of her spirit sight. Whenever Hank or another proves to be too irritable or disagreeable, they are ordered to shut up, some times for more than a day at a time.

The lair proves to bee the buried ruins of an old sanctuary. They entered through the corridor in what was once the back. The thing that controls them lives in the pooled water in the main hall; the whole building lies at a severe angle. At high tide, water runs down the corridor and into the far end. What lies beyond the pool through the sunken front doors, no one knows. Gilead tries to find out while demonstrating his ability to catch fish with a spear (he doesn't actually have this skill) but is kept from looking by his driver.

Eventually, there is a visitor. A short man comes in, armed only with a dagger. Tira is able to see the dagger and dutifully if unwillingly informs the Puppeteer. The man surrenders the small knife willingly. He is not attacked, but is allowed entry. It seems the creature in the pool knows him. The man identifies himself as a dealer in riven by the name of Quick. Some of the older members of the group remember this as the man from whom Mahler escaped. Only Persia knows him by sight. He has apparently fallen on hard times. He is harder, leaner and heavily scarred. His Harker-imposed banishment from the city has not treated him well.

If he recognizes anybody, his eyes do not betray his thoughts. His gaze does linger a split-second longer on Gilead, though.

He begins negotiations. Apparently he has dealt with the Puppeteer before. This could explain one of his sources of riven and how Sanyo might have heard of this operation. He promises a certain amount of food, tools, weapons and artwork in return for a number of rive, since the Puppeteer seems to have a surplus at the moment. He promises to return in three days' time. He is allowed to leave and his knife is returned.

After detecting the knife so easily, Tira is placed on permanent guard duty. The only relief she gets, other than sleep periods is when the entire lot of newcomers are sent on a raiding party.

Apparently, if the Puppeteer is to cull its ranks by way of Quick, it wishes to test the capabilities of its latest acquisitions. They are allowed to leave with certain restrictions. They may only travel so far from the lair. They may not reveal their existence or betray the existence of the Puppeteer in any way. They will kill themselves before allowing harm to come to their master. Their drivers will enforce the bans. All they must do is return something of value to the lair: food, money, weapons, whatever.


They succeed beyond their wildest expectations. With Persia's well-developed thiefly skills, they manage to find and infiltrate a minimally guarded houseboat, pilfering and looting it of about as much as they could walk away with. The Puppeteer is well pleased. The heroes feel guilty about the theft, but there is little they can do.


After a time, Quick returns. He has brought a couple of bearers with him. Tira dutifully scans them for weapons and finds only well-wrapped ones in the parcels they bear. The men themselves are weaponless. They are escorted under guard to the chamber of the Puppeteer.

Once in its presence, Quick announces his intention to take the whole lot, starting with Gilead. The thing in the pool is startled. How, it inquires, does Quick intend to enforce his wishes?

"With this", replies quick, holding forth an empty hand, curled as if it were holding a crossbow. Apparently the riven can see something in the empty grip, for they tense up immediately. None of the heroes can see anything there, however.

Quick announces that he and his men (also holding their hands in the same manner) have crossbow bolts loaded with spadesnake venom, one of the deadliest poisons known to Merikia. One drop is enough to kill the Puppeteer instantly. He reveals that he recognized Gilead. Apparently he has had some kind of contact with the Celestial City. He intends to collect the bounty on Gilead's head. He has received invisible crossbows from a Celestial benefactor. He will take Gilead to an undisclosed location for a tradeoff. With the money he hopes to garner from this transaction, he intends to buy his way back into the city, back into civilization. The heroes curse him and call him traitor, but he just laughs.


Gilead is bound, in case the Puppeteer tries any tricks. While this is happening, more soldiers file in from the tunnel. Gilead is roughly taken from the drowned sanctuary.

Once outside, he is hustled toward a waiting boat. Strangely, there is a cloaked figure in their path. It is a woman, though she is quite large. She inquires where they are taking this man. The captors laugh roughly and make coarse comments. She calmly darts out her hands like two striking snakes and grabs each man by the neck. Her arms are odd, metallic with intricate joints. Is she a manikin? No, in the next moment her hood comes back to reveal a quite human face. It is Grandmistress Dakota, wearing the sleekest, most tightly formed mekka that Gilead has ever seen. It fits her almost like a second skin. It is studded with innumerable weapons and attachments.

The frightened men utter vague threats, but she indicates that their boat has already been taken care of by her friend, Big Al. On cue, the huge mekka piloted by Groder rises from the water. He makes short work of the escape craft. Likewise, Dakota makes short work of the captors, throttling them into unconsciousness. She asks Gilead to tell her what is going on, but he remains strangely silent. As if sensing his intention to suicide rather than reveal his secrets, her arms whip out again, this time grabbing and restraining Gilead. She performs a very quick scan and discovers the second psyche, the driver. Using her adpet devotions, she burns out the foreign entity. She bids Gilead to speak quickly, for she does not know if it is dead or dormant.

Gilead spills the tale as quickly as he can. As he finishes, Dakota tells him that he and Groder must go back in to free the others, she would be too obvious.

As she barks her plan, suddenly her head pitches back. Her eyes stream with blood. Leaping backward a superhuman distance, she calls out, "Wraith! I will do my best to hold it off! Hurry!"

Gilead and Groder don the cloaks the men had worn and return to the sanctuary. They know they will only have one chance to break the hold Puppeteer has on their friends. They walk back in and advance to the guards flanking Quick. Without warning, they reach forward and force the men to fire. The Puppeteer is hit with double doses of deadly poison. It shrieks and thrashes. The puppets stand stunned a moment. Then a general melee ensues. The first order of business is to make sure the Puppeteer canot recover. Some riven are immune to toxins. Then the guards are dispatched. Quick is subdued.

The last act of violence is performed by Khaz. With great satisfaction, he rips the flute from the red furred musician. "Hey, I was playing that…" he says in a dreamy, yet annoyed tone. Smiling, Khaz vents his frustration over the endless tootling by snapping the instrument in half. Unfortunately, this drives the riven mad. Fortunately, the giant hairy thing has all the combat skills of a pastry chef and it is quickly taken out.


Gilead explains quickly that Dakota is outside and needs their help. They rush out as a mass to find Dakota in her mekka leaping all over the waterside like a gargantuan grasshopper. The riven are instrumental in directing everyone's attacks, and the wraith is soon splattered all over the broken cobblestones.

Dakota comes to a stop by the heroes. She has lost her eyes. The wraith must have driven a pair of daggers into them as an opening attack. It was only her Grandmaster reflexes that saved her. She seems unconcerned. Gilead offers to guide her, but she replies, "I am blind, not sightless." True, her spirit sight is more than adequate to navigate by. The eyes can be repaired in the Hall of Healing.


In the confusion, Quick nearly gets away. He is apprehended after diving into the harbor by Persia. He is quickly trussed up and held by Khaz. The riven are formally offered the opportunity to go to the Temple of the Disciples for the Test. To a riven, they agree.


As the others leave, Persia and Hank go back to the Sanctuary to gather the loot they were forced to steal. They quickly arrange to return it.


The Riven are delivered to the Temple. Quarra agrees to serve Gilead and he pays her indenture. He now has eyes to catch wraiths. Quick is tossed, screaming, into the Iron Tower, the darkest prison in Tallon.


The Puppets


A spider the size of a large dog. Although obviously intelligent, it cannot talk. Slain in the last melee.


A fishwife with a woman's head but a spider's body. Unlike the other arachnid riven, she can neither cling nor spin.


A young rice farming lad, Rune is a froglike being with one enormous eye that can emit a dim light.


Covered with a spiny exoskeleton and possessing a form only remotely human in shape, Jedd was a sailor


A Farmlands girl with death-green skin, inhumanly pointed features and razor teeth.


A merchant once, now he has brown leathery skin and a turtle's shell.


Once a caravan guard to Donnel, she now possess a stone-like grey skin.


A dog riven with multiple limbs. Slain in the first melee.


Huge red-furred humanoid. Musician. Serves willingly. He’s just crazy and glad to be allowed to make his music.