String of the Serpent

London, England, a few years before the start of World War II

Our heroes find themselves in the ballroom of The Ritz Hotel in the midst of a cocktail party. The guests can be divided into two groups; there are numerous well-respected academics and there are those willing to pay for the privilege of meeting them and patronising the Higgins’ expedition — due to leave for Egypt within the week buoyed by the funds raised tonight. There is a small stage at the end of the hall, normally the home of a small orchestra or band, tonight it is deserted – at least for now. The podium and whatever is behind shielded by a small curtain suggests this state of affairs is going to change.

Basils’ senses have been attuned to the supernatural ever since the fateful day when he thrust his left hand into a circle of power, disrupting a dark ritual and saving Europe from an incursion of darkness beyond human imagining. After that incident he found himself able to wield unnatural forces and set himself down a road which would allow him to battle the forces of evil under the mantle of The Darkness. That, however is history, right now what matters is that he feels emanations of power somewhere in the room, but he is finding himself unable to put his finger on the source.

This may have something to do with the presence of James Washington, an academic of great repute who once came face to face with the Madness of the Universe and survived. The event left him a powerful force for Reason, and his presence is sometimes all it takes to nullify magical energies. At this moment, James is standing surrounded by fellow academics who are being regaled by his tales.

Harry Flasheart, famed for his daring exploits in the skies and in the bedroom (not to mention in the other bedroom, on the sofa, and behind the rose bushes), is even now abandoning his wealthy, but not entirely youthful, companion. He has set his sights upon a young lady helping herself to a glass of punch, for she appears to be unchaperoned.

The Darkness paces the ballroom, hairs standing on the back of his neck. He feels sure that something is wrong and has a fundamental need to, at the very least, find out what it is. Eventually, his eyes fall upon a gorgeous woman representing the peak of stereotypical Nordic beauty. Her blonde hair cascades from her shoulders onto her grey evening dress, which glitters in the light. This is Lady Steel and seeing her causes everything to make sense to Basil. These two share a great deal of history, the complete relating of which would take more time then we have available. The pertinent facts of the matter are these. Steel is a demoness, a seductress, and partner in crime of the ironically named Lightbringer — Basil’s identical twin brother, Albert.

“Darling!”, she exclaims, “I thought you were still in Zurich. I trust everything is going to plan?”

Having posed as his nemesis once or twice before, Basil slides into the role and begins to gently probe for information. Sadly, he is not going to get very far with this line of inquiry as his colleagues are about to join in with his fun.

Harry has turned the charm up and discovered that the young lady was one Jessica Fletcher, niece of Professor Higgins. Under normal circumstances he would… well, let us say ‘follow his usual pattern’ and leave the details to your imaginations — some heroes make better role models then others. However, it is at this moment that he spots Lady Steel and decides that renewing his acquaintance with her is more pressing then wooing the attentions of young Jessica.

Washington has also spotted the devilishly attractive woman and feels a glow of anger bubble up inside him. It is hard to associate with The Darkness for long without enjoying the debatable pleasures of a meeting with this aristocratic demoness. His experience was rich with violence on the metaphysical planes. Extracting himself from the group hanging on his every word, James makes a bee-line across the chamber.

The pair arrive simultaneously and Lady Steel’s amaz… fantas… entirely mundane ability to put a man who looks like her lover together with a pair of allies who frequently work with The Darkness together blows Basil’s cover out of the water.

Laughing gently, but secretly glad she gave nothing important away, as she was sure that the knowledge that The Lightbringer was doing something in Zurich would do them no good, Lady Steel takes her leave and departs the little group taking steps to mingle with others in the crowd, frustrating the respective plans of our protagonists.

The three have little left to do but enjoy the party, which they do for about half an hour before Professor Higgins takes the stage and begins his speech. It consists of the usual self-promotion, expressions of gratitude and so on. However, things are about to get more interesting. Unusually, the Professor, having recovered some sort of artefact on a previous expedition, has been keeping secrets. Now it is time for the great unveiling so Higgins reaches for the cord hanging beside the curtains shielding the artefact, he pulls it and a gasp escapes from the collected breath of the audience.

The velvet covered board is very nice, but hardly a great artefact. Higgins basks in astonishment of the audience for a few moments before something alerts him to the fact that their reaction isn’t to whatever is supposed to have been resting on the velvet.

“The map! It’s been stolen!” he cries, a clear cue for an eruption of muttering, gossip and excitement amongst the crowd.

It is at this moment that Lady Steel takes advantage of the commotion to make her exit. Unfortunately for her, she chooses the exit that takes her straight past James Washington who takes off in hot pursuit with Basil and Harry not far behind.

Steel’s route takes her though the working areas of the hotel, up some back stairs and too the roof. She seems unaware of the pursuit, likely thanks to The Darkness concentrating on weaving a sheet of shadowy, cloaking energies around her pursuers.

They reach the roof in time to see Steel picking up a small packages from beside a ventilation shaft and walking to the edge of the building. It is a long way down. With a firm shake, the contents of the package expand revealing it to be a small hang glider, the material a perfect match for the demoness’ dress.

As she bends her legs to leap from the building an escape, Washington charges forward and wraps his arms around her waist.

“The glider is magical!” cries Basil, his senses keenly focused after channelling the energies just moments before.

He isn’t wrong. Unexplainable forces crackle over the glider for a moment before shorting out through the sheet proximity of Washington, and the glider plummets to earth.

It is the awning over the hotel entrance that probably saves their live. Lady Steel gracefully slides off it and lands her feet, sauntering off into the night. Our redoubtable Mr. Washington, on the other hand, is not so lucky as he hits it awkwardly and rolls off to crash into the roof of a parked automobile. The impact winding him such that he probably hasn’t noticed the wreck of the glider smashing into the bonnet of the vehicle a moment later.

Meanwhile, Basil and Flasheart have rushed to the edge of the roof and seen everything. Concerned for their friend and worried about the escaping Lady Steel, Basil forgets that he is not an athlete and attempts to slide down the drainpipe. It is only Harry’s bold head-first dive after him that saves him. Harry is thankful for the leather of his boots protecting his ankles as he uses them to grip grip the drainpipe while his hands are occupied with catching The Darkness. The scuff marks are going to be a nightmare to remove, but they land safely, just as Washington begins to pick himself up.

There is only one thing to do — pursue Steel.

The Darkness takes the lead, his senses shifted to another plane of existence where the trail of a demoness is as distinct as a zebra at a tennis match.

With her glider destroyed, she is forced to improvise. There is a boat waiting on the Thames, ready to carry her downriver and into open waters. Were she aloft, it would be a simple matter to land on deck and escape, but the intervention of her paramour’s brother and his friends put paid to that plan. She curses as she reaches the banks of the river — the tide is out, the water levels are low, and her transport cannot pull in close enough.

Lady Steel is scanning the locale, looking for a new escape route when our heroic trio catch up with her. Cornered, she sees no option but to fight and draws her blade.

Outnumbered, our heroes seem to have the upper hand, but she is no mortal thief, able to be defeated so easily. Her dress shimmers in the moonlight, it looks almost scaly. In the course of a few seconds, the visage of the beautiful woman dissolves to reveal a gigantic serpent.

Rearing up, she hisses before shooting forward to wrap her elongated body around James Washington, slowly squeezing the life out of him while Flasheart and Darkness desperately try to penetrate her scaly hide and make her release him.

In his youth, Washington became widely travelled. There were few parts of Earth he did not visit, and a few places elsewhere that he did. He spent a good deal of time in Asia and learned a great deal under the tutelage of one Mr. Lee. Sometimes a mysterious bond is forged between Sensei and student, and I confess that I don’t understand how it works. This was one of those relationships.

The short figure emerges from the streets with a speed that belays his advanced years.

“Mr. James!” he cries, “I felt you needed this.”

Washington, despite going faint from lack of air, can feel the hilt of a sword being pressed into his open hand. This is his blade, received on a trip beyond the mortal world, it enforces order and ends chaos. One swing and it cuts deeply into the body of the snake.

Steel recoils from him. The tables have turned and sacrifices must be made. Diving forward, she slides between Washington and Flasheart with ease, snaking, if you’ll excuse the pun, behind Mr. Lee and shedding her skin.

One again in human form, albeit with a gaping hole in her dress revealing a savage wound across her side where Washington’s blade cut, she grabs the elderly teacher and places her blade against his throat.

“You seem to have me outmatched today,” she pants slightly, “you may have the map and this gentleman, but I go free.”

There seems to be little choice, and Basil, James and Harry agree. Steel, knowing these Englishmen would not break their word, thrusts a folded parchment into Lee’s hands a shoves him towards them before striding off into the night.

The parchment, as Steel said, contains a map — but it’s outline shifts under their gaze and imagery fades in and out. This is no simple case of ‘X marks the spot’ nor, for that matter, is it their property.

Arriving back at the hotel to return the artefact, they find a greater commotion then expected. The missing map has become a secondary consideration — Professor Higgins has vanished.