It’s nice to be back.
Over the last month, I busied myself with switching the virtual tabletop I ran things on. That meant transferring the entire Coriolis campaign thus far from Roll20 to Foundry. It would have been considerably easier, had Free League Publishing released official modules on either VTT, but so far they haven’t, and I had to settle for creating the equipment, weapon and talent lists and random tables from scratch. The latter was a real pain in the ass because several of the tables involve modifiers to the results rolled. The best example is for when a ship fails to make its portal jump; you roll on a d66 table to see what happens. But if you you made the jump without all the necessary calculations, you add 10 to the result, so the table actually has d76 results, with the worst results only achievable in certain circumstances.
Apart from that, the move went surprisingly smoothly. There’s a steeper learning curve with Foundry if you want to run games, but once you make the effort, it becomes so much more intuitive and useful. I felt I was constantly fighting Roll20, but the systems for Foundry are far more streamlined and focused on taking care of book keeping and busywork. The game tracks Darkness Points for me whenever a player pushes their roll, the combat turn tracker doesn’t accidentally leave out players who hadn’t explicitly clicked on their tokens before rolling, and it automatically sorts everyone on the fly if their initiative changes. You begin combat, and the music changes by itself to your predefined combat music playlist. Just loads of lovely little time savers.
And that’s the base system. With added community created mods I’ve been able to add some real flair to the game. There’s advanced lighting effects that outmatch anything Roll20 does for its $5/month subscription. Flashing, multi-hued lights in a variety of different effects from “faulty electrical light” to “ghostly light that is part illumination, part churning, dancing shadows” to “red. just a red light, nothing fancy”.
There’s a delightful little mod that places blood splatters on the map underneath a player’s token if their health hits a threshold of your choosing. And you can set any token to have a specific blood colour, so my big nasty creatures of darkness and shadow bleed dark purple ichor, and if I ever get an Alien game going the synthetics will bleed white.
Thanks to the Calendar mod I’ve been able to import a fan-made Coriolis calendar that splits each year into nine months with four weeks that are nine days long, with a “day of rest/accounting/settling debts” in between each month. It’s already full of holy days, reminders for the players of upcoming events, such as the monthly payment of 20,000 birr they need to make to stop the bank taking their ship.
None of this is really important from the point of view of the writeups, if I’m honest. I just wanted you all to know how hard I worked to give my players a cool experience.
It is the 1st day of the segment of The Messenger, CC 60. The crew of the Blue Beetle made their first payment on their ship the day before, the day of accounting, which also happened to be the Cyclade, or new year. Celebrations are rife on Coriolis, with the various plazas along the Promenade filled with pilgrims and prophets, acrobats, musicians, jugglers and fire-breathers, the many kawah shops taking in very satisfying profits as everyone makes merry and gives praise to the Icons.
The crew had just returned from a most interesting expedition. After delivering a cargo hold full of scientific equipment to the Foundation’s research station orbiting the gas giant Xene, they were contacted by a prospector on one of Xene’s moons who needed a fast ship to register what he thought was a rich gold find, but which turned out to be some strange manifestation of the Dark between the Stars within a buried temple, tomb or other archaeological find. The put the prospector, Faisal, in touch with their friend Adzem Kembouri, who had made quite the name for himself off the back of his adventure with the crew aboard Orun II, and his capture of the djinn that had wrought havoc on the crew.
Mr. Kembouri arranged to meet the crew at a kawah shop in the Spring Plaza, commanding a delightful view of the master-crafted fountains in the centre. He had a charming smile on his face, as always. “My friends, welcome! Please, have a seat, I have arranged fresh kawah for all. Some honeyed dates? Figs? Help yourselves.”
“Mr. Kembouri, always a pleasure. How’s business?” returned Dav.
“Magnificent, thank you for asking. Before Orun II, my biggest contracts would be a simple blessing of a shop here and there for good fortune in the coming business year. But now? I have sultans from Dabaran and dignitaries from Sadaal and beyond seeking me out! Hauntings, exorcisms, banishment of frightful creatures of shadow, I am so blessed with work to do, why, it is almost a curse, haha! I jest, of course. And I have you and your crew to thank for my good fortune. Speaking of which…”
He paused for a long sip of kawah, before popping a date in his mouth, chewing casually as he talked. His smile faded as he got down to serious business.
“… I’ve spoken with your associate Faisal. He was very… descriptive, of the unpleasant encounter you had with his former colleagues. I have no doubt what you fought were Darkbound, but the manner of their transformation is, if you’ll forgive the clinical observation of the tragic loss of two good men, quite fascinating. These men were, by all accounts, no less upstanding or pious than any pilgrim you see walking by right now. For them to suffer the transformation that they did, it must have been forced upon them, and suddenly. Only a place steeped in shadow and darkness would be capable of twisting an unwilling man.”
His smile returned. “Fortunately, you happen to know someone with a great deal of experience in cleansing the shadow from Icon-forsaken places. And since you blessed him with good fortune, he is pleased to return the favour. I would be delighted to accompany you back to this and help bring it back to the light of the Icons, and because you are my friends I will waive the extraordinary fees I have been able to charge my recent clients!”
A general grunt of polite laughter arose around the table.
“That said, I have one small request: This find of yours, it must be quite ancient. And from what Faisal has told me he is eager to make it someone else’s problem, most likely selling it to Foundation scientists. My request is that we go before this happens. Once it goes public, there will almost certainly be censorship, as some findings will refuse to line up with the Horizon’s official history. Take our time aboard Orun II for example. The Princess of Kah is a fairy tale, but we met her and her guard. Had we solid facts about her instead of fanciful stories, perhaps the bloodshed on board could have been avoided completely.”
A quick discussion among the crew ensued. “Not a problem,” said Dav, “We can leave as soon as you’re ready.”
“Oh my, in that case,” he swigged down the last of his kawah, “please allow me half an hour to grab some equipment, and I’ll meet you at your ship. Oh, and please make sure you have some firearms. Relic and ritual can banish many evils, but a few vulcan rounds are occasionally much more effective, yes?”
With a wave, he hurried into the crowds, to his lodgings. The crew contacted Faisal to advise him of developments, and he readily agreed to join them. With a little spare time they then looked to their armaments, and decided that a little shopping in the Ozone Plaza was in order. Fattah, only passing familiar with marksmanship, selected a long rifle with scope. Ash, already proficient with her vulcan cricket pistol and more comfortable with easily concealed weapons, added an accelerator pistol to her belt.
The journey to Xene was blessedly uneventful. Faisal mostly kept to his cabin, extremely focused on making sure his own rifle was in perfect working order. Mr. Kembouri spent most of his waking moments in the mess, poring over the reports and holy rituals stored on his tabula and on occasion physical books, the age of which would make many a librarian green with envy. The atmosphere remained upbeat, despite the knowledge that they were likely entering a dangerous battle. After all, it is said the Icons smile on the faithful. Many soldiers agree, but add that they smile more on the faithful who always make sure there’s a weapon within easy reach.
Everything on the unnamed 5th moon of Xene was as they left it, right down to the desiccated corpses of Faisal’s erstwhile partners they had unceremoniously left on the almost airless rocky plain after they had transformed and tried to kill everyone. Faisal was quiet, clutching his rifle tightly. The gold, too was where they left it. They ignored it for now, squeezing through the little tunnel Faisal and his partners had cut from the cliff face. With roughly a further 30 minutes of digging at the original “seam”, they broke through into a large, dark cavern.
The cavern itself looked quite naturally formed when they shone their torchlight inside. The many bones scattered in piles on the floor, however, quickly reminded them that this place was deeply stained by the Dark Between the Stars. Mr. Kembouri couldn’t contain his curiosity, and examined the intact skull of a human. “These remains are about four hundred years old!” he exclaimed. I don’t believe there is any record of this moon ever being inhabited before the recent mining boom. Fascinating.”
Just out of the range of their torches, the darkness moved. Animal hissing gave way to feral growls as misshapen humanoid husks leapt out from behind the corners and charged the crew. Scraps of hair and skin clung to grossly extended limbs, and burning fire where eyes should be. Darkbound. They attacked the party like rabid animals, a dervish of talons and fangs.
Dav and Fattah took the brunt of the attacks, but gave as good as they got with well placed shots from Dav’s accelerator pistol and mighty swings of Fattah’s powered gauntlet. Faisal got a few shots off with his long rifle after an initial shock. Ash, thinking tactically, covered the rear, and sure enough she saw shapes attempting to flank them.
The Darkbound perished quickly, save for one, who skittered off into the darkness. Dav, perhaps worried he might find allies, or perhaps enjoying the violence, gave chase. This was a mistake. Out of the darkness lumbered something altogether too bizarre to fully describe. It vaguely resembled a gigantic featherless vulture, but its form was hazy and indistinct, and as the torchlight flickered so did it, resembling by turns a raven, a mole, a reptile and a decaying corpse, the only thing Dav’s senses could agree on was that it was utterly repulsive. He emptied his clip at it but still it came at him, putrid filth dripping from its mandibles/beak/lips. Its head darted out, mouth snapping, and only Dav’s armour prevented the loss of a limb. the painful scratch along his arm immediately began to itch and Dav knew he had been infected with something.
Fortunately help was close behind. Faisal and Fattah rallied around Dav, and between the three of them they tore the creature apart. It bled a smoky, inky blackness instead of any physical ichor, and the corpse dissolve before their eyes, leaving a scorched stain on the ground like the site of a bonfire.
“What in the name of the Icons was that?” gasped Dav, feeling slightly woozy.
“That was a byara,” replied Kembouri. “They’re drawn to places of darkness, literally and figuratively. Sites of terrible tragedy, the dark side of tidally locked moons, battles, that sort of thing. To encounter one is thankfully very rare. Tell me, did it injure you?”
“Not really, but it scraped my arm here…”
“Please, allow me to examine the wound. The tales often mention one who was injured by a byara dying within a day, I suspect they carry all manner of disease…”
Kembouri produced a medical kit and took a small sample from the wound to scan. “Ah, I was correct. Quite a nasty cocktail of several pathogens. Easily dealt with using antibiotics…” he got a small vial and sprayed the wound, “…but had we no access to medicines, you would have died of terrible fevers by tomorrow. Did it injure anyone else? No? Excellent.”
There were a few Darkbound left in the cavern, but the team was on alert, and they were brought down quickly. Exploring further, the caverns gave way to human construction; Several walls and alcoves with torches illuminating a fine flowing script carved into the stone. Mr Kembouri was fascinated. “This is some dialect of Dabari. Unusual, the people of Dabaran were still spacefarers during the Long Night but very much kept to neighbouring systems.”
In the far corner of the cavern, the walls became a corridor, which in turn led to a large, circular stone door next to a collapsed corridor. It was clearly meant to roll into a recess in the stonework, but the mechanisms were jammed by a tangle of odd roots and plant growth. After clearing what they could with fire, the crew used brute force to roll the door back, wedging it open with a loose rock from the collapsed tunnel.
Inside was a spectacular sight. A large rectangular room, the walls overgrown with luminescent fungi, with a large raised dais in the centre. The dais had four triangular structures at each corner. At the far end of the room, a huge stone carving of a woman’s face stared out at a busy collection of urns, vases and assorted offerings. As they got closer to the stone face, they could see unsettling bestial traits had been carved into the woman’s features. Her eyes were like that of a hunting cat. Her teeth were a little too sharp. She was not smiling, she was snarling. On the wall to her left was more of the Dabari script, more than simply decorative statements of faith. The crew recorded images and linked up with their ship’s AI to attempt a translation. The results were… somewhat unsettling, for the crew. But Mr Kembouri, well versed in ancient history and things often considered heretical, grew increasingly concerned as he read:
Here, in this most sacred place, did Dabbak the Soothsayer receive a vision of our destruction by unholy works. Here, an agreement was made to safeguard against such calamity. Here was made the Sanguine Accord, in the sight of The Beast, and cursed for all eternity be whosoever does not honour it. And thus here lie the souls of our masters, bound to the living rock of this most sacred place, until the day arrives when the terms of the Accord shall be fulfilled.
Unto Kalah is entrusted the Chrysalis Sequence, the Sacred Number, lest what the soothsayer foresaw should come to pass.
And unto Aram is entrusted the Alcheme, the Gift of Change, lest what the soothsayer foresaw should come to pass.
And unto Sora is entrusted our histories, all that we were and may yet become, lest what the soothsayer foresaw should come to pass.
And unto The Beast we entrust our souls, may She protect our people in their hour of need, should what the soothsayer foresaw should come to pass. Let the unholy have their victory. It matters not. For in the end, the Beast devours all who do not honour the Sacrifice of Nazareem.
Kembouri, when asked, stammered a little before taking some deep breaths and collecting his thoughts.
“I cannot imagine what most of this means. But I recognise some of these words and they worry me greatly. You are familiar with the mighty Factions of the Horizon, the Consortium, the Legion, and so on. Before the Portal Wars, there was another Faction. They were called Nazareem’s Sacrifice. Astonishingly little is known about them, because towards the end of the war they were wiped out. It is mentioned only in some of the oldest books I have seen. They speak vaguely of an alliance, but only the Order of the Pariah are named. It seems that Nazareem’s Sacrifice sided against the Third Horizon. Whether they were allied with the First or Second I cannot say, but nevertheless their betrayal was answered with terrible vengeance. Their seat of power was the Odacon system. History books teach us that the final battles of the Portal Wars took place there, and entire worlds were destroyed. The Odacon Portals are still unstable, centuries on. One may read between the lines and surmise that this is when the coalition struck at the betrayers, eradicating all but a few stragglers. I believe the Order and its allied attempted to destroy all record of the Nazareem, erasing them from history. And well they might. They worshipped the most accursed aspect of the Dancer, called the Beast.”
“Records of the Beast are a little easier to find, as doctrine and dogma on the Icons are only a relatively recent thing with the rise of the Church, and beliefs varied greatly from system to system. I’ll spare you the fine details, but cannabalistic orgies were one of the more common forms of worship. What we have found here… My friends, I think the sooner you sell this on and make it someone else’s problem, the happier we shall al-“
There was a grinding crunch as the door at the far end slammed shut, pulverising the wedge. The dais began to glow in eerie green waves of light, as if under water. And a face of each of the four triangular structures around it slid into the ground, revealing gleaming gold. The crew raced to the door and started to heave it open, as the gold flowed out like water onto the dais, leaving behind a perfectly preserved corpse in each alcove. Four wraith-like apparitions bubbled up into shape and form. They resembled Darkbound, but taller, dressed in centuries old finery fallen to decay. Their faces were no longer recognisable as having once been human, however. Glassy black orbs formed heads split in two by maws of razor-edged teeth. As they slowly advanced on the party, one of them threw back its head and howled. The sound seemed amplified by the chamber and struck terror into Faisal and Kembouri, both of whom froze in panic.
Finally, they managed to prise the heavy door open just enough for a body to squeeze through one at a time. Ash was first, wisely holding her pistol in the hand facing the terrors, squeezing off a few rounds as she emerged into the corridors. Another of the apparitions raised a claw at Dav, vomiting forth a stream of whispering Darkness. He paled in fright, the world around him twisting, becoming darker, sharper, devoid of light and hope. Another drew a talon across Kembouri’s shoulder, causing him to cry out in agony, although it seemed to do no harm.
That was enough to shake him to, if not his senses, then at least to flight, and he scrambled through the gap and kept running. Fattah attempted to steer Faisal through the gap, but the man was still too terrified to act. Dav and Fattah turned to face the four spectral things as they converged. Firing madly, Dav placed three shots into one of the creatures. All four grunted. They both realised that perhaps if they focused on one, they might destroy all four, and Fattah swung wildly with his powerfist while Dav and Ash fired shot after shot at the one target.
They were correct in that the four shared a link, but they did not destroy them. Each apparition froze, statue-like, and melted into puddles of gold, which flowed back towards the dais, slowly reforming. But they had bought themselves enough time to shove the numb Faisal through the gap, followed by Dav and Fattah, and then pull it shut. They did not stop to listen for sounds within the chamber.
They found Kembouri in the cavern outside. He was tending to his leg after a fall, and mumbling incoherently to himself. Dav pulled him up to his feet and got him to focus.
“Y- yes. We should go. We have to get out. This place… Get out, we have to leave…”
The Blue Beetle’s AI had warmed up the ship’s engines in anticipation and they left at maximum speed. It was going to be a long trip back to Coriolis.