It’s Stupid O’Clock, I can’t sleep, and my laptop is right there. So here’s a thing.
Welcome to the crossroads. “Welcome back?” No, that wouldn’t be quite right. Sure, you’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again, but… It’s not the same place, really, is it? It’s never the same place.
You have some choices to make. I know, I know, but I’m required to remind you. Oh, don’t you worry about who. Even if you recognised the name I doubt you’d believe me. And no, I’m afraid you can’t stay here. That’s not how it works.
Choose a direction. There’s no going back, much as it pains me to say.
“Why?” is… a bigger question than I think you fully realise. Even if I knew, I don’t think I could tell you. Hey, don’t give me that look. I’m just doing my job. I didn’t force this on you. I can’t. And I wouldn’t. It’s just not in me. You want to blame someone, look closer to home. Friends, family, enemies, whatever government is currently preening itself in the corridors of power, they’re the most likely suspects. I’m just the… Usher? Doorman? Close enough.
No, no, please, no apology necessary. You’d be amazed how often it comes up, is all. Oh yes, I get it a lot. I know, the place looks deserted. It’s… Hmm. I suppose you could say that the aesthetic is a major part of this whole process. Trust me, you’re far from the only person to stand here at any given moment.
Speaking of which, this is it, your moment. You, standing here, right now. It’s important. You know that. Every decision you’ve made or had forced on you has led you to this precise moment, and the choice you make here will colour every one that comes after it.
That’s part of the beauty of it, actually, the uncertainty. Did this or that choice make any difference? It’s obvious enough with, say, what college course you accepted. But what about your choice of toothpaste for the five years previous to that? How did that affect the offers? How did it affect your decision? Oh it was a subtle thing for sure, but it was there, nonetheless. That and a thousand tiny choices like it. Snowflakes building up to an avalanche. Consider this, though: If you knew the outcome of every choice you could make, would you be left with any choices at all?
Heh. The look on your face. The implications tend to upset people. Not you though. At least, not this time. Interesting.
Oh, now that’s a far better question than “why”. Maybe the uncertainty is what gives a choice meaning. Maybe it isn’t. I can’t answer that. There might not even be an answer. But I believe it’s important to ask the question, all the same. Sincerely, well done.
But I’m still rambling. My apologies. I’ve taken up enough of your time. I can see it in your eyes, you’ve decided. Good luck, friend.
Things have been… well, you can read the previous 2 blags yourself if you fancy a cocktail of bloody-minded rage and intense self pity, but add in a tooth that has been broken for over a year getting infected, and some other stuff. Mostly the tooth. Holy shit, that was painful. It did not help that I was encouraged to medicate with whiskey “because stronger painkillers can be addictive”, as if I didn’t spend 9 months up to my eyeballs on oxycodone just so I was able to sleep without waking up screaming about my spine.
I’m down 2 bottles of EXTREMELY fine duty-free because of that. I’m going to miss the Venezuelan rum particularly.
I suppose, at least, it did mean I got to visit an actual dentist. I have been trying to get the tooth seen since it broke but dental appointments are rarer than a Fine Gaeler with a conscience since at least the start of the pandemic. It’s not the dentist’s fault, either. Just another failure of the system to throw on the pile with the others. Fucking Stephen Donnelly. A useless haunted thumb in a suit.
Anyway, writing. It’s been bloody difficult of late. Haven’t been able to do any non-contracted writing, and even the contract stuff has been like pulling, ahem, teeth. I like writing dystopian fiction as long as the world isn’t itself a nightmare dystopia, and that has not been going so well, has it?
I may (he said extremely cautiously) be climbing out of that benighted pit a little in the last few days. I had to go a little over deadline for the last chapter I was contracted for, which is a source of shame, but I finished it at the start of this month. And now I have another chapter in 2 different projects to work on, with perhaps a month and a half to sort them out. Meanwhile, that previous chapter was pointed to as an example of what the editor would like to see in some of these new projects, which is a little gfratifying.
And I’m not panicking. That’s usually a good sign. They are both very exciting to me, for all that they’re hugely different in style and tone. I can’t talk about any of it yet.
Maybe it’s the fever dreams I had while recovering from the phenomenally idiotic decision I made to dine on KFC the other day, maybe it’s the way nobody has tried to set fire to Leinster House, but this has been weighing on me a lot and it needs to go somewhere so I can get back to IMPORTANT things like editing that second chapter of Peig Sayers: Vampire Hunter.
Anyway. Enjoy, or don’t, I’m not a cop etc.
Hopelessness is like a drug. That’s probably why news publishers sell so much of it these days. It can be very hard to realise that you’re sliding into the abyss until it’s staring you in the face, and even then you might not recognise what you see.
Things are… not good, right now. Some idiot started a war in Europe and the response from most countries has been, pretty much, a stern look and strongly worded letter. I think we’re on the fifth wave of sanctions against Russia, which tells you all you need to know about how effective the previous four were. The media have decided clapping for the Ukrainian president’s Dáil speech is what REAL solidarity and leadership are about instead of, say, actually doing something about the staggering amounts of Russian oligarch money in the IFSC or Aughanish. Micheál Martin, Irish Taoiseach and easily the most spineless, pathetic sack of shit in a parliament *absolutely stacked* with spineless, pathetic sacks of shit, continues to pretend he’s in control, that he’s in charge, that his complete lack of any sort of plan beyond “I’m in charge :)” will strike a meaningful blow against Putin and Covid, that other thing he did absolutely nothing about which got nearly 7,000 people killed so far. And the media are just as useless on that, too. I won’t forget that Virgin Media News labelled the day the government simply gave up on restrictions “Freedom Day”. Weekly deaths are still in double figures, not that any alleged journalists are really mentioning that. People are too sick to work, but those same reporters spin it as “We need to redefine what ‘sick’ means so we can force more people to work while sick”, giving more weight to the employers upset about falling profits than to the employees upset about *becoming really sick and often suffering permanent fucking damage* and simply pretending that “living with covid” means anything besides the reality, which is mass death and nobody being able to work.
Fucking neolibs. They’ve destroyed so much, and the public will cheer them because they were waving a rainbow flag when they got the Gardai to help illegally evict families for some US vulture fund that bought their house from under them.
And that’s only THIS week in Irish politics.
It’s all very wearying.
I don’t want to write about politics. Politics is full of incredibly dull, tedious little men with all the depth of a spoon run over by a freight train. I want to write funny little adventures about ghosts and trolls and butts and wizards who aren’t massive fucking bigots. Unlikely heroes and terrible villains, that sort of thing. But fuck me, no villain I could ever write will match the evil of those serious, bloodless, tedious little men in Leinster House. Those heinous little men who argue that private profit is more important than public health. Who calmly say that we should debate whether trans people deserve basic human rights. Who have been trying to sell off the country’s public water system for years.
You like to pretend that they’re not evil, that unfortunately some of them might be *right* and they have no choice but to let homelessness balloon to over 10,000 people, to vote against a livable minimum wage or welfare allowance for disabled people. You like to pretend that it’s all so very *academic* and that there have to be winners and losers.
You’re wrong, of course. And you’ll never fully silence that last tiny shred of conscience that tells you the truth about a man who would, for example, lie through his teeth about how Covid ran rampant through Irish schools and old folks’ homes and meat packing plants and direct provision centres, all so businesses could carry on as if there was no pandemic.
That’s what evil is. It’s Leo Varadkar stamping down on minimum wage workers. It’s Micheál Martin being too fucking pathetic to do what needs doing during a pandemic. It’s the minister for housing Darragh O’Brien (no relation, thank fucking god) directly profiting from deliberately failing to control the skyrocketing price of housing. It’s a government that has completely failed people, and who not only allowed the far right to capitalise on their failures, but actively encouraged them, and suppressed the people who tried to stop them., to the point where you have fucking neonazi sympathisers in the Dáil. People like Trump or Putin? They’re just symptoms. They’re the end result of the status quo you’re protecting. Completely predictable, utterly inevitable, because that’s simply what the status quo you’re all so comfortable in produces.
It’s the media who treat all of this as normal and proper instead of completely fucking insane. Maybe, if we’re REALLY lucky, one of them will write a book about how this shouldn’t have happened, and include damning information that COULD have made a differen- No, I can’t finish that joke, there are too many of those fuckers.
Things are not going to get better. Not if you keep pretending that it’s more important to clap for a speech than it is to take direct punitive action against a tyrant.
Me, I don’t really have any hope about this planet’s future. We’re all going to die because too many of you don’t want to make the effort to avoid extinction. When it comes, a lot of you will have deserved it. I doubt I’ll live to see it, but I want you to know that wherever I am by then, no matter what the laws of life or death forbid, I will be laughing as the mobs of starving poor you created beat down your mansion door in whatever high-security dystopian apartheid hellscape you made of once-leafy south Dublin.
God, that felt good to write. Hopelessness is like a drug, after all.
You’d probably think, from all the above, that I am a violent, angry, misanthropic, nihilistic soul. You’d be partially right, anyway. I abhor violence. Nihilistic? Eh, maybe a little, but existence without meaning just means I can invent my own. Angry? Oh my goodness, yes. Injustice makes me very angry, and given the pathetic state of this country’s ruling classes I may never stop being completely fucking furious. Anger at injustice is good, actually. You should try it. It’s a lot more effective than politeness.
I’m not going to give up working and calling and fighting for better than this bullshit. There’s more than enough pain out there without me adding to it. I’m doomed to failure, of course, far too many of you have decided that inflicting pain and destroying the world is the way to go, but that’s not really the point.
I’d rather try to make the world slightly less shit as it gets driven into oblivion by a pack of stupid wankers, is all.
I don’t know what the Kurgan did in all his centuries of life in Highlander, but I can safely say he didn’t once try academia because right up to the end of the film he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. The man never burned out in his life and it shows.
How do you neurotypical fuckers do it? How do you convince yourselves every single bloody day that everything is somehow not on fire and things could be worse? Is serotonin really that powerful as a hallucinogen? You lucky bastards.
So yeah, we’re in Year 3 of The World’s Most Easily Controlled Disease Running Rampant Because World Governments Chose Private Profit Over Public Health, and the shitshow just keeps on going, and most governments have been so fucking atrocious about it that nobody trusts them even on the rare occasion they DO say something correct about controlling the virus. Social media is swamped with astroturfed losers spamming everything they can find that’s corona-related with how the pandemic is over because some dipshit economist said so.
And all my friends are falling to the illness, one by one. You fucking dumbasses made such a goddamn mess of public health that you’ve made it inevitable that everyone will catch it, and people will keep dying. You fuckers have made it inevitable that I’ll catch it, no matter how careful I am because you can’t personal responsibility your way out of a public fucking health crisis, and I’m in that group of people that you don’t care enough about to want to protect. You know who. The disabled, the immunocompromised, the elderly, cancer patients, all the people in society that you would absolutely kill or do nothing to save without a second thought. How do I know you’d do that? Because that’s what you’re doing right fucking now, you scum-sucking parasites. You’re burning everyone out with your greed and stupidity and selfishness.
I’ve tried burning out.
Didn’t much care for it.
I want to fade away. I want to life to a ripe old age. I want to troll the shit out of my siblings’ kids and be too venerable to get called out for it. And I want to be in possession of as many of my original functioning organs as possible while I do. And you selfish, thoughtless bastards can’t even give me that meagre little dream.
God, you’re not even contemptible. You’d make me hope for an afterlife simply so you can go to the hell you absolutely deserve, but you’re not worth that kind of effort.
In lighter news, I was delighted to see the recent release of another WFRP book I helped write. Up In Arms is a funky book full of fluff, lore, rules and options for WFRP players who focus on fighting. You want Tilean Ogres beating people unconscious with their colossal pinched fingers and brutal fake Italian accents? We got you covered.
I’d have incorporated more into my regular WFRP sessions, only my laptop has decided that certain types of USB device can simply fuck off and I have 13 gigs of Foundry data stuck on my MP3 player with no way to copy it over. I’m sure Bill Gates is somehow to blame, that fucking nerd.
I’ve some other writing projects on the go, and I can’t really talk about most of them. One thing I can talk about is that delightful little initiative DrivethruRPG have going with a select few publishers that allows anyone to publish their own material under a certain publisher’s umbrella, as long as they conform to certain style guides, formats, copyrights and such. It’s a lovely way to let people who live and breathe a certain RPG to make a little money or even fame, and enriches the community as a whole.
So far I’m aware of D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Shadow of the Demon Lord and most of the Free League games (ALIEN was, unsurprisingly, far too valuable to the current rights holder to let anyone else monetise it so unfortunately that’s off the table), and I’m sure there are others.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I may be entering that space myself in the not too distant future. I have a notebook crammed with ideas that would never get past Games Workshop’s lawyers (who knew the hellish corrupted legions of Chaos had to be so family friendly!?), and I am a big fan of Rabert Schwalb’s policy of “As a publisher I’m too small to provide any major support, but as long as you don’t completely take the piss with what you want to write in my setting you go ahead you crazy kids” policy.
And that’s all I have to say for now. Oh there’s more I WANT to say but this will have to do because simply existing in this capitaslist hellscape is taking up the rest of my available energy. And I think we safely established that burning out is not something I’m considering revisiting.
So everything is terrible right now. The world’s on fire, the country is being run by *phenomenally* stupid cryptofascists and the chances of us all dying from a vaccine-resistant strain of the ‘rona are only increasing because everyone seems determined to re-enact the very dumbest parts of the whole Spanish Flu fiasco of the last century.
A worrying number of my friends are actively flirting with suicide because the world’s various governments have failed to control a simple disease so very badly that any hope at all seems like an alien prospect to most of us. We’re all expendable for the sake of the Holy Economy, especially the children who are being forced back into crowded classrooms with no mitigation measures at all because the cocking ministers for education and health outright refuse to admit they were wrong about schools being safe for the last two years.
It’s very hard to have any hope in the face of this relentless creeping horror of indifference from the ruling classes. And it’s in that context I eventually wrote this. I was thinking about the altruism I had written into the weird hyperdimension fiction I’d written previously. I admit there’s a lot of influence here from a particular scene in All Star Superman where Lex Luthor, having taken a serum that gives him the same abilities as Superman, starts to realise how interconnected everything is and suddenly realises why Superman does what he does. It wears off, Luthor says “If it wasn’t for you I could have saved the world!”. Superman responds with “If it mattered to you, you could have saved the world years ago.” In the comic, Superman also beats him unconscious. But in the animation, Luthor falls to his knees, looking beaten and ashamed, and whispers “You’re right.”
Now, I don’t care at ALL for superheroes. I think they encourage people to assume that someone else can solve all the world’s problems. If Superman was inherently good, one of the first things he would do would be to destroy the American police system. But rich people who can destroy comic writers generally don’t like it when comics are TOO on the nose. But I’m rambling (and there are comics like Black Summer and Supergod that do some quite interesting work critiquing the whole superhero trope, you should give them a shot if you haven’t already). But that scene of Luthor having a sudden epiphany, that has stuck with me for years. Perhaps it’s because he’s not a superhero. He’s a selfish asshole no different from any other selfish asshole, who almost understood. The way his monologue was going, another hour or two and he might have even developed an actual conscience.
Now I’m definitely rambling.
So yeah. Fuck the cruel arbitrary nature of things and the wankers in charge, they’re dead inside and don’t have the imagination to imagine a better world. You wanna do something truly, meaningfully radical? Show some fuckin’ compassion.
This universe is vast beyond human comprehension. Chaotic, fickle, and uncaring. Every day entire galaxies are torn apart and swallowed whole, displays of cataclysmic violence that could kill a god, and yet space-time is so inconceivably huge such events are lost in the abyss, never to be witnessed by sentient life. The silent black is not peaceful; Do not mistake the darkness of the beast’s stomach for serenity.
We are more like this universe than we care to admit when we are born. We come into this world wild and blind and insensate, blank slates lacking in awareness, slaves to cause and effect. Composed of the very same little deterministic clouds of charge and probability. We have no more power over the universe than a mote of dust has over a planet. By any metric one can think of we should not exist. And indeed some day, as the stars fade and our works crumble, we may as well never have existed at all.
And yet… Here we are, right now. Little smudges of carbon and lipid and water, the ash of dead stars, by blind chance forced into iteration upon iteration to the point of becoming aware of ourselves and the processes shaping us. It is inevitable that life should come to exist, yes, but to endure? To become aware of the world, of other worlds? Can you understand how infinitesimally unlikely that is? That our world was not swallowed by some leviathan black hole, or all nascent life destroyed by an impact event or star’s death spasm fifty million years ago… My friend, we are a miracle.
That is why we fight. To defy the indifferent chaos of reality is the only logical decision. The only one with meaning. The only choice that separates us from the arbitrary cruelty and hurt. We are all of us tiny, insignificant tangles of self-aware space-time, yet we are the only part of the universe that can choose. The cruel, the indifferent, the evil, they choose the easy path. They let their choices be guided by the indifference of reality. They impose chaos and entropy on others to enrich themselves, and in doing so become hollow puppets, dancing to the tune of exploding stars and ravenous event horizon jaws. In choosing they give up everything that sets them apart from the cruelty of reality.
But we can choose another path. It is a difficult path, but in the end not nearly so difficult as that easy path of cruelty.
We may choose to build where the universe can only choose entropy. We can choose light over darkness, people and community over the crude mindless selfishness that masquerades as natural selection. We may imbue existence with value simply by existing. With simple compassion, we can defy entropy itself. And, perhaps ironically, we MUST do so. When the law of the universe is entropy, compassion becomes the only radical act, the only possible rebellion.
This universe is vast and indifferent, and within this infinity of destruction we have nothing, in the end, but each other. And Entropy cannot have us.
The other day I was delighted to come across a TikTok video of a tiny, adorable kitten lapping up milk from a teaspoon, making the cutest “numm numm nlumm mlumm” sounds as it did so. That would have been good enough, but the video went on. The kitten’s nlumm sounds were put on loop, and then a series of musicians added instrumental layers until I was listening to an amazing little song. This song, right here:
The lyrics were great. In particular the phrase “Towns of ash with a music borne sickness” simply would not get out of my head. It kept playing over and over again in my mind, maddeningly. Really evocative, isn’t it? “Towns of ash, with a music borne sickness“. It made me, as sometimes happens with certain well-turned phrases, want to write.
So Wednesday night I opened a blank document and started typing. That’s the main reason I didn’t get to bed until 4am, drank a large chunk out of my poitin reserves, and kind of completely missed Thursday altogether. But I really liked what was coming out of the click clack of my temperamental lappytop. The result is below. Enjoy? Or not? I’m not a cop I’m not telling you what to do.
“Welcome to Pennford” declares the sign at the edge of town. It’s painted a rather optimistic shade of blue. Friendly black print informs the reader that Pennford was established some 500 years ago, a ferry service across the least treacherous part of the Barrow River for 10 miles or more. The cost to traverse the river was a penny in those days, and when the Penny Ford Inn was built on the southern bank, it was only natural that the town that grew around it adopted a facsimile of the name. The sign also boasts about a bustling ceramics industry which owes its success to the fine clay found along the river banks. The Royalty personally sponsored no less than three pottery and ceramics companies from Pennford, an unheard of number at the time, but all three operations blossomed and became the envy of much longer established concerns, to the point where enemies and friends were made at court depending on the maker’s mark on the underside of the tea cup one sipped. Guided tours of a great many workshops and kilns are a popular draw for tourists, claims the sign. Pennford proudly counts over a thousand permanent residents, claims the sign.
Today, one can verify none of the sign’s claims. Pennford is a ruin, a gutted corpse of blackened wood, plague pyres and scorched cobblestones. A town of ash and bone.
Past the remains of the town, the Barrow runs swift, as it always has, down from the Kestrel Hills and across the tangled forests on its way toward the marshlands of Rhodda. The old ford is gone, centuries of digging and engineering in the name of commerce making it deep and wide, but it still flows with mighty energy, all swirls and eddies and undercurrents ready to drag the unwary down into the smothering depths. It remains a wild beast, and it demands respect. The noise of the town overwhelmed that of the river for centuries. The babbling of children at play, the flow of traffic and of commerce were rivers in their own way, fitting replacements for the roar of the waters as they were torn in two by mighty rocks jutting from the north bank, and the foamy susurrus lurking under the piers and boardwalks which crowded the south. The Barrow has since reclaimed its voice, a never ending roar of defiance that will brook no challenge. The kingdom sees no reason to argue. The place is shunned by all but the desperate and those cursed with curiosity, and even they do not tarry.
The ferryman of Pennford was a revered member of the town’s leadership in the early days. He could read the weather, predict floods, and a word from him would cease all river travel, no matter the rank or status of his passengers. As the town grew and the twin evils of money and influence wormed their way slowly into the fabric of society, the integrity of the ferryman became a more fluid thing. In the Clash of Three Duchies, the ferryman of the day became one of the wealthiest men in Pennford as he took money from all sides to carry, or refuse to carry, certain people, goods and messages. By the time the three Dukes uncovered his deceit, the Royalty was already besieging their homes to put a stop to their squabbling. Rumour had it that the ferryman had been in the Royalty’s pocket from the very beginning, escalating tensions between the Dukes until the Royalty had the perfect excuse to make an example of them and grant their lands to more loyal servants. Historians generally agree that acts of petty corruption such as this were the catalyst for what was to come.
It is generally agreed that Pennford was founded soon after the Throne Wars, that dark era when the lines of succession had become so blurred and indistinct that no less than five families could legitimately claim equal right to rule. Prince Tohsen of Rhodda supposedly found the ford and used it to surprise his rival, the Northern Sovereign Luga, in a surprise attack. With the balance of power securely in his favour, Tohsen called for peace and invited the remaining families to a council to find a way forward, and so began the rule of the Royalty, a council of the remaining families with ties to the old kings. This much is true, at least. Official records omit a great many details in their efforts to justify Tohsen’s actions, however. The crossing that would become Pennford did not exist at all before Tohsen’s arrival. A handful of crumbling scrolls in the deepest vaults of the royal library speak of a blood pact between Tohsen and the mighty spirit of the Barrow River. According to these records, Tohsen offered the spirit the blood and heart of his finest scouts in return for a means to cross the river. The spirit of the Barrow indulged the power-hungry prince, on the condition that he would build a temple to the spirit within seven summers, and that this new priesthood forever keep the laws and traditions he would bestow upon them. The prince kept his promise, and two years after the Royalty was established, the final stones of the Barrow temple were set in place.
It is lost to the world whether the priests of the river, who became the sole appointer of the town’s ferryman, originally had kind or unjust strictures. It is only known that in later years they became increasingly susceptible to bribes from the merchant families, even to the point where the office of the ferryman could be purchased outright, ignoring their own secret tradition of succession. If certain stories are to be believed, the first such corrupt appointment occurred seven years before the destruction of Pennford.
According to those tales, the day immediately after the appointment of the new ferryman, some inept fop from a decadent house of wine merchants, a hooded figure arrived in town. Stray dogs and cats flocked to him, and pigeons and crows alike flitted down from the rooftops to alight on a shoulder or his gnarled walking stick. He gave a kind word to each and every one before they bounded or flew away happily. He delighted the children too with tricks and games, and as he reached the open square outside the office of the ferryman, a crowd was already forming, though they could not say why exactly.
No records of what the man said exist. Even the few surviving men and women who were there can only agree that whatever was said, the man was angry and pleading. His voice roared like a waterfall, like a father desperately warning his child to step back from a cliff edge. The words of the ferryman, from a window above, are known, at least. After tossing the contents of a chamberpot on the old man’s head, he shouted:
“Away you old beggar! Nobody crosses for free!”
The crowd, perhaps of its own accord, perhaps incited by agents of the ferryman, at once erupted in laughter and mockery. It is unknown what happened next; the only survivors of Pennford were those that left that same day and did not return.They remember feeling sorry for the old man, if they were present at his humiliation at all.
Seven years went by, and Pennford’s wealth and corruption grew hand in hand. The wealthy lived lives akin to the Royalty while the poorest fought for scraps in the gutters. A month before the anniversary of the ferryman’s appointment, the hospitals and poorhouses of the town noted an unusual illness among their patients. The symptoms were similar to the marsh fevers caused by insect bites around Rhodda; the sick burned hot, their minds flooded with delirium. They babbled and raved, seemingly without end. No treatments seemed effective, but the strangest effect of the fever only became apparent once the poorhouses were filled to capacity with victims of this new sickness. The moans and cries of the sick had a pattern not unlike some macabre song. One patient would rave, “Hei! Gr’ruk entael…” only for another to continue the cry, “…th’ana Barroth! Nahe llae…” and another, and another. In the largest wards healers were subjected to a constant and relentless river of sound. “Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!” The babbling became the words of a chant, the moans and cries harmonizing in some obscene manner that chilled all who heard it. The plague was unholy, it was said.
The messenger pigeons sent by the rich for aid brought nothing but the royal armies. They declared a quarantine around the whole of Pennford, and any who tried to leave would be shot on sight. Investigators and thaumaturges bearing the royal seal of authority went into Pennford, to discover the source of the affliction, but found no success. Indeed, as the sickness spread, simply by hearing the maddening song while inside the walls it seemed, these learned men and women joined the ranks of the sick. Reports from soldiers manning the quarantine barriers write in trembling script of the terrible din of the voices of a whole town raised together in pained cries, like some grotesque orchestra of diseased meat. “Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!” The town was lost, they said. The quarantine was reinforced, and many expected an order from their commanders to put the entire town to the sword.
Then, a day after the anniversary of the ferryman’s appointment, on the stroke of noon, quarantine sentries suddenly spotted movement on the town walls. The town guards, in pairs seemingly dancing with each other, cavorting madly across the ramparts.The terrible sounds of the song intensified, as if all the town’s sick had left their homes to join the guards in dancing through the streets. The soldiers were already on edge; word had gotten around the camps that a hooded figure arrived at the general’s tent late the night before, though no sentries saw him enter and none witnessed his departure. Guards posted at the general’s tent could only make out the shadows cast by lamplight on the tent wall; General Mira, her long ponytail and broad shoulders; and the hooded man, a gnarled walking stick in one hand, the general’s fiercely protective hound meekly licking his free hand. None could make out the words of the meeting, but a messenger pigeon was sent to the capital that night, and one had come from the capital early the next morning.
The cacophony from Pennford only increased as the day went on. By evening, the shrieking had taken on a desperate quality, like cries for help in the minds of the soldiers. One soldier who climbed a tree to see beyond the wall swore that the whole town had gone mad: Every living soul, men, women and children, thronged the streets in frenzied song and dance. Bloodied feet or mangled limbs were no deterrent to the compulsion, as if some power were forcing their broken bodies into motion regardless of pain or injury. They danced to some maddening plan, concentric circles of townspeople spinning in opposite directions, centred on – the scout swore on all the gods – the square where the office of the ferryman were located. Then, as the sun began to dip below the Kestrel Hills, the first fires began. They must have started by the square, but no-one had been seen to do anything but dance through the streets. Still the townspeople danced and screamed. When the flames leapt to the clothes of the dancers, still they danced and screamed, carrying the fires to new buildings and new victims.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”
By nightfall, the entire town was ablaze, the guards on the walls cavorting madly even as their skin crisped and sloughed off, as their meat charred and their armour grew red from the heat. And even when the destroyed flesh fell from their bones the townspeople danced on, blackened bones moving like shapes cut through the flame to the night behind, and even when their lungs burst and burned to ash they screamed their unearthly song. The flames grew, so high and so hot that mere wood could not possibly have fuelled them. The one thaumaturge who had not been lost to the town said nothing, but the story was writ in the tears streaming down his face, the holy symbol clutched so tightly in his hand it bit into the flesh, and the numb stare of a man who had witnessed unimaginable horror.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”
For hours, Pennford burned. No soldier in the quarantine slept. The maddened screaming had not stopped, even though no-one could have survived the fires. Indeed, the quarantine line, from half a mile distant, saw some soldiers report mild burns from the heat. Just before dawn, the singing abruptly stopped and the flames ceased, as if some giant hand had reached down to snuff out a candle flame. By the cold light of the new morning, Pennford was a ruin. Barely a single building left standing, not a soul left alive. Only when the sun had risen did orders come from General Mira; pack up and leave. All questions were met with silence.
In a few scant years, Pennford slipped from the memory of the kingdom. It is marked on no maps. A great stone bridge was built across the river at the very edge of the Kestrel hills, where the Barrow is smaller and more easily tamed. Life goes on in the wider world. Only fools venture near the blackened stain that was once a town of a thousand souls, and nobody takes them seriously when they tell their tall tales. The fanciful works of an imagination without enough honest work, they scoff. Nobody could possibly believe their stories of the bones of the dead rising to dance in the dead of night, or the strange song that whispers from fleshless lips, strange words trickling forth like stream waters dancing down a rocky crevasse.
“Hei! Gr’ruk entael th’ana Barroth! Nahe llaetio Barroth!”
[Due to a plethora of scheduling issues, it has been EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to get a session of Coriolis going in the last couple of months. Last Thursday I decided come hell or high water I would run it with whoever managed to show up, which turned out to be only 2 of the team. To keep things manageable (and also because Free League finally provided official support for the Foundry modules so it was ready to go) I opted to run the adventure “The Statuette of Zhar Bhagra” from the core book. It didn’t seem entirely fair to continue the campaign proper with half the crew missing.]
It has been a week (9 days) since the Blue Beetle’s encounter with the horrific remnant of Nazareem’s Sacrifice on Xene’s 5th moon. Nine days since they received an invitation to the wedding of a man who received rather… unique, life advice from Pol the Mildly Blasphemous. The crew had been relaxing, trying to forget the hideous Darkbound entities that attacked them, or at least forget how there were still traces of humanity in their monstrous, hateful forms. It is the 14th day of the Segment of the Messenger, when the ship’s AI announced an incoming communication from a man named Merez Alcan.
Ash, being a data spider, but more importantly being paranoid, immediately began searching the name, while Fattah answered the call. Merez was a man in his late middle-age, with neatly trimmed hair and beard both gone grey. A cybernetic eye peering from one socket put one in mind of a monacle, how it whirred and changed shape. He regarded Fattah warmly.
“Good day to you, I am addressing the crew of the Blue Beetle, yes? Excellent. My name is Merez Alcan, and you were recommended to me by my contacts as efficient and discreet when it comes to finding things and people.
“I would like to hire you for just such a case. I am an antiques dealer by trade, and one of my associates has gone missing. His name is Lavim Tamm, and I last saw him 3 days ago when I had agreed to purchase an item from him. My own sources cannot find any trace of him, but missing people are not exactly their expertise, and so I turn to outside help. I am prepared to pay 1,000 birr per day plus expenses, for you to try and find Lavim and the item of interest, with a bonus of… shall we say 10,000 birr, if you locate both?”
Fattah quickly ran the numbers in his head, and found the results quite pleasing. “I think we are certainly interested, Mr. Alcan, but I cannot speak for everyone. Please, allow us a moment to discuss the matter, and we will answer shortly.”
“Of course, I quite understand.”
With a bleep, the call ended.
“So what did you dig up, Ash?”
“Merez Alcan, antiques dealer right enough. Owns a respectable establishment on the classier end of Archaeology Alley near the Spring Plaza. Good reputation, known to be firm but fair and honourable in his dealings, nothing particularly weird or suspect.
“Lavim Tamm, though. Not much to go on. Graduated in archaeology on Coriolis a cycle ago. Not a registered inhabitant of Coriolis since his student days, or of anywhere else in the Kuan system. There are references to a Tamm family in the neighbouring Aiwaz system, might be him? Last reference I have is he was working for a professor called Zhar Bhagra, kind of infamous in archaeology circles, headed several expeditions to Firstcome and suspected Portal-Builder digsites.”
“Sounds fairly standard ‘missing person’, might be a nice change from, ahem, recent unpleasantness. And a thousand birr a day is nothing to be sneezed at.”
Merez picked up the call almost immediately.
“Mr. Alcan, we would be only too happy to take the job for you.”
“Excellent, I am pleased. Allow me to give you what information I can. Mr. Tamm was one of a number of archaeological experts studying and working under the esteemed professor Zhar Bhagra, who most recently embarked on an expedition to the jungles of Kua, searching the Terenganu Plateau region if I remember correctly. That was several cycles ago, and there has been little communication from the expedition, which I usually take to mean that they are too busy discovering exquisite ruins and items.
“Now, like I said, I have my own network of contacts in the archaeology world, there being quite the overlap between that field and my line of business as you can imagine. So it was that I learned… oh, five days ago now, that Lavim Tamm had arrived on Coriolis, and that he had a number of curiosities with him. I reached out to express an interest, and three days ago we agreed on the sale of one item in particular over a video call. That call appears to be the last time anyone saw him. I am reasonably certain that he did not leave Coriolis, as a friend in the Judicators tells me there is no record of anyone matching his likeness departing. Perhaps you can succeed where I and my sources have failed.”
“We will certainly try. Can you provide us with the video call you mentioned? If that is his most recent likeness it may be helpful.”
“Ah, of course, I will forward it as soon as we are done. Is there anything else I may help with?”
The crew considered, and asked a number of questions. Lavim Tamm appeared to have been drinking when Merez had made the deal, although not nearly to the degree that such a deal could be rendered invalid. The last time his communication’s locator had been active was in the Spice Plaza. The item Merez wanted was an ancient Firstcome depiction of the Dancer, a particularly ugly statuette of an obscure aspect of that Icon called “The Shadow Monkey”. Far too unsightly to be worth much to the average person, but to certain collectors and students of theology it would be worth a great deal of money. No, Lavim was not known to have enemies, it was not known why he had left Zhar Bhagra’s expedition, and he had no known associates on Coriolis.
Their questions answered, the crew awaited the archived communication between Lavim and Merez. Lavim was indeed drunk. As they watched, he knocked back a tiny glass filled with clear amber-yellow liquid. Probably Miran fire kohôl, rather rare on Coriolis which tended to frown on public drunkenness, but the Spice Plaza would be an excellent place to find it, and thus they had a lead to pursue.
The Spice Plaza was crowded, and few people had the time to stop to examine a picture of a missing person. When fire kohôl was mentioned, however, those people flashed a rogueish smile and pointed them to either the bazaar kohôl trader Abzir, or the White Tugur Bar just on the edge of the Plaza. They decided that in the video call, Lavim’s surroundings looked like some manner of cantina or bar, and so they drew aside the bead curtain and stepped inside the White Tugur.
The bouncers outside were very imposing, but well dressed and impeccably mannered. Almost as soon as they entered, a middle-aged woman in Miran finery rushed to greet them.
“Welcome to the White Tugur Bar! It is a delight to see new faces. I am Jasina, the matriarch of this humble establishment.”
Ash was all smiles; she smelled kawah. “Thank you, Jasina. We were recommended this place by a friend, we’ve been looking forward to a visit. Is that kawah I smell?”
“It is indeed. Please, sit wherever you wish. Jinna! Food and kawah menus, please!”
Ash went for the third-most expensive coffee, splashing out 20 whole birr on a pot of Dabaran berry-kawah; an odd strain of bean that was halfway to being a dark, tangy fruit, but it percolated as well as any other, with an above average caffeine content and unique flavour profile including more than merely hints of blackberry and blueberry.
She savoured it as if it were words of wisdom straight from the Icons themselves.
“Delicious. Absolutely wonderful. Lavim was right about you.”
“Lavim… Lavi- Oh, the archaeology fellow? Yes, he does quite enjoy it here.”
“Has he visited recently? I only ask because we haven’t been able to contact him in the last few days. I’d hoped to come here with him but…”
Jasina put her hands on her hips, thinking. “Now you mention it, I haven’t seen a trace of him in… three days? Which is odd, usually he and Jinna are thick as thieves. Actually, maybe Jinna knows. Hey Jinna! Can you- oh!”
She turned around to see Jinna, who must have been listening, flee through the front door with a panicked expression.
“Well isn’t that typical. She has taken her break early. I was going to say, Jinna might be able to help you with Lavim, they’re good friends…”
Ash quickly sent a message to Dav, waiting outside, to follow the girl who had just fled the bar.
“I say,” said Jasina, seeing how seriously Ash and Fattah were taking things, “… Is… Is Lavim in some kind of trouble?”
“I hope not, ” replied Ash, “I really, truly hope not. But we need to find him to make sure.”
“I see. Well… I hope you find him soon, then. I’m rather fond of the boy. I mean I don’t mind if Jinna is in trouble, she’s far from the best waiter I’ve employed, but Lavim’s a good soul. You know how some mothers will say to their daughters, ‘Oh daughter, I love you… but I prefer him’?”
Ash indicated that she did, indeed, know exactly what Jasina meant. Thanking her for the coffee, the pair left to consider their next move.
Dav had shadowed Jinna halfway across the station, reporting that she went to ground in the University District in the station Core. Ash decided to see what kind of digital footprint Jinna had. There was nothing particularly surprising. Final year of university, a year behind Lavim. Social net images of the two sightseeing or at gatherings. Working at the White Tugur to pay off student loans. Some rather lax university network security allowed Ash to determine Jinna’s class schedules and locations for the coming evening. The crew decided to wait on the path between classes and have a chat with her. Given that she had already run from Fattah and Ash, it was decided that Poll and Dav would intercept her.
Ash and Fattah were out of earshot when Pol began speaking to Jinna. She prayed to the Icons that he be convincing in spite of what he actually said. True to form, whatever it was he DID say (The only audible part was him exclaiming “like a giraffe’s PLUMS!”), it was enough to convince Jinna the crew meant no harm. She walked over to Ash and Fattah.
Jinna apologised for running earlier. She had seen Lavim, yes, but he was convinced that someone was following him with ill intent, and Jinna had assumed that Ash and/or Fattah were that someone. Like everyone else, she had not seen him in three days.
“But the last time I did see him, he said he was going to a place called Kaffra’s Antiques. I don’t know what for.”
It wasn’t much, but it was all they had. Fattah and Ash set out to the seedier part of Archaeology Alley, where Kaffra’s shop was alleged to be. Those who gave directions insisted that they would find far better in other shops, rather than “that quack Kaffra”, but directed them nonetheless. Kaffra herself was a wizened old woman with black hair, almost lost behind a prodigious number of embroidered shawls. Ash and Fattah posed as concerned friends of Jinna, looking for a charm or talisman that might help her forget her rotten, deadbeat boyfriend Lavim. Perhaps Kaffra was moved by their testimony of the hearbreak Lavim had caused, or perhaps it was because they didn’t haggle when she asked for 10 birr for a piece of half-rotted wood allegedly blessed by the Faceless One, but she recounted her own story, where Lavim came in to ask strange questions, with something wrapped up under one arm. When she asked what it was he was holding, he got very angry and left.
Being… perhaps slightly less possessed of nobility and grace than her peers, Kaffrah followed him, intending to pay for some burly stevedore to teach the impudent youngster some manners. But when she saw the flea-ridden boarding house he entered, half conscious after nearly a whole bottle of fire kohôl, Kaffra decided that perhaps he was punishing himself enough without her intervention. She gave the Blue Beetle crew the flophouse address, high up in the Promenade between the Spring and Market Plazas, perhaps thinking he still deserved a piece of someone’s mind for speaking like that to an elder.
On leaving Kaffra’s, Fattah and Ash became aware that someone was following them, a young woman by what they could make out underneath a dark, hooded kaftan. She was clearly no stranger to shadowing people, and it took every ounce of focus for Ash and Fattah to remain aware of her. Before leaving Archaeology Alley, they decided to head away from the flophouse where they might find Lavim, and then to split up and hopefully catch their follower by surprise.
They parted ways at the Spring Plaza. The mysterious shadow elected to follow Fattah, giving Ash leeway to circle around and ambush her. Ash crept close, then all of a sudden wrapped her arms around the stranger as if embracing a friend (and making escape all but impossible), exclaiming “Cousin! It’s been so LONG, how have you BEEN!?”
The woman tensed, taken completely by surprise. Ash could feel the faint smile on the woman’s lips as she said “Cleverly done. People are looking at us now, I cannot run or retaliate. Release me, and we shall talk.”
The woman brushed back her hood, revealing a calm, bright-eyed woman in her mid-twenties. Her stare was piercing, and her faint smile constantly suggested she knew something an onlooker did not. Both were quickly explained by her next words.
“I am Salindre. I am a Draconite.”
The Draconites were a mystery. Originally, they were part of the crew of the Zenith, that great colony ship that arrived in the Third Horizon 65 cycles ago, which became the mighty station Coriolis and revived trade and travel across the Third Horizon. The Draconites saw the officer families of the Zenith arguing about the future of hundreds of thousands of people still in cryosleep, and revived all of them, so that they could decide for themselves. They then disappeared out into the great darkness of space. Decades later they returned, styled as disciplined warrior-philosophers, possessing advanced technology clearly not of the Third Horizon, and esoteric, mysterious beliefs to match. They are tight lipped, and thus far the only belief they have let slip to the greater public is their mantra: “Through conflict, the truth.” This has fuelled all manner of wild speculation, about their battle-prowess, and how they strive to win some “inner conflict”. The Draconites, for their part, say nothing, but their fearlessness in battle and diplomacy speak volumes.
“You are looking for a man who was part of Zhar Bhagra’s last expedition. I can tell you that Lavim Tamm is the sole survivor of that endeavour. Professor Bhagra found what he was looking for, and meddled with powers he did not understand. Lavim fled here, hoping to sell the statuette you no doubt wish to acquire for your employer.”
“How’d you know all that?”
She smiled. “I am a Draconite.”
“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question.”
“I know. But it is the answer with which you must be content. Allow me to be blunt: I am not interested in Lavim Tamm, unless he is beyond saving. The statuette he carries is a thing of darkness. You have faced humans possessed by the great hunger that dwells in the black, have you not?”
Mentioning the Dark Between the Stars in polite company was a major taboo. Salindre clearly wanted to impress the seriousness of the matter on the crew.
“We have. It’s not something I wish to see happen to anyone else.”
“Indeed. The statuette is a thing of evil. It warps the mind, and perhaps the body. But its most damnable feature is that it is a weapon. Its malign influence can, with the correct knowledge, be directed. Do you understand? Merez Alcan works for the Syndicate. He keeps this secret closer to him than anything else. Should the Syndicate acquire the statuette, it is only a matter of time – and innocent bodies – until they unlock its full potential. I wish to ensure the statuette is placed beyond the reach of anyone who would attempt to use it. Should Lavim Tamm still be human, he is no concern of mine.”
“And if he… isn’t human?”
“Then you know he must be destroyed. The sooner we move, the better it will be for him. I propose that our interests are aligned, at least in this matter?”
Ash, suspicious to a fault, reluctantly agreed.
“Ok, we’ll go to Lavim, take him back to our ship, sober him up, and… work something out. Come on.”
The flophouse was a dismal place. The smell was awful, the air felt greasy in some manner, and the surly ex-Legion proprietor was not in the mood for small talk. As soon as he heard they were looking for a drunk man, he led them straight to Lavim’s deplorable room, where he was almost blind drunk. “AHA! I kneeeeeeeewwwwww I was being flflflflollowed! Go on then, k’ll me. Can’t be worser than… than the dreams in my heeeeeaaauuuurrrrrgblblbblblffftp” Lavim’s flow was interrupted by a stream of vomit which splashed on Ash’s shoes to her great annoyance. She looked at Salindre.
“He is… not corrupted by darkness, which is the nicest thing I can say about him.”
“Good enough for us. Fattah, can you hail a taxi? I don’t want him puking on my boots again.”
A grav-chair taxi ferried the motley crew to the Neoptra port, where the Blue Beetle was docked. Manhandling Lavim into the medbay, they called on Pol to see what could be done about his impressive insobriety. Pol administered a cocktail of antitoxins and alcohol destroying enzymes, and within 30 minutes Lavim was desperately hungover, but coherent.
“So you’re not here to kill me?” he said almost hopefully, clutching his aching head.
“Nope, we just want the statue you were going to sell to Merez Alcan.”
“Oh. Pity, my head is… Ugh. Look, I hid it, ok? It’s in a bag tucked into a crack under one of the bridges across the Promenade. It… I kept having dreams. Really, really horrible ones. I’ll give you the coordinates, just keep it away from me.”
Ash put on her Things-Shall-Be-Thus voice.
“Right, here’s what’s going to happen. Salindre, you go get your statue. We’ll keep Lavim here for 24 hours, then tell Alcan we found him but the statue’s long gone. We won’t get as big a bonus, but some birr is better than none. And you, Lavim, had better come up with a good bloody excuse for messing about with Jinna like you did!”
“Jinna? But I… Oh. You’re right. The poor-“
“Shut up, Lavim.”
“Shutting up right now, ma’am.”
Perhaps 20 minutes later, they received a message from an anonymous, untraceable user:
“Item secured. Recommend you inspect the bridge nevertheless; I was only after the statuette. Walk in the light of the Icons.”
The next morning, they sent Dav and Pol to inspect the bridge, while Ash and Fattah went over their plan. Before long Dav called them, but it was not Dav’s voice on the communicator.
“I think we should meet. I’ll be at the bridge. You know the one.” Merez Alcan hung up.
Merez was waiting at the far end of the bridge, a roadway near the top of the Promenade for maintenance vehicles and repair teams to access the maze of ducts and cables above. He was flanked by four strong young men, two of which held Dav and Pol, their hands tied.
“Where is my statue?” Merez took a few steps forward.
“No idea” replied Ash, truthfully. “Could be anywhere by now.”
“This is very disappointing. I said that the statuette was worth a great deal of money, did I not? That your payment hinged upon its recovery?”
He took a few more steps, reaching the middle of the bridge. His bodyguards moved alongside him. Pol and Dav were marched to his right, where the railing was very obviously missing. There was a drop of several hundred metres beyond it.
“You told us a thousand birr per day until we found Lavim. We found him. Whatever happened the statue, it happened before we found him, not our problem.”
Fattah, perhaps sensing which way things might be heading, discreetly took out his communicator and began recording the proceedings. Merez’s heavies reached for weapon holsters, but the old man held up a hand to stand them down.
Merez’s tapped his cane on the ground, his grip turning his knuckles white. Despite the calm face, he was evidently furious. “Most disappointing, indeed. I can only conclude that my contacts were mistaken about your reputation. So be it. In… two days,” he said with a smirk, suggesting he knew otherwise, “you found Mr. Tamm, and so I shall honour my offer of one thousand birr per day. Your failure to secure the item I so wished to purchase, however, not to mention your shameful disrespect, inclines me towards withholding the proposed bonus. May the Icons keep you from darkening my doorstep for eternity. Come, gentlemen, I believe we’re done here.”
Merez turned away and walked off into the shadows of the far Promenade. His goons formed a line until he disappeared, before roughly shoving Dav and Pol towards Ash and Fattah, and retreated likewise.
Lavim was having breakfast in the Blue Beetle when they returned. “How did it go?” he asked nervously.
“He’s not happy, but nobody’s dead.”
“Oh. Good? I think?”
“About as good as could be hoped, I suppose.” said Fattah.
There was a short silence, as Lavim helped himself to some more food.
“So… did you get the data tag?”
“The tag. Under the bridge. That thing has the coordinates of the expedition.”
“Lots more than just that ugly statue down there.”
“You… don’t have it, do you.”
“Not as such, no.”
“An absolute fortune in ancient relics. Not to mention the shredded remains of literally all my friends and colleagues, who deserved a proper funeral.”
“And now he has it.”
“Brilliant. Just absolutely, utterly fantastic. You know I-“
“Shut up, Lavim.”
They arranged passage for Lavim home to Aiwaz, and paid a visit to Jasina and Jinna at the White Tugur once more. There, they explained that Lavim was fine, but had very important business to attend to back home, and wouldn’t be back for some time, and that Jinna should just get over him. Jasina remained tight-lipped but her face radiated “I told you he was no good, Jinna. didn’t I TELL you he was no good?” while Jinna was extremely confused as to why everyone thought she and Lavim were a couple, but decided to just go along with it to avoid further embarrassment.
Their good deeds done for the day, the Blue Beetle crew retired to their ship for a well-earned rest.
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.
It’ll take some time, but the most terrifying step has been taken: I have messaged the group to ask if they’re still interested in getting it back together.
The response was pleasantly positive.
However, since that long hiatus from Roll20 I have invested in another virtual tabletop called Foundry, and it’s safe to say I quite prefer it for… almost everything tbh. There’s more of a learning curve setting things up, sure, but the sheer breadth and depth of features and time-saving little bits and bobs is quite amazing.
To that end, rather than dust off my Roll20 account I’ll be porting all the stuff I’d… well, stolen, from my Coriolis PDFs and various art deposits across the internet. And that’s going to take some time. Especially in the current heat. Bloody hell. I can barely lift this delicious chilled can of ready made gin and tonic to my lips, such is the fury of Helios outside my window today.
Been a while since I mentioned that I occasionally do freelance writing for rather famous and well-respected ttrpg publisher Cubicle 7. My little pack of punchy short Warhammer Fantasy adventures, One Shots of the Reikland, went Gold on DriveThruRPG quite quickly, which is a delight for my first professionally published, uh, publication. Yes I know I have scientific papers published too but that whole industry can fuck off into the sun thank you VERY much.
But I’ve been beavering away on a lot of other WFRP publications since that. Archives of the Empire Vol. 1, for example. I had the honour.. nay, the PRIVILEGE, to create some ranger-style careers, with none more noble and astounding than the Halfling Badger Rider.
I had the good fortune to contribute to the Death On The Reik Companion, too. It’s one thing writing your own one-off adventures but being asked to help write the director’s cut of one of the most popular ttrpg campaigns ever written, that’s an intimidating and amazing prospect.
Speaking of which, I was also one of the writers on Vol. 4 and Vol. 4.5 of that behemoth adventure, The Horned Rat, and The Horned Rat Companion. Death On The Reik was a firmly established adventure that got a shiny remaster, and that’s awesome. The Horned Rat though? Completely new and that’s intimidating as hell. Y’see, the campaign as originally published had something of a… well, let’s say the writers didn’t get to write the ending they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with the original Something Rotten in Kislev, mind they’re some great adventures, but they were originally intended as standalones and weren’t related to the Enemy Within campaign, and some shoehorning was done to accommodate that. The Horned Rat is a massive book that directly follows on from the political thriller that was Vol. 3, Power Behind The Throne. It was a hell of a thing to be considered good enough to not only help write enhanced versions of existing adventures, but to help create a new one to those same standards. Then again, judging from how The Horned Rat and Companion shot straight to Electrum and Silver on DTRPG respectively (the Companion was only released last week so that’s quite impressive), it looks like people are pretty satisfied with the results.
There’s other stuff I’ve worked on that I can’t talk about until after release, and I’m hoping to take on a couple of future projects that haven’t left the planning stages yet, but my goodness there are some exciting things ahead for WFRP, let me tell you. And some crazy how, I might have the privilege of writing some of it.
So, that setting idea with the space Arks and weird multidimensional gribblies that used to be religious fundies and non-euclidean protein folding, it isn’t done with me yet. What follows are a few snippets from what I imagine is the indoctrination ritual for a particular Ark. It’s quite a challenge to consider. The general shape of such a thing should ideally emerge as a natural result of the Ark’s past. What was the prevailing orthodoxy on the Ark? Why did they leave? How would that colour their experience of the sanity-blasting multidimensional awareness mentioned previously?
“Generic semi-catholic Christian” is the flavour of this evening’s origins. Partly because I cannot be arsed reading up on specific faiths in this heat, partly because I’m starting out small and doing what I know, partly because proper blasphemy takes time to do right. I’m calling them the Broken Mirror for now, but I’m sure something better will occur later.
Accept despair. Embrace it as an old friend, a lover returned. Sing as it permeates the core of your being. Learn, in the farthest corners of who and what you are, the truths it lays bare. Let it grind away your past and present as the ocean turns the cliff to sand. Strangle your future in its crib, that despair may feed on the sweet rot of the corpse. To unlock your potential, you first must murder it. Let emptiness fill you. And know, when the void is all that remains, that Life is a lie.
-Initiate’s rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror
The cult teaches that enlightenment comes from stripping away the barriers they claim separate a disciple from reality. This could involve destroying a person’s “limited” senses like their sight or hearing, stripping away their self-confidence or drastically altering brain chemistry to induce severe depression; to the Broken Mirror, serotonin and dopamine are liars that cushion the sharp edges of reality.
It should go without saying that the Broken Mirror are *utterly* divorced from what most of humanity considers the baseline for sanity. And yet, they display similar abilities to the Awoken children. So they must have figured *something* out, right?
Your senses are a mirror, reflecting only yourself. Let that mirror shatter. In that collection of imperfect reflections, you will begin to truly see. Shatter each shard again and again, and in the gentle caress of each razor-edged prison by which each new shard is bound, true understanding dawns. See, and bleed, and shatter until the mirror is as dust and the reflections beyond counting, and behold the truth. And know, when the space between you and your reflection is no more, that Reality is a lie.
-Acolyte’s rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror
As I see it, the people on this Ark that survived did so only after being nearly destroyed, inside and out. When their brains began forming hypercube structures, and receiving and sending signals they couldn’t possibly hope to understand, it would break most people, no matter how hard they fought, much like how depression can steamroll over the strongest will without even noticing. And everyone’s first instinct would have been to fight it. But ugly as it is, there’s a tiny nugget of truth in their creed. Fighting the changes, holding on to the normal you know, that’s a death sentence. But embracing it? It’s not easy, letting go of the world you know, but it causes far less damage.
Well. In a strictly medical sense, and all things being equal, less damage. But the Arks were tin cans in space, filled with prideful, arrogant zealots who may not have had the healthiest outlook to begin with. They were subject to radiation from poor shielding, starvation when people could no longer maintain the hydroponic gardens, and violent gang wars as security and social order disintegrated. Without the infrastructure and resources of a whole world, they had no chance of coming out relatively unscathed. They learned that accepting the change worked, but they discovered it in an INCREDIBLY unhealthy way, surrounded as they were on all sides by insanity, violence, cannibalism, and worse. Their initiations have a high death toll, because they fundamentally misunderstand what it is that lets a person coexist with the changes coursing through their bodies. But enough of the utterly disenfranchised, broken souls they recruit are ready to accept whatever happens them that they can maintain and even grow their numbers.
Let the hollow bell of your soul ring out! Let it toll its great peals of negation. Emptiness will flow from your shattered form, and entire nations will drown in you! Let angel and demon alike cower before the dead thunder of your great and terrible apotheosis! And know, as the embers fade and the last thread unravels, as even the gods bleed their last upon the altars of your fury, that I was a lie.
-Penultimate rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror
Broken Mirror members delight in stripping away what they believe are the barriers between humanity and harsh reality. To put a positive spin on something, to enjoy any of the little comforts of life from a hug to euphoria-inducing drugs, these are all sins, further barriers placed between the mind and the brutal truth of reality. They delight in crushing such barriers, and draw their targets ever further downwards. Much as various cults have done for centuries, they employ psychological torture to break their victims, to brainwash them. Once a victim has lost any sense of self, they are considered to have removed the final barriers between them and the truth, and the initiation begins as they are slowly remoulded into more fitting servants of the Arkborn.
Those of you who read this blag may recall Back in November that I had a little word-building seed I wanted to plant, about billionaire conservative religious nutters leaving Earth on Arks and coming back all… gribbly.
Those of you who don’t (and if you’re not reading then why the heck am I even writing this bit?) can find it right here:
So that seed has, it turns out, been growing in the wet soil of my brain matter, its new shoots tickling the odd neuron here, the odd synapse there. I wanted, I realised, a way to explain the weird world I’d described. Well, explain is probably the wrong word. More “figure out a way to hand wave it all away”, really. After many nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, wondering what it was I wanted to make “sense” of, I came to the conclusion that what I wanted was a way of linking magic into the proto-setting I’d got here. “Just invent a new magic system, how hard can it be?” I thought to myself, future Ciarán laughing bitterly but as yet unheard.
Back when I studied it, I really quite enjoyed the more unusual and less immediately practical mathematics areas. Basic geometry, sure, handy for thinking about angles, but I can’t exactly apply hyperdimensional polytopes to a game of pool or soccer in the same way.
Now, some time last year I had jotted down a little idea that amused me. It was about how many viruses have a little protein shell that often resembles a a simple symmetrical shape, like a 12- or 20-sided die. And I suddenly remembered the gif above (I have a small folder of hypercube gifs like this, I find them really soothing to watch), and wondered: What if virus, but hypercube?
The idea was pretty simple, sort of. Definitely simple if you’ve studied microbiology. But for the uninitiated: One of the most basic processes of life is the translation of DNA to proteins. That accounts for a HUGE amount of how a living thing actually functions from moment to moment. DNA is a code for a string of amino acids, which fold into various shapes to form larger proteins. And with proteins, the shapes they fold into are as important or moreso than the individual amino acids that make them up. So, why not explore what might happen if proteins folded into MORE than the usual three dimensions?
I read a lot of science fiction, and I have a few physicist friends, and pop-culture often references it, so I was familiar with the ideas Einstein put forward that space is 4-dimensional, with time being the 4th. And there are fields of research in both physics and maths that talk about more dimensions than that. My last maths lecturer often told us it was a common joke in his department that all you had to do to imagine 13 dimensions was to start by imagining there were n dimensions, and then let n=13. Mathematicians are odd people.
So originally I thought I’d write a little story about the world’s first tesseract virus, which contained more dimensions than the ones we’re familiar with. I even sought some criticism on the SCP forums, which was honestly invaluable and excellent. And I would have developed it further as an SCP thing, but that Ark story just kept coming back to me, and I wondered if I might be able to marry the two.
And one very late night (it was definitely closer to 7am) it struck me. And then I sort of forgot it for a few days because you know what trying to remember things when you half dreamed them is like. It came back to me slowly over the next few days, and I started scribbling, and slowly an idea I really liked took shape.
I dunno if I’ll develop this little world of mine further. I’d certainly like to, but don’t let the bible fool you, world building takes an absolute FUCKtonne of work and time. The below is, I suppose, the equivalent of the start of the “Magic” chapter of any RPG rulebook. Or Psyker powers, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe it’ll develop into an RPG setting. Maybe this is the last I’ll ever write about it.
Either way, it was enjoyable.
Magic? Don’t be daft. No such thing. Oh sure, the Arkborn are horrifying monstrosities that can turn you to ash with a flick of the… well, the ones that still *have* wrists might flick them. And yes, you’ve seen humans seemingly create fire out of nothing, or move impossibly fast, or even fly. But it’s not magic. For the full story you need to go back two generations, not that there’s much left of either. But as far as we can establish, it goes a bit like this…
So… dimensions. Your average human is kinda 3.5-D; They can freely manipulate 3 dimensions and have an intuitive understanding of Time, but they’re stuck going in the same one second per second direction as everyone else. Other dimensions exist, but we are wholly unaware of them except as abstract theoretical concepts demanded by our best physics models.
With me so far? Good, because it gets weird.
Towards the end of the 21st century, physicists managed to create a physical hypercube, a shape related to a cube the same way a cube is related to a square. It only lasted for a few trillionths of a second and drank several hydrogen bombs worth of energy, but it paved the way for an explosion in technological advancement. Can you believe our computers used to be flat wafers of 2-dimensional circuitry? It’s not the electronics we’re about here, though, it’s the squishy sciences. Some decades after CERN 2, molecular biologists successfully created a “hyperprotein”, a string of amino acids folded into 5 dimensions. Medicine was revolutionised overnight; Gene therapy became orders of magnitude more precise and powerful, drugs too large to cross the blood-brain barrier could be attached to a small hyperprotein which tucked them into a pocket of spacetime until they crossed the barrier and could release the drug into the body’s 3-D space.
Some viruses adapted to match our new tools, as they always do. Most famous is Adenovirus Tesseracteae, a variation of the Adenovirus genus responsible for about 5% of cases of the common cold, but there are others. It wasn’t long until we saw human bodies developing hyperproteins. Hypercube viruses hijacking our cellular machinery to replicate might have kickstarted it, or maybe it was deliberately inflicted on the population by the returning Arkborn, but either way the results were varied and deeply unpleasant; the lucky ones would suddenly die from an aneurysm, as part of a tiny capillary in their brains shifted dimensions and became a blockage. Whole or partial organs might “disappear” for a split second, or suddenly exist outside the body, or worse. A rare few were driven mad as hyperprions in their brains caused neural networks to develop across more dimensions than a human was born equipped to deal with. The symptoms were horrendous, and ran from nightmare visions borne of the brain trying to interpret hyperspatial shapes, to the complete loss of perception of linear causality. Between the hrperprion disease and the Arkborn slaughters, millions died, and more prayed for death.
It’s a little ironic that our salvation came from those broken, wretched souls. A handful of that first generation were pregnant when the hyperprion condition took hold. They crossed the placenta easily, working their changes on the developing embryos. To much relief, they were born without complications, and seemed just like any other newborn, something of a blank canvas as the brain began to learn and react to the outside world. It was hypothesised that if a human was born with a multidimensional neural network, they would adapt and grow alongside it, as opposed to the sudden, jarring changes experienced by infected adults. As they grew, they displayed many tendencies and mannerisms that were not unlike their parents, albeit on a far less fatal scale. The scientists and psychologists studying them put it down to their brain cells including dimensions the rest of us aren’t even aware of. It quickly became clear that they also possessed an instinctive awareness of spacetime; with a bare minimum of education, teenagers could solve complex equations that took mathematicians weeks to work out. They could navigate the kinds of advanced geometry that would have taken their parents’ generation decades of study to grasp. Not that they were *smarter* or *superior* in any way; Those that excelled at complex mathematics had no time to become sports stars, just like anyone else. They had tools the rest of us didn’t, is all. Like kids raised with the internet versus their parents who didn’t know what an email was.
It was early adulthood when the serious changes occurred. The hyperprions hadn’t just changed their brains, and with puberty came a slew of modified hormones. Most still performed the expected functions, but a few caused… Well, most people call it an Awakening now. Already possessed of an instinctive understanding of spacetime, puberty brought perception. Their parents’ brains were unequipped to deal with seeing spacetime, but the adolescents welcomed it easily, like an old friend. Well, for the most part. Not everyone made it through puberty. The sudden changes were like what their parents endured, and more than one child simply disappeared, or died of old age over the course of a week, or even disintegrated in a burst of gamma radiation. It was a change of extremes, you either made it through pretty unscathed, or you died, but out of maybe 30 hyperprion children worldwide, 20 were confirmed to make it to adulthood. And now that they could see what they already innately understood, they could manipulate it.
The first generation of Awakened became young adults of extraordinary perception and ability. They could perceive, understand and manipulate reality on its most basic, primal levels. Some conjured fire, some could slow or accelerate regions of spacetime, some altered the gravitational constant of their bodies from moment to moment and, in lay terms, learned to fly. Of all the new phenomena these men and women displayed to the astonished world, by far the strangest thing was that they didn’t fight amongst themselves, didn’t use their powers to bend and break others into submission. What few Arkborn humanity has managed to defeat and bring home for autopsy reveals that the brains of the Arkborn and our Awakened are unnervingly similar. They appear to see reality much in the same way, but where the Arkborn are like demons out of the very worst religious apocalypse scriptures, something in Awakened perception led to a surprising and powerful altruism. Maybe they saw further down the path humanity was walking, and knew fighting the Arkborn was the only choice leading to a better tomorrow. Maybe their parents, blinded and tortured by the hyperprion infection, are a sobering reminder of what the Arkborn used to be, and what the Awakened could become, and they resolved to be better than that. Whatever the case, they are sorely needed lights in a time of unparallelled darkness.
I’ve been in a fairly steady campaign of Forbidden Lands for the last few months. It’s a good game, really focuses on the idea of a harsh, unforgiving setting where travel is dangerous, your weapons and equipment can fail you, and you really need to build yourself a stronghold to claim and protect anything you manage to create, loot, win or otherwise acquire. It’s dangerous, life is cheap, and no one person can survive on their own, are really the core themes.
I began that campaign with a Wolfkin Druid, combining lethal brawling skills with shapeshifting magic and Wolfkin hunting prowess. Arathus quickly became one of the front line fighters, dealing out terrific damage with fist and fang, helping bring down an ever-increasing number of deadly foes from slavers to demons to harpies to colossal Elven tree constructs (disgustingly, but accurately, dubbed Entapedes by the party).
We had losses along the way, of course. Poor Jim lost his hunter on our first foray to the castle of Weatherstone. Alive, but so badly wounded that moving would kill her, and with a small army of undead soldiers bearing down on us, Arathus decided that throwing her from the battlements would be a kinder death than rusty, blunt halberds. A flock of ravenous harpies left little beyond bones and cloth by the time we found her again. That was a sobering day for us all.
Fate was not done with Jim though, and several sessions later, we were south of Weatherstone, aiding a dwarven siege army retake their ancestral home of Wailer’s Hold, now overrun with demons and undead. They caught a break that allowed some deep reconnaissance into the Hold, when the undead armies of Weatherstop came south to battle everything in Wailer’s Hold, and sent us in to look (we decided it was better for everyone concerned if we didn’t mention that we were the reason Weatherstone’s armies were taking an interest in the outside world again).
At the last moment, our party was spotted by a Rust Knight and his demonic mount, and we had to flee beck to friendly territory. Jim’s character, a powerful geomancer who had made people explode simply by throwing a pebble at them, tried his favourite spell like he always did. The good news was that he defeated the Rust Knight and his griffon-like flying mount. Unfortunately for him, his roll for the spell included a fumble result, and he had to roll on the Magical Mishap Table. Essentially, he lost control of the spell and became the epicentre of the effect, blasting himself, Rust Knight and mount all together into a homogenous fine crimson mist.
I believe it was at this point (also owing to how one of the other players swapped their character’s profession previously for various reasons) that I called the group “The Adventure Party of Thesus”. There was still myself playing Arathus, and Shidd’Fuk the Goblin, who were founding members of the group (we don’t count the halfling because Dale didn’t join for a session or two), but we were fairly chewing through the membership to the point where some plot threads simply weren’t relevant to the group any more.
By this time, we’d all accrued quite a hefty chunk of XP. Arathus had maxed out his Brawling talents and had started taking further close quarters abilities, so not only could he attack twice per turn, his attacks hit with *tremendous* force, and he got a free dodge each round to boot, making him a warrior absolutely not to be trifled with, and with the druidic knowledge to talk with animals, become as stealthy as a cat, steal the sight of an eagle, or further augment his attacks with the strength of a grizzly bear. So when our party heard rumours of a dragon in the northwest, injured and potentially something we might have a shot at overpowering, we packed our bags, paid our stronghold’s guards several weeks in advance, reminded our accidental slave (a long story for another time, Orc society has some WEIRD ideas about defeated chiefs we didn’t know about) to keep fed, and set off for Adventure!
Along the way there were harpies, a racist halfling with a terrifying magical oven (pastries should not move.), and we got involved with an up and coming new empire of free Orcs when their king mistook us for ambassadors and we decided to run with it. That was when we encountered the Stones of Stanengist. Another long story, but suffice to say Elves turn into sentient rubies when they die, and allegedly the first 6 Elves in creation were wrought into the decorations of the Crown of Stanengist so they could be together forever. RPGs being what they are, the stones were scattered in ancient times and so on and so forth. This new Orc empire was being subtly manipulated by one such stone, imparting wisdom to their leader in his dreams. His wife, a rather more cunning and shrewd Orc, realised what was happening and got us involved to take the stone (or “homewrecker” as she called it) off her hands. That led to a fight with some elves who wanted the stone back, which didn’t go their way, and a heavily surreal dream sequence where the stone spoke to the party about how it was hoping to help the Orcs to atone for how its people treated them in the long long ago, and how WE might be able to seek out the 5 remaining stones, and with their power combined turn Ravenland into a paradise free of demons, slavery, hardship inclement weather yadda yadda yadda. Being the main point of contact between the Orc Queen and the party, Arathus took charge of the new Stone, which makes what happened next even funnier.
We decided that after coming all this way northwest, we might as well continue on the extra day or two travel to where the dragon had been spotted. After real life obligations caused the Adventure Party of Theseus to replace another member (just 2 founding members left now), we tracked down the dragon by the trail of destruction. The thing was a walking thunderstorm, literally; wherever it went, storm clouds followed. So when we saw a storm that wasn’t moving despite the winds, we just had to follow the lightning-blasted earth and petrified forests and horse-sized clawprints straight to the dragon’s lair.
There we stood, considering how to proceed. After seeing humanoid bootprints leading into the caves we decided to be stealthy and see whether the dragon had already been slain, or if it was sleeping after a nice feed of adventuring party.
Arathus declared “Rather than risk the stealth roll, I’ll use magic to automatically succeed.”
The GM gave his permission. “Cool, but you still have to roll your magic die to see if it’s 1 success or more”
I clicked, ,the RNG did its thing, and… Skull face.
“Ooh, a mishap. Roll D66 please!”
I duly rolled, thinking that at least the stealth part had worked so I wouldn’t be eaten by a dragon.
I rolled 66. That’s the highest number you get on a D66. In forbidden Lands, rolling higher on tables is almost always bad.
The GM duly read out the result:
Your magic rips open a rift to another dimension, and a demon pulls you over to the other side. Time to make a new character. Your old character will come back as an NPC after D66 days but will be … changed.
There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a rather awkward silence around the virtual tabletop.
Eventually the GM said “So, Arathus… would you like to describe how, precisely, you accidentally sneak straight into Hell and get trapped there for… 66 days!? Jesus christ.
Much laughter ensued.
And then we remembered that Arathus had been in possession of the Stone, the main plot maguffin for the entire future campaign, when he disappeared and unwittingly became a demonic adversary for his erstwhile companions.
The laughter continued, but with a slightly more “oh fuck oh shit he was a combat demon BEFORE becoming a literal demon” sort of tone. Brittle, I think is the word. To say nothing of what the effects of two months in Hell would have on the Stone itself. The GM, every bit as surprised as I was, decided to conclude the session there, as that one little chain of quickly escalating events resulted in him having to rewrite a large chunk of what he had planned for our group in the immediate future.
And so ends the tale of Arathus, heroic and mighty Wolfkin Druid to the Bloody Huntress, and the Adventure Party of Theseus has only one original member left.
[My computer troubles haven’t been fixed, but it had been almost a month since I ran anything, and I had a Need. So I steeled myself and braved the random flickering of my monitor to keep my Coriolis campaign going. I am braver than the troops.]
The Blue Beetle and its crew, after quite the adventure on the distant Jevghena colony in the Caph system, were finally home. Docking at the Neoptra, the largest public space port on Coriolis, they were witness to their passenger Omar being greeted by his waiting uncle, an elderly gentleman with the look of a retired soldier about him. This man, Qamar, was so delighted to see his nephew arrive safely (well, alive and only with two broken legs, but better than dead), he insisted that as soon as Omar had been seen to by his doctors, he would take the crew out to dinner. Never ones to turn down a free meal, the crew graciously accepted.
The next day, Qamar sent his official invitation to the crew. He had chosen Alkamaar’s, the most exclusive restaurant on the station, and quite possibly the most exclusive and legendary dining hall in all the Third Horizon. For a crew more used to places like Wahib’s Cantina, where brawls, grubby back-alley deals and even the occasional murder were just something the clientele sort of got used to, this was almost as distressing as being shot at and nearly killed back at Jevghena. The day was spent hunting for acceptable formal attire so they wouldn’t automatically get turned away at the doors. It took *months* to reserve a table, and Qamar Nahas was able to walk in with 5 scruffy merchants and be seen to immediately. Clearly he was a man of means and influence.
They had of course seen the planet Kua from orbit many times as they came and went in their ship, but travelling to the very spire of Coriolis, and watching the blue-green world through the glass dome above them, surrounded by the scents of orchids, rare spices, incense and the delicate perfumes of the other guests, the view had never been more spectacular. They were assigned a courtesan to show them to their table, retreating to a divan to be summoned at a moment’s notice, and Qamar encouraged them to order whatever they wished from the multiple menus.
Conversation was pleasant, ranging from Omar’s modest sheep farm on Quidar to current political affairs and the latest happenings with the Council of Factions. Dav at one point saw Qamar being saluted by a Legion officer on his way to the bathrooms, and decided to ask if Qamar had served.
“Oh yes, proud family tradition. Although I don’t like to brag about it. Not to mention if I told you any more, I’d probably have to have you shot, haha. No, the military is a younger man’s game, and I’m happy to have survived long enough that I could put it all behind me. Now Majid back in Caph would be able to tell you many stories…”
And so it went. Qamar was an excellent host, many exquisite dishes and cocktails were sampled, and the crew made the most of what they suspected would be the only visit to Alkamaar’s they would ever afford. Ash made a point of getting a bag of Alkamaar’s finest coffee beans before leaving.
The following morning, those coffee beans were warmly welcomed by tender sleepy heads. As was the invitation to lunch with Zulaikha Irides, their mission broker for Melem Gessura. He was taking his leisure at one of the many cafes near the Spring Plaza, enjoying the bright open spaces and the exquisite fountains and public works. He greeted the crew with great enthusiasm, asked them how their mission went, and expressed sorrow over the danger that arose unforeseen. “By way of apology, please allow me to offer you a very safe, in-system job that nonetheless pays well. There is a shipment of scientific equipment that the Foundation needs to get out to station FS-7, which orbits the gas giant Xene. No portals, no pirates, no political or military upheaval, just a simple transportation job. 15,000 birr.”
The crew, perhaps naturally, was suspicious. But Zulaikha was correct; Xene was close by, Kua was a well-policed system when it came to open piracy, and the money was good. They accepted over a round of refreshing kawah, and made their preparations to leave. The cargo was checked and double-checked, loaded and secured, and they were off. Xene would take about 4 days of travel, which did prove rather boring. The open blackness of space has a strange effect on those who sail it. Some times the abyss looks back. But our heroes were determined and steely-willed (or perhaps just lucky), and boredom really was the only threat they encountered.
Xene grew quickly in the distance. A massive planet, some ten times the volume of Kua, and an atmosphere constantly wracked by storms easily as large as that jungle world. Compared to Xene, station FS-7 was a mote of dust, but on approach the crew saw that it was quite large in its own right, clearly a major scientific endeavour. Since the mysterious Emissaries rose from the depths of Xene, with one of them remaining on the station, FS-7 had required several new habitation modules to account for the many faithful who believed the Emissaries were either the Icons made flesh or their messengers, and the science station had become an awkward fulcrum, an endless stream of pilgrims on on side and the original scientific teams and staff who just wanted to get on with their godless research. The docking ring was therefore a great deal busier than expected, and songs of praise and hoarse preachers formed the lion’s share of the background noise.
They were expected, and the chief scientist and her bodyguard were there to meet the crew. She introduced herself as Jarouma had Peleter and was almost unprofessionally giddy at the sight of the equipment. The crew received their 15,000 birr and an invitation to dine with Jarouma while her staff took care of the logistics.
The fare was naturally not as good as their time in Alkamaar’s a few nights previously, but for a research outpost it was impressive. Jarouma thanked the crew again, saying that since the Emissaries her work has been greatly delayed. “But with your delivery or replacements and repairs, I think we can finally get back to work!”. Dav, curious about what was actually done on FS-7 as well as politely making conversation, asked if she could elaborate on what that work entailed.
“Well… Years ago, we found something on an expedition, a structure with very similar energy patterns and emissions as the portal fields we use for travel. Now, that’s all very fascinating and there is still a large team out there many systems away, trying to make sense of it as we speak. But… you see, I noticed not too long ago that the magnetic field of Xene naturally looked very much like those patterns when viewed through the correct instruments. My hypothesis is that… how to put it… well, if we were able to modify Xene’s magnetosphere, with targeted interference patterns, I think we might be able to create a brand new portal field!”
She sat back, beaming with pride. The portals were not at all understood beyond the mathematical formulae humanity had developed to allow their use. How they were created or how they allow one to jump instantaneously from one star to another was a complete mystery. Dav was mightily impressed. The crew and Jarouma talked for some time, making appropriate sounds at Jarouma’s ambitions, listening with sympathy when she described how the pilgrims make everyone’s jobs more difficult, and nodding pensively when she gave her opinions on the Emissary. “I don’t know who or what this Emissary is. They can certainly do things that should not be possible according to what we know of the universe. It’s not that I don’t believe in the Icons, I do of course, it’s just… Look, science isn’t about what one believes, right? It’s about what one can observe, measure and model, and how accurately you can use that model to predict something. Faith… well, it’s a dangerous thing to bring with you into a laboratory, you see. Faith might get in the way of how you observe the data, even if you’re trying hard to the contrary…” There was obvious tension between Jarouma’s staff and the new pilgrims, and Jarouma had perhaps celebrated a little too much, and she took the opportunity to thank them again and make her apologies, before heading to bed. The crew did likewise soon after.
The next day, the crew was readying to leave, when Jarouma approached them in a most apologetic and embarrassed manner. She explained that while under the influence of perhaps a little too much kohol, she had maybe bragged about the station’s scientific goals a little too much, and could technically have said things that were, strictly speaking, highly confidential, at least until her papers on the topic had been published. She appreciated that the Blue Beetle’s crew were models of discretion and would of course keep such things to themselves until such time as discretion was unnecessary. Dav assured her that of course they could rely on her, and was delighted to note that when they shook hands, there had been a tag containing 5,000 birr in Jarouma’s palm, along with a relieved smile on her face.
Just as they were prepping their ship for launch, they received a call from a mining prospector. The moons of Xene had experienced a gold rush in the past decade, and dozens of mining colonies had sprung up on most surfaces. As the only transport ship nearby at the time, this prospector, by the name of Faisal, claimed to have struck gold, and wanted swift transport to Coriolis to register his claim before anyone else could. He also claimed to have about 50,000 birr worth of gold already extracted and ready for the markets. Some *extremely* tough negotiations on Dav and Ash’s part (ruthlessly exploiting Faisal’s need for speed and secrecy didn’t hurt) secured them a whopping 10% of the claim’s future profits. The deal agreed, Faisal transmitted coordinates to his claim, a fairly nondescript rocky plain on the near-airless 5th moon.
Landing the Blue Beetle, Faisal greeted them in protective exo-suit. He was not alone; he introduced his two partners Benit and Ahmed, both standing on an aged anti-grav hauling platform, indistinguishable in similar head to toe protection. They gave a little wave.
The mining site was barely a kilometre away, where the plain encountered cliffs, probably thrown up in some tectonic upheaval long since passed. The crew decided that trust was a much rarer commodity than gold, and agreed that Dav and Fattah would accompany the men to the claim while the rest stayed on board the Blue Beetle and kept a close watch on, well, everything.
The claim was a modest cave entrance in the side of the cliff, some geological and mining equipment scattered haphazardly outside. Faisal was talkative as they piloted the loader, his excitement at the find very obvious. Inside the cave, the path turned into a cramped tunnel requiring all manner of squeezing and shimmying to get in between opposing sheets of rock, until perhaps 50 metres in, it opened up into a little staging area. As Faisal promised, there were some 20 crates filled with variously sized chunks of what looked to be extremely pure gold. On the far side of the little cavern halogen lamps shone on the rockface which sported a thick, shimmering golden scar from top to bottom. “Our instruments say this seam goes back for another 50 metres, and down at least another 70, which is the scanning limit. This is HUGE!”
Perhaps it was because every contract they’d agreed to inevitably had a catch, perhaps it was the touch of the Icons, but Fattah and Dav were suspicious. Such pure gold, just waiting to be mined out? After some discussion, they convinced Faisal to bring one crate back to the ship, where they could use the medlab to run a few basic tests on the metal. “Benit, Ahmed, start bringing the crates out front, we’re going to examine this one in their lab, establish purity and such so we know what price to set. All going well we should be back soon.” They hopped on the loader and returned to the Blue Beetle.
Pol was already in the medlab, wearing exactly no pants. Dav explained the situation, and Pol took a hunk of the gold and went to work examining it with what tools he had. Faisal looked about to inquire as to Pol’s immodesty but Ash shaking her head with a serious look persuaded him to remain silent. After some 30 minutes, Pol had completed his assessment.
“Well, it’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that our patient is dead. Can’t find a trace of life.
“Pol, it’s… it’s a geological sample. They’re not supposed to be alive.”
“Oh. Well then doubly good news! This is almost pure gold. About 5% of it is ionic salt-like compounds that… Well, you know electroplating? Where you submerge something in a salt solution and hook up an electric charge and the metal ions of the salt stick to the object? Yeah. That’s what this is. Here, one second…”
Pol jogged out to the ship’s temple and swiftly returned, bearing the small statue of the Messenger. “See this lad? Looks like solid gold but you’d know from the weight of him that he’s gold-plated. I bet if I analysed the surface it would be pretty much identical to what you brought in.”
Ash winced slightly. “Please don’t deface a holy statue of the Icons, Pol.”
“Relax, it’s not like I shove him down my pants when you’re not around.”
“… Pol, that’s a very specific thing for you to-“
Faisal interrupted. “Hang on, hang on. You’re saying I found… what, exactly?”
“Well, I’d guess it’s either *extremely* specific and improbable geochemistry, or this gold was used in electro-plating,” said Pol. “So… I guess your mining claim might be, uh, more of an *archaeological* claim, if you get me?”
Faisal’s face fell, but Dav stepped in. “Don’t worry, partner. Ok, so that means a little more paperwork when we get to Coriolis. An archaeological fine with that much gold in it is still a huge find, and we can still make a lot of money from it. The Foundation, the Consortium, Free League, Ahlam’s Temple even, there are a lot of extremely rich factions who’d be delighted to hand you a hauler full of birr for the chance to be the first at uncovering whatever history this place represents.”
As Faisal was recalculating the potential untold riches in his head, the silence was broken by the ship’s AI, cheerily announcing that 2 humans were approaching from the direction of the claim. “Must have gotten lonely I guess.” said Faisal, wandering out to the cargo bay to meet them on the ramp.
Benit and Ahmed stopped to meet him. “Quick change of plan, friends,” Faisal began, “we think this gold was used in electro-plating, meaning there’s a real good chance we’ve found us a hidden temple, or ancient factory, or some other installation.”
Ahmed’s head tilted, unsure of the full meaning. Faisal continued.
“Instead of a mining claim, we’re going to have to make it an archaeological dig site. Now don’t worry, this means we can get college students to do all the digging while we sit back, sell the finds to the highest bidders, and become rich enough to buy our own palaces on Dabaran!”
Benit and Ahmed looked at each other. Benit shrugged, and held out his hand to shake on it. Relieved, Faisal took the hand and shook.
“Good, good, I’m glad we can agree on… OK you can stop now. Ow. Benit, you’re squeezing-“
And then he screamed as Benit crushed Faisal’s hand in his, the crunch of bone shuddering through his body and audible over the comm links.
Dav and Ash were quick off the mark, whipping out their Vulcan Crickets and planting solid shots on Benit. Ahmed raised his rifle and shot Ash in the shoulder, before taking a round himself.
Whether it was inevitable or triggered by the damage they had taken, Benit and Ahmed both howled, the sound becoming less and less human as their pressurised suits stretched and ruptured, their helmets cracking apart to reveal burning pits of yellow fire where eyes should have been. Arms elongates with sickening pops, fingers became rending talons. And the howl went on, hate and pain and rage incarnate. The Darkness Between the Stars had claimed these two, body and soul. Darkbound.
The creature that had been Ahmed leapt with terrifying nimbleness, crossing the ship’s cargo bay in the blink of an eye to come face to face with Ash, rendering her cover useless. It was all she could do to dodge the thing’s claws. The other charged the doorway to the medlab, where Dav and Fattah were both taking cover. Fattah was unable to dodge, taking a nasty cut across the chest, while Dav put another round in it at point blank. Instead of blood or even ichor, the Darkbound bled thick oily black smoke, like a drop of paint diffusing through water. It was outnumbered, however, and between Dav’s handgun and Fattah’s powered gauntlet, they took it down.
Ash, being badly wounded by the remaining Darkbound, sprinted for the safety of the others in the medlab. Her opponent flexed its unholy powers and surrounded her in chains of shadow, attempting to poison her mind with despair. Ash’s will was steadfast, however; for an instant the world flickered and appeared bleak, colourless and devoid of hope, but she gritted her teeth and shook it off.
The remaining Darkbound tried changing tack, then. Leaping to the ceiling and skittering about like a perverse spider, its head turned 180 degrees to regard its victims. It lashed out at Ash again, cutting her shoulder with long claws, but the three were ready for it now, and sustained gunfire shredded it to wisps of oily smoke. Silence descended on the Blue Beetle once more, broken only by the faint sound of snoring coming from the ship’s temple. Pol had slept through the whole ordeal.
In the end, the crew took Faisal and only one crate of gold back to Coriolis, for fear it carried the taint of the Dark Between the Stars. Faisal split the sale with them, giving them 5,000 birr, which they added to a further 5,000 after dropping off Jarouma had Peleter’s latest data. This was all very fortunate for them, as upon docking, a representative of the bank they originally took a loan from to purchase their ship was waiting there to meet them. It was time for their first repayment of the loan. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, it was agreed that 20,000 birr per month was an acceptable arrangement for all parties. Bank accounts now considerably lighter, they took stock of their respective situations.
Faisal declared that he would remain on Coriolis for another week at least; to settle his nerves, let his hand heal, and figure out what to do next with his lucrative but dangerous find. The crew, perhaps convinced that Faisal was as surprised by his old partners’ transformations as they had been (or perhaps looking to make sure that they still got their cut), put him in touch with their old friend Adzem Kembouri, a now well-established name in djinni, exorcisms, lifting curses, ancient lore and all manner of supernatural phenomena. If they were to return to that cursed spot, they reasoned, better to do it with someone who knew how to fight the darkness.
All in all, the crew felt, things were going quite well. They had taken some risks, yes, but so far they had all paid off. They had enough birr to cover the next repayment, in the unlikely event no other jobs came their way in that time. And they already had some other backup options; the group of mercenaries hunting them had a pretty price on their heads, should the Legion learn of their elimination. They had also intercepted a delivery of stealth and weapon optics clearly intended for an assassination attempt aboard Coriolis. If they ever figured out how to crack the dynamic encryption on the datapad accompanying the gear, the target of such a dark deed, who was clearly quite rich to deserve such high tech treatment, would surely be grateful…
… And so the stars burn, and their worlds turn, and the people of the Third Horizon trade and explore and fight and love and die. Much has happened, much has been discovered, and much more yet remains in long forgotten places, the plans of great Factions, and the future’s infinitely branching potential. And so shall it be.
[NOTE: an indefinite hiatus is coming up, if this isn’t the last session then the next one will be, as I try to fix my computer’s display issues, and perhaps try out another game or something. Gun & Slinger is on the list, a more intimate sort of game where one player is a mysterious wanderer and the other is their sentient, magical firearm. Anyway, don’t be surprised if this is the last Coriolis update for a while, it’s part of the Plan!]
Now I’m not *saying* I wrote this parody about anyone in particular. I’m just saying that Fine Gael are fucking disgusting and absolutely would sign Ireland over to the British Commonwealth in a heartbeat if they thought it would hurt Sinn Féin at the next election. And let’s be honest, there’s no difference at all between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, they are both pompous, self-serving tory scum.
Anyway. Here’s a silly little song. Hum it along to Dolly Parton’s Jolene for extra bonus points.
Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen I’m begging you to vaccinate my nan Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen Please stop changing up the vaccine plan
You make the country’s poorest pay, So toffs like you can lounge all day, Your laziness goes far beyond obscene
For Cromwell you would gladly die, You subsidise the VHI, Despite the low tax that they pay, Shoneen
Because of you we cannot sleep, There’s nothing I can do to keep My home from being repossessed, Shoneen
No depth to which you will not stoop, While Ireland starves you took the soup You never cared about us, you Shoneen
Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen I’m begging you to vaccinate my nan Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen Please stop changing up the vaccine plan
For 2016 you had plans To celebrate the Black and Tans Your callousness just makes me sick, Shoneen
You sat and stared a year and more While covid knocked on all our doors 5,000 lives were lost to you, Shoneen
Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen I’m begging you to vaccinate my nan Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen, Shoneen Please stop changing up the vaccine plan