Thursday, 31 October 2019

28. Clayday/ Movement Week to Wildday/ Illusion Week; Fire Season; 1618

Bofrost rode along sullenly, casting accusing glances at the leaden sky that hung over them like a shroud. The weather had turned unseasonably cold and wet, and Bofrost feared for the crops that would soon be gathered in against the coming of Dark Season. As he looked upward, the rainwater that had gathered in the folds of his cap finally took the opportunity to cascade down the back of his neck, making him curse out loud. But even this outburst drew no attention from his travelling companions. Onward they rode in grim silence, lost in their own thoughts, letting their mounts choose their own way towards the smudge of woodsmoke hanging in the damp air ahead of them. Even Sandene seemed less attentive to their surroundings than usual, seeming to almost dare any threat to emerge from the forests pressing in around them.

They’d been like this for the last few days, ever since the failed cattle raid on the Varmandi. They’d entertained such high hopes of entering the Hiording stead leading a string of fine cattle taken from their ancestral enemies. They’d joked about how they’d be treated as heroes, and how the Hiording chief would have no choice but to support them at Baranthos’ trial. After all, what threat could a bunch of backward Varmandi hillmen be to the Heroes of the Red Hands?

Well, quite a lot as it turned out. Although they’d tried to follow the required rituals of the cattle raid, something wasn’t quite right. It seemed as though, separated from their clan as they were, that the Gods didn’t hear their entreaties. Everything went wrong from the start, and the raid ended ignominiously with the companions riding out of Varmandi territory pursued by a jeering band of warriors and clansmen; even Yrsa was impressed by Terrastal’s rare display of horsemanship as he galloped past to make his escape.

And so they approached the stead of the Hiording chief, damp and spirits downcast, hoping at least for a warm welcome from their tribal allies. Much to their relief, they were not disappointed. Bearing as they did sigils marking them as speakers for the Ernaldori, they were quickly given dry clothing, hot food and strong ale. As they ate, looking around at the fine carvings adorning the timbers of the Hiording clan hall, a large pallet was borne in by four strong Hiording warriors. Atop the pallet sat a great mound of a woman with greasy skin and lank hair. But while Terrastal and Sandene cast sideways glances at each other, Randel and Yrsa saw beyond the woman’s outward appearance. Kristralda of the Hiording had not become chief through luck or happenstance. Instead, she was renowned as having wits worthy of Issaries and a temper fit for Orlanth himself. As they considered this, Kristralda regarded them with a piercing eye and began to speak in a deep, strangely compelling voice. ‘So, you are the voice of the Ernaldori Clan Ring, eh? What are you doing, so far from home and coming from the north, not south?’. Even as Terrastal began to speak on behalf of his companions, it quickly became clear that Kristralda and her Lawspeaker, Aileena, knew more than enough already. Although the tales of the companions’ exploits drew an admiring murmur from the assembled Hiording warriors,  Kristralda was merely politely interested. Even the God-touched appearances of Randel Silvertongue and Sandene didn’t seem to sway her overmuch. When Terrastal came around to ask for her support in the coming trial, she remained carefully neutral saying only that she would weigh the facts and act in the interest of all. Which, Bofrost knew, meant that she would do what was right for the Hiordings. And with that the audience came to an end, with the offer that they might talk further on the trip south to Clearwine to attend the trial.

The next morning, the clan assembled and made ready for the journey to the Ernaldori lands. Kristralda was borne southwards in a fine horse-drawn chariot decorated with bronze plaques, each showing a scene from her Clan’s mythic past. Around her formed up a proud honour guard of bearded Orlanthi warriors, but when the companions approached to ride alongside their Chief they moved aside respectfully. As the retinue left the gates of the Clan Stead, the remaining clanfolk began to sing rhythmically, sending a heartfelt prayer of protection and safe return for their chief soaring skywards. As the song flowed over them and eventually faded into the distance, Randel glanced at Kristralda and noted that tears were streaming down her cheeks, giving the lie to her usually gruff manner. It was clear that Kristralda would be true to her word and do anything to protect her people, come what may.
The journey southward was largely uneventful. At Asbjorn’s Stead, they were joined by Asbjorn himself and his honour guard. Asbjorn greeted the heroes warmly, roaring with laughter as they related the tale of the Red Hands and how they’d humiliated Temertain. But his loudest laughter was reserved for Terrastal’s indignant description of his treatment at the hands of Ernalsulva. ‘She’s got your measure, and no mistake!’ he said with a grin. ‘These Orlanthi princesses are more trouble than they’re worth sometimes.’ As a low rumble of thunder was heard in the distance, Asbjorn glanced skyward nervously and added ‘All praise to Ernalda, of course’ and grinned sheepishly at the heroes.
As they moved onwards, their growing band were joined first by a delegation of the Anmangarn, the dour clansmen of the Black Spear Clan who had hidden the Spear of the Colymar Clan from King Kangharl. Their chief Vestorfin Tribute-Taker welcomed Kristralda warmly and the heroes were greeted with enthusiasm; their reputations as champions of the Orlanthi virtues had spread, as had their enmity for the hated Lunars. As the black-clad warriors listened to the companions’ stories as they rode together, Yrsa became aware of a desperate need for something to believe in amongst the Black Spear warriors, especially the younger ones. Terrastal’s simple message of resistance to the Lunars at all costs found fertile ground in their minds and Yrsa’s sense of unease began to grow. Likewise, Sandene’s terse responses seemed to attract more attention than she would have liked. Wisely, Randel and Bofrost kept their more moderate views to themselves, seeing that the Black Spears were not open to such thoughts.

Seeing the regard in which the companions were held by her peers and friends, Kristralda became somewhat warmer to their attempts at conversation as they rode. Although she remained steadfastly neutral in the matter of Baranthos, she did let it be known that she had a special enmity for a Varmandi champion by name of Insterid. This proud and violent warrior had brought down several Hiording warriors over the years and was renowned for her cruelty, delighting in maiming her opponents before either killing them outright or sending them back to their families, shamed. A great mountain of a woman, Insterid had even been known to kill unarmed herdsmen during cattle raids. If this woman were to be brought down, say in an honour duel, that might sway her thinking somewhat about Baranthos’ claim to innocence. The gleam in Terrastal’s eye at this news was plain to all...

Finally, their numbers swollen even further by the addition of a delegation from the friendly Orlmarth clan, they entered the familiar lands of the Ernaldori. All of the Ernaldori felt the familiar welcoming touch of the Clan’s Wyter in their minds as they returned home. Even Sandene felt a welcoming touch, though more formal and reserved as was only proper. Having received the gifts of earth, salt and bread from a nervous-looking group of young Ernaldori warriors, the combined retinue travelled through the well-ordered and tilled farmland towards the city of Clearwine, its white walls shining in the distance. As they travelled, the heroes looked southward in hopes of catching a glimpse of Randel’s Stead; sure enough, the keenest-eyed amongst them were rewarded with the sight of tiny figures moving around a growing stead, surrounded by green farmland. It seemed such a haven of peace, far from the great matters that they’d found themselved embroiled in and the companions promised themselves a period of quiet after the storm of Baranthos’ trial had passed.

Yet as they came closer to Clearwine, they saw signs that things were not entirely as they left them. A mile or so downstream from the city a small army of Lunar slaves was building a large, square structure with a jetty extending out into the river. With a cry, Bofrost pointed out the similarity to the structure they and the Hidden Gale rebels had burned only a few weeks before; far from driving out the Lunars, their overlords had decided to rebuild, but this time even closer to the city. But even as they digested this news, Sandene pointed out a troubling development in the city itself. The gate into the city known as Sartar’s Tower was now being patrolled by Lunar warriors; in fact, the regiment known as the Silver Shields. The last time they’d seen a Silver Shield, it had been the young Lunar officer Vanthorion as he was being crucified by the Hidden Gale amidst a burning slave fort. Now, Silver Shield banners were flying proudly over Clearwine, a Lunar garrison to help ‘protect’ the city whilst coincidentally helping to ensure the obedience of its inhabitants.

Yet their sour expressions and troubled moods were lifted by the welcome they received when the entered the Ernarldori quarter of the great city. First, there were murmurs of recogniton as they passed, becoming shouts of welcome: ‘They’re here! The Heroes of the Broken Tower and the Red Hands are here!’. Children ran ahead of them, shouting their names as they made their way to the Ernaldori Clan Hall. By the time they reached the Hall itself, the jubilant crowds pressed so closely that they were almost unable to move. They were greeted by a smiling Morgana White-Eye and the rest of the Clan Ring. Even those of the Ring opposed to their methods found themselves caught up in the mood of the moment and cheered as the heroes dismounted before them. As Morgana held up her hands, the crowd lapsed into an excited silence. ‘Welcome to you, proud Orlanthi of the Ernaldori! And our firm friends and allies’ she added, nodding respectfully towards Sandene. ‘In honour of your heroism and achievements, tonight there will be a great feast for all true Orlanthi! And may Orlanth and Ernalda smile upon you always!’.

The Feast was indeed the greatest that any but the greyest head could remember. As the companions entered one by one, their names were called out by Orlgard Korlmarsson, Lawspeaker for the Ernaldori. ‘Clansfolk and friends, Beloved of Orlanth and Ernalda, be upstanding to welcome the Hero Band! Randel Silvertongue, the Harmony within the Storm, fair of word and dealing. Beloved defender of the Earth!’ A huge cheer went up as Randel entered, but it was the look of pride in Eirissa’s eyes that meant the most to him. After a pause, a sheepish Yrsa shuffled through the entrance, hunching her shoulders so as not to draw attention to her height. Despite this, Orlgard regarded her warmly and turned to the expectant crowd. ‘I give you Yrsa Horsebride, a name given in mockery but taken in pride. Marked by fire, chosen of Redalda, true and loyal. Protector of the Hearth and defender of the Stead. Friend of horses and foe to chaos. Fierce fighter of the Broken Tower and unmoving barrier against the enemies of the Colymar!’ Again, a huge cheer rang out amongst which, to Yrsa’s horror, were more than a few whistles of appreciation. Scanning the faces before her, for the first time she felt truly at home. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, Yrsa turned and saw Terrastal’s grinning face. ‘Come on’ he said, ‘enough of you hogging the attention. My turn!’. In sharp contrast to Yrsa’s reticence, Terrastal strode forward and struck a suitably heroic pose and cast a glance at an astonished Orlgard. ‘I’m ready now’ he said, and turned back to the hooting and stamping crowd. Momentarily taken aback, Orlgard began. ‘I give you Terrastal, sorcerer-spite, eye-taker! Called to Idrima, Vessel of Orlanth, liberator of the Red Hands, Lunar hater, Lunar bane, death of Branduan Hodirson, deceiver of the Fool Prince and True Companion!’. As Orlgard spoke, Terrastal strutted up and down with hands on hips, turning this way and that to best show off his physique. As he did so, he made sure to catch the eyes of as many eligible suitors as possible so that when he finally ceded the floor he was immediately mobbed by a small but enthusiastic group. In contrast, the next figure stepped forward almost absently, blinking in surprise that he should be the subject of any attention at all. Orlmgard stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, his voice becoming more serious. ‘Bofrost the Bookish, Stealer of Secrets, Oath-Keeper, Law-Speaker, Deceiver of Lunars, Breaker of Mostali secrets, Light-Bringer in this accursed age of Chaos and Darkness!’ With this last word, Orlmgard pressed his wrinkled brow to Bofrost’s and they exchanged the secret words known only to followers of Llankhor Mhy. Finally came Sandene with her coal-black skin, red eyes and perpetually bloody tongue; at her appearance, the crowd fell silent; partially out of fear, but also in respect. As she did so, a familar figure stepped forward alongside her. ‘I am Magana, Axe-Maiden. To you, I present Sandene Three-Death of the Red Hands, Harbinger of Death. Reborn to the Avenging Daughter, Defender of the Broken Tower, Slayer of Chaos, Friend to the Storm and implacable foe of those that would deny the Earth.’ With a murmur of assent, the crowd parted as Magana led Sandene forward and pushed a horn of ale into her hands. Looking around her, Sandene raised the horn high and howled. The crowd howled back and the feast began in earnest.

Despite the upcoming trial of Baranthos, the feeling was that the companions and the Clan Ring’s other envoys had done enough to secure Baranthos’ release. So the Ernaldori permitted themselves a chance to celebrate and, for a night at least, live as free men and women under their Gods. Terrastal and Sandene threw themselves into festivities as always, singing, dancing and boasting of their deeds.

Bofrost was more restrained as always, finding the most learned amongst the throng and testing his own knowledge and theirs in contests of wisdom. Randel found the merchants, sitting close to those deepest in their cups, carefully making favourable deals where he could. It was whilst making such a deal that he felt a gentle hand upon his shoulder; even without looking up, he knew it belonged to Eirissa. Leaning close, the Priestess whispered in his ear. ‘How does it feel to be a rich man, Randel of the Silver Tongue?’. Thinking she was fishing for compliments, Randel began to make some suitably flowery response when he realised she was speaking literally. In her hands, she held gold and silver chains, each of great worth. Almost without thought, his sharp mind appraised their worth: 500 Lunars! ‘Kangharl’s man came and ransomed that sword-thane you took in the Enjossi lands, and mighty sour he looked about it too. You made an enemy there for sure, but also some useful coin. So what will you do now, Randel Silvertongue?’ Perhaps mercifully, his reply was drowned out by a particularly loud yell from a furiously stamping Sandene, being spurred on in her dancing by a red-faced Terrastal.

Yrsa watched her companions as they took their ease, each in their own way. Much to her sadness, she never felt at home amongst crowds. She felt awkward at the attention that came her way, and brushed off advances from other men and women who wanted to be closer still to one of Hofstaring’s Heroes. Instead, she stood in the shadow of a carved wooden column, nursing a horn of ale. After a while, she became aware of a figure standing quietly at her shoulder. Thinking it another would-be suitor, Yrsa turned to make her excuses, groaning inwardly. Instead, the figure was that of a slight young woman bearing the collar of a thrall. The young woman stepped forward to refill Yrsa’s drink, and as she did so, Yrsa noted that the thrall bore the markings of the Malani Clan. They fell into easy conversation, a wonder to Yrsa, and the young woman revealed she had deliberately sought out Yrsa. The thrall, Levru, knew that Yrsa sought her father who had been taken during a Malani raid. Levru was sure she could help Yrsa in this; her only request was that she should be released from thralldom to the Black Spear clan. They were not unkind to her, but she disliked living in the Colymar Wilds and so close to Tarndisi’s Grove. If Yrsa were to take her as a thrall, she swore an oath to help find her father and free him from the Malani. With tears in her eyes, Yrsa hugged a surprised Levru close before stepping back in shock at her own behaviour. For a moment, they regarded each other with wide eyes; then, without another word, they burst into peals of laughter that rang out over the roar of an Orlanthi clan at play.

The next morning found the companions seated around a smouldering firepit in the Ernaldori Clan Hall. Around them, the final stragglers from the evening’s festivities were stirring from their drunken sleep and dragging themselves off to their own beds. Randel sat close to Eirissa as they shared a platter of food and ale. Yrsa was in the unfamilar position of being waited on by a pleased-looking Levru; she kept trying to stand up and fetch her own food and drink, before an attentive Levru gently pushed her back into her seat and fetched what was required. Bofrost sat with his hood up and watched this with some amusement, his bright eyes glittering in the guttering torchlight. Perhaps mercifully, Terrastal was oblivious to all of this. He sat hunched forward, his head in his hands as he sipped at a mug of spiced wine; every now and then, his shoulders heaved as his stomach rebelled, but he managed to keep both his dignity and his stomach contents intact. He glared sourly at Sandene as she sat across from him, seemingly untouched by her exertions of the night before. In contrast to Terrastal, she was noisily consuming the last remnants of a huge bowl of snails that had been cooked in a strongly-spiced sauce. As she slurped the last one from its shell, she sat back and let loose an echoing and noisome belch. As all eyes turned to her, she looked back with a quizzical expression and a puzzled ‘What?’

Terrastal’s response was lost as the door to the hall slammed open and in marched a group of bearded and braided Taraling warriors, flanked by Ernaldori clan fighters. Although blades remained in their sheaths, it was clear that there was no love lost between the groups of warriors. Behind them strode in Drenyan, the grizzled Ernaldori warrior. ‘These fine fellows have come from our beloved king Kangharl, requesting that the heroes of the Red Hands attend him at his court immediately. I told them that was impossible, but they insisted on seeing you in person’. Slowly, the companions rose to their feet. Randel spoke first ‘Bid our fellow Colymar wait outside, my lord Drenyan. We’ll join them shortly’. After the Taralingi had moved out of earshot, there followed a furious argument as to how to proceed. Yet, despite their misgivings there was little option for them to refuse Kangharl’s summons; he was yet their king and had an army at his beck and call. Moreover, none of the companions wished to be seen as cowards, unwilling to say to the King’s face what they spoke of so freely to others. If they backed down now, why should their words of solidarity and resistance hold any value for the chiefs of the other Clans whose support they’d sought on Baranthos’ behalf.

After quickly making themselves as presentable as they could, the band were escorted by Kangharl’s household warriors into the Royal Palace. Although they were as impressed as ever by the fine Orlanthi craftsmanship on display, they were also made wary by the even greater amount of Lunar influence in evidence. Few of the courtiers dressed in the Orlanthi fashion and their own manner of dress drew some snorts of derision and even a few sniggers. These last were cut short, however, by the venomous stares of Sandene and Terrastal who glared around with a dangerous eye. As always, Randel and Bofrost were more circumspect, whilst Yrsa walked along solemnly with an impassive expression.
Before long, the five found themselves ushered into the presence of the King by a nervous Lunar functionary. Kangharl reclined on a low dais, propped up on soft cushions of Esrolian design. A shaven-headed slave was carefully curling Kangharl’s great black beard into a cascade of oiled curls in the Lunar fashion. Behind Kangharl stood a tall, heavy-set, dark haired brute of a man. With a shock of recognition, the heroes recognised the warrior who had slain the Thane of Apple Lane so brutally. Darsten Black-Oak wore a stony expression, a sneer of contempt on his lips. As the heroes approached the dais, Kangharl motioned the slave away to join a group of slaves standing silently in alcoves either side of the chamber. Standing up, the King beckoned the band to sit. ‘Ah, my guests! It seems you’ve been making some powerful enemies whilst on you travels. By rights, I should have you packed up and sent off to Prince Temertain to receive his justice.’ Seeing the wary looks on their faces, he began to laugh; it was a harsh, braying sound, very much at odds with the sophisticated Lunar exterior he tried so hard to cultivate. ‘Fear not, my friends. As with so many of your petty rebellions, this one suits my purpose and those of my allies. So, sit and drink; eat!’.

The five sat, although only Randel and Bofrost took a small cup of wine. Kangharl continued: ‘So the trial of the traitor Baranthos is almost here. I know you’ve been doing the right thing by your chief, travelling around to drum up support for him. Who knows, you may even have the numbers to win, but I doubt it. Whatever happens, change is coming. The Red Moon rises and all who stand against it will be brought down. Baranthos and the old ways are finished, if not now then soon. The only question you need to answer is whether you’ll be brought down or raised up.’ Seeing the confused expressions on their faces, Kangharl went on. ‘When Baranthos falls, a new Clan Ring will be needed to support the new chief. Darsten, what word do my Lunar advisers use when they speak of such things? Ah yes; ‘progressive’, they call it. We will need a progressive Clan Ring made up of capable Heortlings such as yourselves. And with my support, who knows how high some of you may climb?’ Seeing the anger in their faces, Kangharl turned back to Darsten and sighed. ‘Well, at least I tried, eh? Perhaps if I can’t help in this way, perhaps I might win their friendship with a gift. Not of gold or magic, but of news’. Sitting once more, Kangharl once more went on in a conversational tone. ‘I understand you made a great impact on the Enjossi when you visited. The chief’s daughter, Frieda I think her name is, made a great impression on you. How unfortunate, therefore, that even now a Lunar tax collector has taken a liking to her. So much of a liking that the villainous wretch has assaulted her and stained her honour. Even the Enjossi, weakened by the absence of their chief at Baranthos’ trial, would find it difficult to do anything other than strike the fool down along with his escort’. Kangharl reached out and took a bunch of grapes from the table, popping them into his mouth and crunching them one by one. ‘Of course, the Lunars wouldn’t see things in such simple terms. Instead, they would be forced to declare the Enjossi to be outlaws; the Empire has a great need of slaves and the flow has been stemmed somewhat by the rash actions of a few rebels’. Again, he grinned at them. Randel realised that this was not news that had arrived of a sudden; no, this had the ring of a carefully planned gambit. ‘Poor Frieda. She may be dead, or perhaps she’s being taken into captivity with the remainder of her tribe. Whatever; I give this information to you to do with as you wish. You may leave’. As the companions left the hall, bitter words spilling from their mouths, Yrsa noted the eyes of the slaves and servants following them; she had no doubt that what had happened here would get out and that their reputations may stand and fall as a result.

Before long, the hero band were back at the Hall of the Ernaldori, in deep discussion about what to do with this news. As their discussions went back and forth, Morgana White-Eye listened carefully. They had two clear paths ahead of them; they could tell Griselda of the Enjossi, what they knew, but risked her returning to the Enjossi stead to save her daughter, leaving Kangharl with the upper hand in Baranthos’ trial. Another, less honourable path would be to keep the news to themselves until after the trial. But Yrsa and Morgana counselled against this; the story would get out and the heroes’ reputations as honourable warriors and sages would be ruined as ones willing to sacrifice another’s clan for their own. Furthermore, the fragile peace of the loyal Orlanthi clans would be broken, weakening them against Kangharl’s tyranny. Therefore, only one path lay ahead; they must tell Griselda of her daughter’s plight and beg her to stay for the trial regardless.

As expected, the conversation was not easy. Upon hearing the news, Griselda took up her sword and immediately made to leave with her honour guard. It took all of Randel’s power of persuasion and Terrastal’s passion to give her even a moment’s pause. But, in the end, it was Sandene’s deathly intensity that stopped her from leaving. She had largely been quiet in the negotiations – this was not her area of expertise. But she could not contain herself and stepped forward, drawing the ornate War Ax that had been gifted to her by the Enjossi. Her words began quietly, but the room fell silent to listen.
“Mother Griselda, you know me, you know who I serve. You know that I am sworn to protect and avenge the Earth, and the Innocent. I swear to you that when I finish this oath I will leave this place, and I will race to the Enjossi lands. There I will deliver my sworn duty to protect your daughter. Should I be too late, and this treachery has already unfolded, then I will not rest, I will not sleep until her defiler is dead. His death will be legend, and your enemies will think twice before they oppress your people! I would I ask that you remain here to support my adopted kin but know that my oath is not dependent upon your actions.” As she spoke, she drew the axe along her leg, a gentle touch, but the blood flows freely, seeming somehow to soak into the blade.  “This I swear as an Avenging Daughter.”
The slight Sandene held the axe aloft, seeming to grow, to take on an even more ferocious and red eyed visage, her armour fading and replaced by a grisly garland of scalps, hands and male genitals. And with that, she turned and ran from the room. Wordlessly, her comrades turned to watch as she sped from the room. As they did so, a quiet voice spoke from behind them. ‘I will stay’ said Griselda with a note of wonder in her voice, as though she couldn’t quite believe the words were hers. ‘I will stay, trusting your friend to keep to her oath. I will cast my vote for Baranthos, and Chaos take the Lunars’. With that, she rose and followed Sandene with her honour guard walking slowly behind.

Bofrost, Randel and Yrsa rushed after Sandene, to help her prepare for her oathquest. Terrastal made to follow them, but brought up short before he reached the door. He felt his anger rise uncontrollably and like any Orlanthi he knew what he needed; a fight. Quickly, he found Jayis the Durulz Humakti and his mentor Drenyan in their favourite tavern. Seeing his grim face, the two wordlessly finished their drinks, grabbed their weapons and headed out with him. Before long, Terrastal and his companions found their quarry. Or rather, their quarry found them. As they passed one of Clearwine’s more disreputable inns, a sudden crash and yell rang out and a body flew through the curtained entrance and lay ominously still in the street. Swaying out after the unfortunate came Terrastal’s target: Insterid of the Varmandi, target of Kristralda’s special hatred. She was enormous, her tunic sweat- and ale-stained, an insolent sneer on her scarred face. Seeing her obvious drunkeness, Terrastal grinned at Drenyan and Jayvis. ‘Why don’t you pick on someone who can fight back, troll-dung?’ he yelled, holding up his fists. He was confident he could take his opponent down, tempt her into drawing bronze first and then kill her with his axe. It was while he was savouring his inevitable victory that the first blow came. Insterid moved like lightning, all appearance of drunkeness gone. As Terrastal rocked back on his heels, he tasted blood and the world seemed to become fainter around him. Shaking his head, he snaked out a deadly right hook towards Insterid’s jaw. She simply stepped right and thundered a further blow into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him completely. With a sigh, he sat down with a thud and tried to draw breath into his lungs. With her head cocked on one side, Insterid regarded the gasping Orlanthi and seemed to reach a decision. Drawing back her foot, she simply kicked Terrasal hard in the head with a sickening crack. Just before he lost consciousness, Terrastal would have laughed if he had breath to do so; the great Terrastal, dead in a street brawl from a kick in the head. Then the blackness claimed him...

The next thing he knew was the concerned face of Yrsa as it swam into focus before him. As he groaned at the pain in his head, Yrsa stood and said simply ‘it’s time’. Terrastal needed no further clarification; the day of Baranthos’ trial had come. He felt himself being lifted to his feet, hands keeping him upright as he was led out of the door to join the crowd coursing down the street towards Clearwine’s main public space. A raised dais stood at the far end of the open area with 12 finely carved high-backed wooden chairs spaced evenly along it, six on a side. Each was carved with the runes and sacred animals of each of the 12 Ernaldori Clans and between them was a finely-wrought, even larger seat on a raised platform; this was the throne of the king of the Ernaldori tribe. The crowd hissed quietly to itself; the throne’s beautiful carvings of the Lightbringers were obscured by a fine blanket of Lunar make, tastefully decorated with symbols of the Red Goddess. Kangharl was clearly here to demonstrate the power of his kingship, no matter what his subjects may think of his views. Before long, the chiefs of the 12 clans took their places. To the left of the stage were the Narri, Taraling, Enhyli, Varmandi  and Antorling chiefs, all Kangharl loyalists. To the right were the Anmangarn, Olmarthing, Arnoring and Konthasos chiefs, all supporters of Baranthos. Taking the place of the Ernaldori chief was Morganeth White-Eye, sitting quietly with her hands folded and attended by a worried-looking Eirissa. Glancing out into the crowd, she caught Randel’s gaze and raised a weak smile of welcome. Last to take their places were Kristralda of the neutral Hiording and an exhausted-looking Griselda of the Enjossi. The heroes could only guess at the conflict raging inside her and were amazed at her strength of mind. Finally came Kangharl, beard curled in the Lunar fashion and wearing rich robes from the best weaving-houses of the Lunar Empire. Accompanied by grim looking warriors of the Taraling clan as his body guard, he nodded and smiled as he walked to his place in the centre of the dais as though the low hisses of discontent from the crowd were cheers of support. Following on behind came a group of shaven-headed Lunar scribes and sages with the familiar and unwelcome form of Darsten Black-Oak bringing up the rear, his wicked-looking club in his hand. Taking his seat, Kangharl nodded to his chief sage and the trial began.

The trial itself dragged on over several hours and the crowd became restive as time wore on. To all but Bofrost and Randel, the whole thing seemed like an anti-climax; it mainly consisted of successive Llankor Mhy and Lunar Irrippi Ontor sages making obscure legal points which were then rebutted by whoever followed them. However, Bofrost caused consternation amongst Kangharl’s sages when he quoted an obscure legal point that they seemed unable to answer. Scurrying over to the King, one of the scribes whispered in Kangharl’s ear. With a face like thunder, the King stood and in a booming voice began to speak. ‘Enough! The facts have been heard and weighed. Now the chiefs must vote according to custom. Bring forth the traitor!’ At this, the crowd fell silent as a filthy, skinny figure was led out onto the dais in chains by Lunar guards. The once proud and strong figure of Baranthos had been reduced to a stooped and broken man that stood swaying and blinking in the bright sunlight. The heroes could feel the crowd tense around them as the mood became dangerous. Oblivious, confident in his own power, Kangharl continued. ‘What say you to the guilt of this man? Let your conscience and the honour of your clan be your guide’. One by one, the Clan Chiefs voted. There were no surprises from those whose allegiances were well-known and the tally was soon five for Baranthos and five against with only the Hiording and Enjossi left to vote. Kristralda of the Hiording shifted in her seat and consulted her Lawspeaker for some time whilst the crowd held its collective breath. And then she spoke. ‘The Hiording are unconvinced by either argument and therefore withhold their vote, as is their right.’ The crowd began to chatter excitedly; one more vote would secure Baranthos’ freedom and the Enjossi were new and firm friends of the Ernaldori, thanks to the heroes in their midst. Feeling all eyes upon her, Griselda stood tall and gazed defiantly at Kangharl as she opened her mouth to speak. But as she did so, Kangharl’s voice once more boomed out. ‘Griselda of the Enjossi! I name you traitor to your tribe and your ruler Temertain! Even now, your clan has risen in insurrection against the Prince and his Lunar allies and as such your voice has no standing here! I declare you and the Enjossi outlaw! Guards, seize her!’ There was a stunned silence as his words seemed to hang in the air for a moment and then everything seemed to happen at once. As one, the crowd came alive like a vast, hungry beast. The nearest of Kangharl’s warriors were pulled to the ground and beaten mercilessly, whether Lunar or Orlanthi. Whilst Baranthos stood swaying in the hot sun, Kangharl was surrounded by his guard and dragged backwards, his shouts lost in the crowd’s wordless, furious din. It was as though a long-expected storm was breaking and none could say what would be left in its wake, least of all the heroes who stood dumbfounded in the storm’s eye.

To be continued...

Monday, 16 September 2019

1. The Lay of St Grimitus (Part One)

In sorrowful Spire are Drow demeaned
By alien Aelfir, that came in conquest
Centuries since.
But below the black boundary hunches the Heart,
Fear-full, Mind’s dark mirror.
Who would dare wander where dark Witches wither?

Daring Delvers, five in friendship,
Summoned to sewers in the City Beneath
By the Sainted Sage. Devout Devora,
Copper-crowned, called noble knights
And crafty comrades to deeply delve
Unto the Red Market, there to release and return
The Spike of St Grimitus to the Vermissian fold.
Grimitus’ gimlet, rail-knight’s ransom,
Brazenly bound to the Incarnadine Carmina.
Strongly strained Devora to divine
Those wondrous words, deftly drawn
From the soaring spirit of Saint Grimitus!

Five, fast in friendship, searched through sewers
For the proven path. Sorrowful Signalman,
Missing memories, forged ever forward
Deeper in darkness. Terrible Tank,
Knight’s companion, onward he walked
Through winding warrens, strong at Signalman’s side.
The muttering Mage, with heartsick Heretic
Gazing grimly forward into the frowzy funnels,
Marked barbarous wards on warren walls
Placed by bandits to mark their mandate,
Their haunts for hunting. Soon came sounds,
Bandits baying, so forward the Vermissian!

Shining shields became a bonded bulwark,
Hammers hefted to fell the foe.
Muttering magick and flintlocks found,
Five stood firm ‘gainst the bawling mob.
Grim was the game of whirling weapons,
Battle-sweat’s bounty flowing freely.
First fell Frater, wearing wounds
Mortal to man. But Tank stood tall,
Vowing vengeance and felling foes.
Doughty delvers, ever forward they forged
Arriving to rest at Sump’s Station.

Then took they their ease, healing their hurt
And proudly boasting as warriors will.

But beat the Heart still, beckoning below,
Ever watchful and welcoming the unwary…

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

5. (Mis) Adventures in D&D: ‘Leeeroy Jenkins!’

Dulron watched the figure as it disappeared into the undergrowth surrounding the ruined fortress. As he did so, he felt his lip curl with distaste and a low growl made his barrel-like chest rumble. Looking around, he saw Kang staring at him in his usual inscrutable manner. With a grimace, Dulronpointedly turned back to the ruin, ignoring Kang’s soft chuckle as he did so.
The Dwarven race was often mocked by the other races of Faerun for their lack of imagination. To be sure, none could dispute their superb craftsmanship but most thought them dull and, well, boring. But to the long-lived Dwarves saw things differently; where humans and the rest valued spontaneity and apparent quick-wittedness, the Dwarves valued stability and tradition. Change was to be welcomed, but not for its own sake. Simply the act of revising the type of decoration to be found on Dwarven cooking pots required the approval of a whole clan; over the countless long lives of their Blessed Ancestors, the Dwarves had perfected a way of living in the world that gave them purpose, resilience and stability. Every element of their existence had been honed to perfection, and so would be changed only in the direst of circumstances. 
Therefore, when Honest Abba had been struck down by Twig Blights in the ruined village of ThundertreeDulron had mourned his passing. Although their races had very approaches to life, they had shared a common ancestor in the distant past and dwarves were nothing if not respectful of ancestry. However, when the druid Reidoth had offered to raise Abba from the dead Dulron had been in two minds. He was dead now, with the ancestors; tbring him back to life seemed to be almost an act of heresy. However, his companions had argued strongly for the druid to do his work, even at the cost of a geas being placed on them to rid Thundertree of a dragon that had taken up residence. But the greatest shock for Dulron was yet to come; when Reidoth had done his work, the being that stood before them wasn’t the familiar gnomish figure. No; Abba was now a tall, Elven woman with long flowing hair. As the others marvelled at Reidoth’s magic and made predictable crude jests, Dulron was appalled. Abba spoke in the same way as before, using the same words and with the same broad gnomish accent, but now with a voice like bird-song. This new being even walked and moved like Abba. For Dulron, it was almost too much. Change beyond belief, but yet the same. 

As the companions took their leave of Reidoth and Thundertree, the old druid’s words rang in their ears. ‘Don’t forget; you rid the town of that cursed dragon within the month, or it’ll be the worse for you!’; so saying, Reidoth took the form of a squirrel and disappeared into the trees. Hefting their packs, the party headed northwards towards the town of Helm’s Hold; the druid had also given them the location of Cragmaw Keep and they needed to make sure they were fully equipped before taking on that challenge. Besides which, Abba needed a new set of armour and weapons, one more suited to her new stature and, erm, physique…

After a short stay in Helm’s Hold, the companions headed southwards into the depths of Neverwinter Wood. As they rode, Abba had entertained them with one of his filthy ‘gnome and the centaur’ drinking songs, which had the rest roaring with laughter as usual. Dulron didn’t usually join in the laughter, but this time it was for a different reason. If he closed his eyes, he could hear Abba as he used to be, although with a higher-pitched voice. But opening his eyes, instead of the craggy gnomish face he expected, it was an elven maiden singing the last line of the song ‘…and that’s why the centaur walks with a limp!. Shaking his head, Dulron once more felt gloom settle on him like a shroud. 

Despite a night-time attack by ghouls, the companions reached Cragmaw Keep in good time. Arriving as the sun rose over its ruined towers, Abba had immediately headed off to scout the area; if anything, his scouting ability had been improved by his transition into an elf and he soon disappeared into the undergrowth. As Dulron, Kang, Og and Grax waited patiently, Dulron considered what he’d do if Abba managed to get himself killed again. However, his thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a small group of goblins leaving what appeared to be the ruined main keep and heading northwards. Seeing this, Grax hefted his longsword and moved silently forward, moving from shadow to shadow; goblins were usually creatures of the darkness, and so Grax felt confident he could avoid any inquisitive eyes. Og thought to follow suit, but as he moved forward he stepped on a large, brightly coloured snake warming itself in the spring sunshine. Jumping backwards to avoid its venomous bite, Og forgot himself and swore loudly in the barbarian tongue of his people. Immediately, a cry of alarm went up from within the keep and arrows began to fly from two arrow slits. Deciding that offense was the best form of defence, the heroes charged into the keep…straight into a horde of goblins and hobgoblins! Thinking quickly, Grax secured two doors with his rope, cutting down the flow of enemies before turning to hew them down with his longsword. This was the sort of blade-work that he’d trained for, and it showed with every slash of his weapon. As goblin blood flew across the room in great arcs, Kang quickly summoned a ball of fire that he deftly used to further channel foes into Grax’s reach whilst Og held the door shut against what seemed like a huge number of enemies. Stepping backwards to make room for his spellcasting, however, Kang found himself the victim of a deadfall trap; although he jumped quickly to one side and avoided the greater part of the falling rocks, he was in no doubt that all of the keep would now be alerted to their presence. For his part, Dulron found himself in a side chamber with a lone goblin. Thinking it an easy kill, Dulron found himself in a grim fight for life, his hammer blows deftly turned to one side by the goblin’s shield whilst the foul creature inflicted countless small wounds on the priest.
Finally, however, the tide of enemies slowed and stopped for the time being at least. Whilst the heroes took stock of their wounds and received a healing blessing from Dulron, a watchful stillness fell over the keep. Whoever or whatever was out there would be waiting for them, that’s for sure. Taking a deep breath, the party unlocked the door and stepped out to face their fate…

Monday, 2 September 2019

Strikeforce: Shantipole (part three): An Unstoppable Force

As Glave yelled from the open hatch, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Frost-Bow dragged Hate’s chassis towards the jury-rigged life pod, inch by desperate inch, blaster fire impacting all around him. The Stormtroopers were clearly unaware of the countdown being spoken calmly into the Rebels’ ear bead communicators, as they were continuing to act according to their conditioning; namely, blast everything not Imperial! Seeing his comrade in peril, Kibu yelled a war-cry and leaped into the fray. As Glave looked on in amazement, trying to draw a bead with his blaster, Kibu vaulted onto the shoulders of one Imperial and stabbed through a weak armour joint, bringing him down. As he fell, he used the momentum to propel himself at head height towards another Trooper, spear held out in front of him. With a sickening crunch, the point skewered the unfortunate Trooper through the eye piece and he too fell to the floor. As Kibu rose to his feet in triumph, he failed to see the final Imperial squad member behind him, blaster raised to fire. Giving the surprised Ewok a wink, Glave blasted the soldier, sending him flying backwards. Seeing how close he’d been to meeting his Ancestors, Kibu saluted Glave before heading to Frost-Bow’s aid. As they dragged Hate’s ruined chassis forward, they discovered that the droid’s vox unit was intact as it reminded them of their impending doom.

                                                (Illustration courtesy of Kaye Elling @K_O )

As blaster fire impacted on the other side of the life-pod, Glave risked a quick glance to assess the situation. The remaining Stormtroopers had recovered from the life-pod’s sudden appearance and were methodically pounding it with blaster bolts. Immediately behind the Imperials was the hangar’s main blast door. As the countdown continued, Glave caught a glimpse of a vac-suited Vora dodging down a side tunnel towards the recreation area, accompanied by Commander Ackbar. As time ticked down, Glave tried to reason with the Imperials, telling them to throw down their weapons. But their conditioning, combined with their ignorance of the impending reactor overload, meant that their only response was a further burst of blaster fire. ‘Stuff ‘em, then’ snorted Glave and he returned fire. Still, the blaster fire looked as though it was going to render the ‘pod useless until Glave heard a battle cry: peeking above the hatch, Glave saw Pollard charging into the midst of the remaining troopers, bringing three down in as many seconds before Glave lost sight of him in the ensuing melee.

(Illustration courtesy of Kaye Elling @K_O)

Taking advantage of the distraction, and with only seconds to spare, Vora and Ackbar appeard in the hangar bay’s side entrance and sprinted to the ‘pod. Dragging their crewmates with them as they passed, they piled into the open hatch before slamming it shut behind them. ‘Go!’ yelled Vora, her voice cracking with strain, but Glave needed no encouragement. Breathing a prayer to the Force, he deactivated all the repulsorlift limiters at once and the ‘pod practically leaped out of the hangar bay, careening off the floating wreckage of the Imperial Assault Shuttle as it did so. This mistreatment was all that the ‘pod could take and its interior was plunged into darkness as the power failed. Before the emergency lighting could flick on, however, a blinding light poured in through the viewports as the countdown came to an end: the asteroid was immediately vapourised, along with all of the remaining Imperials. With a  look of satisfaction on her face, Vora settled down to wait for whatever was going to happen next…

Despite Glave and Vora’s best efforts, the life-pod’s abused systems refused to give them control over its movement. Instead, they were forced to content themselves with the fact that life-support seemed operational. A steady, blinking light also showed that the pod’s distress beacon was transmitting, sending out their location on a range of secure frequencies to any nearby Alliance vessels. However, the crew’ natural and understandable paranoia won out and Hate’s advanced sensor suite was linked into the pod’s, enabling the droid to survey the surrounding volume of space for any threats.

After what seemed an interminable wait, Team Wraith and Ackbar were picked up by a Verpine vessel and welcomed aboard. Without ceremony, they were ushered into the presence of the leader of the Verpine Hive, a tall, grey-carapaced alien known as Speaker Jurfel. Ackbar and Jurfel greeted each other warmly, but quickly turned to the business at hand. Although the team had managed to obtain the vital B-Wing design files, the Empire still had possession of two fully-operational three-person B-Wing prototypes. These had been kept at Shantipole Station, a much larger Verpine research base that had fallen to Imperial forces in the last few hours. Furthermore, the Imperial fleet had massed around the Roche asteroid field and had threatened the Verpine with annihilation. As a result, the Verpine had declared for the rebellion and were concentrating their fleet for an escape attempt.
Turning to a glowing holo-display, Ackbar thought for a moment, his large eyes blinking slowly as he considered the Imperial and Alliance dispositions in the sector. After a moment, he stabbed out a webbed digit. ‘Here. Here is the weak point Speaker Jurfel. A single Nebulon-Class frigate is holding the Imperial line here; if we can disable it, the Verpine fleet will be able to escape the Imperial net’.

For a moment, Jurfel and Ackbar bent their heads together in discussion. Turning to the waiting crew, Ackbar’s expression was grave. ‘We have several problems that only you can solve, Team Wraith. We need to obtain an armed ship to help us break the Imperial blockade. We need to retrieve the B-Wing prototypes before the Empire can reverse-engineer them and remove our advantage. Also, we need to make sure all of the B-Wing data has been put out of reach of the Empire. All of these problems can be solved if a crack team can infiltrate Shantipole research station.’ The crew looked at each other uncertainly, before Glave spoke up hesitantly. ‘Well, I suppose we might be able to…’

‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Ackbar. "You must fly through the asteroid field to Research Station Shantipole, get inside undetected, and set the main generator to explode. I'll provide you with the detonite and timers myself. A 30-minute fuse should give you a reasonable safety margin. When the generator explodes it should destroy the entire station, and the prototype starfighters along with it. That explosion will be our signal to move the fleet into corridor G147. If you have not secured a combat vessel and begun your distraction maneuvers on the frigate, we shall try to escape anyway, but we'll be easy targets for the Imperial ship. Good luck, and may the Force be with you."

Almost before they knew it, the team found themselves once more in space aboard a flimsy, unarmoured repulsorlift vehicle known as an ‘Asteroid Hopper’. Whilst they had been preparing to depart, the Verpine techs had been working flat-out to reassemble Hate, this time with the addition of enhanced armour plating over the droid’s vulnerable circuitry. The Verpine Suskafoo had volunteered to go with them, also: he was familiar with Shantipole station and, although he refused to use weapons, he was an excellent pilot.

As they sped towards Shantipole station, the Hopper’s sensors picked up a suspicious transmission from ahead. Rapid analysis by crew revealed an Imperial Viper Probe moving steadily through the asteroid field, clearly searching for the Verpine fleet. Analysing its flight path, Vora realised that it would locate the fleet in a matter of hours! Quickly, the crew came up with a plan. As the Hopper lacked any weapons, Hate modified one of the detonite explosives so that it would explode on contact with the Viper droid. Once completed, the droid handed it to Kibu, who’d donned his miniature vac-suit. Clad in his bulky suit, Kibu would have looked ridiculous if not for the deadly explosive gripped tightly to his chest and the look of fanatical determination in his beady eyes. Hoisting Kibu onto its shoulders, Hate moved towards the airlock and began to cycle the locking mechanism. Meanwhile, Vora carefully edged the Hopper through the asteroid field, planning to get closer to the probot without it detecting them and give her comrades the best possible chance. But even the best pilots can be caught out and a random collision of two huge nearby asteroids sent showers of debris in their direction. Desperately manoeuvring to avoid the flying rocks, Vora came into full view of the Viper. Immediately, it detected them and began moving towards them, raining blaster fire on the fragile Hopper whilst signalling the Imperial fleet. Swearing colourfully, Glave rapidly hacked into the Viper’s security system and sent an error message back to the fleet. It wouldn’t fool them for long, but perhaps it would give them a fighting chance to escape.

As Vora sent the Hopper into a series of corkscrew manoeuvres, Hate and the vac-suited Kibu emerged onto the metal skin of the ship. Ignoring the rocks and the blaster fire flying around them, Kibu stuck out his tongue and screwed up his eyes, judging the movement of the Viper with the practised eye of the hunter. Seeing his chance, he let the detonite charge fly. It seemed to arc wide of the Viper, until at the last moment the Imperial probe jinked to avoid a flying rock...straight into the detonite charge. As the enemy droid was consumed in a huge explosion, Hate turned to the furry bundle held safely in its grip. Silhouetted against the expanding fireball, Hate spoke almost tenderly: ‘You are like a delightful random cruelty generator, Master, poisoning all you touch with your presence. You are a testament to all organic meatbags everywhere’. Kibu nodded sagely as Glave and Vora sent the Hopper speeding towards their target: Shantipole Research Station.

(To be continued...)

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Strikeforce: Shantipole (Part Two): What a Blast!

As alarms blared throughout the asteroid base, the members of Wraith Squadron sprang into action. Almost as one, they pounded down the rocky corridor towards the hangar bay, weapons drawn and grim expressions on their faces. All except for Hate, who of course had no expression but seemed to move in a more jaunty manner than usual, as if savoring the blood-letting to come. As they left the command center, their ear-bead comms crackled into life and Pollard’s voice began to speak reassuringly. ‘Remember, all we need to do is hold the Imps off long enough for Commander Ackbar to retrieve the B-Wing schematics from the data-core and then we can then conduct a fighting withdrawal to the life-pods. I can open and close most of the blast doors from here, so should be able to funnel the scum into a killing zone for you. But I need you to tell me which doors to operate; our cameras are off-line after the initial bombardment. Good luck!’

Moving down the corridor, dodging fleeing Verpine and Alliance techs, the Wraiths split into three groups. Vora Vasch split off first, heading into the Main Power chamber. Surrounded by humming power cylinders, Vora sprinted towards the control panel and began to push buttons, apparently at random. Meanwhile, Hate and Glave charged towards the hangar’s main blast door. Skidding to a halt, to their horror they saw that the door’s housing had been damaged by the Imperial’s opening barrage. Pollard confirmed that he couldn’t operate it remotely, so they had to content themselves with pulling it closed manually. It wouldn’t hold the Imperials, but it might just slow them down.

Kibu and Frost-Bow ran through the base’s rec area to the auxiliary blast door. It too had been damaged, so they drew their primitive weapons and began to hum the battle-songs of their peoples under their breaths as they waited for the inevitable onslaught. They didn’t have long to wait, as a huge shadow fell across the shielded entrance to the hangar bay. The vast bulk of an Imperial Assault shuttle moved into position and a steel and plasteen umbilical deployed directly into the hangar. Immediately, a fire-team of five white-clad Stormtroopers emerged and took up covering positions as more of their kind began to follow them. Turning to Frost-Bow, Kibu signalled that everything would be fine. After all, there could only be one or two hands of Skull-Faces in there, couldn’t there? Maybe two hands and a foot at most? Frost-Bow looked down at the furry fanatic and swallowed nervously…

As the Imperial assault began, Glave had an idea and began to run back towards the command centre. Joined briefly by Vora as she emerged from the Main Generator chamber, Glave began to ask what she’d been up to when he was interrupted by a calm female voice over the comm channel. ‘All personnel: be advised that self-destruct protocols have been initiated. Countdown is in progress. Reactor detonation in T-2 minutes. All personnel: be advised…’ As the computer voice continued its countdown, Vora gave him a wolfish grin and a thumbs-up as they sped past Ackbar and Pollard, both hunched over panels in the command chamber. As they passed, Ackbar looked up: ‘I need more time!’. Glave nodded and ran on; he had a plan.

Meanwhile, Hate had moved over to join Kibu and Frost-Bow at the auxiliary blast door. In the hangar, the newly-arrived Stormtroopers had formed into two groups and were moving towards the hangar’s two entrances. As Kibu gestured excitedly, Frost-Bow fired an arrow high into the air above the approaching Stormtroopers. As it hit the far wall, it fell with an audible clatter, attracting the squad’s attention for a brief moment. But that was all that Kibu needed; with a rapid dash, he charged into the hangar and seemed to disappear amongst the rubble and discarded containers that dotted the floor of the hangar. Before he knew it, Frost-Bow found himself skidding into cover alongside his companion. He waited for the inevitable hail of blaster fire, but incredibly the Imperials appeared not to have noticed them! As if on cue, Hate opened up with her own blaster, attracting the attackers attention whilst the stealthy hunters moved through cover towards the umbilical. Quite what Kibu had in mind Frost-Bow didn’t know, but he hoped it was good. Very good indeed.

Glave finally arrived in the lifeboat bay on the other side of the asteroid base. As he arrived, one of the life-pods blasted away into space carrying the last of the Verpine and Alliance techs. The only life-forms left on the base were Wraith Team, Acbar, Pollard and a bunch of lousy Imperials. Glave examined the  two remaining ‘pods quickly. Although they were only equipped with basic thrusters and repulsor fields to keep them safe from asteroid impact, he thought he could reconfigure the systems to give them a bit more thrust. Grinning to himself and whistling, Glave set to work as the computer calmly whispered its countdown into his ear.

Meanwhile, Vora emerged back into the command centre. She’d decided to give herself the best chance of survival by equipping herself with a vac-suit, but now she’d come back to help Ackbar with the data download. As Ackbar mashed the control panel with his fishy fingers, Vora snorted and gently moved the Commander to one side. With a few deft keystrokes, she completed the download and in a moment held the vital data disk in her hand. Giving the astonished Ackbar and Pollard a wink, Vora ushered them both out of the chamber towards the main hangar: ‘This way, gentle-beings..’

In the hangar, things were becoming tense. Whilst Frost-Bow and a nervous Kibu crept ever-closer to the Imperial shuttle, Hate had kept the Imperials attention away from them. Although the droid had dropped several Stormtroopers, the weight of their return fire was beginning to tell. Sparks jumped from rents in its carapace and an unpleasant burning smell was coming from its motivators. Eventually, even Hate could take no more punishment and it sagged to the floor in a smoking heap. At that moment, Kibu leapt to his furry feet at the entrance to the shuttle’s umbilical. Startled, the Stormtroopers held up their blasters, momentarily unsure of what to do with this harmless-looking alien. Before they could revert to type and start blasting, Kibu reached into his fur and pulled out a thermal detonator! Somehow, in all the confusion he’d managed to ‘acquire’ one of the deadly devices and now stood before the might of the Imperial war machine armed with just this and steely determination. Perhaps it was this, along with a feral grin and a crazed look, that sent the Imperials running back the way they came into the shuttle. Chuckling to himself, Kibu turned towards Frost-Bow and motioned for him to duck as he armed the detonator and threw it over his shoulder after the fleeing Stormtroopers…

Glave was justifiably proud of himself; he’d managed to rig the life-pod so that it responded to his piloting. Ok, it wouldn’t outrun a TIE but it was all he had. Moving along the outside of the asteroid, he was beginning to wonder how he’d get past the bulk of the assault shuttle when he saw an explosing bloom within the shuttle’s cockpit. In a moment, the whole shuttle exploded into a million fragments, small pieces of metal pinging off the life-pod’s hull. Not waiting for an explanation for this apparent miracle, Glave pointed the vessel towards the open hangar. Inside, he could see a group of Stormtroopers turning towards a charging Kibu whilst Frost-Bow raced for the hangar’s auxiliary blast door, no doubt to retrieve Hate’s wreckage. Seeing the Imperials lined up gave Glave an idea; with a yelp of excitement, he sent the life-pod careening through them, scattering them like Selayan bowling pins and giving his crew-mates the opening they needed. As the ‘pod came to rest, Glave opened the hatch and yelled ‘All aboard the Glave Express! Please keep hands, feet and other manipulator extremities within the ‘pod at all times!’

Meanwhile, the computer continued its countdown to destruction. ‘Detonation in T minus one minute and counting: 59. 58. 57…’

(To be continued…)

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

1. Strikeforce Shantipole: Part One.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .
These are dark days for the Alliance. Using the new Nebulon-B escort frigate and its mighty armaments, the Empire has virtually ended all raids on cargo convoys. Without the spoils from Imperial convoys, Rebel supplies have become dangerously low. This could spell the end of the Rebellion.
But all is not lost. On a remote base in the Roche Asteroid Field, Commander Ackbar and his team desperately work to complete a new starfighter capable of neutralizing the Nebulon-B. Even now a team of brave Rebels approach the asteroid field, under orders to pick up Ackbar, his team, and the starfighter prototypes and return them safely to Alliance High Command. If they fail, the struggle for freedom may indeed be over. . .
Vora Vasch felt entirely at home at the controls of the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’, the YT-1300 Light Freighter her team had been assigned for this mission. She’d logged many hours of flight time on this type of vessel, and she could fly it with her eyes closed. In the co-pilot seat next to her slumped a young human, his pressure suit seeming at least one size too large for his lanky frame. As she glanced over at him, Vora grinned at the petulant look on his face. ‘Come on, Vora! When’s it going to be my go? You promised me I could fly through the asteroid field!’ Vora smiled at him and pulled on the controls of the ship, sending it into a crazy spiral around a lazily tumbling asteroid. Despite himself, the younger human let out a whoop of glee and Vora laughed out loud, her Twilek tentacles swinging from side to side. Behind them both, a metallic form braced itself against the bulkhead whilst shouts of alarm came from further back in the ship’s crew compartment. ‘Observation: Meatbags Vora Vasch and Glave Gizarm are happy, but the other meatbags are not. Why is this?’ As a reprogrammed Imperial Assassin Droid, H4-3T (or ‘Hate’ as it was called) was well-versed in the anatomy and physiology of most humanoids and how best to render them messily inoperative, but the psychology of living beings remained beyond it. Not that this bothered it overmuch, but it liked to learn new things all the same.
‘Come on, Hate’ yelled the young human, ‘going fast is fun!’. Unlike the rest of the crew, Glave Gizarm hadn’t had any bad experiences of the Empire when growing up. In fact, he’d had a peaceful upbringing. He’d only joined the Rebellion because they were short of pilots and because the discipline was usually pretty relaxed. Glave didn’t like authority or people who stopped him having fun.
As he spoke, two angry faces peered into the cockpit, one of them talking rapidly in his own complex language. The speaker was a member of the diminutive humanoid species known as the Ewok. To many humans, their inquisitive manner and resemblance to a traditional child’s toy meant that they were rarely taken seriously. But this crew had seen Kibu the Ewok in combat. He was a skilled hunter, adept at laying traps and ambushes to bring down much larger foes. And when his foes were brought down to his level, he was merciless. He’d only become part of the team after they’d landed on his homeworld of Endor; his natural (some would say uncontrollable) inquisitiveness led to the stowaway being found by the crew asleep and surrounded by empty ration packs, long after they’d blasted through an Imperial blockade with no plans to return. The story of the final crew member was somewhat similar; Frost-Bow likewise hailed from a low-technology society on a backwater world. Like many such places, the Empire had taken the resources they needed by force, devastating both the ecology and the lives of the tough natives. Frost-Bow had developed a deep hatred for the Empire and now fought it using his trusty bow and sword. Kibu and Frost-Bow had developed a close friendship and often fought side-by-side, yelling war-cries in their native tongues.
The team had quickly become a legend throughout the local Alliance network, their ability to move fast and hit hard proving invaluable in the type of insurgency warfare the Rebels were becoming increasingly reliant on. After their last raid on an Imperial black site engaged in testing bacteriological weapons, the team had been given the callsign ‘Wraith’ for their ability to pass unseen through Imperial lines.
Suddenly, the ‘Kestrel’s proximity alert klaxon began to howl. ‘TIE fighters!’ yelled Vora. ‘Battle-stations, everyone!’. As the crew rushed to their places, three of the dreaded Imperial starfighters emerged from the shadow of a large asteroid. Ignoring the Imperial patrol leader’s orders to heave to, Vora sent their ship twisting and jinking towards the denser asteroid field ahead. Whilst the pilot concentrated on keeping them in one piece, Hate worked the deflector shield controls whilst reminding everyone that it, unlike them, could function perfectly well in vacuum. Meanwhile, Glave and Frost-Bow manned the laser cannons, in Frost-Bow’s case whilst receiving enthusiastic help from an excited Kibu.
A short, sharp battle ensued, with the hapless Imperial pilots being led a merry dance through the tumbling asteroids. Vora pushed the Kestrel into ever-more terrifying twists and turns whilst the others peppered the Imperials with (mostly) accurate laser fire. Finally, the last TIE exploded into motes of burning dust as it impacted the side of an asteroid as had the rest of the patrol. Finally, the crew could carry on to their destination; a secret Rebel base, deep in the densest part of the Roche Asteroid Field.
The co-ordinates led them to an hourglass-shaped asteroid; points of light penetrated the asteroid's outer crust, highlighting air vents and repulsor-beam projectors. As the ‘Kestrel’ circled the spinning chunk of rock, the crew noticed an opening in the asteroid's side. Clearly a hangar bay, several figures could be seen moving about within its lighted interior. As Vora moved the ship in to final approach, the com unit crackled to life. "Freighter, identify yourself immediately and state your business." Whilst Vora gave the appropriate codes, Glave began to hop from foot to foot, a pained expression on his face. With a sigh, Vora eased herself out of the pilot’s seat to allow the human pilot to take the stick. Unfortunately, his excitement got the better of him and he managed to scraped off several layers of paint against the hangar entrance before settling the ship unsteadily in the centre of the hangar. Whilst the rest of the crew pointedly pretended not to notice, a voice came from the control room, clearly choking back a laugh. ‘"Nice flying, freighter pilot. Park her anywhere. Feel free to stretch your legs. An escort will arrive momentarily."
The small hangar bay appeared functional and efficient, a control tower jutting out over the hangar deck. Apparently carved and hollowed out of the natural rock, the bay barely held their ship. While the ceiling rose high overhead, the walls remained uncomfortably close. A mixture of instrument panels, cooling veins, and patches of natural reddish-brown stone covered the bay walls and a wide stone passage led out of the chamber. As the crew emerged from their ship, they were approached by a group of insectoid creatures. Kibu, with his great knowledge of alien species, identified them as Verpine; a peaceful race with a talent for working with technology, particularly starships.
After a brief but frustrating discussion with the lead Verpine, a large adult named Suskafoo, another figure, dressed in a simple brown tunic and matching cape, emerged from the corridor and strode towards them. A member of the aquatic race known as the Quarren, the newcomer addressed the Verpine sharply in their own tongue. Chirping back angrily, the Verpine took their leave. After watching the Verpine disappear down the corridor, the Quarren turned to the crew. "Greetings, I am Lieutenant Salin Glek, aide to Commander Ackbar," he said in halting Basic. "I trust you have a prime reason for jeopardizing the security of this base?" A further bad-tempered exchange took place, during which Glek demanded they turn over any information to him rather than Ackbar. Finally, a battered-looking human entered the hangar, interrupting an enraged Kibu whilst kicking Glek in the shins. Identifying himself as Pollard, another of Ackbar’s aides, he then conducted them to the base’s command center.
Across the room, hunched intently over a display terminal, were Suskafoo, the two young Verpine, and a Mon Calamari. Pollard led the crew toward them, announcing "Commander Ackbar. These are the messengers." Ackbar welcomed them but was disturbed to hear about their run-in with an Imperial patrol. Ignoring Glek’s biting comments about how the team had probably  led the Imperials straight to the base, the crew handed over the holo-disk to Ackbar. Noting the contents were eyes-only, Ackbar dismissed the room’s occupants before viewing it. On it, Mon Mothma herself ordered Ackbar to proceed with his B-Wing prototypes to join up with a Rebel fleet in the Pothor Sector; moreover, the crew were ordered to stay with Ackbar and ensure his safe arrival at the designated rendezvous point.
When the Alliance staff were finally readmitted to the command centre, the crew immediately noticed that Glek was absent. When Pollard mumbled something about seeing him heading in the direction of the hangar bay, the crew turned as one towards the bank of monitor panels showing the interior of the base; to their shock, the hangar bay was empty. There was no sign of Glek, or the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’ for that matter!
Suddenly, warning sirens began to scream throughout the asteroid complex and a voice boomed from the command center com unit. "Hangar bay to Commander Ackbar! Sir, an unidentified craft is approaching this asteroid. It's closing fast, and it doesn't respond to our signals. Wait. . . it's an Imperial assault shuttle! Repeat, an Imperial. . ." Two explosions rocked the base, showering dust and small rocks on the crew. The screens monitoring the asteroid's interior flashed white and flicked off. Turning to Pollard, "There's no way we can hold out against firepower of that magnitude. We just don't have enough soldiers. Give the evacuation signal."
Pollard nodded and turned, shouting into his com unit, "Emergency evacuation! All personnel immediately report to the life-boat bay. This is no drill!" The base shuddered as the assault shuttle continued its bombardment. With each explosion, the lights flickered ominously.
Ackbar regarded the crew, his huge eyes wide. "If I don't retrieve the two-man B-wing configuration files from this computer, then everything we've worked for will be lost. I need time!"
(To be continued…)