Wednesday, 17 October 2018

16. Godday, Death Week to Clayday, Fertility Week; Sea Season, 1618

As the spirit reared up before her, Sandene steeled her soul. This paltry shadow of the living had no inkling of how brutally Death was graven into her being! The temerity of such a weak thing threatening her almost made her laugh out loud; instead, a low growl escaped her lips as the wraith reached for her. Contemptuously, she shrugged off its attempt to drain her life-force and set her mind to the task of banishing it back to whatever dank hell it had crawled from. Her spirit-self sang as it embraced the truth of Death, as it had failed to do so for so very long. As she reached out for the wraith’s essence, she felt a fleeting touch of the divine, and a fierce hope awoke in her breast…

Of course, none of her companions were privy to these inner awakenings; all they saw was a companion in need. A newly-realised companion, true, but one that had bound herself to their path without the call of Clan or faith and as such was owed their aid. Almost as one they sprang forward, calling on their spirit magic and Gods for aid. In the confusion, someone called out that the creature was a wraith and that its touch was death! Randel summoned the power of Issaries to lend Sandene armour of the spirit. Bofrost stole to one flank and readied his sling, as was his wont, and blessed the stones as he began to whirl them around his head. In contrast, Yrsa and Terrastal threw themselves physically into the fray, yelling dire imprecations and invocations in equal measure.

Meanwhile, the wraith seemed to recoil from Sandene, seeming to mewl piteously as it did so. Sandene almost felt pity for the lost fragment of a soul, but continued to flay its spirit-body with her fury, sending great billows of its substance whirling away into the surrounding grove. Terrastal was the first of her companions to reach her side, but as he swung his magic-driven blade downwards the wraith turned and grasped his wrist. Choking, Terrastal fell to his knees; he felt the chill of the grave within his limbs and could almost feel his life force being ripped from him physically. Seeing Terrastal’s distress and the foul spirit’s distraction, Yrsa thrust forward with her spear but failed to strike home. For her part, Sandene continued to press the spirit and it continued to shrink and dissolve as she did so.

Seeing an opening, Bofrost let fly with his empowered sling stone only to see it pass through the spirit and strike Terrastal a heavy blow on his arm. Swearing profusely, Terrastal pushed himself away from the melee to lie shivering against a blackened rock. With one mighty shout, Sandene set her whole mind against the spirit and forced it back to whichever dark place bound it. As it did so, she rifled through its dissipating consciousness and ripped from it the secret of commanding the creature.

Although the immediate danger had passed, the band were keen to see what other secrets the dark grove held. As an apologetic Bofrost aided a glowering Terrastal, they steeled themselves for what they might encounter. As the strength of Death became an almost physical barrier, Randel could take it no more and fled the shrine in terror. And well he did so, as the remaining companions made a grim discovery; what had appeared to be strips of leather hanging from dead branches revealed themselves to be merely remnants of whole hides hanging from trees in the centre of the grove. Horror-struck, the companions realised the hides had come from people, their faces still bearing their final agonies as if they had been flayed alive...

As Randel stood outside the grove, he saw his fellows returning from the grove, their faces grim and pale. Few words were spoken as they returned to Runegate, but their determination to hold Darsten Black-Oak to account for his deeds burned inside each of them. Filled with anger, Sandene immediately accosted the Humakti Gate-Wardens, expecting them to raise a hue and cry and force the Black Oaks to flee. Instead, they listened to her story impassively; true, Darsten was a foul creature, curse his name, but he had committed no crime. Indeed, his victims were criminals sentenced to die under Lunar law. As far as their encounter with the wraith went, what did they expect for entering a sacred shrine? And did not Humakt himself allow the binding of the ghosts of willing followers to protect sacred ground?

Deflated, the hero band turned to their own needs. Terrastal and Sandene visited the Lightbringers Shrine; Terrastal to seek healing of the body and Sandene healing of the spirit. Whilst Terrastal received the blessings of Chalana Arroy, Sandene knelt tentatively before the image of Babeester Gor at Ernalda’s shrine. Almost shyly, she reached out for her Goddess, hoping to feel the same tentative touch that she had whilst battling the wraith. Relief flooded through her as she felt the barest touch of a consciousness and vast and deep as the sky. With her eyes downcast but filled with tears, Sandene left the shrine. It was start; it was enough.

That evening, the companions rode out from the massive stone edifice of the Luck Gate. They had determined that Darsten would learn of their deeds soon enough, and that they were ill-equipped to stand against him and his followers. Furthermore, they were honour-bound to return to Clearwine and report to the Clan Ring of what had transpired at Apple Lane. Randel was also keen to learn the fate of the Apple Lane refugees he had promised to take under his protection. Although there had been many victories for them to boast of, there was a curiously deflated air about the band as they turned towards Asborn’s Stead. Even the greatest warrior needs to rest his head in a familiar place from time to time; perhaps this was one such time.

Their journey home was uneventful for once. Seeing their mood, Asborn greeted them warmly, bu after a brief meal sped them on their way in the company of a Black Spear guide, wishing them all speed. They finally reached their Clan lands as Yelm climbed into the sky on Clayday of Fertility Week and once more felt the feather-light touch of the spirit of the Clan, welcoming them home. Heading straight for the Clan Hall to make their presence known, they were hailed every few steps by Clanfolk and others; their fame was growing, and curious glances and outright stares were its currency.

As they entered the presence of the Clan Ring, it was clear that their welcome was mixed. Where Dronyan and Morganeth were full of welcome, others were less so. Most notable amongst the latter was Colymar, Initiate of Barntar the Ploughman. A good man, but nervous and fearful of shadows. Morganeth, however, greeted them warmly and thanked them for assisting Gringle. After Sandene introduced herself to the Clan Ring, the story that Randel and Gringle had concocted to protect them from Lunar retribution through Soshona was relayed, and was accepted; to all the world, the companions had arrived at Apple Lane to find Gringle’s home already burning, and only afterwards had they met with Gringle in secret. Therefore, as far as Soshona’s Lunar faction was concerned, Erianda the Red had failed to obtain Gringle’s treasures. Likewise, Erianda would think that Gringle had escaped with his treasures intact. It was the heroes’ devout hope that Erianda and Soshona were never in a position to compare their understanding of events, as the lie would soon unravel! Still, Gringle and his treasures were long-gone, to Nochet or beyond, so would not be a cause of trouble for the Clan.

The discussion turned to the refugees from Apple Lane; to Randel’s great relief, all of the families had been accepted under the wing of the Clan, although they had stopped short being fully admitted as Clanfolk. To the companion’s great delight, they also learned that they had been granted a full two hides of lands each, a noble gift, on which the refugees had been settled. After this welcome news, the mood turned sombre. The Clan Moot was to be on Windsday of the following week, when they would need to put forward the case for being allowed to pursue the quest for the Red Hands of Hofstaring. Although the mood in the Clan was generally hopeful, they would still need to be persuaded that the quest was in the Clan’s interest. Even more important to the future of the Clan was the trial of Baranthos. Spies in the Palace had reported that Kangharl’s allies were starting to visit the other Clans, offering favours and wealth in return for their support of Baranthos’ guilt. However, the Clan Ring felt confident that there were enough other Clans that were unhappy with Kangharl’s Lunar sympathies to give them a chance of saving Baranthos; to this end, the Ring would send the companions to these Clans, to negotiate and bargain for a sympathetic hearing for Baranthos.

But this would wait for another day; for now, the weary heroes set off to visit the Apple Lane families who were even now building a new Stead on the heroes’ lands. For once, the day did not end in blood and thunder; sometimes, it’s enough to simply come home.

But there was one last surprise for the heroes. Gringle had left two gifts for the heroes with Kareena, Priestess of Orlanth. Opening the intricately carved boxes, Gringle's gifts were revealed; the Eye of the Halfbird and the Lead Grimoire! These were the very artefacts that Erianda had been seeking; it seemed that their part in Lunar intrigues were not yet at an end...

Thursday, 11 October 2018

4: A Watch: Sector 13, 25/07/31: Hit the Streets!

A Shift (later on that afternoon)

Kowalski leaned back in her chair and regarded her two colleagues. She felt the nerves around her eye jumping uncontrollably, a sure symptom of underlying strain. Sighing,  she took a deep breath and ran through the calming exercises her Academy Tutors had taught her. The twitching subsided, but she could still feel it, under the surface. It never really went away, now... 
Muller sat slouched in his chair, his stubbled face regarding his synthi-caff as though it had insulted his mother. The skin around the scars on his face puckered angrily as he scowled, although in reality Kowalski had rarely seen him wear any other expression.
In contrast, Wily sat ramrod straight, as though newly-passed from the Academy. Which in reality he was; fast-tracked to a Tac-Team leadership position to give him some slab-time before getting booted upstairs to some policy wonk position, no doubt. Kowalski mirrored Mullers perpetual scowl at that thought; although she felt that Wily was still trying to use the velvet glove approach too much with Citizens, she felt there was plenty of steel there too, if only he'd let it out.
'So, what do we think we know then?' Kowalski repeated her question of a few moments earlier. Whilst waiting for Rock Beauchamp to be brought out of the cubes for further interrogation, they'd kicked around a range of theories about what was going on. Item one: there appeared to be body-sharking racket operating locally, run by the Finkle Brothers, Oswald and Bisley. Small-time petty crooks, they lived in the lower floors of Jimmy Gandolfini Block. Gandolfini Block had the lowest recorded crime rates of all the blocks in the sector, with the emphasis on 'recorded': the block was also known as the base of operations for the Contralto crime family. They would have to tread carefully there, no doubt.
Item two: Agnes Radley of Kimi Kardashian Block seemed to be caught up in at least two cases of missing persons. They'd uncovered some odd goings-on at the Saturn Towers doss-house; nothing illegal but very suspicious. There seemed to be some connection between Radley and the Finkles, but they didn't have enough pieces to join these two parts of the jigsaw as yet. As she considered this state of affairs, Kowalski felt the tic in her eye start up again. She sighed.
Muller was starting to growl an answer when the comm in the ready room crackled into life. 'Wily, your perps being decanted now. We've started the drip, so by the time you get down here, he should be just about cooked'. Judge-Wardens always seemed to think they were funny, thought Kowalski; probably due to having a captive audience for their terrible jokes. As if cube-time wasn't enough...
Whilst Kowalski and Wily headed off to interrogate Beauchamp, Muller elected to put his tek skills to use and worked on analysing and cleaning up the grainy footage they had of the hover car that had sped off when the Grundy's wrecking attempt had been halted. Perhaps there was some clue that the TekDiv analysts had missed.
In the end, Rock Beauchamp gave up everything he knew without a struggle. Without access to adifax and with all of his body hair removed by the high pressure Depil-Foam used by the Wardens, Rock looked about 100 years old. His sob-story checked out with what he'd told them before, with one addition: his adifax dealer was a small-time fence called Barry the Lip, known to the department but obviously looking to make his way in the world. Even more interesting, Rock had always met Barry near to a mega-burger joint called 'You Only Live Munce!', a known Fatty eatery.
Muller had also been successful with his review of the grainy spycam footage. The car was a Foord Varooma, a very common family sedan model. Even more interesting was the fact that Beauchamp was able to confirm that the same model had been used by the Finkles when picking up Poochums as collateral for his loan.

Grateful for a solid lead, the team hit the slab. Roaring out of the sub-level Sector House onto the skedway, the glare of the afternoon sun turned the clouds of smog to an orange glow that could almost be thought of as pretty. Almost.
The burger joint was in one of the Sector's mid-levels, not far from the Bruce Springsteen Block. In fact, Muller had taken great pleasure in stopping briefly to book a group of E-Street Juves for traffic violations, resulting in a broken jaw, a mild concussion and several broken ribs. His smile had faded by  the time they arrived at the burger joint, however. Wily quickly rapped out his deployment instructions, by the book: he would stay outside and liaise with Control whilst Kowalski and Muller apprehended the perp. Entering the building, it was obvious that this was intended for the specialist dining requirements of the Fatty community. Reinforced plas-steel benches lined the edges of the dining area, with at least a dozen customers already seated. Rather than plates and cutlery, food was delivered by series of chutes. All the customer had to do was to clamp their jaws around the spigot and food would be channelled straight into their waiting gullets. For those who wanted every calorie to count, there was even the option to have their food pureed so they didn't have to waste energy chewing.
Grimacing at the range of unpleasant organic sounds emanating from the clientele, the Judges surveyed the room. Almost immediately, Muller spotted their quarry, seated at the back of the room. Although not a dedicated Fatty like some, Barry the Lip still sported an impressive girth. Almost as though he had a sixth sense, the perp looked up and locked eyes with Kowalski. Eyes widening in shock, Barry leapt to his feet with a speed belying his size. 'Suspensors!' growled Muller as he charged after him. Kowalski likewise gave chase, although she was soon outpaced by the furious Muller. Although he was driven by rage, and tried every trick in the book to catch the perp, Barry the Lip showed a rare elegance in his movements, using just the lightest kick of a foot or the push of a hand to propel himself through the maze of alleyways behind the food joint. Eventually, Muller had to give up when he saw Barry pirouette gracefully around a corner some distance away, and his mood was not improved when he realised Barry was giving him the finger as he did so.

The Tac Team gathered once more outside the munce bar, and Wily did an admiral job of containing his smile when Muller reported what had happened. Kowalski was less successful, earning herself an evil glare from Muller in return.
Hitting a dead end with the adifax lead, the team headed off for Jimmy Gandolfini Block to pay the Finkles a visit. On arrival, the Judges immediately noticed that something was wrong. There were no juves or gangers hanging around committing minor misdemeanours, nor was there any graffiti or litter evident in the tween-plaza. Instead, groups of citizens were walking and talking, or helping to keep the synthi-flower beds tidy. As the Judges walked into the main foyer of the Block, several elds gave them a friendly wave. 'I don't like it' muttered Kowalski 'this isn't normal'.
Heading to the office of the local Block Judges, the Tac-Team reviewed what they knew of Jimmy Gandolfini Block and the Finkles. It had one of the lowest crime rates in the Sector, and was known as an easy posting for Judges approaching the end of their career. It was also well-known as the base of operations for the Contralto crime family; although they were suspected to be behind much of the organised crime in the Sector, only a few low-level gangsters had been sent to the cubes. As far as Oswald and Bisley Finkle went, they'd done time as juves for a succession of minor crimes but then appeared to have learned the error of their ways and had been clean for many years. Also suspicious, felt Wily.
Whilst checking in at the Block Judge office, the team were approached by a heavy-set man wearing what appeared to be a replica of mid-20th century clothing. He also had a very heavily accented voice, that Wily was able to place as being common amongst some of the original inhabitants of the place this part of the Big Meg had been built over; it had been called Brooklyn, he seemed to recall.
Going by the name of Tiny Contralto, the newcomer was able to give some further information on the Finkles. 'Good boys' he continued in his strange manner 'they keep out of trouble. Haven't seen them around much recently though. Perhaps you got some bum intel. Tell you what, you go about your bidness, and I'll call you if I see them. Capisce?'
But the team were not to be swayed, and set off to search the Finkle's shared hab. As they walked away, they noticed that Tiny was watching them closely, and speaking quietly to a juve who ran off, clearly on some errand...
At the Finkle's hab, Muller took great pleasure in booting the door in, even though that was unnecessary given his Judge's pass card. 'This is a crime blitz!' he yelled into the empty apartment before barging in; Wily and Kowalski exchanged glances as they stepped through the splintered synthi-board doorway.
Inside,  a search failed to find anything incriminating. It did, however, reveal several things of interest. The consumer goods in the hab were of a much higher value than would normally be seen, indicating a higher income than could be generated solely through welfare payments. There were also lots of leaflets relating to the 'Eternal Rest' chain of sus-an vaults, which tied in with some of the team's suspicions regarding a link, Perhaps most interesting of all, Muller was able to access their comp-terminal, and in their search history found lots of material referring to the maintenance and design of servo-droids; nothing illegal, but certainly indicating an interest above that of an average citizen.

Finding nothing else of note, the team left the unnerving surroundings of the apparently crime-free Gandolfini Block and headed to the local branch of the 'Eternal Rest' sus-an vault franchise. In common with others of its type across MC-1, the vault was a blocky, stark edifice faced in faux-marble-plas that gleamed in the city lights. The mournful theme was continued inside, with relatives of those being frozen being greeted by droids with black casings and solemn expressions on the vid-screens where their faces should be. There was one human on hand, a tall pale man wearing a black frock coat and top hat; the very image of the sombre attendant one would expect. When the Judges took him aside to question him, however, he removed his top hat to reveal a cascade of luxuriant hair that had been coiled and confined within. Sighing with pleasure, the attendant introduced himself as Willibald Fawcet-Montague III and proved particularly helpful. He confirmed that the chemicals used to freeze Ma Grundy was a proprietary brand used by the franchise, but Ma Grundy didn't show up on his inventory of 'residents'. Furthermore, he'd never heard of the Finkle Brothers; aside from himself and one other shift supervisor, there were no other humans on staff. All of the work was done by servo-droids. It was clear to the team that Willibald was telling the truth as he knew it, so whilst Kowalski checked the vault's records,  Muller and Wily were given a tour of the vault's operations. Whilst reviewing the records, Kowalski had a Grud-sent inspiration; using her medical expertise, she set the biomonitors from each cryo-casket to check for non-human life signs. Lo and behold, one casket in the lowest storage crypt flashed up on the screen. Calling to her team mates, the triumphant Kowalski led the way to the elevator and down into the crypts. 
Reaching the identified storage space, the Judges entered to find a sombre, darkened area with wisps of coolant gas whirling around their standard-issue boots and kneepads. As they moved, echoes rebounded from the marble-plas walls. Stationed at intervals around the crypt were pairs of black-painted servo-droids, standing silently awaiting commands. Moving quickly to a comp-terminal, Kowalski called up the ID number of the anomalous reading. Almost silently, a robotic arm detached from the high ceiling and retrieved the casket, placing it on a shelf in the corner of the crypt for inspection. Wiping away the frost on the viewing plate on the top of the casket, the Judges were rewarded with the sight of what could only be Poochums!
Their moment of satisfaction was short-lived however; a series of sounds made them turn, only to see a line  of servo-droids marching silently towards them, arms outstretched and a single red eye gleaming from their face panels! Drawing their lawgivers, they prepared to repel the robo-zombie horde!

Friday, 5 October 2018

3. A-Watch; S13 25/07/31: late AM through to early PM

The dull crunch of standard-issue daystick across perp head gave Judge Muller a grim satisfaction, as always.  A riot had broken out at a demo by the League of Fatties, with Fat Abolition Front activists making an inevitable appearance, and he’d been tasked away from Wily’s Tac-Team to help with crowd control. As he rose from cuffing the twitching form of the unfortunate perp, he heard his Tac-Team’s call sign go out over the Justice Department comm-net: “Judges under fire from wreckers on the Eric Pickles Slabway; badges required to provide assistance!”. “Muller responding” he said in a menacing growl, as he raced to his waiting Lawmaster…
By the time Muller arrived on scene, Wily and Kowalski had started to turn the tide of the fierce firefight. As a number of perps traded shots with the Judges, a couple appeared to be using an industrial las-cutter to get to the contents of the burning heavy juggernaut freight-bot. Some distance away hovered an unmarked H-Buggy, no doubt intended to whisk away any goodies the perps were able to liberate. 
Muller made a snap decision: “Hi-Ex!”. The special shell arced through the air and exploded with deadly force amid the perps with the las-cutters. “Mmmm, chunky salsa!” growled Muller at the grisly results.

As the remains of the perps slid down the side of the heavy transporter, Kowalski and Wily outflanked the remaining perps on their Lawmasters, killing one perp and injuring another. Faced with three Judges and with most of their gang dead or injured, the remaining wreckers gave up. Seeing this, the occupants of the H-Buggy took to the skies and rapidly disappeared. 
As the Med-Wagons patched up the wounded and the dead were bagged for Resyk, Control supplied intel on the Perps. The Grundys were known to the Department as low-level criminals housed in the Jimmy Gandolfini Block. It was clear that a crime like this would usually have been way out of their league, both in terms of ambition and capability. Muller and Wily picked out the youngest of the Grundys for closer questioning. Through a combination of intimidation (Muller) and reassurance (Wily), it became clear that the job had been planned by the eldest Grundy, Eddie. Colin (the youngest) didn’t know any details, but he did know that his mother Clarrie had been used as collateral for a loan from the Finkle Brothers. It was clear there was some sort of body sharking racket going on, but was there a connection with the Radleys?

Deciding they’d got all they could from the remaining Grundys for now, the Tac-Team headed off to Saturn Towers where the missing spacers had last been seen. Requesting further information from Control, they learned that the missing persons were one Abelard Snazz and Loogi Beezlebrot. Other than both being itinerant spacers passing through the Meg, there didn’t appear to be anything to connect them. Their rooms had been swept by Tek Squads, and nothing of interest had been found. 

Arriving at Saturn Towers, it was clear that this had been built during a short-lived craze for mid- and late-20th century sci-fi vid shows; something called Trek Wars, or some such rubbish. The flop house was staffed by a motley assortment of droids fashioned in the likeness of characters from the old vid-shows, with a set of mannerisms to match. Biting back their irritation at the appalling overacting and arched eyebrows of the droids, the team penetrated the ageing security software on the hotel mainframe. As a result, they discovered that a series of back-doors had been programmed into the system, enabling the security vid to be looped to show an empty corridor outside the spacers’ rooms at the time the spacers went missing. More intriguing still, it seemed that the data trail led back to Kimi Kardashian Block….

Whilst Muller surprised his comrades with his tech skills by setting the system to alert Control if the back-door was triggered, Wily had a hunch. Contacting one of his contacts back the Sector House in Acc-Div, it became clear that Agnes Radley had purchased a controlling share in Saturn Towers some time ago. Furthermore, the purchase had been done in such a way that the trail was difficult to follow; nothing illegal, but suspicious all the same. 
Whilst wrapping up their lines of enquiry at the flop-house, Control alerted them that a body had been found on the Demi Lovato undersked; that of Clarrie Grundy!
By the time they reached the scene, Med-Judges had bagged the stiff for transfer back to the Sector House for autopsy before dispatching to Resyk. Preliminary tests, however, had shown that the eldster’s body showed signs of recent cryostasis, and that the injuries were consistent with repeated vehicle strikes. It seemed as though the unfortunate Clarrie had been thrown from a vehicle onto the sked, although vid coverage of the area was notoriously poor. It seemed to the Tac Team that a detour to the Sector House was in order, both to replenish their ammo and to interrogate Colin Grundy in more detail…

Back at the Sector House, young Colin Grundy was thrown into an interrogation cube and left to stew in fear of what might happen next. Whilst his own mind did much of their work for them, the Judges received an updated report from Tek Div; the chemicals used to freeze Ma Grundy were used routinely by a number of sus-an businesses, but the only one in the sector was narrowed down to the local franchise of the Eternal Rest chain. Furthermore, the Eternal Rest is a legitimate business, with no apparent links to crime or to Agnes Radley’s business interests. Finally, it appeared that the Finkle Brothers were not connected to the Eternal Rest at all; in fact, the only Finkle family with two or more living  brothers appeared to be a family of DPs (Displaced Persons) who had recently been housed in Jimmy Gandolfini Block.

Turning back to poor Colin, his stammered answers to rough questioning convinced the Judges that Rock Beauchamp could perhaps shed more light on the situation, and requested the Judge-Warders to prep him for close questioning. They also determined that their next avenues of enquiry would be to visit Jimmy Gandolfini block to question the Finkles, a trip to the Eternal Rest sus-an parlour and a long-overdue visit to Agnes Radley, the self-styled queen of KK Block…

All artwork copyright of Rebellion Comics; used without permission

15: Windsday to Godday; Death Week; Sea Season, 1618

Seeing the desperation of Yrsa’s situation, Randel reached out to his god. In the Godtime, Issaries had forged an unbreakable bond with Orlanth whilst on the Lightbringer Quest. To seal their friendship, Orlanth had gifted Issaries with the power of flight. Now, following the Great Compromise, devotees of Issaries retained access to the Rune power of flight. Thinking quickly, Randel prayed to his god for aid, and felt his power flow through him as he visualised the Air Rune spinning in the air before him.

On the roof, the Tarshite mercenaries warily watched the window to the interior of Gringle’s pawnshop. Suddenly, the one nearest to Yrsa’s apparently dying body gave a yell and jumped backwards as Yrsa’s form rose into the air and glided silently towards the open window. As her body quickly passed them, those within reach thrust their spears at her. But, surprised by the turn of events and the speed of her movement, they failed to hit home.

As Yrsa flew through the window, a relieved Randel caught her and guided her into cover behind some barrels in the corner of the storeroom. Reaching into his pack, he uncorked a bottle and carefully poured a powerful healing draught into Yrsa’s mouth. A gentle glow seemed to suffuse her rough-hewn features as the wound in her throat seemed to blur and vanish. With a shout, Yrsa woke to the sight of her boon companion.

Meanwhile, Terrastal occupied himself with shooting arrows at the only Tarshite he could see, being rewarded every now and then with a bout of swearing as an arrow found its mark. Grinning evilly to himself, Terrastal heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stairs from below. As he called out a warning to Randel, Yrsa rose to her feet and grabbed a spear from Terrastal’s pack. Shaking her head to clear the effects of Randel’s potion, she blocked the door leading downwards with a barrel and readied her spear.

One of the Tarshite’s impetuously jumped into the room, only to be felled by bowfire from Terrastal and Randel. Seeing this, the remaining mercenaries prepared themselves for the fight by casting Bladesharp and Protection. But still the heroic companions were able to fend them off until only two foes remained. These were pursued by an enraged Yrsa and a gleeful Terrastal, with prisoners being taken.

As the hero band took stock of their situation, they noted the villagers, Gringle and Quackjohn gathering outside. The air was sundered by the wailing of Dronlan Swordsharp’s widow, and sorrow hung in the air like a bitter mist. Moving to join the villagers, the matter of what was to be done was discussed. It transpired that the Lunar interlopers had left Apple Lane in the direction of Runegate once it became clear that Gringle had determined friends. After much debate, Bulster and his family decided to remain in the safety of the Tin Inn, with the devotees of Uleria remaining also. That left some four families to seek a new home. Gringle declared that he planned to travel first to Asborn’s Stead, and from there to set a course for Nochet in Esrolia. As this was a vast city of some 100,000 souls, Gringle felt he would be able to hide from Lunar attention, at least for a while. Hearing this, the four families decided to follow Gringle to Asborn’s Stead, and then decide their road from there.

The companions were split; Randel felt honour-bound to ensure the families were safe, whilst the others were keen to pursue Erianda and Darsten to Runegate and hopefully take their revenge. Before they went their separate ways, Gringle laid the body of Dronlan Swordsharp in the centre of the Pawnshop and bade his salamander to consume the building and its contents, before being released from Gringle’s service. The fire elemental set about its task with relish, and soon a huge plume of flames reached into the darkening skies. The sombre villagers watched in silence, the only sounds being the crackle of burning timbers and the wailing of Dronlan’s widow.

As full darkness fell, the villagers prepared to leave their long-time home. Bidding farewell to his companions, Randel walked into the gathering gloom, calling out that he would meet them at Geo’s Inn in Runegate two days hence. Seeing his form disappear into the darkness, the remaining companions readied themselves to leave likewise. As they themselves moved off towards Runegate, a crashing sound came from the Pawnshop as the roof fell in. Turning, a huge fountain of sparks could be seen, shimmering in the night air. Truly, they thought, this marked the end of an era in Dragon Pass.

The companions move rapidly through the remaining hours of night. As Yelm the Sun climbed once more into the sky, they stopped only briefly to accept a morsel of food and drink from villagers. Determined to reach Runegate, they pressed on through the day. To their right lay well-tended farmland and orchards, whilst to their left lay the ominous bulk of the Starfire Ridges. As they rode, they beheld the spectacle of two winged humanoids battling what appeared to be a Griffin in the air about the peaks. As they watched, one of the Wind Children fell from the sky and was consumed by the Griffin whilst the remaining Wind Child flapped disconsolately away.

As night fell, the walls of Runegate could be seen in the middle distance, and the smoke of its fires made Yelm’s rays shimmer. By the time they reached its gates, it was full night. As they approached, they noted keen-eyed watchers on the walls, and braziers set out within bowshot of the walls to light the land around the city. A group of riders emerged from a postern gate and approached the travellers cautiously. It was evident that these were seasoned warriors from the way in which they sat their ponies. Yrsa remarked on their tattoos, marking them out as devotees of Humakt; the city lay hard by the Upland Marsh, and Humakt has always been set against the risen dead which often came from the marshes.

Determining that they were of the living, the companions were admitted to Runegate. They were directed to Geo’s Inn for accommodation, and instructed to attend the Temple of Elmal in the morning, where Selelmal the True would hear their story. Passing  a quiet night in the common room of the inn, the local talk was mainly of horses; however, on gentle probing by Terrastal, it became clear that Darsten Black Oak was well-known locally as a bully and a braggart. Both he and his two-dozen strong Black Oak Brotherhood were generally given a wide berth; of Erianda the Red, no news was to be had.

The following day, the group rose early and presented themselves to Selelmal the True, Lord of Runegate. After a brief interview, they were given leave to remain as long as they kept the King’s Peace. Not being able to restrain herself further, Yrsa set off for the Temple of Redalda, which lay just to the north of the city in a vast stockade containing the priceless Runegate herds. Running to keep up with her loping stride, Bofrost accompanied her, ever willing to learn something new. The remaining companions busied themselves in exploring the city, and waited for the return of Randel.

Yrsa approached the Temple of Redalda with her heart beating heavily in her chest. She thought back to her strange vision of the Green Foal near the Shrine of Idrima, and readied herself for what may come next. Whilst she entered the temple, Bofrost remained outside, both from respect and in amazement at how people could be so interested in horses rather than scrolls.

Entering the temple, Yrsa approached a broad, red-haired woman who was clearly the High Priest. As she did so, the centre of her forehead began to burn and itch tremendously, sending pain coursing through her head and body. As her steps faltered, she cried out before she collapsed from the pain. At her cry, the priest turned and caught her as she fell; a murmur of wonder passed through those nearby as they witnessed the rune of Fire burning bright on this newcomer’s forehead.

Seeing the commotion, Bofrost pushed his way through the crowd that had formed, into the temple. As he did so, he heard a thunder of hooves as the herds suddenly merged into one and ran joyfully around the temple. From the astonishment of the crowd, Bofrost determined that this was unheard of…

Yrsa awoke to look into the concerned eyes of the priest, who introduced herself as Nallindia Horse-Mistress. From snatches of brief conversation with her initiates, two things became clear: firstly, others had come bearing the mark of Redalda, possibly marked by the Goddess for some destiny. Secondly, once the rune had been awakened, the connection with Redalda must be made firm through initiation or the aspirant would be consumed by the heat of their own body!

As Bofrost stood vigil amongst the gathered crowd, Yrsa underwent her long wished-for initiation.

In front of the crowd the Priest of Elmal and the Priestess of Redalda re-enacted the marriage of Redalda and the Sun. Once this ceremony had taken place the women and men separated; the men left for the temple of Elmal and the women (a much smaller number) entered the shrine of Redalda. Here, Yrsa had her weapons taken from her and began the initiation. Firstly, she was tested on and recited the duties of an initiate: to guard the horses of Orlanth; to protect, raise, fees and care for all horses; to never permit a horse to suffer and to hunt the predators of horses.

At this point Yrsa was given an effigy of a wolf, covered in part of the pelt of a wolf, which she was instructed to fling into a cauldron of fire representing the Sun. The voices of the women were raised in prayer and Yrsa symbolically became a horse: she was stripped, and a piebald pattern painted on her skin using ash from the fire and limestone paste from the altar. Her hair was braided like a mane and the lines of a saddle and bridle were also painted on her in ash. At this point the priestess handed Yrsa a thin bronze disc embossed with a horse’s head on one side and a Sun on the other. Covered in finely beaten gold, the disc shone like the Sun. Yrsa then dressed and had her weapons returned to her. She was now an Initiate of Redalda, Goddess of Horses, Wife to the Sun and Guardian of the Steeds!

Meanwhile, Terrastal and Sandene were hailed by Randel who had arrived at Runegate as the sun reached its zenith. Nervously, he recounted what had transpired at Asborn’s Stead. Although they had been warmly welcomed, there was not enough room to hold the new families and they would be forced to seek elsewhere for aid. After a long evening of mead and counsel with both Asborn and Gringle, it had been agreed that the refugee families would travel with Gringle to the lands around Clearwine. There, Gringle would send word to Morganeth of the Ernaldori, begging that they be given leave to settle on tribal lands and accepted into the tribe, whilst he himself continued on his way. However, they would need to be sponsored into the tribe by someone who would take responsibility for them. Therefore, on behalf of the companions, Randel had accepted both that burden and honour. Rather than exploding in anger as Randel had feared, Terrastal had welcomed the news; truly, the mind of an Orlanthi is unpredictable at the best of times!

Heading over to the Lightbringer Temple to give thanks and to renew their link with their respective Gods, the band of heroes were reunited with Yrsa and Bofrost. As they recounted their various news, the others cast glances upon Yrsa’s forehead where the Fire rune appeared to glow with a soft light.

Returning to the inn, the companions debated what to do next. Randel was all for returning to Clearwine to pass on news to the Tribal Ring, but Terrastal still wanted revenge on Darsten. As a result, the heroes scouted the barracks of the Black Oak Brotherhood before falling into conversation with the Humakti Gate Wardens. During this, one of the Wardens let slip that Darsten and his followers often communed with their foreign god at grove of twisted and blackened trees to the east of the city. Sensing an opportunity, the band set off to investigate. Not put off by the blackened trunks of the trees, the weirdly sinuous carvings of both Death and Storm runes or the sounds of thunder from a clear sky, the heroes entered the shrine with Sandene in the lead. Almost as soon as she did so, however, a Death spirit wielding an axe with a blade the colour of moonlight appeared and reached out towards her, engaging her in deadly spirit combat! 

Artwork used without permission.