Friday, 25 January 2019

21. Waterday/ Disorder Week/ Fire Season 1618

Bofrost started in his saddle, looking about him with wild eyes and heart racing. Had no-one else seen the arrows flying or Hahlgrima and her warband charging them, screams on their lips and death in their eyes? Around him, his companions rode along without any apparent concern, either deep in conversation, watching the slopes about them or riding in sullen silence as suited their separate natures. None of them appeared alarmed, and for a moment Bofrost opened his mouth to shout a warning. Yet as he looked around, he could see no sign of Hahlgrima, her warband or flying arrows. Seeing that Randel was looking at him quizzically, Bofrost smiled weakly and attempted to cover his confusion with an exaggerated yawn. Before this…this…whatever this was, he’d been lost in thought regarding the problem of Urgnal’s obstinate behaviour and Engizi’s apparent indifference to his people. He was sure that Lhankor Mhy would have the answer; he knew everything, even if he didn’t always share his knowledge. Bofrost planned to perform a Divination when they returned to the Enjossi settlement, beseeching his god for the solution to their dilemna. Then, unbidden, had come the sensation of immediate danger. No, more than a sensation; he had actually experienced it, seen the warriors bearing down on him. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. This had happened before, when he’d ignored Gringle’s injunction and…well, when he’d done what he’d done. But what was he supposed to do? Knowledge was his reason to exist, and when faced with such knowledge he could not have acted other than he had. Yet he found he was paying a price, although his companions would not have had it any other way. First had come the vision of the Battle of the Broken Tower. So powerful had been the sensation that he’d raced to Clearwine, roused the Circle and refused to leave the Clan Hall unless Drenyan and his thanes had sworn an oath to accompany him to Idrima’s Shrine. Since that time, he’d had other feelings of being unstuck in time, as though he was seeing things from the past and the future…
Suddenly he realised that he’d stopped, his horse cropping grass from the rich growth at the side of the river. Seeing his friend’s looking at him, he said ‘I think I saw something up ahead’. Gesturing over their shoulders along the path back to the Enjossi stead, the land rose slightly and thick bushes crowded in on either side and ahead. ‘I think I saw a glint of metal in those far trees’. Terrastal stood up in his stirrups, shading his eyes against Yelm’s rays. ‘Can’t see anything; you sure?’ Bofrost nodded vigorously, becoming more convinced of the danger by the moment. Terrastal looked unconvinced. ‘Suppose we could go around the long way’ he grumbled. As they spoke, a tell-tale whistling sounded in the air: bowfire!  ‘Down!’ yelled Sandene, as arrows began falling around them. Quickly dismounting, the heroes threw themselves into the broken ground where the land began to rise towards the trees ahead. The bow fire continued from that direction, falling harmlessly around them. Frieda hunched next to them; although she was pale, she also had a determined look that would make any Orlanthi proud. As they took cover, they noticed a group of river dragons had collected in the river at the foot of the bank to their right. They were raising their snouts high in the air, thrashing their tails and hissing loudly, as if in anticipation of a delicious meal.
Sandene made a decision, her Death Rune surging strong within her. Hefting her shield, she began to march stolidly up the bank ahead, moving faster with each step until she was moving at a dead run straight towards the far trees. Seeing this, Yrsa began to move forward on Sandene’s right flank to present two targets and confuse the enemy; Sandene had taught her well. Bofrost likewise readied his sling and crept along just behind Yrsa. The air began to echo with chants and entreaties to their various divine patrons as the heroes readied themselves for battle. Meanwhile, Terrastal had strung his bow and made ready to skewer any fool that dared to show his face. Ever the quiet strategist, Randel formulated a rapid plan. Raising his hands high, he called on Issaries and his bond with Orlanth, conjuring magical fire to kindle in the bushes nearest the river. As the flames took hold, two figures burst from the bushes. Cursing, they leapt across to another bush and took cover. Seeing this, Randel once again caused their assailants’ new hide to burst into flames. With more curses, four bowmen were revealed, stepping forward into a loose firing line.
Seeing Sandene bearing down on them, the bowmen loosed a volley at her. Three of them went wide, but one seemed to be destined for Sandene’s heart. Yrsa held her breath in sudden dread, but then something remarkable happened. Sensing the arrow more than seeing it, Sandene stamped downwards suddenly and seemed to throw herself into the air, turning her whole body so that the deadly bolt skimmed her back as she turned. Without missing a beat, she landed at a dead run towards the bowmen.
Now that the foe had revealed themselves, Terrastal called upon Idrima’s blessings and summoned one of her skull beast emissaries immediately in front of the enemy, causing the warriors to draw back in fear as the earth elemental seemed to coalesce out of the very bones of the earth before them. As it advanced towards them, eyes glowing balefully, Terrastal added to their misery by raining his own arrows upon them.
It seemed as though the ill-considered ambush was all but done, with the victory going to the heroes. Sandene was bearing down on them with Yrsa close behind, whilst Bofrost tormented them with sling shots from the cover of a bush and the others adding bowfire as they could. Sandene finally covered the last few feet to the enemy, having clouded the mind of one of her opponents with spirit magic. Yet even now there was danger, as a mighty blow struck Sandene’s shield arm, causing it to hang uselessly at her side.
Suddenly, Terrastal and Randel stiffened, looking about them as they sensed new danger. From the bushes to the west appeared to come a black miasma, moving with sinister purpose. With a shock, Randel recognised a Death spirit, cousin to the one they had encountered at the Black Oak Shrine outside Runegate. Sinuously, it glided silently across the battlefield towards Bofrost, whose attention was held by the combat to the south. All in a moment, he felt the first cold thought-touch of the apparition, and turned towards it as it reached out with its claws and spirit both. Bofrost clenched his jaw so hard in concentration that he felt one of his teeth crack, but the fiend seemed to sigh in satisfaction as its seemed to gently caress the side of his face. All at once, Bofrost felt himself become as weak as an Alynx kit as his strength was drawn from him.
As Randel and Terrastal cried out, Bofrost fell to his knees, resisting the spirit even now. Yet as they did so, three heavily armed Orlanthi warriors burst from the trees to the west, heading straight for Randel, Frieda and Terrastal. Almost with a sigh of resignation, Randel recognised the leader of the band as Hahlgrima Snaggletooth. Oblivious to this turn of events, Sandene and Yrsa continued forward towards the bowmen, now revealed as a ruse to split the companions and allow them to be defeated piecemeal.
Thinking quickly, Randel called once more on the bond between his god and Orlanth. Feeling his prayer answered, he began to rise smoothly into the air and he shouted to Frieda to take cover with Terrastal. Seeing their nearest foe take flight, no doubt to leave his friends to their fate, the three warriors split up to commence the rout. With a sneer and a shouted curse at Randel for his cowardice, Hahlgrima ran straight on towards Terrastal, who prepared to meet her charge. But Randel had other ideas; as he twisted gracefully in mid-air, he smoothly drew his bow and sighted down the shaft. With a whispered prayer to Issaries, he closed his eyes and let fly…and the bolt struck home in her unprotected neck! From Terrastal’s perspective, it seemed as though Hahlgrima suddenly lost all strength in her legs, her eyes rolling back in her head as she collapsed almost as his feet. Terrastal stepped forward and settled back on his haunches; as he did so, Hahlgrima’s eyelids fluttered and a bloody froth stained her lips as she tried to speak. Studying her tattoos, Terrastal realised that they were those sported by the Black Oak Brotherhood, worshippers of a dark foreign war god they’d encountered at Runegate. After a moment spent trying to decipher her dying words, Terrastal stood with a shrug, leant forward and hacked off her head with a single blow. As he held up Hahlgrima's head, he looked into her eyes as the light faded from them. 'Said you didn't know who you were dealing with...' Then,holding his enemy’s head high, he bellowed a single word across the battlefield: ‘Surrender!’
Though Hahlgrima’s huscarls fought on, it was but a short time before only one remained. Throwing down his axe with a curse, a bearded warrior all but dared them to kill him too. After debating this for a moment, the heroes settled for disarming him fully and tying his hands behind his back. Meanwhile, Randel used the power of flight bestowed by his god to corral the single remaining bowman who had fled from the field after seeing Hahlgrima fall. In contrast to the huscarl, the bowman was almost pathetically grateful that he was still alive. Going by the name of Wyard, he told a tale of being roused out of his bed in far Runegate by Hahlgrima and ordered to give service as a member of the fyrd. Fearing for his life, he and his now-cold companions had joined Hahlgrima, but it was clear he had no love for the Black Oaks. Indeed, when the huscarl cursed him as a coward and an oathbreaker he flew at him and beat him with his fists. Seeing his distress, Yrsa gently pulled him away and sat him down as he began to sob. She recognised in him the same reaction she had experienced after open battle, and wondered again how warriors such as Sandene and Terrastal could seem to welcome it so.
After stacking the fallen into a pyre and setting a flame to release their spirits, the heroes set off once more for the Enjossi stead, accompanied by Frieda and their captives. As they rode, Randel and Bofrost cleverly questioned the huscarl, Hunlaf.  Without realising, he revealed that Hahlgrima had indeed been a member of Darsten Black-Oak’s Brotherhood and had travelled to Clearwine at Darsten’s request to support his kinsman, Kangharl. It seemed that Darsten himself was planning to attend Baranthos’ trial when it came. Every canny, Kangharl clearly expected trouble and was ensuring he held the balance of power when it mattered.
Uncharacteristically, Sandene showed a more considerate side of her nature than any of her companions had yet seen. Seeing Wyard’s misery, she approached Yrsa as she rode alongside him and nodded her head towards the unhappy man.
‘He a farmer, d’ya think?’. Yrsa looked at Sandene and then at Wynlaf. ‘She says, are you a farmer?’. Wyard nodded, eyes downcast. ‘He says yes, Sandene’.
‘He any good, d’ya think?’. Yrsa sighed and said ‘She says are you a good farmer?’ Again, Wynlaf nodded. Yrsa turned back to Sandene, who was waiting expectantly. After a moment, Yrsa rolled her eyes and said ‘He says yes’.
Sandene opened her mouth to speak once more, but closed it rapidly when she caught a dangerous look in Yrsa’s eyes just before she rode off, stiff-backed in her saddle. Looking after Yrsa, Sandene leaned over to Wynlaf. ‘When you start work on my stead as a thrall, better watch out for her you know. She’s touchy’. Seeing Wynlaf’s astonishment and delight, Sandene uttered a reassuring ‘If I’d killed you, I’d only have to do the farming myself, see. And that’d only make me unhappy. And you wouldn’t like to make me unhappy, would you Wynlaf?’. Swallowing, Wynlaf shook his head firmly.
Giving him one more stern look, Sandene rode off after Yrsa, calling back over her shoulder ‘Welcome to the circus, Wynlaf. You’ll probably be dead soon, but not today, eh?

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

8. A-Watch, Sector 13: On My Radio...

Wily and Muller gunned the powerful Notron V8 engines of their Lawmasters as they merged with the organised chaos that was the Sector 13 traffic system, subconsciously scanning the vehicles around them for signs of lawbreaking. Viewed from above, the effect was something like a pair of sharks moving through a shoal of marine creatures. As they moved, the behaviour of the surrounding vehicles became more steady, watchful and compliant as they warily observed the alpha predators in their midst.
As the Judges moved on, this ‘bubble of compliance’ moved with them whilst those left behind breathed a sigh of relief.

Oblivious to the effect they were having on those around them, the Judges had a moment to reflect on their experiences of the past few weeks and the relationships that were beginning to form within their team. New to the realities of the street as he was, Wily found that he was experiencing an unfamiliar feeling, one that the Academy did its best to eliminate from all Judges before they made Full Eagle. In fact, Wily was unable to register that what he was really feeling was simple human fear, so alien had it become as a concept. Instead, he identified a general unease, putting it down to a simple case of nerves as he settled into his new life. He was sure that his next assessment with the Watch Commander would be favourable, as his team had been successful thus far. Yet though he remained unsettled, he felt a growing attachment to his team members. Muller was just…Muller. On the surface a simple predator and happy to be so, comfortable with the brutal necessities of dealing with lawbreakers in the Big Meg. Yet below the surface, Wily had detected a sharp mind and a willingness to see other points of view. Kowalski was likewise becoming more of a known quantity to him, or at least as far as any Psi Judge could be a known quantity. Although she seemed to live on the edge of neurosis for much of the time, she could absolutely be relied on in a tough situation. And Hart, well: glancing over at his companion as he hunched over the tank of his Lawmaster, Wily caught a perfect profile of his jutting chin. Every Judge of Wily’s generation would have that profile etched into her or his mind. Dredd. Wily couldn’t imagine the scrutiny that Hart would be under as one of the final Fargo clones produced, and frankly he didn’t think Hart would even admit to himself the pressure he would be under. But still he wondered if, deep down in Hart’s mind, he didn’t sometimes feel doubt that he was equal to his heritage. It was bad enough for any Judge; how much worse must it be for Hart?

Hart was oblivious to all of this, of course. Both his heritage and his upbringing in the hardest School of Hard Knocks in existence meant that introspection was a luxury he rarely allowed himself. When it came to the future and his life on the street, the only word that he would have used (if pressed) was ‘excitement’. After all, it was what he was bred for. Regarding his fellow Judges, again if asked he would have lavished the highest praise he could think of: they were weird, but there were worse Judges out there...

Wily was shaken from his thoughts by a sudden burst of static from his helmet comms, followed by the words that made every Judge’s adrenaline spike: ‘All units, this is Control! 99 Code Red in progress, all units respond!’ Wily’s superbly disciplined instincts took over instantly; the incident location was close to them, on the Vincent Price Underzoom. Known as the ‘Six Feet Under’ zoom, it was an area which had been badly damaged in the Apocalypse War and had been patched up repeatedly over the intervening period. As such, spycam coverage was patchy at best, and residual radiation meant that comms were notoriously unreliable meaning that it was a favourite haunt of wreckers and other vehicle-based lawbreaking. Looking over at Hart, he assessed the tactical position. He and Hart were on their way to investigate an increase in illegal mutant activity in the run-down area of the Sector known as ‘Shoddy Lane’. Meanwhile, Muller had been called away to other duties and Kowalski was back at the Sector House undergoing yet another psych-eval of her fitness for street duty. But although his team was at half-strength, they were still the nearest and a 99 Code Red superseded anything short of a full-scale Block War. Instantly, the decision was made: ‘Control, Wily here. Tac-Team en route!’

Hart and Wily reached the reported location in just a few minutes, the endless hours spent on real and simulated Lawmasters standing them in good stead. Hart took in the situation in a heartbeat; a crashed Lawmaster lay on its side ahead of them, a Judge apparently trapped beneath it. Standing over the Judge was a perp wearing some sort of face mask and holding a hand gun of some sort; behind the standing perp was a wheeled vehicle with four other perps inside wearing similar facemasks and wielding weapons. Roaring along on their bikes, the Judges were on the perps in an instant. Wily went wide, looking to cut off the perps in the van as it accelerated away, fish-tailing as it went. Hart went straight for the perp standing over the downed Judge. Instead of slowing down, Hart gunned the throttle and was rewarded by the sight of the perp’s mouth forming a round ‘O’ of horror as he realised what was about to happen to him. As the perp tried to raise his weapon, a final twist of the throttle brought up the front wheel of the Lawmaster in line with the perp’s chest. Deftly manoeuvring around his downed comrade, the crushing impact of the super-wide ‘Firerock’ tyre sent the perp flying backwards over the edge of the zoom onto another roadway below. As he fell, the perp caught the middle of his back on the barrier of the zoom below with a sickening jolt and was propelled into the middle of the slab. Hart grimaced as the perp rose shakily to his feet, in a rare break in traffic and apparently without serious injury. As the perp looked up at Hart, he began to raise his hand in a mocking salute…when suddenly he was hit side on-by a robo-hauler travelling at top speed. The resulting pink mist told Hart all he needed to know, and looking back at the fallen Judge, he was rewarded with the sight of a hand signalling him to continue the pursuit. Grinning, Hart accelerated away with a screech of rubber on rockcrete.

Meanwhile, Wily was exchanging shots with the perps on the wildly-swerving van. He’d picked off at least one of the perps, but he’d taken some shrapnel in return. Hearing Hart’s growl over his helmet comms, Wily became aware of a blurred shape speeding past him. It was only when he heard the phrase ‘Hi-Ex!’ that he realised Hart’s plan. Bringing his Lawmaster over until it was almost horizontal, Hart fired the specialised shell below the speeding getaway vehicle at such an angle that the resulting explosion was almost entirely directed upwards, away from the road and into the bottom of the van. Cushioned on a pillar of fire, the van hopped into the air and crashed onto its side with a screech of metal, sparks flying everywhere. As the van came to a halt, Wily simply gave Hart a terse ‘I had it’ whilst Hart grinned back at him. Over his shoulder, Wily could see the surviving perps climbing from the wreckage unsteadily with their hands raised, noting that they too were wearing similar masks to their deceased comrade.

Whilst Hart checked in with Control, Wily spotted a beaten-up Lawmaster approaching them from behind. As it came closer, he half-raised his hand in greeting, his eyes widening as he recongised a face almost as familiar to him as Dredd’s. Grinning lopsidedly, the Lawmaster’s rider pulled up and made a show of kicking out a bike stand that no longer existed, having been destroyed in the crash. As she walked towards Wily, the Lawmaster teetered for a moment before crashing to the slab. The Judge they had assisted wore no helmet, revealing a shock of blonde hair and a piercing pair of eyes. Wily didn’t need to see the ‘Psi’ label on her badge to know that this was none other than Judge Anderson of Psi-Div. She thanked Wily and Hart for the assistance, watching Hart quizzically as he methodically processed the perps for transfer to the Sector House. When asked why she was in the Sector, Anderson’s eyes tightened. ‘Just a hunch that there was trouble brewing here’ she said. ‘When I heard about your run-in with the so-called Radley Coven, I just felt there was more to this than meets the eye.’ She looked directly at Wily and shrugged; ‘When you’ve lived through what I’ve lived through and seen what I’ve seen, you learn to trust your instincts’.

Whilst they’d been talking, a Med-Wagon had arrived on-scene and Wily turned to jump aboard, waving at Wily and Hart over her shoulder. For some reason Wily felt he should do more than just say farewell, and without thinking he held out his clenched fist for what a juve would call a ‘fist bump’. Head on one side, Anderson stared at Wily’s outstretched fist and for a moment he thought she’d leave him hanging, but suddenly her face creased into a smile and she bumped her fist against his before leaping aboard the Med Wagon, her legs dangling over the edge as she was taken back to the Sector House for treatment. Wily found himself grinning widely as he turned away, only to see Hart regarding him, lip curled. Nothing was said however, and the two Judges continued on their assigned patrol route.

As they returned to the Sector House early that afternoon, Hart reflected on a job well done. After responding to the 99 Code Red, he and Wily had proceeded to Shoddy Lane to follow up on reports of illegal mutant activity. Wily had immediately been surrounded by a crowd of DPs, citizens who had been displaced by one of the various crises that struck MC1 on a regular basis. They gave Hart a wide birth, sensing his fundamentally predatory mindset as their herd instinct took over. Wily’s confiscation of over-priced hotties from a complaining but unlicensed street hawker and distribution to the crowd led to a number of leads on unregistered mutants. Although they didn’t get a lead on the underground railroad they suspected was operating in the area, Hart did manage to pick up a narc amongst the mutant population, one 'Vrodo'. Although his mutations were severe enough to earn him a one-way ticket to the Cursed Earth, Hart’s registration of him as a narc earned him a temporary reprieve. ‘As long as he comes up with the goods, that is’ thought Hart as they pulled into the Sector House garage. Turning their Lawmasters over to the waiting Auxiliary Teks, Hart became aware that the other Judges were regarding them with wariness, even pity. As usual, Wily misread his fellow Judges’ intent and waved, thinking they were being hailed for Anderson’s rescue. But as they walked towards the turbolifts, Hart’s instincts proved correct. Watch Commander Kemp waited for them, his habitually unhappy face looking even more so than usual. Keeping his responses short and to the point, he led the two Judges to one of the many indistinguishable briefing rooms dotted throughout the building and left them alone with a curt nod.

As they waited, Hart stood stoically in the corner, feet planted wide and thumbs hooked into his belt. For his part, Wily sat at the plasteen table and sipped at a cup of tepid synthi-synthi-caff, scowling at the bitter aftertaste. As they waited, they were joined by a complaining Muller. Refusing Wily’s proffered synthi-synthi-caff and giving Hart the briefest nod,  Muller slumped into a chair and lapsed into an ominous silence. Looking from one to the other, Wily wished that Kowalski was there to provide some light relief...

Suddenly, the door burst open and two figures strode in. The lead figure was dressed head to foot in the black uniform every Judge rightly feared: SJS! This particular officer carried himself with all the arrogance and zeal that marked all of his kind, but he was further distinguished by a full-length prosthetic right leg that hissed and whirred as he walked. More disconcertingly, beneath his helmet line he also had a prosthetic jaw constructed of gleaming plas-steel. Where most would have such rebuild covered with synthetic skin to disguise the disfigurement, this Judge had made a conscious decision to leave it uncovered, no doubt to add to his intimidating air. Behind him came a helmeted, diminutive Psi-Judge. Wordlessly, she took up an at-ease position at the rear of the room.

The SJS officer seated himself at the table with a whirr of servos from his leg. As he cleared his throat, it was clear to Wily that the rebuild also extended into his larynx as his voice had a harsh electronic buzz to it. He placed four plain brown folders onto the table. Where most department records were in electronic format, this officer had plainly taken the trouble to produce hard copies of whatever material they contained. Noting Wily’s expression, the SJS Judge  began to speak. ‘Whilst I recognise the ease of using digital records, I also believe there is value in seeing a Judge’s actions rendered in physical form. It makes it easier to weigh a Judge’s words and actions, and to determine their worth. Or otherwise.’ Noting Muller’s incredulous expression, the Judge picked up a folder marked with Muller’s name and appeared to weigh it on the flat of his hand. ‘Of course, some Judges do not tip the scales favourably, no matter how hard they try’. As he spoke, something about his voice nagged at Wily and Muller although they couldn’t place it, distorted as it was. Wily thought it sounded like Hart, although that was plainly nonsense.

Muller could take no more. As he launched into a rant regarding wasting Justice Department time, Wily cut him off with some placatory comments, ever the peacemaker. After listening to Wily’s recap of their experiences over the past few weeks, the SJS officer leaned back in his chair. ‘So you deny any contact with Judge Anderson in connection to these matter?’. When Wily responded in the negative, the unidentified SJS Judge looked back over his shoulder at the silent Psi Judge in the corner. As he did so, all three Tac-Team members felt an odd sensation of...wrongness. Almost as if the taste of sour milk-ish powder was a thought, was how Wily described it later. Abruptly, the feeling of wrongness disappeared and the small Psi Judge simply looked at the SJS Judge and nodded. Abruptly, he gathered the four folders together and stood, accompanied by a whining sound from his prosthetic that set teeth on edge.

‘Be aware that your conduct in the coming weeks and months will be under close scrutiny. Closer than usual, that is. Also, be aware that there are some in the Justice Department who find Anderson’s wilful nature to be a cause for concern, and those who feel her misuse of Departmental material without authorisation to be borderline criminal.’ Turning towards the door, he removed his helmet and glared at them. With a shock, Wily realised that he was looking into the eyes of Hart! The reason that his voice sounded so like his team mate was that they were clearly both clones drawn from the heritage of Eustace Fargo, the renowned Father of Justice. However, whereas Hart was young, this clone was a window into how he may look with another two decades of street time under his belt. The SJS Judge went on: ‘Remember that I, SJS Judge Smith, will be watching and weighing your worth, regardless of your heritage’ he said, fixing Hart with a glare. ‘And if you are found wanting, retribution will be swift’. With that, Smith and his unsettling companion left the team alone with their thoughts.

After the inevitable explosion from Muller and the taciturn response from Hart, Wily headed out to find Anderson to get some answers. She too had been interviewed by Judge Smith, but her sardonic good humour was unchanged when he found her, feet up on the table in the rec area. It became clear that Smith had something of an issue with Anderson, and had made it his mission to have her thrown out of the Department. When asked about his Psi-Div minder, Anderson shrugged. ‘I’ve never met her before, but I know she’s a Blank’. A Blank was a special type of psychic, who had very little power beyond possibly simple telepathy. Instead, a Blank broadcast a sort of psychic null-zone, where the powers of other psykers didn’t work and couldn’t penetrate. ‘Perhaps Smith’s afraid, got something to hide, both or neither’ Anderson opined. ‘Anyway, enough about that bozo; let’s go see what those drokkers who tried to off me earlier have got to say’.

As expected, the perps caved in soon enough under the expert attentions of Wily, Hart and an especially snarly Muller. The masks they were wearing were all associated with a popular Black Spug band that went under the charming moniker of ‘Sordid Cadaver’. The masks had all been sold as merchandise at the band’s gigs over the past few months and, when examined, the poorly-rendered designs on the front were supposed to represent one of the Dark Judges that BS bands usually referenced in their lyrics. The ‘songs’ themselves were almost always based on those of one of the original BS bands, ‘Eternal Master’. The band themselves had long disappeared, although they had achieved some notoriety when the lead singer had been shot dead on stage by an unknown perp. Still, their most popular album, ‘Songs to Wake the Dead’, influenced BS bands to this day.

The perps themselves were typical low-life members of one of the myriad juve gangs that had sprung up along with the BS craze. Snivelling in fear, they revealed that they were fans of one of the many pirate vid-shows that played BS bands exclusively. Although the Justice Department shut them down as fast as they appeared, there were always more and resources were stretched thinly as it is. Pirate vids usually piggy-backed their signals along with the daytime shopping channels that had been carefully created to anaesthetise the populace with pointless ‘must-have’ items. They thought this made them untraceable, but the Tek-Judges had long since perfected an algorithm to quickly find their location if needed.

One show in particular had caught the perps' limited attention. It was hosted by two masked juves that called themselves ‘Dark Demon’ and ‘Death Angel’ (‘how original!’ scoffed Muller) and who ranted about the rise of the Church of Eternal Life, the destruction of the Judges and a new world of freedom that would be ushered in by the return of the ‘Eternal Master’. Lately, they’d been inciting juves to attack and kill Judges, especially blonde female ones, finishing off their broadcasts with the chorus of one of Eternal Master’s most popular songs: ‘Death lives! Death will live again!’.

Unsurprisingly, none of this sounded encouraging to Wily’s team. Quickly, they formulated a plan. Wily made contact with one of his contacts, Tek-Judge Klop, and tasked him with tracking down the pirate radio station once it came on air with a view to paying them a visit. Hart began analysing data on BS bands held on M.A.C., the Justice Department database, particularly on Sordid Cadaver and Eternal Master. Muller set his mind to reviewing crime reports of juve gangs, scrawlers, kooks, anything that could have a link to the Church of Eternal Life...or Death. As they set to their separate tasks, all three looked up as the door opened and an unusually upbeat Kowalski sauntered in with a casual ‘So, did I miss anything important...?’

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

4. Prison Break (Out!)

 Pulling Vapour’s unconscious form from the wrecked transport pod, Bonto, Dar and Algol quickly backed around the corner of the access tunnel that led to the Susan. Given how the job had gone so far, they were relieved to be just a few minutes away from leaving Isotropa Max Secure behind, hopefully for good. Alarms could be heard blaring somewhere off in the distance as security transports buzzed back and forth, apparently moving gradually in their direction. As their attention was fixed on the activity ahead of them, they almost missed the small sound of movement behind them. As one, the depleted crew turned around, Vapour’s form slumping to the floor. Further along the short access tunnel lay the maintenance hatch they had used to gain access to the prison facility; just the other side was the pressurised umbilical that would take them to the Susan and a fast escape. Unfortunately, between them and the hatch was the so-called ‘maintenance crew’ Vapour had given the run-around earlier on. There were three as before, although now their overalls were torn and scorched in places. They also appeared to be liberally splashed with patches of blood, some of it theirs, most of it not. The other crew looked up from where they were attempting to cut through the hatch to the ship beyond, and it was obvious they were not happy…

Thinking quickly, Bonto began to try to fast-talk the opposing crew in the hopes of getting past them without a fight. Unfortunately, his targets were pumped up on adrenalin from their encounters with security as well as angry at being duped by Vapour earlier on. Drawing a knife, the leader of the crew, a hugely-muscled amphibian Xeno, launched herself at Bonto and Algol. Dar’s instincts kicked in, however, and he launched himself in the path of the charging thug, taking a deep cut to his upper arm in the process. Falling to the ground, the evenly-matched warriors began to wrestle and claw at each other with a succession of shouted Xeno curses.

Eyeing the other two thugs, Algol reached out with the Way, intending to cloud the other crew’s minds enough to allow Dar to overcome his foe and give his crew the upper hand. Unfortunately, the same anger that had foiled Bonto’s smooth talking approach meant that his attempt just made them angrier. Pulling their own blades, the thugs began to move in on them with a snarl. Bonto and Algol looked at each other and pulled out their hidden blasters in response. Still wanting to avoid bloodshed, they flicked the ‘stun’ settings on their weapons and let loose, no noting the highly reflective surfaces behind where the thugs were standing…

Seeing his friends in danger, Dar played his ace card. Muscles bunching in his throat, he launched his tongue lash at his Xeno opponent; all members of his species had this adaptation, and the fact that most of his species were dead meant that knowledge of it was not widespread. It almost worked without a hitch; his opponent’s large eyes widened in shock as the stunning toxin spread throughout her system. Unfortunately, as she slumped to the deck, she lashed out with her blade and cut Dar’s tongue badly.

Rising to his feet, blood pouring down his face, Dar groaned as he saw his crew’s predicament. Both Bonto and Algol had taken a ‘spray and pray’ approach with their blasters. Unfortunately, the thugs were trained in close-quarter fighting and easily dodged the incoming fire. However, the stun blasts had struck the polished surfaces behind the thugs and rebounded; although much of the strength was lost, Algol and Bonto had taken enough of a blast to bring them to their knees. Indeed, Bonto had taken the brunt of the reflected blast and now seemed all but incapacitated, mumbling to himself as the thugs held knives to his and Algol’s throats.

Desperately, Dar ran through all of his possible responses to this turn of events, but none of them had a pleasant outcome. As he did so, he saw Algol staring meaningfully back at him as he slowly reached under his jacket. Dar took the hint and continued to look threatening, distracting the thugs long enough for Algol to pull his hold-out blaster from beneath his smuggler’s webbing and blast the thug holding him. The thug went down, seriously wounded, and the remaining thug dropped his blade. Moving quickly, the crew opened the hatch and dragged Vapour and Bonto back into the welcome surroundings of the Susan. Debating what to do with their sparring partners, they briefly considered spacing the survivors but finally decided to leave them to the mercies of IMS security. As the hatch closed for the final time, they could see the amphibious Xeno banging on the reinforced plexi-glass with a murderous look in her eye…

As they considered their next move, Bonto began to stir; a rare lucky break meant that he’d taken the precaution of wearing a light armoured vest under his coverall, and could now pilot the Susan, although with difficulty. Turning the Susan around inside the IMS access shaft proved challenging enough, so rather than attempt the same stealthy approach taken by Vapour the elected to simply blast away at full sub-light speed. By some miracle they managed it, although Vapour wouldn’t be happy; in red-lining the drives, they’d managed to fuse the induction coils. Although they could land, they wouldn’t be taking off any time soon without expensive repairs.

Not wanting to run the risk of encountering Legion patrols around the system’s jump gate, the crew decided to play it safe. They set course for Amerath, a jungle planet in the Iota system. One of Algol’s contacts, an artefact dealer named Hicks, made his home there and would be able to offer them a safe haven for a while.  Further, the Mendicant Order had a significant presence on Amerath, and so medical attention would be readily available.

The crew spent some time amid the lush, green forests of Amerath. Their focus was on resting up, both physically and mentally, whilst Bonto also focussed on getting the Susan ready to fly again. As they rested, they scanned the comm-nets for their next job. The fallout from their last job was significant. Hicks reported that the heat on them had increased significantly, although the presence of the thugs on IMS had proven a blessing. It turned out that they had been involved in an ill-fated prison break, and much of the noise caused had been placed at their door. Another interesting story caught their attention. Sadly, reports of the death of the li Vosa family member being held on IMS were starting to circulate. Despite being previously healthy, he had suddenly passed away from a previously undetected and catastrophic neurological condition. Although sudden, a post-mortem had ruled out foul play. The li Vosa family had made all the right noises; ‘very sad’, ‘great loss’, et cetera. But very quickly, Draxler’s Raiders and the li Vosa clan seemed to have gained a new-found trust for each other. It turned out that IMS had been using their li Vosa inmate as a source of material with which to blackmail the li Vosa, so his sudden death was actually very much in his family’s interest.

Glumly, the crew searched for a simple job where they could be confident they were doing the ‘right’ thing, which played to their strengths and which wouldn’t immediately bring the SysCops down on them. As it happened, Hicks pointed them towards a group of Mendicants who wanted to gain entry to the industrial world of Indri without drawing attention. There was plague there amongst the worker caste, and the Mendicants wished to provide medical treatment. However, the Church of the Stellar Flame and their Legion allies were on the lookout for them. So; a simple smuggling job, in and out: what could go wrong…right?

Saturday, 12 January 2019

3, Prison Break (In): Part One

Having managed to pull off their first high-profile job, the Susan’s crew took advantage of some well-earned downtime. For the most part, they either used their time wisely or, where vices were indulged, at least discretely. However, Vapour found he was unable to keep a low profile even when relaxing. During his colourful past, he’d developed an obligation to Yattu, an influential enforcer for the Echo Wave Riders. Although Vapour had tried to discourage his brother from following in his footsteps, his brother had proven just as stubborn and pig-headed as Vapour and taken a job as one of Yattu’s goons. After undertaking a successful side job for his Yattu, he’d taken his brother out to sample some of the local Hijaa vine at a local bar. Whether it was the euphoric effect of the Hijaa or just innate stupidity, Vapour had returned from the bar to find his brother regaling all and sundry with the details of their latest exploits on Shimaya. Sighing inwardly, Vapour made a note of two things; one: never to tell his brother anything about his work ever again, and two: that several known snitches were paying particular attention to the details being so thoroughly described by his brother. No doubt, the authorities would be very interested when they heard the details...

Meanwhile, back on the Susan Bonto was scanning the sector comm-nets for a likely paying job. Everyone knew that the Sah’iir controlled the ansible network that connected the systems and sectors of the Hegemony. What only a select few knew, however, was that there were certain ‘agreements’ in place between the Sah’iir and less acceptable (criminal) elements to enable other, less controlled communication to take place. If you knew the right people, you could purchase a specially-built module that could pick up signals encoded into the carrier waves of certain innocuous broadcasts. If you knew which broadcasts and when, with the highly illegal device you could take your pick of a range of unusual or just highly illegal jobs that could lead to wealth or a lonely death in deep space, depending on your luck. When the crew got back together to discuss their next move, one job immediately caught their attention. Draxler’s Raiders had put out a call for a crew to enter Isotropa Max Secure (Procyon’s most secure prison) and locate an IMS employee named Rey Livia. Having located Rey, the crew were to hand over a package of drugs. Draxler had discovered that Livia supplemented her income by acting as a fixer for some of the more affluent or influential individuals who found themselves guests of IMS. Once the package is handed over, the crew were to instruct Livia pass the drugs to an inmate named Haight Kalo li Vosa in place of his usual supply.

As Bonto read this out, the crew looked at each other sharply; the li Vosa clan were a powerful family who ran shipping lines across the sector. Kalo was one of a long line of li Vosa scions who had squandered the opportunities afforded them by drinking, gambling and fighting their way into a succession of high-tech prisons. The pay was right, the risk seemed low and the chance to get on the good side of Draxler’s Raiders was too good to miss.

So it was that Vapour found himself piloting the Susan towards the blocky immensity of the Isotropa Max Secure facility. It seemed to squat there before him, radiating malevolence as the Susan edged slowly towards it. Vapour concentrated on his instrument panel, trying to fight the sensation that the station was looking directly at him through the walls of the ship. Their approach plan had been simple enough in principle, but eye-wateringly difficult in practice. The Susan had used floating radioactive gas clouds to approach the prison, avoiding detection by running with all systems powered down, including drives. Vapour had flown by dead reckoning only, eyes closed, using the shielded computer systems to govern the twists and turns of the ship at a significant percentage of the speed of light. As they flew closer to the orbital bulk, what had seemed to be a blank wall was revealed to be pocked with a range of entry ports and maintenance shafts. The Susan edged towards a small exhaust port, no different to any of the hundreds of others save that the Susan’s crew had purchased a transponder code that would allow them to enter without setting off the prison’s alarms.

Once inside, Vapour brought them in close to one of the many maintenance hatches that dotted the length of the tunnel. As they coasted to a halt, a flexible tube snaked from the side of the Susan and closed over the maintenance hatch, forming a pressurised airlock. Moving swiftly, Bonto and Dar grabbed their gear and started to override the computerised locking mechanism. Bonto was in his element, his eyes widening with glee as he quickly overcame the security protocols. But his absorption was nearly his undoing; reaching out his hand for a probe lance, he almost took hold of a live cable that would have seriously injured him and tripped Isotropa’s security systems. With inhuman reflexes, Dar reached out and snatched the cable out of Bonto’s reach, grimacing as the power grounded through him and made his hearts flutter sickeningly for a moment. As Dar glared at his careless crewmate, Bonto chuckled to himself as the hatch opened, oblivious to Dar’s selfless act.

Once inside the prison, the crew found themselves on a wide walkway, opening up into a huge internal space criss-crossed by power cables. Far above them, transport pods flicked to and fro between different sections of the prison; Vapour eyed them hungrily, hoping he’d get the chance to see how much speed he could coach out of their small engines. Rapidly, the crew made their way towards where they could access the turbo-lifts and system access workstations. They would need both to find out where Rey Livia could be found and how to get to her. As they made their way carefully through the maze of maintenance shafts that riddled this part of the structure, the crew turned a corner and ran straight into another group of maintenance workers heading the opposite way. Luckily, they’d anticipated such an encounter and had made sure they were equipped with the clothing and security passes that would allow them to pass themselves off as maintenance workers. Smoothly, Vapour spun a believable lie: that this segment of the prison was contaminated with highly-toxic coolant gas and should be avoided by all personnel until further notice. Cursing, their supposed colleagues rapidly turned round and headed in the opposite direction, thanking the crew for the warning. Smirking at the others, pleased with his own cleverness, Vapour led the way deeper into the prison and towards their quarry,Rey Livia.

As soon as they found the system access point, Bonto set up his state-of-the-art hacking rig and set to work. Perhaps he was getting over-confident; although he managed to pull Livia’s work assignment and location from the system, he also managed to trip a hidden intrusion counter-measure programme. Although they hadn’t been rumbled yet, it was now only a matter of time. Grabbing their gear, the crew jogged rapidly around the corner...straight into another maintenance crew. Unlike the other squad they’d encountered, something seemed Where the other squad was made up of Non-Baselines, humans adapted to live and die in zero gravity, this team was made up of a mix of species and had significantly more muscle mass. This, combined with the presence of prison tattoos of varying quality, revealed that they had their own secrets. Again, Vapour took the lead in a swift negotiation backed up by a looming Dar. As the two ‘maintenance teams’ passed each other warily, Vapour grinned to himself; after a whispered comment from Bonto, he’d sent the other team into an area that would bring them into eventual contact with security teams. He had a feeling that they might need a distraction at some point, and this might provide just that...

Finally, they located Livia. She was a mid-level, career prison administrator and was currently assigned to personnel (payroll) duties. Looking through the window of her shared office, the crew took a breath and entered, loudly complaining about problems with pension contributions. Once they had her attention, they tried to pass the package of drugs over to her without attracting the attention of her fellow administrators. However,  Livia clearly had no idea who they were and why they were there as she initially called security to detain them. Just as a security team arrived at the door of the office, Livia realised her error and began to explain her error. Luckily, Vapour’s earlier misdirection of the second non-maintenance team proved to have been well-planned; alarms began to blare and the security team immediately ran to investigate. In the confusion, Livia ushered them into a side-room where they repeated the instruction to give li Vosa the drugs. Having anticipated Livia’s likely mistrust of their motives, they’d spent some of their future earnings to obtain a flawless forgery of a letter from the li Vosa family, requesting that she do just that. To do this, they’d had to ask a favour of Rakka, a shady diplomat of their acquaintance; there was no doubt that this favour would be recalled, in time.

But for now, the first part of their task was done and they needed to leave, quickly. Livia pointed them towards a nearby transport hub, where they were face with a choice: a slower return to the Susan via turbo-shaft, or a faster but riskier ride via a transport pod. For Vapour, there was no contest: he leapt aboard a pod and started the engines, a gleam of excitement in his eyes. The others piled in after him and the pod shot away, Vapour redlining the drives to get back to his beloved Susan. Unfortunately, he misjudged the tolerances of the engines and brought the pod in at too steep an angle, crashing it and knocking himself senseless in the process. Picking themselves up from the floor of the wrecked pod, the remaining crew members carried the unconscious Vapour into the hatchway leading back to the Susan...only to run into their not-maintenance team friends, fully occupied in using a las-cutter to force their way into the Susan’s hold. As Dar and Bonto skidded into view, Vapour draped between them, the other crew looked up with a snarled intake of breath... (to be continued!)

Friday, 4 January 2019

20. Waterday/ Illusion Week/ Sea Season to Waterday/ Disorder Week/ Fire Season 1618

As Yelm crested the horizon ahead of them, the companions reflected on the importance of the task that lay before them. Since the Battle of the Broken Tower and their return to Clearwine as victors, the heroes had passed the time in whatever way had seemed best to each. Sandene and Yrsa had spent much of their waking time together; although their cult allegiances could not have been more different, each of them recognised something in the other that was perhaps lacking in herself. Yrsa saw in Sandene a strong warrior who could help her reconcile her terror of open war with her need to protect her friends and community. For her part (although she would admit it to no-one least of all herself),  Sandene saw a deep strength and liveliness of spirit in Yrsa that a servant of Death such as herself would never have. Neither of them spoke these words, however; instead, they expressed them through action as befitted their natures: whilst Yrsa stood in the centre of a training ring and showed Sandene how to take her first tentative steps as a horsewoman, Sandene talked of war and the joy of the axe-song.
Randel and Bofrost likewise spent some time together at the Stead. Randel busied himself with strengthening the growing community, ensuring that the cottars working the land gifted by the Clan were settled and their grievances heard. The palisade surrounding the main cluster of buildings grew tall and strong, and the buildings within were dedicated to the Gods as they were completed, one by one. The extent of Randel’s ambition was shown by the presence of a God-house, tended by Kareena the priestess of Orlanth who had travelled from Apple Lane with the other refugees. Two of the alcoves within the building were occupied with shrines to Orlanth and to Ernalda, but there was room for other shrines yet to be dedicated. Randel could often be seen in quieter moments, standing before Ernalda’s shrine, chewing his lip and lost in his own thoughts of his own future and that of his Stead.
As a follower of Llankor Mhy, Bofrost spent much of his time in contemplation of knowledge. Others noted that he spent much of the time alone in his small section of the communal Long Hall, in an area curtained off for privacy. Those who stood near could often hear Bofrost muttering to himself, in words that none understood. If disturbed at these times, Bofrost would snap at the interloper and glower darkly. Yet at other times, Bofrost threw back the curtains and took a full part in the life of the Stead, helping where he could and asking endless questions of herder and farmer alike as to their ways. Most unusually though, Bofrost spent many hours in the company of Jayvis Thunderthroat. This follower of Humakt had accompanied the band back to the Stead following the battle of the Broken Tower, and with him had come the huge Dark Troll. Both had been given leave to stay within the Stead, and they had set up a living space up against a section of the palisade. Jayvis had a simple but comfortable tent, and regularly disturbed the peace of the Stead with ribald songs that made even Terrastal blush. The Troll, however, made do with a simple tarp that it threw over itself during daylight. At night, however, it sat with Jayvis and increasingly with Bofrost. As it talked in a voice that sounded like rocks moving deep in the earth, an eavesdropper would have noted that Bofrost’s voice could be heard conversing in the same inhuman language, haltingly at first but with increasing confidence. Clobgork the Uz was a skald of sorts, or so it appeared, who had been travelling the lands on a knowledge quest before being Enthralled by Idrima. Now, it was caught between its duty to its people and its duty to Idrima, so it sat unhappily in the corner of the Stead whilst the cottars whispered, cast sidelong glances and barred their doors at night.
Where was Terrastal whilst this went on? He fumed and fretted, frustrated with the domesticity of his companions. Restlessly, he travelled to and from Clearwine where he spent much time with Drenyan. He could not understand how anyone could think of creating anything when the Lunar overlords could take it away at any point. All of his hatred of the Lunars coalesced around the fate of Baranthos; as he heard Drenyan’s tales of Baranthos’ exploits and his dedication to Orlanth, he became more determined than ever that Kangharl would not be the victor in this matter. And so it was that when a summons came from the Clan Ring to speak to the Heroes of the Broken Tower, it was Terrastal that urgently conveyed the message and eagerly strode ahead of his companions as they entered the Hall of the Ernaldori.
For the most part, the members of the Clan Ring greeted them warmly; their part in raising the spirit of the Stone Goddess had increased their reputation, and their part in driving back the strongest Chaos incursion for a generation was already the subject of tavern songs throughout the city. Yet whilst Drenyan sang their praises and Morganeth looked upon them with favour, Colymar favoured of Barntar the Ploughman remained unconvinced. He still saw only risk and danger in their exploits, where his nature called out for stability and peace. But Morganeth spoke for the Ring: ‘The omens are troubling indeed. Though the Lunar boot lies heavy on Orlanthi necks, the threat of Chaos is growing. Broo are now at large in the Starfire Ridges, and though all Sartarite hands will be against them they will be almost impossible to cleanse completely. But there are signs of hope also, Idrima is now walking once more, and Jenest and Eirissa will return to the Stone Tower to mark the songlines for Idrima to follow back to the Earth Temple. We plan to finish the song in Dark Season, on the High Holy Day of her mother, Maran Gor. But we must act to strengthen the Clan and the Tribe to survive what is to come. We need strong leaders, Rune Lords and Rune Priests who will stand for the Ernaldori. Whilst the Hidden Gale and the Black Spear preach war, our folk must come first. Therefore, now is the time for you to travel to our neighbouring Clans and secure their support in Baranthos’ trial.’ As she spoke, servants entered the hall, carrying fine cloth and chests of coin and silver platters. Behind them, other servants bore weapons and other treasures of the Clan with reverence. Morganeth and the other members of the Ring fixed the heroes with a steady gaze: ‘You will travel as emissaries of the Clan to the Enjossi and the Konthasos, so will be provided with fine clothing as befits that status. Both Clans have a history of friendliness towards us, but these gifts will show our respect for them in return. When we come to the trial, their votes may be those that save Baranthos’ life. But beware; Kangharl has dispatched his own warriors to the Clans, to gain their support through gifts or threats as needed. Our supporters in Kangharl’s court report that Hahlgrima Snaggletooth has been given this task’. As she said this, her lip curled in distaste. Hahlgrima was a powerful and boastful warrior of the Taraling Clan; she had once been a great beauty, but an Ernaldori axe had changed this during an honour duel and now she took pleasure in thwarting and damaging the Clan whenever she could.
The following day, as the hero band rode towards Konthasos lands, the weight of Morganeth’s words hung heavy in the air around them. The Konthasos were known as the ‘Wine Clan’, as they produced the finest Clearwine in Dragon Pass and Orendal, their chief, was known as a prudent and cautious man who always looked for the path of peace. As they rode, they agreed that an appeal to Orendal’s desire for stability and continuity might be successful. As they approached the edge of Ernaldori lands, they felt the gossamer touch in their minds of their Clan spirit, its wyter. As they crossed the boundary of their Clan lands, they felt a sense of a fond farewell with the promise of a warm welcome on their return. In contrast, as they entered new lands they felt a sense of questioning and wariness as the Konthasos wyter noted their presence. Sure enough, before they had travelled but a mile further on, they were met by a band of Konthasos warriors waiting patiently along their route. Halting a javelin’s throw from the warband, they answered their shouted questions as ritual demanded, and without any unseemly delay the companions were offered Konthasos bread, salt and water as tokens of Clan hospitality. 
As she rode, Sandene slumped in her saddle and regarded the backs of their Konthasos escorts morosely. She had approached the diplomatic journey with an air of grim resignation. Her time in Orlanthi lands had been both baffling and frustrating – their obsession with boasting and preening and debating points of honour – as if any of it mattered! 
The Mother teaches that there are plants, and animals, and people that are beloved of Earth. 
There is evil that wishes to destroy and control that which is beloved of Earth through treachery and lies. 
And there are those who also love that which is beloved of Earth, but they must stand apart in order to slay that evil. 
In Tarsh the Shaker Temple was large enough that the Axe Maidens were a group apart – Sandene had never spent as much time with those she was sworn to protect. Initially Sandene had travelled with the group because they had clearly been sent by the Mother to guide her back, and the carnage at the Broken Tower had proven that Sandene was fated to protect the daughter of Maran Gor and therefore the Earth Temple at Clearwine. 
But the individuals were more interesting than she had thought. Randel and his love of material things – and, of course Eirissa. Brave Yrsa, and her love of horses. Bofrost and his love of knowledge.  Even Terrastal, who despite his posturing and bravado clearly loved his community. Although a true Axe Maiden must put aside love lest they begin to fear Death there seemed no reason not to find out a little more about what interests those she must protect? 
Anyway, the group had travelled through yet more Orlanthi lands, with Sandene largely riding apart, though occasionally clumsily trying conversation with her companions. Having encountered the clan that Terrestal wanted to influence,  no doubt there would follow the usual bragging and presentation of stuff before everyone had some time off to prepare for some even more pointless preening and boasting accompanied by an extravagant waste of food and drink…
As they approached the main Clan settlement, they rode through wide vineyards being tended by well-fed clansfolk who sang as they worked. Although it was yet early in the growing season, Clearwine vines needed constant attention if they were to be fruitful and there was always work to be done. But despite the apparently idyllic scene, Terrastal and Sandene noted that each worker had a weapon within easy reach and that small bands of mounted warriors were dotted here and there throughout the fields, their eyes scanning for danger constantly. Even here, death could be a moment away.
The main Konthasos settlement was built on two hills, with heavily fortified strongpoints on each joined by a high palisade that spanned the saddle between. The folk were wealthy, Randel noted, and would be good trading partners. As he pointed this out, Sandene showed Yrsa the artfully-designed killing zones that lay before the walls. This was no easy target; although the Clan preferred peace, they were clearly ready for war.
Finally, they were brought before a huge longhouse, its beams finely decorated with scenes proclaiming the Clan’s history and heroes. Images of Ernalda and Barntar were everywhere, although they were careful to honour all of the gods. To Terrastal’s satisfaction, there was no evidence of Lunar influence to be seen. As they rode up to the finely-carved door, an older man in rich clothing greeted them. ‘Well met, sisters and brothers of the Ernaldori! It’s always a pleasure to greet those who come in peace and of such high importance.’ Yrsa was puzzled for a moment, but then remembered how her mother had braided her hair and fussed over the outfit she had been provided with by the Clan Ring. Although she had pulled at the unfamiliar clothing to make it more comfortable and no doubt some of her braids had come loose, she supposed she still cut an imposing figure. Stealing a glance at the watching Konthasos, she noted something she had never received before: admiring glances! She felt a deep warmth begin to burn the back of her neck and her face began to flush, and she stared fixedly forward hoping for it all to end.
The older man had identified himself as Orendal, Clan Chief of the Konthasos, and had enquired as to their business. As Randel talked of the upcoming trial and the need for Colymar unity, Bofrost noted that Orendal did not seem surprised at their presence, and he felt a deep sense of foreboding. This sense was deepened as they entered the Clan hall; Konthasos clanfolk were dotted here and there, but a far table was dominated by a group of warriors bearing the marks of the Taraling Clan and those loyal to Kangharl.  As they moved further into the hall, a huge woman with rippling muscles, intricate tattoos and a cruelly-scarred face rose to her feet and folded her arms: Hahlgrima had beaten them to it. Instantly, Terrastal began to spar verbally with the scarred warrior, his had straying to his weapon despite the peace knot holding it in place. Sandene moved to stand at his shoulder, deciding which of Hahlgrima’s warriors she should kill first. Randel raised his hands and began to make conciliatory noises, concerned their mission would be over before it had begun whilst Bofrost watched with interest, but before angry words could be spoken Orendal banged his staff on the hall floor and spoke with a voice that would brook no argument. ‘No doubt all are tired after their journey, as this can often lead to short tempers and ill-manners.’ Glowering at Terrastal for his breach of etiquette he continued, ‘but all is well. Take food and drink and rest, for tonight we will hold a feast to welcome all of our illustrious guests and hear their petitions’. With that, clanfolk moved to both groups and led them to where they would be lodged for the night. Randel noted to Bofrost that it was probably just coincidental that they and Hahlgrima’s band were placed at opposite ends of the settlement...
By the time the heroes were summoned to the feast, the hall of the Konthasos was full to bursting. Hahlgrima was already in attendance, and was finishing the presentation of their gifts to Orendal. Although she was no skald, the opulence of her gifts spoke for themselves. In contrast, Randel felt their own gifts were less impressive and he saw this reflected in Orendal’s eyes as he stepped forward. Taking a deep breath and calling on his Harmony Rune, he began to speak in his high, clear voice. ‘We bring you gifts that celebrate the great friendship between our clans, gifts worthy of only the greatest allies of the Ernaldori! This cup was used to capture the blood of the prize sacrifice during the Feast of Beasts before it was fed to the Sacred Earth. May your herds always be strong! This platter was used to serve the Chief Baranthos at his wedding feast.  May your unions always be fruitful! And the last and greatest of our special gifts. This is the spear of Jarang the Hunter who kept the Ernaldori fed during the Great Winter. May it keep the wolves from your door!’. Looking around, he heard murmurs of appreciation from the crowd at his words as Orendal took his gifts and placed them atop those of Hahlgrima, smiling. As he stepped down to join his friends, he noted Hahlgrima standing with arms folded, scowling and he permitted himself a small nod in return. 
After such a hopeful start, however, the remainder of their evening was less pleasant. Though they did their best to impress the Konthasos by embodying the best of Orlanthi virtues, their relative lack of experience in diplomacy undid them. Although they tried to embody several of the Orlanthi cultural virtues of dance, song and storytelling, none of their attempts had the impact that they wished for. The final blow came as Yrsa wrestled one of Hahlgrima’s warriors to a standstill and was poised for victory only to be undone by a snide and well-hidden stampt to her instep. As she landed roughly in the dust of the hall to jeers and taunts, Orendal looked on, his expression unreadable. 
Early the following morning, as the companions made ready to leave for Enjossi lands, Orendal came to speak with them. It quickly became apparent that although he had great sympathy for Baranthos’ plight, he did not feel able to go against Kangharl’s wishes. Although Terrastal argued forcefully for the need to take a stand against Lunar domination, Orendal was unmoved. ‘Kangaharl is a dangerous friend, it is true. But he is and even more dangerous enemy, and I will do what I must to protect my Clan and its lands. I wish I could do more, but that is an end to it’.
With these words ringing in their ears, the heroes departed in a sour mood. This setback made it even more important that they secure the support of the Enjossi. As they rode, however, their mood was lifted by the beauty of the lands they rode through. Whereas Konthasos lands were dominated by ordered vineyards, Enjossi lands were wilder, more untamed and spoke to the Orlanthi love of wild places. The Salmon Clan, as they were known, made their living from the waters of the great rivers and tributaries that split their lands and were fishermen and boatmen without peer. Again, they were met by warriors of the Enjossi as they crossed into their territory. But where the Konthasos had been polite and careful in their words, the Enjossi were more perfunctory whilst obeying the relevant conventions. The heroes didn’t sense hostility, however; rather the warriors seemed distracted and somewhat dispirited. Wondering what this portended, the companions followed along behind, hands close to their weapons. The land continued to fall away before them, and after some time they saw the blue of water glittering in Yelm’s warming rays. As they came closer still, they saw building after building apparently floating above the waterways. As they looked at each other in wonder, Bofrost bought them down to earth somewhat. Whereas most Clans built their strongholds on hills and defensible points, the Enjossi built their homes and halls on long poles driven into the river floor. Any enemy would be showered with arrows and spells cast from above, whilst summoned River Dragons attacked them from below. Despite the apparent fragility of their existence, the Enjossi had yet to be seriously hurt by any raiding party or warband. 
As the heroes waited to meet with Griselda, the Enjossi Chief, Terrastal took the opportunity to visit a local tavern whilst his companions watched the fishermen at their nets. Yrsa noted that whilst most of the fishermen worked at least in pairs, one at least seemed to be working alone further along the shore, struggling to bring his boat in and unship his nets. A question died on her lips however, as she was ignorant of local customs and didn’t wish to appear out of place. Of more immediate interest to all of them were the huge holes that seemed to mar all of the nets. Although the fishermen were loathe to discuss the cause, it eventually became clear that these were due to attacks by River Dragons. Noting Randel’s puzzled expression, Bofrost and Yrsa explained that these were huge lizards that could be deadly if not treated with respect. More than this, however, the fishermen would not say. 
After a while, Terrastal returned from the tavern wearing a scowl. Much to his annoyance, the locals had been impressed with neither his fine clothes or his tales of the Battle of the Broken Tower. Moreover, he thought the weak ale had been made from some sort of fish, or at least it tasted that way.  
With some relief, they were finally taken to the Hall of the Enjossi. As they neared the great building rearing over them on a forest of wooden stilts, they heard sounds that could only come from a forge. Noting their expressions, their escort proudly boasted of Griselda’s prowess as a redsmith, skilled in the working of bronze and other metals. Having climbed the long ladders to the upper platforms, the band were ushered into a forge and the presence of a powerfully-built woman of middle years. She did not react to their presence, but continued to croon to a piece of metal she was working over an anvil, as one would to a baby. Looking at each other, the companions remained respectfully silent. After a time, Griselda shook herself as if awaking from  a dream and looked up, noticing her visitors. Welcoming them with every courtesy, they moved through into the great hall where they were greeted as custom demanded. As they presented their gifts and made known the reason or their visit, Griselda listened politely but with a distracted air. As they spoke, the evening meal was served. In stark contrast to the fare provided by the Konthasos, this was poor and thin, water with a few flakes of fish floating within. Noting their expressions, Griselda explained that catches had been poor for many weeks, and that Engizi the River God was angry with them and was sending his River Dragons to destroy their nets. However, they were unable to draw Griselda further as to the reason and after some further stilted conversation she took her leave; before long, the sound of hammer on anvil could be heard in the night air. 
As they discussed what they might do to secure the Clan’s goodwill, they were approached by a young woman. Dressed modestly, she was the very antithesis of what many saw as the pinnacle of Orlanthi womanhood in one such as Ernalsulva. Yet she radiated a quiet strength and was clear of eye and forthright of word, and all of them knew they were in the presence of one blessed by the Gods. Named Frieda, she identified herself as Griselda’s daughter and offered to explain what had turned Engizi against her Clan if they would go with her. Eagerly, they followed as Frieda led them out of the hall and onto the riverbank, towards a small hut that stood apart from the others. As they approached, Frieda called out in a clear voice to the occupants and a small light appeared at the window. Entering the lowly hut, two occupants greeted them; one was a bearded man, the one that Yrsa had seen earlier on struggling alone with his boat. The other occupant stopped them in their tracks; although she was strikingly beautiful, her skin was of the brightest blue and shimmered as though sun played on water. 
Overcoming their surprise and wariness, the company listened to their story. The man, Parasarlth, was a common fisherman but as a young man he had caught a river spirit in his net. Treating her kindly, he and the spirit had lain together and then she disappeared. Some months ago, Parasarth had woken to find a young woman with blue skin and his eyes seated outside the hut, claiming to be his daughter. At this, the young woman spoke up. Her name was Matlinde, and she was a granddaughter of Engizi who loved her. But her uncle Urgnal had seen her birth as a stain on his family’s honour and had sent the River Dragons to spoil the Clan’s nets. The Clan had tried to placate Engizi with gifts and sacrifices, but still the River Dragons came. The only thing they hadn’t tried was to sacrifice either Parasarlth or Matlinde, but Frieda knew her mother was even now starting to consider it. Frieda begged the heroes to travel upriver to where the River Dragons basked and to either drive them away or to placate the River Gods in some way. 
The following day, the heroes travelled upstream with Frieda to the basking ground, steeling themselves for what may come. They found the River Dragons’ resting place without any effort; the Dragons were huge and eyed the interlopers; whether lazily or hungrily, the companions had no wish to find out. As they readied themselves to draw their weapons, a great frothing and foaming disturbed the waters of one of the deeper water channels nearby. As they watched, a great turtle with a shimmering multi-hued shell heaved itself onto the sand, the River Dragons opening their great mouths and lashing their tales in greeting. Petulantly, the turtle identified itself as Urgnal and demanded to know when the sacrifice would be made. Any attempt to reason or negotiate led to Urgnal thrashing his flippers and complaining loudly about how poorly he was being treated. Seeing that even gods could act like spoiled children, the companions headed back to the Enjossi settlement. Perhaps they could find some way to communicate directly with Engizi and avoid Urgnal’s temper tantrums...
Thwack! Their deliberations were interrupted by an arrow hitting the sand directly ahead of them. Looking for the source of the danger, they saw a familiar figure at the head of a group of warriors already moving towards them, weapons drawn: Hahlgrima! Above the sound of their own weapons being readied could be hear one whispered, eager sentence from Terrastal: ‘Oh YES! She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with...’