Monday, 25 February 2019

22. Waterday to Godday; Disorder Week; Fire Season; 1618

Ahead, the slow-flowing river bent around to the right in a wide sweeping arc, Yelm’s rays glinting on the water. As they rode, Frieda pointed out the teeming fish and other wildlife that called the great river home. And yet, as they approached the village it was clear that some force or power was holding Engizi’s bounty from the Enjossi Clan. Arriving at the River Town, they noticed a fisherman trying his luck yet again, throwing his net in a wide arc into the water. As soon as it touched the river, however, a great form threw itself into the net and thrashed about, almost tipping the terrified clansman into the river. As the thrashing subsided, the net was drawn in and great holes could be seen. Head hanging, the fisherman headed back for shore, his ribs showing clearly on his underfed frame as he pulled dispiritedly at his oars.

Arriving at the Enjossi settlement, Randel and Sandene set about preparing the five corpses they had brought with them for burial. Assisted by the Enjossi priest, Frithowulf, Randel set about the rituals needed to prepare a corpse for burial so that its fetch didn’t lose its way to the Spirit World and cause mischief or worse amongst the living. Although he carried out the rituals according to the strictures of the Ernaldori, it was clear that the Enjossi clan spirits did not approve. Grumbling, Frithowulf stepped in and readied the bodies for their final journey. Eventually, Sandene stepped forward from the edge of the circle that had formed around the bodies, the rest of the heroes looking on. As she called on her Death run, dancing and stamping, a weird, otherwordly sensation began to steal over the observers as the spirit world leaned in closer to that of the living. As they watched, the corpses took on an eerie cast as each acquired a glowing duplicate overlaying the dead flesh. Firstly, Sandene called on the spirits of the famers to depart in peace. Almost with an audible sigh, the spirits of the three fyrdsmen stood up and looked down upon their earthly bodies. As one they turned and began to fade away, a hand raised in sad farewell to Wyard who raised his hand in reply, tears coursing down his cheeks.

The huscarl was likewise bade to go in peace, and without a backward glance the newly-raised fetch turned away and drew an ethereal axe, rushing away to a place only he could see to do battle forever, a silent cry of triumph on his lips.  Finally, Hahlgrima’s fetch was summoned. Unlike the others, her spirit still bore the wounds that had led to her death, and motes of blackness swirled through her form. Almost before Sandene banished her, Hahlgrima drew her axe and charged headlong to where Terrastal stood, transfixed. A moment before she would have seemed to make contact, the spirit turned to tumbling smoke and a great wind blew through the onlookers before suddenly falling silent. As all looked at Terrastal in mixed fear and wonder, he returned their stares blankly. After a moment, he hawked and spat over his shoulder: ‘I don’t know what her problem is’ he opined, ‘wasn’t me that killed her’. The tension broken, the companions began to laugh and headed back to the Lake Town, leaving the Enjossi clans to give the corpses to the creatures of the river as was their custom.

The next morning, Bofrost and Randel woke early and sought out Frithowulf. The priest looked drawn and tired, seeming not to have slept the night before. As the two heroes set out their plan to call on Llankor Mhy and Issaries to ask for guidance as to how to help the Enjossi, Frithowulf nodded gratefully and lent whatever aid he could. So it was that as Yrsa, Terrastal and Sandene emerged blinking into the morning sunlight, they saw Bofrost and Randel standing within a sacred circle preparing to call on their respective Gods. Whilst they went through their preparations, Terrastal, Sandene and Yrsa slipped away unnoticed through the crowd, transfixed as they were by the unfamiliar rituals taking place before them. Terrastal was uneasy about how Gods would attempt to solve the petty problems of their worshippers, and in his experience a crowd could easily become a mob that didn’t balk at bloodshed. Grabbing their gear, they set off for Parasarlth’s hut, a plan forming in Terrastal’s mind.

Meanwhile, a shimmering barrier had sprung into existence around the sacred circle as the final syllables of Bofrost and Randel’s shouted exhortations faded away. The forms of those inside the circle seemed to hang in the air for a moment, caught in mid-step as if in amber. The crowd of villagers held their breath momentarily, until suddenly the shining barrier fell away. Bofrost and Randel remained stock-still for a moment then fell heavily to the ground, clearly exhausted by their experience. As they were helped to their feet, Sandene pushed to the front of the crowd, concern etched on her face.  Unable as they were to  respond immediately to the shouted questions, Frieda bade the crowd move back from Randel and Bofrost. It was no small thing to be in the presence of a God, and the human mind needed time for the horror and ecstasy to fade somewhat into memory. By the time they were ready to speak, the clan chief of the Enjossi arrived with her guard. Haltingly, Randel spoke of a vision of a huge column of water, falling from the sky onto the earth. Within the column, he had seen all manner of creatures and the river’s bounty falling upon children wearing the clan-markings of the Enjossi. But then a small blue figure began to move amongst the Enjossi children, laughing and playing. For a time all was well, but then a great shadow seemed to swim across the column of water, cutting off the Enjossi from Engizi’s bounty. All at once, the children began to fall ill and grow thin. Bofrost cut in at this point, as he likewise had seen a vision of a blue figure, moving through the waters. In his sending, however, he’d seen a great flipper strike the blue figure down, crushing it utterly. Yet this had not been the end of the blue figure; all at once, it had risen into the air, out of reach of the thrashing flipper, glowing brighter than it ever had before.

It was clear that all who heard this held that it communicated truth, although there was no agreement as to what that truth was. As voices rose and anger began to spark across the crowd, Randel raised his clear voice and called upon his Harmony rune: ‘People of the Enjossi, hear me! We have been given a way forward by the Gods! By the leave of your Chief, Griselda, I and my companions will join your priest in calling on Lalalimast to appear, and beg her to intercede with her father!’ Looking to Griselda, Randel was rewarded with a sharp nod of assent, and preparations began to summon Matlinde’s mother to bless the Enjossi once more.

Meanwhile, Terrastal had approached the hut shared by Matlinde with her father. As he emerged out of the scrubby bushes that dotted the shoreline, Matlinde eyed him warily, seeing him coming armed and armoured. Seeing her sudden disquiet, Terrastal loosened his weapon belt and let it drop to the ground, smiling as openly as he could. Realising he meant no harm, he was welcomed into the simple hut and given what hospitality they could spare. Seeing their lack of food, Yrsa and Sandene set off to see what could be foraged from the land.  As they hunted, Terrastal sat and talked with the fisherman and his daughter, hoping for some clue as to how to solve the situation. Yet nothing new presented itself by the time his companions had returned. Pickings were meagre, it seemed, and they could offer little to the pot. What was given, however, was received gladly and the meal was warm, though not filling. After some time, Sandene and Yrsa headed back to Lake Town, eager to see what their friends had experienced. Terrastal remained behind, and as soon as his friends were gone began to urge Matlinde and Parasarlth to gather their belongings and head inland for a place of safety. Although he didn’t say so in so many words, he made it clear that he feared for their safety at the hands of the Enjossi. Although neither were convinced, Terrastal played on their fears for each other’s safety such that dusk found all three heading inland. As they went, Terrastal covered their tracks as best as he could, casting frequent glances back towards the town as he did so.

Arriving back at the Enjossi settlement, Yrsa and Sandene were quickly drawn in to the preparations for summoning Lalalimast. As Yelm began to traverse the final quarter of the sky dome, the ceremony begun. Yet from the outset, it was marred by bad omens. Yrsa had selected a fine beast from the clan herd to sacrifice to Engizi. Holding the ox firmly by the horns, she sang a low song that calmed the animal and readied it for death, but as she brought her knife down as she had so many times before the beast suddenly squirmed in her grip. Thus, the cut was shallow and didn’t kill the beast outright; instead it bellowed and struggled, blood spraying, until Yrsa was able to finally put it to rest. So went the rest of the impromptu ceremony. Although the steps of Sandene’s dance were sure, and Randel’s retelling of a God-Time myth was powerful, the planned culmination of the ceremony with Lalalimast appearing with the last of Yelm’s rays did not come to pass. As the shadows lengthened, the clanfolk went back to their homes, dispirited and worried. Exhausted, Yrsa, Sandene, Randel and Bofrost went to their beds, unsure as to how to proceed. Indeed, so tired were they that no-one questioned Terrastal’s absence.
In fact, Terrastal was coming to regret his actions. Both Parasarlth and Matlinde were argumentative, questioning why they had agreed to leave their hut. Although Terrastal was able to appeal to Parasarlth’s fatherly concern for his daughter, Matlinde bridled at Terrastal’s intimation that this was for her own good. Eventually, all three of them subsided into an unhappy silence and drifted into restless sleep.

The next morning, the heroes were roused by the sound of raised voices. Emerging from their hut, they were rewarded by the sight of the whole Enjossi clan gathered around Griselda, who was calling orders to her people. Seeing them emerge, Griselda and Frieda moved towards them. ‘Thank you for your help last evening’ she began, a look of resignation on her face, ‘but I’ve decided that we must accede to Urgnal’s demands and give him Matlinde’. Seeing the anger rising on their faces, Griselda hissed back sharply. ‘And what would you have me do? No-one here wishes Matlinde or Parasarlth ill; by the Gods, our children have gone hungry and some of the elders will not see out the season because we stand by our own! But sometimes the current is too strong, and to swim against it is to perish’. As Frieda gripped her mother’s arm, Griselda turned away. ‘I am truly sorry, but my people have gone to fetch Matlinde even now’. As she walked away, head bowed, a shout went up from the crowd in the direction of Parasarlth’s hut. ‘They are gone! They have fled!’. Turning back to the companions, Griselda sighed. ‘It is done; there is nothing more’. Raising her voice, she shouted hoarsely ‘Find them! Track them down and bring them to me!’. With a roar from the Enjossi, the hunt began.

Moving steadily northwards, the fugitives’ misgivings continued to grow. On several occasions, either Matlinde or her father made to return home, but Terrastal’s fears for their safety lent his words power and they held their course. But finally, as Yelm reached higher into the sky, Matlinde overheard Terrastal speaking with her father. Catching only the words ‘it’ for her own good’, Matlinde’s rage boiled over and she struck Terrastal a stinging blow across the face. ‘How dare you make my decisions for me!’. Trying to explain himself only made matters worse. ‘If it were your choice to sacrifice yourself to save your clan, what would you do?’ Seeing his momentary hesitation, Matlinde howled in anger and sprinted back towards the Enjossi town. Terrastal launched himself after her, but missed, swearing loudly. As he did so, he caught sight of figures moving through the scrub, coming from the direction of the river. Realising the danger lent his legs more speed, and he raced over a low rise after Matlinde. As he did so, he was surprised to see the familiar forms of Yrsa and Sandene outpacing the clanfolk, weakened as they were by their reduced rations.

Reaching out, Terrastal managed to grab Matlinde’s arm and they both went down in a tangle of limbs. As they struggled to rise, Terrastal found Sandene and Yrsa standing over them. As yet their weapons were sheathed, although they were clearly ready to defend their brother-in-arms. As the Enjossi formed a silent ring around the small group, Griselda pressed forward and demanded they hand over Matlinde; hearing Griselda’s voice, Matlinde begged to be set free, saying she was ready to die for her people. Instead, Terrastal summoned up all of his powers of persuasion and prepared to face down the whole Enjossi Clan.

Meanwhile back at the Lake Town, Randel and Bofrost were ignorant of the drama unfolding in the hills above the town. Having slept on their disappointment of the night before, both of them were filled with a new resolve to call Lalalimast forth, whether she wished it or no. Perhaps it was the silence of the town that concentrated their minds, or perhaps it was some intimation of the danger facing their friends, but before long they had called a vast spinning vortex of water into being from the lake, towering into the warm air before them. As a stunned Frithowulf looked on, Randel and Bofrost completed their impromptu summoning and a woman’s shape seemed to form within the spinning column. Calling out once more, the Merchant and the Seeker related all that had transpired, and that the Enjossi were suffering for no fault of their own. As they did so, the figure seemed to become agitated, and in a voice like water on stone began to speak haltingly. ‘My daughter? My daughter is here? But Urgnal told me she was no more, and had gone to the Great Ocean...’ Suddenly, the voice boomed out like waves on rock. ‘WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?’. Not waiting for an answer, the column of water rose into the sky and arced through the air towards the north, trailing droplets of water that spread shimmering rainbows in Yelm’s beams...

As Terrastal finished his impassioned plea, Yrsa thought she sensed a shift in the crowd, an unwillingness to turn on one of their own. But their bellies, and their children’s bellies, were empty and so they moved inwards, gripping their spears tightly. Those nearest to Sandene caught her eye and were horrified by what they saw there. As she opened her mouth to begin to sing her death-song, all eyes were drawn to a roiling mass of cloud plummeting down into their midst. All were knocked flat by the impact of the mass of water; as they rose, the stunned onlookers saw Matlinde rise into the air, borne on a shining column of water. A power seemed to fill her and spoke through her with a voice soft as rain, yet harsh as stinging salt spray. ‘I am Lalalimast, daughter of the Sky Titan and this is my daughter. Your clan has sheltered her at great cost, and in return I bless you, and through me, Engizi. You are favoured, and all will be well!’

And thus it was that the heroes found themselves returning to Clearwine in triumph some days later, laden down with gifts. At Matlinde’s urging, the Enjossi fishermen had wasted no time in setting out on the now-calm waters of the river. Fish seemed to throw themselves into their nets, and no elder of the village could remember such a catch. Some of those who had ventured out further than the others swore they had seen a great turtle rise up from distant waves, held firmly in the grip of some immense water leviathan. Again and again it had been dashed into the water, until finally its cries had ceased and the river become peaceful once more.

At the great feast held that night, the companions had been richly rewarded with their pick of Griselda’ finest handiwork, renowned as she was as a worker in bronze. But more valuable still was Griselda’s promise to support Baranthos’ case when it came to his trial. Even sweeter was the time spent at the Konthassos stead on their return journey. On being presented with Hahlgrima’s head, and a promise that his clan would be protected from Kangharl’s wrath, Orendal had promised to give Baranthos a fair hearing without fear or favour. As they knew their chief was innocent of the accusations made by Kangharl, they were content.

Indeed, all was well as they rode through the gates of Randel Stead. Wyard the Thrall was shown his duties by Kareena, the priestess of Orlanth who’d accompanied them from Apple Lane. With a look of gratitude to Sandene, he’d returned to what he knew best; tilling the earth in peace. Yet Kareena had one puzzling piece of news; a warrior had come to visit them some days ago, claiming to be their friend and that a favour was owed to him. As they walked towards the guest quarters they had provided him, a chill ran through them as they heard Kareena’a description: a tall man, dark haired, but with terrible scars around piercingly dark eyes and the air of a zealot...

(To be continued)

Friday, 22 February 2019

1.Misadventures in D&D.

‘Look, I told you before. You spent most of your share of the gold back in Whitesparrow’. 'Honest' Abba looked sideways at the hulking figure stalking alongside the cart as it rumbled and bounced along the rutted highway. ‘Remember you insisted on buying some weapons or armour or somesuch before you headed out to that bloody cave’. The huge half-orc glared at the diminutive Abba suspiciously. He’d only known the rock gnome for a short while, but already he knew well enough that Abba could tie you up in words as quick as blinking. Ogguebak didn’t really have a frame of reference when it came to smart-mouthed rock gnomes. Back in his tribe, far to the north, any discussion such as this would have quickly devolved into a bloody brawl with the loser usually being left with at least one broken or missing limb, or worse. Og permitted himself a rumble of satisfaction as he recalled many discussions he’d won by the simple expedient of pulling off one of his opponent’s arms. In fact, he was renowned amongst his people as something of a gifted debater. But here in the soft Southlands he knew things were different, that he couldn’t just beat the gnome to a bloody pulp to make his point, tempting though it was. Again Og chuckled to himself as he pictured himself debating Abba to within an inch of his life. Hearing the bass rumble from within his companion’s chest, Abba shifted slightly in his seat on the wagon. He loved outsmarting the ‘Biggers’, as his folk called most other races, but in the case of the half-orc barbarian he knew enough to temper his verbal barbs with a healthy dose of self-preservation. ‘Look, perhaps I might have a few gold pieces I haven’t accounted for in my pack. When we stop to rest, I’ll let you have those. Ok?’ Seeing Og’s smile broaden, Honest Abba grimaced back and returned his attention to the road ahead.

Sourly, he regarded the backs of the plodding oxen pulling the fully-laden cart. They’d been travelling for a couple of days now, and he wasn’t looking forward to spending another night under canvas. He was meant for the finer things the Forgotten Realms had to offer, and nights on the road weren’t amongst them. Grumpily, he whacked the rump of the nearest ox with his whip, and was rewarded by a truly noxious fart that the stolid beast unleashed in return. As Abba gagged and cursed, the figure seated in the rear of the wagon snorted in laughter. Pouldan was seated cross-legged on a sack of grain, reading from his grimoire as always. As he did so, his familiar swooped around his head in the form of a slightly glowing bat. Absently, Pouldan waved the bat-familiar away as he struggled to force a particularly complex magickal formula into his brain, his black hair sticking out from his head even more so than usual. The bat-thing fluttered away and got itself caught in the majestic facial hair of the fourth member of the group. Gleaming in his dwarven armour as he stomped along the road, Dulron Durthane, Cleric of Helm, swore foully as he pulled the squeaking creature out of his beard. ‘Pouldan, if you don’t keep that thing under control you’ll be passing it in chunks for a week, by Helm!’ Hearing the anger in Dulron’s voice, Pouldan hurriedly dismissed the bat-thing to a pocket dimension and smiled weakly at the enraged dwarf. Og the barbarian guffawed loudly with laughter and Honest Abba smirked nastily at Pouldan’s discomfiture. For a moment, the party regarded each other and, not for the first time, wondered what the Hells they were doing together at all.

It was fair to say they’d been thrown together by chance. For their own reasons, they’d found themselves in the market of Whitesparrow just as a group of thugs had attacked a well-dressed old man, passing through the market with his guards. As the rest of the onlookers variously squealed, screamed or placed bets on how long the old man would last, the four of them had drawn weapons, wands or bows and leaped to the old man’s defense. More charitable observers would have said they’d intervened to save a defenseless old man. Others might have said they’d got an eye on a handsome reward from the obviously wealthy old codger. In fact, they’d got more than they bargained for when they became embroiled in rescuing a kidnapped noble brat who, quite frankly, probably deserved whatever he got. Be that as it may, the four of them had managed to rescue the  brat and received a handsome reward, despite having to run away from some undead monstrosity in a supposedly abandoned shrine to some ancient god of murder. They’d briefly considered going back into the not-so-abandoned shrine to retrieve the treasure they’d glimpsed in there whilst retreating at top speed, but saner heads prevailed. Besides, Dulron had an easier opportunity for four likely adventurers that probably wouldn’t require facing down any unquiet dead. He’d received a message from his clan-uncle Gundren, who seemed very excited about an opportunity he’d uncovered and needed some help. Dulron had a pretty low opinion of Gundren. His clan-mates called him ‘Rockseeker’, which wasn’t meant as a term of high praise. In Dwarven parlance, a rockseeker was someone who wasted his time on pointless activities that usually came to nothing.

So it was that the four had travelled to the city of Neverwinter, where they’d arranged to meet Gundren in a harbour dive called ‘The Salty Seahorse’. As usual, Gundren was excited about something he’d uncovered in the mining town of Phandalin, a few day’s journey to the south. He planned to head off with one of his human acquaintances, and needed someone to escort a wagon of supplies intended for Phandalin’s general store. After haggling Gundren up to the meagre sum of 20 gold each for the job (five now, fifteen on delivery), the four unlikely companions found themselves escorting the supply wagon down the trail to Phandalin, and finding out just how much they annoyed each other to boot.

As the companions rounded a bend, they entered a section of the trail where the woods on either side seemed to press in more closely than before. As the trees loomed over them,turning the sunlight to a green twilight, Abba’s well-developed sense of self-preservation began to whisper to him. Hauling on the reins, he brought the cart to a stop and stood up to get a clearer view of what lay ahead. Some hundred paces ahead, two mounds lay across the path, black feathered arrows sticking up at odd angles. ‘Dead horses; goblin work, by the look of it’. Hearing this, Ogguebak and Dulron hefted their weapons and moved towards the slain horses. Pouldan hung back at the cart, preparing to unleash his magick in support of his comrades. Meanwhile, Abba slunk off the cart and moved towards the trees. To Pouldan’s amazement, Abba’s form almost seemed to shimmer and become one with the trees, so stealthy were his movements. As he crept through the woodland, Abba’s gnomish senses were at their sharpest, so he quickly caught sight of a group of goblins hunkered down at the edge of the forest. As he watched, they drew their primitive bows and began to pepper Dulron and Og with black-feathered arrows. Nimbly, he climbed to a vantage point in a nearby tree and waited for an opportune moment to pick off a goblin or two.

Roaring in rage, Og charged forward and decapitated the first goblin with a swing of his axe. As his clan-mate’s blood spattered across his face, a nearby goblin looked up and opened his mouth to yell a curse. The curse was never heard, however, as one of Abba’s arrows planted itself firmly in his open mouth. Grinning, Abba took aim at another target and let fly.

Meanwhile, Dulron spotted another group of goblins to the south of the path. Charging towards the foe, hammer held high, he uttered a prayer to Helm. In response, his god caused a glowing blade to shimmer into existence next to the goblin warband. As his charge hit home, the glowing blade struck the foul creatures from the rear. The sudden assault by the heroes did its work; soon, only one goblin remained, fleeing northwards, screams echoing in its wake.

Whilst Dulron remained at the cart and Pouldan patched his wounds, Og and Abba moved cautiously northwards, following the trail left by the fleeing goblin. After avoiding a couple of primitive traps, the pair found a cave entrance within a forbidding black-veined cliff face. A short while later, all four of the companions were hidden in the trees, watching the entrance. With a word, Pouldan summoned his familiar and sent it towards the cave with a thought. Closing his eyes, he reached out to the bat and saw the world through its eyes (or ears). Quickly, he became aware of a group of goblin sentries huddled together in some bushes near the cave entrance. Returning to his own body, Pouldan whispered to his comrades and, within a few moments, the goblins lay dead. As Og cleaned his axe, the group moved towards the cave entrance. The bat-familiar moved ahead as before, and Pouldan became aware of a pack of chained wolves, snapping and snarling to the right of the entrance. As Abba and Pouldan drew their bows and began to methodically pepper the creatures, Dulron and Og moved further into the cave, their feet splashing through a shallow stream, trusting their darksight to show them the way. Suddenly, a dull roar echoed through the cave. As Dulron and Og looked at each other in puzzlement, a huge wave washed down the passageway. Shouting in alarm, Abba, Dulron and Og were all washed out of the cave entrance and were deposited in a wet, cursing heap just outside. Battered and bruised, they began to rise to their feet and looked back into the cave. Whilst they had been washed away, Pouldan had leaped up onto a ledge away from the rushing water. Congratulating himself on his lightning reflexes, he became aware of a low growling and snapping coming from behind him. Turning slowly, he saw many pairs of yellow, feral eyes glaring at him through the darkness; in his haste, he’d jumped up onto a ledge alarmingly close to his erstwhile canine targets, and it seemed they were not too happy to see him…
(To be continued…)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

9. A Watch, Sector 13: Judgement from Above!

As Wily and Muller briefed Kowalski on their latest intel on the Church of Death (or Life, depending on who you talked to), Hart leant against the door and looked on, his lips curled in a scowl. Although he’d trained for years to deal with the general weirdness that the citizenry of Mega-City One could come up with, there was something about the current situation that seemed...more wrong, somehow. Taken individually, the existence of crazed futsie preachers howling about the end of the world, a renewed interest in some frankly appalling juve music and an uptick in pirate vidders meant nothing; just business as usual in the charged atmosphere of the overcrowded city. But taken together...wrong. As he looked on, Kowalski conferred briefly with the other members of the tac-team and headed out, giving Hart an ironic half-salute as she left. Seeing the scowl on Hart’s face deepen, Wily explained that Kowalski was going to check in with her contacts in Psi-Dive to see what they could come up with. In the meantime, the three remaining team members would put their investigative skills to use at the Sector House until a lead presented itself. At this, Muller and Hart exchanged glances; although, like all judges, they were both experts in a range of technical investigative skills, it could be said that they preferred the more ‘hands-on’ (or ‘fist-on’) approach to crime management. Still, until something concrete came up...

Tac-team Wily spent much of the next few hours in desk work, looking for the lead that would move them further on with their investigation. Judge Hart uncovered more information on the BS group known as ‘Eternal Master’. The band had briefly ridden high on what was then a new juve muzik craze in MC1, or had until their lead singer Hobbins had been shot dead by an unknown assailant on the last date of a tour to launch their album ‘Songs to Wake the Dead’. The remaining band members (guitarist Verso, bassist Axon and drummer Gopher) had struggled on briefly, but met with little success before fading into obscurity. The investigating Judge, Santana, had been unable to identify the killer and soon after had taken the Long Walk. In his case, rather than bringing law to the Cursed Earth, Santana had elected to bring the iron fist of the Justice Department to the Undercity; that part of Old America that had forever been sealed off from the light as the new Mega-City had grown over the ruins of the old world, like a scab over an open wound.

As the three Judges hunched over their vid-screens in the darkened room, the door suddenly burst open, admitting both a harsh light and the excited form of Tek-Judge Klop. ‘We’ve located the pirate vid transmissions you were interested in; they’re transmitting now!’. Breathlessly, he explained that the signals had been difficult to trace as they were on the move constantly; in fact, they seemed to be coming from a mo-pad, one of the residential vehicles that constantly roamed the city’s roadways. As Hart headed for the turbo-lift to the garage, Klop put his arm out to stop him but stopped short when he caught sight of Hart’s expression: ‘If you go by road, there’s a good chance we’ll lose the trace before you reach the target. So I’ve taken the liberty of requisitioning a H-Wagon on your behalf; it’s waiting on the roof for you now’.

The team arrived at the rooftop at a dead run, and were met by the backdraft from H-Wagon jets as they headed out onto the rooftop launchpad. Waiting for them was a stripped-down H-Wagon variant, sacrificing protection and armament for speed and manoeuvrability. The pilots of such vehicles were known for their cavalier approach to danger, and this one was no exception. No sooner had Wily, Hart and Muller leapt aboard the vehicle than it leapt away into the hazy, polluted sky that hung over the city like a shroud. At Wily’s request, Pilot-Judge Ferro left the doors open as they raced towards the still-moving pirate vid-trace. For his part, Wily loved the rush of wind as they careened headlong through the skies; it was the only time the air could be described as feeling fresh, in his opinion.
Taking as direct a route to their target as possible, Ferro plunged through a series of hab-block sized holograms, cheerily pushing their various wares on the eager populace. One hologram showed a 200 metre image of Otto Sump, his disfigured features being  all that was needed to push his particular brand of cosmetics. Another towering image showed two simpering pet owners fawning over rat-like dogs with bulging eyes; one of them was plunged into misery when her pet died, whereas the other grinned like a loon as their pet remained healthy, albeit with a green glow from its eyes. ‘Everpet!’ ran the slogan ‘don’t let your pet die before you do! With Everpet, Spot don’t stop!’. A final hologram showed two so-called celebrities, Donny Jepp and Bleara Frightly,  moodily promoting their latest revolting fragrance, ‘Smell the Kneepad’. 

Almost before the Judges had finished sneering at the lengths marketeers would go to in MC1, they reached their target; a large and relatively new mo-pad moving like a whale through the shoal of smaller vehicles that surrounded it. Shouting over the roar of the engines despite the helmet mikes they all wore, Hart leaned forward and pointed directly behind the speeding mo-pad. ‘Line us up in there! We’ll infil from that point!’. As the Ferro skilfully piloted into the indicated position, Wily, Muller and Hart pulled on the standard issue grav-chutes. The design was based on those approved for civilian use, but whereas civ versions had basic robotic brains to limit misuse, Judges were given full control. As the H-Wagon lined up, Hart and Muller leaped onto the mo-pad without hesitation. More through eagerness than lack of skill, Wily caught his foot slightly as he exited and skewed his trajectory so that he only barely hit his intended landing point. Looking up quickly, he saw that his team-mates were too focussed on their task to notice his slip...or so he hoped. As they hunched against the rushing wind, the H-Wagon pulled back to a safe regulation distance. Almost by design, all three Judges heard a crackle over their helmet mikes and a familiar voice ground into their ears. ‘Tac-Team Wily: be advised that this frequency is being monitored under SJS protocol 1-3, as ordered by Judge Smith’. All three Judges exchanged a look despite their situation, and Wily swore he could hear Muller’s teeth grinding even over the roar of traffic.

Turning to the task at hand, Muller moved to the right of the vehicle and Hart to the left whilst Wily took the rear. Bypassing the locks with their pass-cards, Hart threw a Stumm grenade into the front of the vehicle. As the debilitating gas started to fill the interior, the occupants signalled their displeasure by spraying bullets at the vehicle’s doors. Muller shut his door quickly, muttering under his breath as bullets ricocheted past him. Drawing his Lawgiver, he responded with a volley of his own and was rewarded with a howl of pain from within. Almost simultaneously, Hart wrenched his door open and somersaulted towards the rear of the compartment, raising his Lawgiver as he did so. Two further SE shots rang out from Muller and Hart, and the two presumed pirate vidders fell to the ground clutching various wounded body parts. Meanwhile, Wily had clambered into the rear of the mo-pad and made his way down a short corridor with doors opening off from it. Not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, Wily smashed the nearest door of its hinges. Seeing a perp hunched behind the door, he did what his Applied Violence tutors would have recommended and administered a vicious head-butt, laying out the juve in one go. Hart likewise administered Judge boot to the door, but in his case the whole door came off its hinges, crushing the perp standing behind it.

Within a matterer of seconds, the three Judges had secured the area as the Law demanded. Muller called it in, hoping that Judge Smith was indeed still on the line. Hearing no response, Hart overrode the basic autopilot and directed it to the Sector House. As they arrived, a team of Judge-Wardens and other Specialist Judges were ready and waiting to process the huge vehicle and its occupants. Within the hour, Tac-Team had a preliminary report to review. Two of the occupants had proved to be the pirate vidders known as 'Dark Demon' and 'Death Angel'. Their real names were in fact Vladimir Brown and Alina Martask, both of whom had the usual rap sheet consisting of minor assault, drug use, antisocial behaviour and petty larceny. Apart from a flag from the Public Surveillance Unit showing a higher than usual interest in BS muzik, nothing in their history would suggest that either of them would be up to organsing their own underwear, let alone violence against Judges. Acc-Div Judge Kierkegaard had thoroughly analysed their financial records and confirmed that there was no legal way that they would have been able to fund an operation like this. It was clear that someone was providing backing to the perps, but more worrying was the fact that their benefactor appeared able to cover their tracks so effectively. The Tek-Judges had likewise decrypted all of their vid-logs and communication history; again, these two chumps were merely mouthpieces for some mysterious figure. With a sense of foreboding, Muller tasked the Tek-Squad with reviewing all of the available data, looking for any pattern at all in their incitement to violence and public disorder. There was something there, he was sure, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it...

His thoughts were interrupted by a crackle of static from his helmet mike. ‘All available Judges, this is Control. Violent assault and robbery reported in progress at the Bathory Street Medi Storage Facility. Multiple fatalities reported. Immediate response required.’ Looking up, he noted that Wily and Hart were already half-way to a line of readied Lawmasters and raced off after them. Bathory Street was only a couple of blocks away, and what he needed to clear his head was the judicious application of his boot to some poor drokker’s face...

Arriving at the Bathory Street entrance, it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t just some ill-thought through smash and grab. Medi Storage buildings were built to be resistant to anything short of a nearby mini-nuke blast, as they were intended to be supply points for medical aid in the event of a widespread emergency. Likewise, they always had a complement of human staff as robots alone could be disabled by EMP bursts. Therefore, the Judges were surprised and a little disturbed to see the plas-steel doors of the storage facility apparently peeled back like paper. A cursory interrogation of a terrified DP who’d seen the whole thing confirmed that this was something more than your standard gang of perps. As the DP shuffled off down the alley, the team turned back towards the ruined entrance, Lawgivers drawn and at the ready. As they did so, the last rays of the setting sun managed to struggle through the mass of buildings, flyovers, towers and other detritus of what passed for 22nd century civilisation and the Judges cast elongated, deformed shadows against the front of the building. Ignoring what others may have taken as an omen and giving each other a brief nod, Tac-Team Wily burst into action!

The interior of the warehouse was bathed in a ruddy glow, emergency lighting having kicked in at some point during the raid. The place was wrecked, with what appeared to be the body of a human security guard pinned beneath an overturned stack of shelving on the far side of the room. With smooth, practiced efficiency, the team moved left, taking the building section by section. Seeing a closed door, Muller kicked it open, Wily covering him and Hart watching their six. As soon as the door opened, however, a blur of almost unnatural speed caught Wily off guard. In horror, the Judges recognised a creature that bore more than a passing resemblance to the muties that had formed part of Jennifer Radley’s ‘coven’. In its fanged maw, it held a bag of transfusion plasma that it suckled on greedily even as it slashed forward with its misshapen claws. Based on past experience, Wily and Muller took no chances and switched to special ammo, blasting the creature apart with Hi-Ex and Incendiary. Before they did so, however, the fiend plunged its claws deep into Muller’s shoulder, spreading a bone-deep chill throughout his body.

Meanwhile, Hart spotted another beastly form leaping from an alcove to their rear. As all three Judges turned to deal with the new foe, screams could be heard from the darkened rear of the premises. ‘Hart, secure those citizens!’ shouted Wily. ‘Muller and I will take care of things here!’. As he raced towards the screams, Hart marvelled at the tone of command that had edged into Wily’s voice. Wily himself was somewhat surprised, but he contented himself with hammering seven shades out of the unnatural form clawing at his throat. But even with two of the Department’s finest as opponents, the fiend still managed to rake Muller once more, bringing him to the edge of collapse. Again, Wily made a snap decision, ordering Muller to retreat whilst he held off the creature alone. Hesitating only briefly, Muller turned and staggered outside, a hand pressed to the deepest of his wounds; he had a plan.

Hart had discovered two more of the raiders besieging a couple of citizens holed up in a storage room. Hearing Wily’s order to Muller to retreat, Hart found himself defensible position where he could make the most of his formidable combat abilities. Wily himself was holding off his own attacker, but found himself being pressed back steadily. All was looking bleak for the team, but a sudden roar gave Wily fresh hope as Muller re-entered the fray astride a rumbling Lawmaster, its cannons whirring loudly as they cycled up to fire.

Things were about to get interesting…