Thursday, 21 March 2019

6. Like Ships in the Night.

Dar, Bonto and Vapour sat in the cramped conditions of their quarters on Orbital 373-Indri and considered their next move. The Mendicants had charged them with delivering the Indents they’d liberated to their contacts on Amerath, although the offered payment would barely cover their expenses. However, the damage to the Susan had proved more complex to fix than Bonto had originally thought, and they’d been unable to make good on their promise. As a result, the pitiful workers had spent the days since sitting around the Susan’s hangar, the tell-tale cough of sufferers of Indri Lung being a constant refrain. The crew’s funds were running short, they were without direction and their mood was bleak.

Suddenly, the comm-net chirped into life as it picked up a priority message. As usual, the message had been encrypted into the carrier signal of an otherwise innocuous broadcast; in this instance, it was a propaganda message from the Church of the Stellar Flame. Curling his lip in disgust, Bonto killed the strident voice of a church orator to reveal the message hidden beneath. The reason for the message’s urgency soon became clear. Javierra Gallia, the xeno-archaeologist they’d extracted from Shimaya, had been taken along with her artifact from a Sahi’ir facility in the system. The crew regarded each other with some concern; the kidnappers were reported to be an Ashen Knives strike team, and they’d already got a bad rep with the powerful criminal faction, well-known for their brutality. Perhaps they’d better give this one a miss…but the next part of the message sealed the deal for them. If the kidnappers could be stopped and Gallia and the artifact returned to the Sahi’ir before leaving the system, a huge amount of credits were on offer; enough to refit the Susan from the ground up if needed!

That in itself was enough to have Vapour and Bonto moving for the door, but Dar was a little less enthusiastic. He knew the Knives’ way of doing business, and knew that a team sent to do a job like this would be well-trained, well-equipped and completely ruthless. If they were to stand a chance, they’d need to slow them down and put them off balance. Catching Bonto’s arm, he asked if it was possible to make contact with the Church battle-cruiser they’d fallen foul of whilst inbound to Amerath, whilst masking their own identity. Bonto considered a moment; the Church had powerful AI systems that would be a challenge to fool, but he was nothing if not confident in his own abilities. Within an hour, Dar was speaking to an officer on the Church cruiser. It wasn’t the same officer he’d previously dazzled with his knowledge of obscure scripture, but news of Mendicant heretics attempting to sneak through the jump-gate had the desired effect. No doubt Church cruisers were even now tightening their security sweeps, hopefully forcing the Ashen Knives team to change their plans.

Whilst this went on, Vapour consulted local system maps in the form of complex holograms hanging in the air above the Susan’s astro-nav console. As he considered their quarry’s likely response to unwelcome additional security sweeps, he noted an opaque patch hanging in space relatively near to the system’s gate. This was a region of space known as the Halvari Span, a vast dust cloud that interfered with navigation and was a known haunt of smugglers and others wishing to keep a low profile. It was far enough from the gate that the Church and its Legion allies preferred to keep it under surveillance, although the risks to shipping meant that it was rarely patrolled. If he was the Knives pilot, that’s where he would go…

So it was that the Susan found itself spiralling lazily through the Halvari Span, broadcasting a low-power mayday signal. Vapour carefully vented plasma from the ship’s thrusters as it spiralled, doing a creditable impression of a vessel with critical thrust failure. With Bonto manufacturing false comms traffic, the Susan appeared to be a smuggling vessel with engine problems, attempting to meet its contact whilst not drawing any unwanted attention; not an easy sell, but the crew were short of options. Dar stood slightly apart and considered his crew-mates as they worked, impressed by their ability to work together despite their differences. His own strengths would only come into play once he came face to face with the Knives, and his warrior’s soul relished the chance to test himself against some of the best in the system.

As Dar considered the forthcoming conflict, a loud chime sounded within the Susan’s cramped flight-deck. The ship’ sensors had picked up a small ship, lying astonishingly close in astronomical terms. It had proved to be so difficult to detect as it was largely running on auxiliary power only; effectively ‘running silent’ to avoid notice. However, the tempting bait being put out by the Susan had proved too much. As Vapour maintained the ship’s spiral and watched the sensors to see what the other ship would do, Bonto called out abruptly, hiking the tension even further. The other ship had reached out with its onboard AI and was attempting to access the Susan’s subsystems, attempting to determine its identity and cargo. Bonto had anticipated this and had set up false outer shell outer shell around the Susan’s critical systems. The mystery ship would see what Bonto wanted it to see and with luck, that would be enough.

The opposing ship’s drive suddenly flared into life. This was the moment of truth; if they’d fallen for their ruse, it would move closer. If not, it would run for the gate and they’d have a chase on their hands. As the other ship moved towards them, the whole crew let go a breath that they didn’t know they were holding in. They’d taken the bait!

Dar immediately sprung into action, grabbing a box of detonators from his bunk as he ran to the cargo hold. The ship had two entrances; the cargo ramp and an airlock that lay midway along its spine. He knew the cargo ramp would not be the favoured route, so he set about placing his detonators around the airlock to give the Knives what he hoped would be a nasty surprise. Meanwhile, the enemy ship had hailed the Susan and demanded it heave to; Vapour gave a creditable impression of a fearful smuggler caught off guard, whilst inside he felt a rising excitement. Bonto was too engrossed in his hacking rig to pay much attention, lost as he was in the virtual space generated by his rig. He’d taken advantage of the link between the Knives’ computer and theirs to do a bit of digging of his own. Gallia and the artifact appeared to be in confined to the cargo hold in the Knives’ ship. Unlike their own ship, their opponent’s was built for speed, and held only three crew. Therefore, it was likely that the ‘cargo hold’ would prove to be no more than a space large enough to hold the woman (who’d probably been sedated) and the artefact. Bonto had also been able to download some tantalising data packets, although he’d have to wait to decrypt them as his rig suddenly short-circuited and sent an agonizing pulse through his cerebral cortex; the Ashen Knife AI had noticed his presence after all…

As Bonto spasmed in agony, biting off some of his tongue in the process, the Ashen Knife ship completed its docking process and two vac-suited Knives stepped warily into the darkened cargo hold, weapons at the ready. Suddenly, Dar dropped down from his perch high amongst the stanchions that reinforced the outer hull of the Susan. Growling menacingly, he activated the detonators around where the interlopers stood and commanded them to drop their weapons. The sense of being outflanked was increased as Vapour came to the door leading from the flight deck to the hold, carrying a blaster in a way that he hoped looked suitably threatening. One dropped his weapon, but the other was made of sterner stuff. Firing off a blast wildly, the Knife caught Dar in mid-leap and blasted him backwards into a darkened corner of the hold, where he lay still. Vapour gaped open mouthed at the apparently dead Dar, but jumped back into the cabin when blaster fire peppered the wall nearby. Quickly, he sealed the cargo hold and ran back to a bloody-mouthed Bonto. A plan forming in his mind, Vapour asked if Bonto could access the life support in the flight deck of the enemy ship. Nodding mutely, Bonto shut off the oxygen supply to the enemy pilot’s cabin at Vapour’s command as Vapour himself raced to through the umbilical to the Ashen Knives vessel. He planned to get to the pilot before he recovered from hypoxia and subdue him…if he was fast enough. Unfortunately, the pilot was made of sterner stuff and fought back groggily when Vapour appeared on his flight deck.

Meanwhile, the mercenaries on board the Susan were attempting to burn their way out of the hold to the rest of the ship, modulating their blasters to act like cutting torches. However, they were so engrossed that they didn’t see a silently enraged Dar rising to his feet behind them. He’d been stunned by the earlier lucky shot, and now he was out for blood.

Bonto had recovered somewhat from his cerebral shock by this time, and had headed for the hold to try to help Dar. However, as he released the blast door he was treated to the sight of an enraged Dar exercising all of his capacity for concentrated violence on the surprised Knives. As he heard a succession of snapping sounds, wet gurgles and pained whimpers, Bonto felt almost sorry for the Knives. Almost.

There was no time for self-congratulation, however. As Dar stood over the recumbent forms of his opponents, Vapour voice called out for help over the ship’s intercom. Without pausing, Dar and Bonto raced for the umbilical to rescue their comrade…

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

23. Godday/Disorder Week to Wildday/Death Week, Fire Season, 1618

Even before Kareena had finished describing the visitor to Randelstead, Terrastal knew with a dull certainty who it would be. ‘Auric Traskarsson’ he breathed, a cold stone forming in the pit of his stomach. The runes that formed his inner essence flared, some in contradictory ways. On the one hand, Terrastal felt it was likely that Auric was here to kill him and his friends; the last time he’d seen Auric, he’d been hanging above the gates of the Lunar Stone-Tower Fort, and his group bore direct responsibility for this. Yet, on the other hand, he felt a sense of obligation to Auric, perhaps even guilt, although Terrastal would never describe it in those words. Auric’s rabid hatred of the Lunars was very much in harmony with how his feelings had developed over the past few months, and Terrastal felt he owed Auric something, some form of recompense, for the pain he’d endured.

Sandene looked on with some puzzlement. Terrastal was clearly shaken by Kareena’s description of the stranger awaiting them in the guest lodge, as were all of those she now called battle-comrades. Seeing her quizzical look, Yrsa tersely related what had happened before she joined them. Hearing this, Sandene was not much clearer as to what was going on. She was most surprised that Terrastal could ever have acted in the interest of the Lunars, as his hatred seemed so deep. As ever, complexity outside of that required by worship of the Goddess bored and frustrated her, so she decided to leave it to the others to decide what to do. Anyone who threatened her comrades was by default her enemy, so she’d happily strike their visitor down if necessary and take the consequences.

Bofrost and Randel regarded each other warily, not so much for what Auric might do as for how their more choleric companions may respond. They knew that Auric would have been offered the traditional Orlanthi hospitality rites of bread, water and salt and, as such, would be unlikely to risk the ire of the gods by threatening his hosts. They hoped that Terrastal would observe this stricture, as he was Orlanthi, but were less sure of Sandene’s more violent tendencies being held in check. With a deep breath, the two heroes followed their companions into the guest lodge…

Inside, Auric sat at the far end of the long, low guest lodge. A small fire smoldered in the central fire pit, smoke lazily rising to the thatched roof, and a rich resin scent filled the room from the burning wood. A number of small oil lamps hung along the wall, casting a dim, flickering light across the scene. Auric himself appeared relaxed; even in this dim light he could be seen sporting a clean rag tied across his eyes. Perhaps he was still sightless, and they could deceive him once more? But as he leaned forward into the light, it was plain that the material was of the very thinnest, and his eyes could be seen glittering beneath. As he reached up to remove the cloth, he began to speak. ‘I see from your faces that my appearance thus doesn’t surprise you. This tells me two things: that you know who I am, and that you are not surprised to see me wearing a blindfold. Further, it tells me that you are indeed those I encountered in the Starfire Ridges and delivered me into the hands of the Lunars’. With some satisfaction, Auric settled back into the shadows and awaited their response. Sandene noted that although his sword hung nearby, it was not in easy reach; she would be upon him before he could unsheathe his blade if needed. Randel noted that Auric seemed to be pleased with himself, and not just for identifying his betrayers; there was something more that he was yet hiding and he whispered as much to Bofrost.

As was often the case, Terrastal spoke first. To the surprise of all, he struck a conciliatory tone, fully accepting his previous actions and asking for Auric’s pardon. To Sandene’s satisfaction he did this with pride, not begging but standing as one warrior to another, recognising a fault as one that could be corrected. Bofrost noted that Auric’s sense of satisfaction grew, as though he had expected this. When he spoke next, it was not in a friendly manner but as one who was proposing a mutually-beneficial trade. ‘I see you’ve had a change of heart since our first meeting. I thought I recognised your voices when we met in the Wilds at the Black Spear camp, but I wasn’t sure until we met here today. If you’d begged like curs, I would have left here and ordered my warband to burn your stead to the ground. And that may still happen.’ Noting the fire flash in Sandene’s eyes, Auric went on. ‘Yet you all have the souls of true Orlanthi, and I can see you wish to make amends. I have a proposal for Orlanthi ears only’ he said, glancing meaningfully at the short Axe Maiden. At this, all of the companions protested: Sandene had proved herself a stalwart companion, was bound to them by oaths of blood and friendship and as such could hear anything Auric had to say. Satisfied by the strength of their protests, Auric laid out his offer. As all knew, the Lunars had established two slave farms in the Nymie Valley, one quite close to Clearwine. Indeed, they had spied one of these camps in the distance when they first set out to the Broken Tower at the turn of the year. However, Auric and the Hidden Gale had learned that the Lunars and their Orlanthi allies were turning thralls into slaves, and even enslaving their own tribesmen on the slightest legal pretext. The Lunars were building a great temple to the south-east, and needed large numbers of slaves to keep the work going. To this end, slaves were being collected at the slave farms and then shipped off by river to the south when there were enough to fill one or two barges. At any time, each slave farm could have up to a hundred slaves waiting for transport into a life of misery and death. Therefore, the Hidden Gale planned to strike at the slave farm nearest to Clearwine on the next Windsday, slaughter the guards and free the slaves; those who wished could return home and those who wished to join the resistance would be welcomed.

The heroes regarded each other. Terrastal grasped this opportunity whole-heartedly, as a way to hurt the Lunars whilst fulfilling his obligation to Auric. Sandene and Yrsa were more neutral in their stance; Yrsa in particular didn’t relish the idea of another battle. Bofrost and Randel were more far-sighted, seeing how the blame could be lain at the door of the Colymar as the closest tribe. Auric grinned at this for the first time. ‘We’ve done this before, have no fear. We’ll make sure the blame lands far away from you and yours and sow dissension amongst the Lunar-lovers and traitors, have no fear. Besides, you have the favour of Orlanth himself, undertaking the Marriage Contest as you are.’ Rising to his feet, he went on. ‘I see you need to confer, and I have others to see before we sack the slave farm, so I will return in two days for your decision.’ As he took up his sword and left, he glanced sternly over his shoulder. ‘Make sure you choose wisely’.

The companions’ discussions carried on far into the night as the matter was weighed, but in the end the decision was made; the slave farm must be destroyed and the slaves freed. Yet it was clear that the spirit of Eurmal the Trickster must be invoked and their actions be hidden, lest the Clan be drawn into the matter. To this end, the companions set out for Clearwine to beg the Clan Circle’s permission to leave for Boldhome to retrieve the Red Hands of Hofstaring, and they would act as if this was their plan in all things. Yet they would take a small detour on their way to Boldhome and help in the liberation of the slaves. Yrsa contented herself with the fact that they weren’t really lying, just leaving some things out that the Clan would be happier not knowing. Not really lying at all…

So it was that the heroes found themselves standing amongst the massed ranks of the Hidden Gale, well out of earshot of the slave farm and hidden by night’s cloak. The Gale had taken a slave wagon and dealt with the Lunar Tarshite guards; sticky patches of blood still marked the wagon’s woodwork, defying any attempt to clean it completely with straw. Yrsa tried not to look too closely, and carefully sat far to the side. Randel and Bofrost stood in the back of the wagon, their weapons hidden at their feet. Although cured of the results of the wraith’s touch received on the Enjossi lands, Bofrost still felt weak and exposed in the wagon. Neither he nor Randel needed any encouragement to look thoroughly unhappy, as might a real slave in their position. Terrastal sat next to Yrsa, excitement building in his chest. He’d spied a group of bound and gagged Orlanthi being guarded by unspeaking Hidden Gale warriors, and had asked Auric regarding their purpose. Grinning unpleasantly, Auric revealed that these would be the cloak that hid the Gale’s hand in this attack. They were captured Malani tribesmen who’d be killed and left in the ruins of the slave farm with swords in their hands. The Malani were known to be Lunar lapdogs, and their apparent role in the attack would sow distrust between them and the Lunars. Seeing Terrastal’s doubtful expression, Auric slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry; if you’d refused my offer, it would have been you and your friends kneeling there instead of them. Be happy in your choice, my friend!’

Sandene looked ahead into the night. Whilst the others had been in Clearwine, she’d scouted ahead to see what lay ahead of them. The slave farm was well-built, with high walls and alert guards. Their part in the plan was to trick their way through the gate and hold it whilst the rebels charged across the open ground. Once inside, they would overpower the guards and free the slaves. The fact that the guards were from Lunar Tarsh gave her a grim satisfaction. She could use her own native Tarshite to fool the guards, and once inside wreak havoc amongst those she considered traitors and turncoats. She gripped her axe more firmly as the prospect of righteous bloodshed filled her mind…

Eventually, the signal was given and the cart began to move towards the slavers’ fort. On each side, the heroes were aware of large numbers of rebels moving forward silently. They were evidently well-prepared, as not a clink of armour or murmured voice was heard; they may have been fanatics, but they knew their business. As the wagon drew closer to its target, the rebels suddenly stopped as one at an unheard signal, just outside a long bowshot from the fortress walls, and the cart continued on alone.
As it moved forward, the hulking mass of the fort became outlined in dim torchlight that grew gradually brighter as they came closer. Soon, they could see the figures of patrolling guards atop the wooden palisade. Sandene could see they were appearing to pay attention, but her bandit instincts showed her the tell-tale signs of inattention and complacency. Her spirits began to rise as she saw that their plan might work. Abruptly, the wagon arrived at the heavy wooden gate, and a gap-toothed face appeared over the wall, demanding they identify themselves in a harshly-accented speech, unfamiliar speech. Without hesitation, Sandene called back that they were bringing in more slaves, and that they’d been held up by rumours of rebels nearby. Nervously, the slaver asked if they were nearby, to which Sandene responded with a stream of foul language, indicating that she didn’t want to hang around here and find out!

After  a brief pause, the gate swung open and the cart rumbled forward. Inside the walls could be seen a number of tents clumped together, with a smaller number of more orderly tents and a larger marquee sited further on from which flew a Lunar sigil. Beyond that could be seen the slave pens, from where a thin wail could be heard until a heavy thump silenced it, most likely permanently. Yrsa used her innate empathy with herd animals to bring the oxen to a halt just inside the gate, blocking it from shutting too. Seeing this, a group of swearing Tarshites moved forward to push the cart aside. Abruptly, one of the mercenaries fell back with a cry, Terrastal’s broadsword buried in his neck. After a brief pause, all hell broke loose as the slavers realised they had been tricked. Yrsa leapt down from her perch on the wagon and went to work with her spear, Sandene moving up alongside her to give her support. Terrastal wrenched his blade from the neck of the slaver and began to lay about him with glee, a battle song praising Orlanth bubbling unbidden from his lips. From the back of the cart, Bofrost peppered the advancing Tarshites with sling stones, forcing them to lock shields or be left cursing on the ground with crushed arms or broken ribs. Randel summoned the power of his god and set light to the heavy wooden plank used to bar the gate. As the flames licked higher, he lit one of his arrows and sent it arcing high into the air, the signal for the rebels to attack. Silently, he prayed they would come in time to relieve them, but also he dreaded their arrival: what if the rebels proved false and attacked them also? How could they hope to survive?

Although the battle to hold the gate seemed interminable, it was over in just a few minutes. The heroes had dispatched all of the Tarshites that came near, and Randel and Bofrost could see that the slaves had overpowered their tormentors and broken out of their enclosures, resulting in many of the slavers turning to flee. The larger tent towards the middle of the fort proved to be home to a group of well-trained and superbly-equipped Lunar hoplites commanded by a young captain. As the small number of hoplites formed up to advance to the gate, Randel had delayed them by befuddling the mind of the captain; by the time the hoplites had reached them, the battle was all but over. As the hoplites began to trade blows with the companions, a crackling blue light could be seen descending from the sky accompanied by the dull rumble of thunder. With crazed, cackling laughter, Auric flew down having been raised up by the power of Orlanth. As he did so, lighting arced from his outstretched hand and connected with a hapless Lunar, broiling him alive in his heavy bronze armour as he fell to the ground screaming. As he did so, the remainder of the rebels reached the gate and the hoplites fell back to form a defensive circle around their captain. Cackling once more, Auric felled another hoplite as before, and the Orlanthi fell upon the remainder, slaughtering them without mercy. All around, the Tarshite slavers were being put to the sword, and free slaves were settling scores with howls of anger. All around, torches could be seen moving here and there in the darkness as the fleeing slavers were hunted down to a man.

As the bound Malani were bought into the fort and given swords that they may die in honourable combat before being left where they fell to turn the Lunar gaze away from the Colymar, the Lunar office was brought forward, his head hanging down. As he drew near, for the second time the companions were brought face to face with someone from their past; the young officer was none other than Vanthorion, whom they’d saved from the rebels so many weeks ago. Looking up, he caught Terrastal’s eye and recognition and hope flared. ‘Terrastal, my friend! Save me, as you did before!’. This time, Terrastal turned away as Vanthorion was dragged away by howling rebels. To no avail, Bofrost and Randel called that he would fetch a high ransom, but the rebels’ blood was up and only death would serve. By the time that they were ready to leave the burning fort, the rebels had hoisted Vanthorion high with a great cheer. Looking over their shoulders, they saw that the young officer had been crucified and his eyes put out, whilst the flying Auric orbited him like some hellish, glowing star.

As the heroes headed away from the fort, they came upon a group of freed slaves, too weak to fight or to flee. Seeing their piteous state, the companions took a great risk; loading them onto the slave wagon, they took the now-free Orlanthi back to Randelstead so that they could be fed and healed before they decided what lay ahead for them. As they filed through the gate of their stead, Kareena saw immediately what must be done. Their visitors were hustled out of sight, and the cart broken up and burnt. The metal of the cage was given over to their redsmith, Piku Gastapakis, who ran his forge as hot as the hells to melt it down in short order. Soon, anything to suggest any slave presence had been disposed of. Kareena only took a moment to squeeze each of their arms for their soft-heartedness, and then to slap each of them for the same reason; one day, such an act may bring down disaster on all of them, but hopefully not today.

As Yelm rose high in the sky, the companions set out once more, this time with Boldhome firmly in their sights. As they’d been delayed by the attack, after some cajoling from Terrastal the company set out across country, avoiding Boldhome but striking out through the lands of the Konthasos and the Enjossi. Although they were received with honour by Orendal of the Konthasos, the Enjossi were much more fulsome in their welcome. They were particularly welcomed by Frieda, who was full of stories of the miraculous catches of fish since the breaking of the curse. As they laid out their plans, Frieda warned them of the Lunar sympathies and slave-taking habits of the tribal lands along their path. She begged them to be careful on their journey, and offered the services of two wily boatmen to speed their passage to Boldhome by river.

With Frieda’s warning ringing in his ears, Bofrost rose early the next morning and meditated upon their path, bringing his Air rune forth and communing with the winds. As the others arose, he passed on what he had learnt of what lay ahead, and as a result they made good progress. For her part, Sandene ranged ahead and used what skills she had honed as a bandit to maintain a careful lookout for potential enemies. However, despite her efforts, the company was spotted by some distant fishermen. Randel likewise called on his knowledge of local customs to judge the best times to travel, when good Orlanthi would be otherwise engaged. But again, luck was against them; the local clans had evidently been corrupted by Lunar ways, and they were out of kilter with usual Orlanthi habits. As a result, they were again spotted and a messenger on horseback was seen galloping away to report their passing.

The Enjossi fishermen were now becoming nervous, and insisted they could pass no further due to the huge rocks barring the river ahead. Quick as lightning, Terrastal bounded up the rocks, peering here and there as he did so. To the fishermen’s amazement, he found a portage they were unaware of and led them to new waters boiling with fish. Conscious of the unwanted attention their passing was causing, Sandene once more drew on her bandit knowledge and expertly brushed away their tracks to confound any pursuit. Eventually, to their great relief, the city of Boldhome began to hove into view but one further obstacle lay in their way. Off to their left was a makeshift town, full of Lunar soldiers and buzzing with those going about the business of keeping the city and its Lunar overlords supplied with grain. Faced with the prospect of going around this settlement and adding days to their journey, not to mention risking encounters with Lunars, Bofrost again settled down and called on his god to grant him clear vision. As he did so, he became aware of a fold in the land ahead where they could pass without notice, so long as they were careful.

And so it was that the companions came to Boldhome at last, intent on retrieving the Red Hands of Hofstaring and starting the Marriage Contest of Orlanth and Ernalda in earnest!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

2. More Misadventures: Cave of Calamity.

Og, Abba and Dulron staggered to their feet, swearing and blaming each other for not spotting the wave of water sooner. Before they could really get into mutual recrimination, however, they noticed that Pouldan’s nasal whine of complaint was absent. Looking around as the last of the water swirled around their feet, they heard the enraged barking of wolves coming from within the cave mouth. With a sinking feeling, they recalled Pouldan’s self-satisfied grin looking down at them as they were washed from the cave. Somehow, he’d managed to find a safe ledge, but from what they’d seen there was only one ledge around and that was right next to those wolves...

As one, the heroes dashed back into the cave mouth, only to see a horrifying tableau before them. Pouldan had indeed found a dry ledge, but it happened to be right next to the chained wolves he’d spent some time pelting with crossbow bolts. Pouldan clearly realised his danger, as he was clearly trying to cast a spell as three wolves pounced on him, crossbow bolts protruding from their muzzles and shoulders. Unfortunately, the wolves’ rage lent them speed and they fell upon him before the arcane syllables left his mouth. Down he went, squealing, under a torrent of fur, fangs and claws.

Although Dulron and Og charged forward with Abba providing supporting bow-fire, by the time they managed to kill or drive off the wolves Pouldan lay lifeless upon the floor, hand outstretched in a last ditch effort to save his life. Sourly, Og dispatched the last of the wolves whilst Dulron administered a farewell blessing to their fallen comrade. Although he had been an odd sort, obsessed with things that more stable personalities might consider deeply distasteful, he had been their companion after all.

Ever pragmatic, Abba pushed past Dulron and explored the remainder of the cave. As expected it was foul with the stench of the captive wolves, but Abba also noted a sort of small passage higher up in the eastern wall, a pile of what appeared to be discarded rubbish at its foot. Nimbly, and with as much stealth as he could muster, he scaled the slimy cave wall and peered into the cavern beyond. Dimly, he could see a pool of light, with dim shapes moving here and there. Listening carefully, he could make out the harsh goblinoid tongue and the snarling of more wolves. Swearing quietly, he slipped back down and relayed his findings to his comrades. Briefly considering making a rapid exit, they finally settled on exploring the rest of the cave; after all, they’d slaughtered goblins with ease before, and wolves had proved no obstacle as long as they stuck together.

Carefully, the three moved further into the cave system, recalling they’d seen a further group of goblins in an opening to the west. As they moved, a dull roar filled the air and became louder the further they went. Their fight with the wolves hadn’t caused anyone to come and investigate, and Dulron felt the acoustics of the cave combined with the roar of water would mask any sounds of combat provided further enemies weren’t too close by.

As they crept up the narrow passage leading to the western cave, a dull rumble came from below their feet as the unstable rock began to give way! Nimble as ever, Abba skipped forward to safety whilst his companions were knocked off their feet for the second time in as many hours! Luckily, both Dulron and Og escaped with only cuts and bruises. However, their grumbling at Abba’s smirk quietened down as they approached the goblin cave. Urged on by his companions, Abba stole carefully forward and glanced around the corner. Within, he could see the cave bending out of sight to his right, but immediately in front of him he could see a group of some six goblins clustered around a couple of cooking fires, greasy smoke filling the upper part of the cave before finding some way out far above. As always, rubbish lay everywhere in the cave, and Abba took particular note of the chewed humanoid bones strewn here and there; clearly, captives were used for more than just ransom.

Deciding that delay could mean discovery and more foes to contend with, the companions once more charged into the fray, surprising the goblins as they lay around and squabbled as usual for their kind. Rather than keeping together, however, the heroes were so keen to take the fight to the enemy that they split up, to Abba’s great consternation. As a result, they took some grievous wounds before the goblin leader took advantage of a pause in the battle to parley. As his minions stood back, a slightly larger goblin came into view around the corner of the cave, holding a wicked-looking knife to the neck of a middle-aged human, of noble bearing despite evidently frequent beatings. In harshly-accented Common, the goblin leader demanded a parley or he would kill his captive. As Og and Dulron looked at each other, holding the various wounds they’d taken, Abba took matters into his own hands; there was no way he was parleying with some stinking goblin! In a moment, he’d sunk two arrows into watching goblins and the battle began again.

This time, the fight was over quickly and the remaining goblins lay dead. Whilst Abba and Og searched the filthy bodies, Dulron checked the body of the unknown man…and discovered he was alive! Whilst Dulron bound the man’s wounds, he also noted another figure emerging from the darkness at the rear of the cave. Readying his hammer, he tensed…but then noted that it was another male human wearing dirty robes and bearing the marks of goblin hospitality. As Abba and Og approached, the stranger identified himself as Kang the Mysterious, a poor traveler who’d been unfortunate enough to end up in the goblins’ clutches. As he scrabbled around and retrieved his belongings from a pile of rubbish, the three companions exchanged a knowing look; another mage, no doubt. Perhaps this one would have a better sense of self-preservation than Pouldan at least.

Realising that they needed to catch their breath before moving onwards, Og and Dulron took the opportunity to bind their wounds and take some food whilst Abba moved off to scout the nearby area. Moving north and east, the floor rose steeply until Abba caught site of a bridge spanning the stream some 20 feet above the stream they’d splashed through earlier. Of most immediate interest, however, was the bored-looking goblin standing on the bridge. Evidently intended to be a look-out, the foul creature seemed more interested in the contents of its nostrils and its nutritional value than what was happening around him. For the time being, Abba was content to let him carry on his nasal excavations whilst his comrades rested. Settling back against the wall, Abba watched and waited…

Saturday, 9 March 2019

5. Sisters (and Brothers) of Mercy

The crew felt that they were finally doing the ‘right’ thing. After all, the Mendicant Order on Amerath had helped them out when they’d been in real need of medical treatment, plus they were on the wrong side of the Church which placed them firmly on the right side of the crew. On top of this, they’d all heard stories about how the corporations treated the indentured workers that ended up planetside on Indri. Generations of industrial pollution had produced a toxic environment that led to an all-too-often fatal condition known as ‘Indri Lung’. The workers were anything but volunteers; most of them were just ordinary people who’d fallen on hard times and ended up owing money they couldn’t pay. The Hegemonic courts ordered that defaulters would become the property of the corporation they owed money to until they’d worked off their debt, and as the cost of their food was added to this most people never made it off the surface. Much of the news from Indri was heavily censored, but there were always stories of organ-legging rings and other, less pleasant fates that awaited what amounted to ‘non-people’. Once you became indentured, you had no legal rights: you were property.

Therefore, the opportunity to help these unfortunates by smuggling three Mendicant Healers planetside and get paid for it was too good to resist. What made things more complicated was that one of the three, a xeno named Jaana Hilst, was being actively sought by the Church of the Stellar Flame and their Legion allies. Jaana was tight-lipped about what made her so in-demand, but it was serious enough that her two companions looked suitably nervous as they boarded the ‘Susan’. It was well-known that the Church were less than forgiving with those they considered heretics, and those who fell into their clutches were rarely seen again.

Knowing that they were up against an indefatigable opponent, the crew took the time to plan carefully. Through Vapour’s mob contact, Yattu, they sourced some high-end cover identities for the Mendicants. They would be travelling as mid-level corporate stooges, visiting Indri for some tedious corporate-type purpose; surely dull enough to put off any but the most determined zealot. For their part, the crew of the Susan would be operating under one of their legitimate cover identities. For all intents and purposes, there was nothing about them that should arouse the slightest interest. Probably.

The first sign that things were going to be a little more complicated came as the ‘Susan’ powered past the outer planets of the Indri system. Immediately their sensors came alive as a vast Church-Militant vessel, the ‘Cleansing Flame’, hove into view ahead of them, moving out from the shadow of a slowly-revolving planetoid. Immediately, the vessel launched smaller craft which rapidly moved to an intercept course. Things were certainly going to get a lot more interesting...

As Vapour and Dar watched the sensor panels, they became aware of the three Mendicant priests looking over their shoulders. All three wore worried expressions; although their cover identities were effective, they wouldn’t hold up to determined examination by the Church data analysts. Just at that moment, the comms feed crackled into life and a high-pitched, querulous voice demanded that the Susan heave to and prepare to be boarded. Thinking quickly, Dar greeted the speaker in the name of the Universal Church, throwing in a few choice quotations he’d picked up from services he’d observed on Amerath. Much to his surprise, and everyone else’s for that matter, the greeting he’d used got a much friendlier response from the cruiser than expected. Through a mix of half-remembered quotes and quick thinking, Dar was able to convince the Church flunky that he was a student of a little-known scripture known as the ‘Solar Logics’. More to the point , the person he was speaking to was an avid reader of the Solar Logics and was thrilled to have found someone who apparently shared his passion. Seizing the opportunity, Dar convinced the cruiser that the Susan was entirely as she appeared to be and that they should be allowed to pass freely. Not quite believing their luck, the crew and passengers of the Susan saw the interceptor vessels veer off and the vast bulk of the ‘Cleansing Flame’ move past them without any further incident. As they moved further into the Iota system, they received a heartfelt farewell from the vessel, bidding them ‘travel in the light of the Suns’. As the comm channel cut off, Vapour let rip with a few choice words, and kicked the sub-light drives into maximum thrust.

As the Susan moved into an approach vector for the landing pad closest to where the sick workers were supposed to be holed up, Vapour again used their cover identities to obtain landing permission. Unfortunately, this would mean that they would be searched on landing as per protocol. Not wanting to run the risk of being anywhere near a heavy security presence, Vapour used his hacking skills and some black-market passcodes he’d purchased from Yattu to have the Susan rerouted to a more remote, less secure landing pad. As they flew over the expanse of industrial buildings, Vapour knew he’d never have found this off-grid landing point if not for the intel he’d received from Yattu; he also knew, however, that such black-market codes were often identified in regular security sweeps by slaved AI systems and that this would bring further unwanted attention to the Susan at some point down the line.

But for now it was enough to have gotten their Mendicant cargo planetside. Donning their protective breathing rigs, they knew the  next step would be to find the sick workers. This would be more difficult, as the workers would be doing their best not to be found. Taking matters into his own hands, Dar marched down the cargo ramp as it opened. Looking around, he caught sight of a group of thin, undernourished workers clustered under a lean-to away from the persistent, acidic rain. Without pausing, he strode up to them and demanded to know the whereabouts of the plague-stricken workers. The workers shuffled and looked sidelong at each other, denying all knowldge. However, when Dar grabbed on of them by his pathetically skinny arm and growled into his terrified face they quickly directed them to someone who might know: ‘talk to Chains’ is all they’d say, and gesture into the depths of the surrounding factory.

As the crew and their employers made their way into the hellish interior of the factory, Jaana made it clear that she didn’t want anyone to be harmed, least of all the indentured workers. Dar nodded curtly in agreement , pushing his anger a little deeper down inside. As they moved further inwards, they were directed towards what  seemed to be a hall designed for dispensing flavourless nutri-paste at meal times; enough to keep the workers moving, but also laced with chemicals to keep them obedient and passive. One group of younger workers tried to ask for bribes in return for directions, but again Dar intimidated them into submission.

Eventually, they spotted what could only be their target. Where other workers were scrawny and covered in sores, this one was hugely fat, large rolls of skin pressing against his filthy coverall. More to the point, he wore lengths of chain wrapped around his body, making the rolls of fat bulge even more. As the crew entered the feeding hall, Chains’ piggy eyes watched them warily, peering out from his jowly features. His tattoos showed that he’d long since worked off his debt; no doubt, whatever dubious position of power he’d carved out here was more appealing than anything he could expect off-planet.

After a brief discussion, it became apparent that Chains did know where the sick workers were hiding, but he wanted payment for the information. Although Dar was all for beating it out of him, he was aware of Jaana’s disapproving glare burning into the back of his neck. Instead, he and Vapour provided Chains with some recreational pharmaceuticals from their personal supply as a sweetener and Chains’ eyes lit up when he saw two ampoules of ‘Lithios Ice’ fall into his pudgy, outstretched hand. Vapour could almost see the wheels turning in Chains’ brain as he calculated how much profit he’d make with this much pure drug. Unfortunately, whilst Chains was giving the crew the information they needed, they didn’t notice a rat-faced figure leaving the feed hall, casting glances over his shoulder as he left. Perhaps there were others who already supplied drugs here that would be only too happy to learn that off-worlders were muscling in on their territory...

Before long, the crew and the Mendicants had located the sick workers, and it was obvious that things were much worse than even Jaana had feared. The workers were crammed into a storage hangar, the air filled with cries and moans. Vapour and Dar were thankful for their breathing apparatus, now more than ever , as it was apparent that more than a few had succumbed to the disease and were stacked in the corner of the hangar space. The Mendicants immediately began to triage the sick, helped by some of those who were yet to contract the illness. After handing over the supplies they’d brought with them, Dar and Vapour turned to leave. But Jaana had one more job for them; some of the workers were too sick to be easily treated in the appalling conditions in the hangar, so she offered to pay good money for them to be returned to her Sisters and Brothers on Amerath. Unable to resist a paying job, especially one that seemed the right thing to do, the crew agreed.

So it was that the Susan blasted off from the surface of Indri with nine indentured workers on board, three in a serious condition and six others to manage their stretchers. Vapour had managed to disable the locator nodes that each of them had implanted in their neck, as well as the small but powerful explosive charges that would normally rupture their carotid artery if they went more than 500 m away from the planet surface. Relying as ever on speed over subtlety, Vapour managed to damage the coupling manifold on the Jump Drive whilst evading planetary security shuttles before losing them in the maze of orbital facilities above the planet. Looking for a safe berth to plan their next move, Vapour took them to the orbital where they’d delivered the xenoarchaeologist they’d retrieved from Shimaya. Surely they’d be safe here, for a while at least...