Monday, 22 April 2019

25. Godday/ Death Week to Freezeday/ Fertility Week, Fire Season, 1618.

(With thanks to @dracowie and @zos93 for their significant contribution to this write-up)

Terrastal hunkered down in the blasted ruins, eyeing the two Lunar cavalry as they sought him out. Some distance behind him was a stream, wending its way down from the Troll quarter of Boldhome; he could tell as much from the noisome smells that reached him every time the mountain breezes shifted in his direction. Ahead of him, beyond the cursed Lunars, was the flat shelf of stone known as ‘Geo’s Pocket’. The buildings here were in ill-repair and poorly-planned, with one being built on top of another without thought for the consequences. The result was a shambles of humanity, forever on the brink of tumbling off the edge of the mountain and onto the valley floor. Those who called this place home lived lives as ramshackle as their dwellings, and it was not a place that welcomed outsiders. Still, it appeared to be paradise to Terrastal; if only he could reach it, he’d be able to give the Lunars the slip for good and all. He could see that the Lunars were unwilling to enter the shanty, and he allowed himself some hope. It was then he spotted movement on the road leading back to the way he’d fled. As he watched, his heart sank as he saw a full troop of Lunar foot soldiers heading his way. Thinking quickly, he stripped down to his breech-cloth, bundled up all but his knife and hid his belongings as well as he could. Then, keeping one eye on the approaching Lunars, he hacked off his hair and beard and wiped dirt and mud over his face and body. If the Lunars found him, he’d play the part of a wandering idiot and hope for the best.

At that moment, Sandene sat trembling in the Temple of Chalana Arroy on the other side of the valley. It wasn’t through fear that she trembled, but because she fought against habits borne of bitter experience to submit to the will of someone other than the Implacable Anger. She’d been in a similar state all that long morning, and to distract herself she’d summoned a couple of the urchins that hung around the temple hoping for gifts from the healed. Gazing upon the pair with a stern eye, she’d directed the older one to follow Terrastal and Bofrost and the other to follow Randel and Yrsa, with instructions to return and inform her of their whereabouts. She skewered the older of the two with a particularly fierce look, a lad of some dozen summers with an unsightly wen marring his face. As he blanched under her gaze, she secured a terrifying oath from him that he would follow Terrastal wherever he went and report back to her, or he would experience her wrath. Flipping a coin to each, she bade them be off as a Chalana Arroy priestess entered the chamber, almost tripping over the two as they rushed headlong to do Sandene’s bidding.

Randel was disappointed to see most of the traders were Etyries members rather than Issaries but still they engaged him in friendly banter as he wandered among the stalls. Suddenly he heard the sound of feet behind him and turned to find Bofrost running full pelt towards him. ‘We need to talk urgently’. ‘Not here’ said Randel, pulling the sage into an alleyway off the market.

Once Bofrost had caught his breath, he continued. ‘a Lunar soldier is dead and Terrastal is missing!’
Randel knew in his heart those two events were connected; he slumped against the wall and placed his head in his hands. ‘Why? Why can’t he see the bigger picture? If an opportunity to kill 10,000 Lunars presented itself he would try and jeopardise it by killing one!’. ‘His temper gets the better of him’ said Bofrost. ‘Agreed’ said Randel shaking his head mournfully, ‘nevertheless we had better try and find him before the Lunars do, if they haven’t already’. The two friends hurried off towards the Chalana Arroy temple to find Sandene and inform her of the terrible news.

In the House of the Healers, Sandene steeled herself before submitting to the healer’s ministrations as she began her work.  She wondered if this was how she died. Not physically, but the burns and scars left by the Lunar demon had created a new existence for her – torn from her sisters at the Earth Temple, separated from her Goddess, and isolated from other people by anger and deformity. It had been easy to fall back on Death as the answer to everything, hurling herself into battle knowing that the worst outcome would be that she emerged the victor. But the force of Life flowed into her, and she felt the merciful touch of Chalana Arroy – perhaps she had been missing something? Perhaps she had always been missing something? Finally, after what seemed like hours, her scars melted away and the ever-present pain with it. Sandene lifted her arm as if wielding an axe – no reassuring agony to reassure her that she was, in the end, just an instrument of Death.

She threw everything valuable she had at the priestess, blinking back tears and desperate to escape. Grateful but spiritually torn it was almost a relief when she met Terrastal in the antechambers, accompanied by the boy she’d sent after him. A bizarre transformation had taken place; gone was the proud and impulsive Orlanthi warrior she’d bidden farewell to but a short while ago; in his place was a filthy, near-naked savage, mumbling something about an argument that had led to a dead Lunar soldier. So he’d been unable to restrain himself and threatened not only his own life but that of his companions and the quest given to him by his god. She laughed abruptly that this should be a surprise; of course he had! Though the near naked and filthy Orlanthi looked ridiculous, Sandene felt a long-forgotten pang of anxiety. She looked at the nervous merchant Randel and the scholar Bofrost, who walked through the door at that moment and were likewise aghast at Terrastal’s appearance.  Terrestal looked every inch the madman Randel suspected he was; naked except for a loincloth and caked in mud and worse. Having cleaned himself up he went on to explain yes there had been a fight, yes he had killed the soldier and no it wasn’t his fault. ‘Obviously’ thought Randel in a somewhat disbelieving manner. For her part, Sandene cared if the Lunars crucified Terrastal, if they killed her and her friends.  This couldn’t be good.

That afternoon the group had a plan to meet a story teller at Geo’s Pocket, an inn in a rough Sartarite area just outside the town walls. It was decided to leave Terrestal behind as the Lunars had probably circulated his description by now. On the way Bofrost told the group the story of Geo who had been Sartar’s cook and who opened a number of inns where Sararites could always find a warm welcome. Less so Lunars as the party passed a group of demoralised looking Lunar soldiers who had clearly encountered some of the hostility for which the Geo’s Pocket area was renowned.

As the group entered the area there was a palpable air of hostility even in daylight, Randel started wish he didn’t look quite so successful, at least they had Sandene with them who Randel thought was probably warding off any immediate threat of robbery, though he wasn’t sure even Sandene’s presence would help after Yelm set.

Despite the rough area a warm welcome awaiting the party in Geos itself, the bartender recognising them as true Sartarites, repeating the phrase ‘Geo knows his own’ and even standing them a round of drinks. They quickly found the story teller and crowded round his table. He appeared to be God-touched, for he not only did he know Terrastal was missing and sent an urchin to bring him by a secret route but he also knew the their motivations and desires telling Randel he was driven by love but he should not focus on one person. Randel guessed this to be Eirissa, but he had no idea why focusing on her was a bad idea and he hoped not to find out. The story teller asked where the party were from and when told Clearwine he asked if the party knew the heroes of the Broken Tower; there was some prevarication, but as it was clear he already knew who the party were. As if on cue,  Terrastal arrived, having made himself more presentable. With some encouragement, he started to tell the story of the Broken Tower once again – and this time Sandene joined in, leaping and whirling in a martial dance that reflected her destructive fury as Randel sang his battle hymns – but this brought joy rather the usual grim endings. Maybe this was what she should do now? Maybe she should be a Temple Dancer?

The story was well received by the occupants of Geo’s and greeted with thunderous applause which after it had died away was followed by a slow handclap from a hooded figure.
An Orlanthi revealed himself – he had some grudge with Terrastal, it didn’t matter what. The result was always the same – one of them had to die. To rub salt in the wound, the duel would take place at the House of Death at the old Humakti Temple. It looked like Sandene was being reminded of her responsibilities…

Though it was clear that Death was still a central part of Sandene’s fate, she was not going to be tied down by the oppressive Humakti rituals. Terrastal had impetuously insisted on the duel being the following morning the preparations began immediately, despite this Sandene continued to drink, perhaps clinging to one more night celebrating her Healing before the endless battle began again.
The Orlanth challenger was called Killer, and he was a Greydog, or something – Sandene didn’t really pay much attention. He looked competent and put on quite a show in the makeshift arena. What he didn’t understand is that his skills were not on trial in the upcoming fight – it was the will of the Goddess who walked out. Looking at her opponent Sandene sighed inwardly – a confident young weapon-thane simply fulfilling her tribal responsibilities to support her Orlanthi leader. No matter – it was a duel to the death, and Sandene would play her part.

The interminable Humakti rigmarole finally came to an end, and Terrastal stepped into the ring. As Sandene followed him she felt the weight of divine interest settle around them, and she remembered why - despite everything – she loved the simplicity and power of battle.

Her first blow was off – perhaps she missed the feedback from her damaged nerves every time she moved? Her opponent easily parried, but the swing in reply lacked conviction. Joy began to swell in Sandene’s breast. She leapt and twirled, her axe catching the Orlanthi woman just below her helm, opening up a cut on her forehead that bled distractingly into her eyes. As the spike haired thane wiped it away Sandene almost felt sadness – was it to be that easy? Did she really not see what happened next? Maybe she is bluffing?

But no, the next axe blow sunk into the woman’s knee, and she collapsed to the ground frantically signalling her surrender. “No, no” though Sandene “don’t spoil it! You swore an oath, and your God will welcome you!” Almost embarrassed for her opponent, Sandene sunk her axe into her downed foe’s chest to finish the ritual.

Beside her, Terrastal’s opponent was proving more interesting a challenge. He wielded both sword and shield well and had already destroyed Terrastal’s shield. But Sandene’s partner was made of sterner stuff, desperately deflecting the searching sword blows and showing no signs of losing heart.
Once again, Sandene felt the unfamiliar anxiety. She wasn’t sure whether the ritual allowed for it, but she was not going to abandon her…well, her “friend”. As she moved across the ring she felt Babeester Gor guide her axe, knowing that her goddess was keen to show her rival Humakt what real battle was all about.

The blow was unstoppable. The Orlanthi duellist efficiently put his shield in the way, but he had underestimated the power that the Earth drove through Sandene’s small frame. The blow was deflected, but still ended deep in his thigh, and he fell to the floor as his ally had done before him.
“Killer” also offered his surrender – throwing his shield to the floor and offering ransom. Sandene stepped back. This was not her battle, she had no oath commitment to slay this Greydog for whatever trivial slight he felt Terrastal had inflicted. She turned her back and walked away, though her heart leapt a little as she heard her friend finish the duel.

Around her the ring dissolved into all the expected emotions – anger, joy, relief. But something was out of place, there were onlookers running back from the temple entrance. Lunars. At least twenty of them in full peltast armour. Apparently duelling was banned. Sandene bent over and smeared her opponent’s blood over her cheeks to mark her victory and then smiling, stowed her axe and walked towards the shield wall. She thought she remembered someone saying that Fazzur Wideread may be in Boldhome. Maybe this would be a good way to finally get a chance to meet him…

Seeing the Lunars taking their companions in hand, Bofrost, Randel and Yrsa followed on behind. As they walked, the master of the Colymar tribal manor pushed past them, loudly proclaiming that he would speak for his tribesfolk before the Prince. As he passed, he caught Randel’s eye and in it Randel saw concern mixed with determination. As the Lunars and their captives moved through the gate into the Royal Compound, the remainder of the Hero Band found themselves on the wrong side of the gates as they shut with a dreadful finality. As they stood in the street with the remaining onlookers, Randel felt a tug on his sleeve. Looking down, he saw a filthy urchin who leaned in close. ‘Sweet Arkell of the Lightfingers would like a word…’.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

7: Every (Dust) Cloud...

Against the blackness of deep space, two small oases of life pirouetted lazily, joined by a thin cord . Around the objects, a vast dust cloud stretched further into the depths, itself spinning at the command of irresistible forces. In the impossibly distant future, the dust cloud of the Halvari Span would most likely coalesce into some stellar body, hurtling unremarked through the blackness. But for now, the Span formed the mute and uncaring backdrop for the drama playing out aboard the insignificant bubbles of life twisting lazily through it.

The bubbles were starships, held close by a pressurised umbilical running between the two. Down the umbilical pounded Dar the Luxxan, yelling dire imprecations in his own tongue. In response, Vapour’s squeals and shouts came through the comm-bead nestled in his ear, pleading with him to hurry. In trying to take down the Ashen Knife pilot on the other ship, Vapour was clearly outmatched and Dar surged ahead, his muscles straining as he used every available surface to propel himself forward.

As Dar disappeared around a junction, Bonto tried and failed to keep up. His cortex was still fizzing from his battle with the enemy data core AI, and his responses were sluggish as a result. As he floated forward, he heard Vapour take a heavy blow and apparently fall to the floor. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the harshly-accented voice of the Ashen Knife pilot roaring at Vapour to let go of his leg and fight honourably.

At that moment, Dar shot through the cockpit hatch and collided feet-first with the enemy pilot. As the figure shot backwards, Dar stamped downwards and felt at least one bone crack in his opponent’s chest as he did so. The Ashen Knife hit the far wall and crumpled, the figure’s arm bent at an unnatural angle beneath it. Bending down, Dar wrenched the figure’s helmet off to deliver the coup de gras…and stared slack-jawed with a shock of recognition.

For a moment, Dar was back on that mining colony on Lithios, running from the figure before him as it fired shot after shot at him. Try as he might, Chon-Zek always managed to track him down sooner or later. No matter how far he ran or covered his tracks, the bounty hunter caught up with him, driven by a peculiar hatred for his species. Chon-Zek was beyond Enhanced, spending all of his cred on whatever new edge the Hegemonic gene-splicers could come up with. But such extreme genetic editing had a cost; in Chon-Zek’s case, it was an obsessive personality that was simply unable to leave a job undone. In his quieter moments, Dar suspected the Hegemonic scientists had added the trait on purpose, to make Chon-Zek the most tireless pursuer he could be and finish the extermination of the Luxxan species.
All of this ran through Dar’s mind in a split-second; then he punched Chon-Zek very hard in the face until his opponent was thoroughly unconscious.

All in all, things could have been worse. Vapour was badly wounded but still very much alive, whilst Bonto was still slurring his words and seemed faintly cross-eyed. Dar was likewise still recovering from his near-miss on the Susan earlier that day. But they’d managed to capture the Ashen Knife vessel intact, and with Javierra Gallia and the artefact safely on board in cryo-stasis. After reviving her and checking all was well, Dar took great pleasure in loading a now-conscious but heavily-restained Chon-Zek into the vacant cryo-chamber. As the lid closed, Chon-Zek strained against his bonds and hissed dire threats of what he’d do to Dar, all of which was cut off in a moment as the freezing process activated and he was turned into a seething, malevolent statue. Patting the top of the casket, Dar hummed a Luxxan war-hymn and wore what could have passed for a smile.

For their part, Vapour and Bonto turned their attention to stripping the ship of everything that they could conceivably steal. Bonto was particularly intrigued by several large, encrypted data files he’d managed to retrieve from the Knife data core. Something told him that these would be more valuable than anything physical they’d be able to haul aboard, assuming he could break the encryption. Once they’d taken what they could from the ship and its data cores, the crew took the Ashen Knife vessel and moored it to a lone asteroid making its stately way through the void. Powered down, it would be undetectable. Dar permitted himself a small grin at this, knowing that his enemy would be spending the foreseeable future frozen aboard an abandoned ship with no chance of escape.

Of the two other Ashen Knives, one was dead and the other was badly-wounded. After spacing the deceased Ashen Knife, Dar explained very carefully that it would be in the best interest of the remaining Knife that he should disappear and never cross the crew’s path again. As he did so, the Knife nodded seriously at all the right points and tried not to wince every time Dar looked meaningfully at the airlock during their discussions. When they finally returned to the Indri Orbital to return Javierra and collect their pay-out, the crew was heartened to see that the Knife left the docking bay without any posturing or false bravado. Perhaps their negotiation had been fruitful after all…but only time would tell.

Almost as soon as the Knife disappeared, a different airlock opened and a strange entourage entered. First came two hulking ‘Protector’ class urbots, weapons cycling as their advance threat-recognition algorithms evaluated the vicinity. Finding no immediate danger,  they stepped aside to allow three other figures to enter. Two of the figures were of roughly baseline-human size, but there the similarity to standard humanity ended. Both were identical, androgynous, with pale skin through which a thin network of blue blood vessels could be seen. Instead of eyes, they had smooth featureless skin, and both wore floor-length black robes. But even their strangeness was eclipsed by the much taller, skeletal figure that entered last of all. The crew stared open-mouthed at the alien figure; few people outside the upper reaches of the Hegemony ever saw a Sahi’ir in the flesh, so for one to turn up in a docking bay aboard a backwater orbital facility was unheard of. Ignoring the awkward silence, the two eyeless figures began to speak in unison with high, melodious voices. ‘The Prime Wi-13-Meti greets the crew of the ‘Lazy Susan’ and gives thanks for their service.’ The crew’s cred chips chirped cheerfully as the promised huge payment was transferred into their account. The Speakers continued in unison, undeterred. ‘The Prime Wi-13-Meti also greets Javierra Gallia’. At this, the short xenoarchaeologist stepped forward, carrying the Ur artefact with her. Without a further word, Javierra walked past the strange group and disappeared through the bay door. As she passed, one of the Speakers stepped forward and held out a data stick to Bonto. ‘This may assist in unlocking the encryption on the data files you retrieved from the criminal vessel’. Without any further word, the Sahi’ir turned and left the bay, preceded by one of the Protectors with the two Speakers following close behind. Lastly, the remaining Protector urbot left the chamber, its weapons cycling once more as it left.

The Sahi’ir data stick did indeed prove useful in breaking the encryption of the Ashen Knife data. It turned out that the kidnappers had been tasked with delivering Javierra and the artefact to a set of coordinates on the dark side of Sonhandra in the Holt system. A tidally-locked world, Sonhandra always presented the same side to its local star whilst its dark side remained in eternal night. More ominous still was the fact that all light sources failed within a few kilometers of the surface of Sonhandra’s dark side, meaning that it was almost entirely unexplored and unexplorable. On hearing this, the Sahi’ir immediately offered the crew the job of scouting the co-ordinates and determining the purpose behind Javierra’s kidnapping. However, the crew were in a bad place, exhausted and strung out. But as their reputation had grown, the crew had attracted those of the same mind who also wanted a piece of whatever action the Lazy Susan was getting. Perhaps the crew could call on some of these kindred souls to help out in their time of need…

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

24. Wildday/ Death Week to Godday/ Death Week, Fire Season, 1618

Leaving the gates and their Lunar guards behind them, the adventurers finally entered Boldhome. Boldhome! Only Terrastal had been within its high walls before, and the rest of the heroes were awed by its sheer scale. Before them was a wide valley that split into two, an imposing peak dominating the approaches to both. Atop this vast rampart was the Royal Palace, where of old the Orlanthi rulers of Sartar had held sway, keeping faith with both men and Gods. Just below the palace was the place where the Royal Flame had been kindled and burnt undimmed through the long years of Sartarite independence. Yet when the Lunars had taken Boldhome the flame had been doused and now it was a sign of Orlanthi bondage.

As the heroes walked towards the right-hand valley, they were surrounded by a throng of people moving towards and away from the city. Although many of them were of Orlanthi stock and from a range of different tribes, there were also large numbers of beings from far and wide. Here was a Praxian tribesman, staring ahead moodily as his huge rhino mount rumbled onwards. Yrsa stared open-mouthed at the sight, kindling a small, secret desire to perhaps have such a mount herself one day. Behind him were a line of miserable humans bearing more strange Praxian tribal markings, united only by the slave chains that looped from neck to neck. Still further back, an inhuman morocanth was carried aloft on a palanquin borne by herd men, drawing dark glances and mutters from the surrounding humans. Bofrost found it impossible to tear his gaze away from these new sights and sounds, until the morocanth trader noticed his stare and gestured angrily with a set of wicked bronze claws.

As they approached the cluster of buildings ahead, Randel felt in need of a drink to wash the trail dust from their throats. With the unerring nose for commerce of a true son of Issaries, he led them down a series of winding alleys between tall, orderly buildings until finally they emerged into a bustling market. Strange sounds and smells assaulted their senses, leaving them dumbstruck until Randel led them into a tavern marked out by an image of a green humanoid amphibian with lumpy skin: ‘The Warty Newtling’. Although the name was not promising, the tavern proved to be well-kept and clean, with friendly staff. As the heroes slaked their thirst and picked over a highly-spiced stew, they took care to listen to the chatter of the locals, to see if there was any mention of the Red Hands or a way to get into the palace. It was plain that the local Orlanthi bore no love for the Lunar overlords, or for the puppet prince they’d placed on the throne, Temertain. However, although Terrastal probed carefully for those with rebel sympathies, for the most part people were more interested in their own affairs than those of whoever ruled them. Whilst Randel noted the local fashions and possible future trading opportunities, Sandene found her gaze drawn to a group of priests moving quietly through the crowded market outside. Wherever they walked, parted respectfully and, although they wore their purses in plain sight none of the lurking urchins made any move to steal them. As they drew closer, Sandene saw that they bore the runes of Harmony and Life, marking them out as servants of Chalana Arroy. Touching the livid scars that marred the side of her face, Sandene resolved to visit the House of the Healers. As her spirit had begun the process of healing since joining her comrades, perhaps now it was time for her body to begin to heal also.

Having quenched their thirst and rested their weary limbs, the band decided to seek out the tribal manor of the Colymar, where they could be assured of a safe, cheap bed for the night. Also, they still needed to find out more about the local situation before they could even begin to devise a plan to liberate Hofstaring’s Hands.  As they made their way further along the valley, Yelms’ Orb dipped below the peaks of the surrounding Quivin Mountains, plunging the city into darkness whilst the bowl of the sky remained a deep blue. It was yet another of Boldhome’s contradictions, that lamps were lit beneath a blue summer sky.

Eventually, they reached the Colymar Tribal Manor. It was an impressive two-storey building of Mostali style, as were all of the city’s oldest buildings. Despite this, the Colymar banner flew proudly overhead, and familiar songs and voices could be heard within. As the heroes entered, they found a well-appointed room within. Almost every clan of the Colymar tribe was present; warriors, traders and travellers. Moving here and there was a bear-like man with an impressive beard, talking easily with each group, by turn laughing loudly or listening to worries with a solemn expression. Seeing the newcomers, the man greeted them heartily. ‘Welcome, friends! I see by your clothes and your marks that you are of the Ernaldori, so again welcome.’ To Sandene, the man inclined his head and welcomed her in accented Tarshite. ‘I am Farnan of the Ernaldori, keeper of this house and I demand a gift of wealth, song or service, as is my right. Who will pay the due?’ he said expectantly, looking from face to face. Without hesitation, Terrastal stepped forward, hooked his thumbs into his belt and related the story of the Battle of the Broken Tower. Behind him, Bofrost clapped and stamped his foot in time to the rhythm of the words, and at the end of the story appreciative applause spread through the room.

As the applause died down and conversation resumed, the companions questioned Farnan regarding the situation in Boldhome, the Red Hands and the Royal Palace. In common with most others in the city, Farnan had no love for Temertain but thought him no worse than any other ruler. The real power in the city was the Lunar Governor, Fazzur Wideread. Indeed, it had been Fazzur who had cast Hofstaring Treeleaper into a Lunar Hell, removing his hands to prevent him escaping. It was he who had given the Hands to Temertain as a gift, that he might display them at state occasions to show the fate of those who stood against the Red Goddess. In fact, there was due to be a week of celebrations to mark the end of Starbrow’s rebellion, when it was likely the Red Hands might be on display. But if they wished to know more about the lore of the city, Farnan suggested they speak to a local storyteller named Old Andrin. He always seemed to know what was happening, where and why, and spent his days moving between the taverns of the city, exchanging stories for coin.

Looking around, Bofrost noted a group of Konthassos clansmen sitting close by who seemed to be very interested in what was being said. Engaging them in conversation, he learned that they were looking for an opportunity to petition Temertain to rule on a land dispute in their favour. Unfortunately, such an opportunity had proved difficult to come by and they’d wasted time and much of their money in bribes to gain access to the Prince. Now, however, they were hopeful that the upcoming celebrations would give them the opportunity they needed. The leader of the group, a well-dressed man of middle years named Roganvarth, noted Bofrost’s interest in the detail of their claim and set out the legal arguments they would use. Seeing Bofrost deep in conversation, the rest of the heroes joined the group as Bofrost pointed out a flaw in their argument that would have lost the petition, as well as some suggested improvements. Roganvarth was overjoyed and angry; overjoyed at Bofrost’s skill and angry that his own companions had missed such an error. When Terrastal suggested that the heroes might be able to accompany the petitioners into the palace to help with their case, Roganvarth promised to bear his offer in mind.

The following day, the companions set out to explore the city and see what other opportunities might present themselves. Heading towards the temple district that lay beneath the Royal Palace, the heroes crossed a great bridge spanning a broad river that split the city, flowing from the mountains above. From ancient times, God-Talkers, prophets and holy madmen of every type had been able to preach without restraint by royal decree. Temertain had allowed this custom to continue, although those speaking against the Lunar occupation tended to visit only once. As they crossed the bridge, an old, toothless woman wearing filthy clothes fixed them with a milk-eyed stare. As they passed where she slumped against the bridge wall, the woman rose to her feet and began to speak in clear words, a prophecy of a White Bear and Dragons leading to the Hero Wars and the fall of the Lunars. As soon as she finished, she looked about herself in confusion and pulled at her rags, clearly confused. Further along the bridge, two Lunar guards could be seen jogging through the crowd. ‘Bolka! We warned you! Once more, we said, and it’d be the cells for you!’ Quickly, the heroes blocked their way, complimenting them on the cut of their uniforms and trying to engage them in conversation. By the time the Lunars had rid themselves of these annoying bumpkins, all that could be seen was Sandene moving quickly across the bridge, her arm around a short figure wearing a colourful cloak that had last been seen on Randel’s back. Looking around once more for the old woman, the Lunars shrugged and went about their business, resolving to beat her the next time they saw her for sure.

At the temple district end of the bridge, the band came together once more, doubled with laughter at their small victory over the Lunar oppressors. Recovering themselves, they headed further into the jumble of temples towards an airy, open building staffed by white-robed Healers. Giving over Bolka into the care of the initiates, Sandene begged them to care for the old woman as she seemed to be god-touched. The initiates knew Bolka well, but were puzzled by Sandene’s words as to this point her words had been mere gibberish.

At this point, the heroes parted ways for a time. Whilst Sandene remained at the House of the Healers and Yrsa and Randel visited the shrines of their gods, Bofrost and Terrastal set off for the foot of the Royal peak. Here was the Royal Library, a great centre of learning and a temple to Lhankor Mhy. Once within, a wide-eyed Bofrost was overawed by the vast number of scrolls and parchments crowding the library’s shelves. Surely here would be the knowledge he sought regarding the Red Hands, and much more besides. Within moments, he was deep in conversation with fellow Sages and disappeared into the recesses of the library.

For a while, Terrastal kicked his heels outside the library, watching the grey-clad Sages trooping back and forth with initiates trailing behind, weighed down with scrolls. But quickly, he became bored and set off to explore the People’s Square. On their journey, he’d heard Bofrost talking of it as a place where free Orlanthi had been able to speak out on any subject without fear of censure from the King or the Royal Household. Yet, since the Lunar conquest, the place had fallen out of favour, with those daring to speak out meeting with imprisonment or worse. Entering the empty square, Terrastal struck up a conversation with an impoverished local and his daughter, but when the conversation turned to the Lunar conquerors the locals left hurriedly. Dissatisfied, Terrastal climbed up onto one of the stone blocks from which speakers at one time would address any who would listen. As he did so, two Lunar soldiers approached him and mocked him. Terrastal had a choice; sensibly step down and walk away, or confront the Lunars and cause a fight. Of course, Terrastal chose to fight. Within moments, one of Terrastal’s summoned Skull-Beast was fighting one Lunar, whilst the other lay on the sand, expiring noisily whilst Terrastal pulled his axe from his chest. Seeing the alarm being raised, Terrastal ran for his life, hoping to find somewhere to hide...

As Bofrost emerged from the Library, he was greeted by the sight of Lunar soldiers running here and there in alarm, with two hardened warriors leaping astride a pair of horses. Momentarily at a loss, Bofrost then noticed that Terrastal was nowhere to be seen, and his heart sank with certain knowledge that, somehow, this was Terrastal’s doing. Sighing, he gathered the hem of his robes and began to jog towards where the commotion and screaming was loudest...

Monday, 8 April 2019

10. A-Watch, Sector 13: The Day of the Dead

Kowalski dropped the clutch on her Lawmaster and twisted the throttle savagely, causing a squealing howl from the engine that would have the Teks back at the Sector House wringing their hands in horror. But it had the desired effect, and she shot forward across a crowded intersection scattering citizens who’d not been paying attention to the approaching siren. As she weaved between towering juggernauts, she replayed Wily’s urgent request for back up, his matter of fact delivery as though he were still on the Academy street sims rather than in a fight for his life. ‘Control, this is Wily. Currently heavily engaged with perps at the Bathory Street Med Storage facility. Citizen casualties on site, Judges wounded. Requesting a meat wagon, med wagon and assistance from any available units. Be advised, perps are enhanced and have been assessed as threat level gamma. Wily out.’ Perhaps more telling than his words were the sounds of gunfire and terse battlefield communication from Muller and Kowalski. But it was the otherwordly screams and growls coming from their opponents that really set her teeth on edge.  Although they were reminiscent of the sounds she’d heard coming from the members of Radley’s Coven they’d faced at Kimi Kardashian Block, there was something else there, some quality of otherness that set her psi senses on edge.

As Kowalski screeched to a halt outside the Bathory Street facility, she took in the situation in one glance. The armoured doors to the facility had been ripped apart by something unpleasantly resembling claws, and the darkness beyond was lit by flashes of gunfire and explosions. She could also see the shadowed form of what appeared to be a Lawmaster just within the entrance, and from the terse exchanges on her Tac-Team’s comm channel, she could tell her team-mates were in trouble. ‘I hope there’s room for more than one of these in there’ she breathed, as she aimed her Lawmaster squarely at the ruined doors.

Inside the building, Wily was entirely focused on stopping the twisted drokker in front of him ripping his throat out. Despite the fiend’s relatively short stature, it was incredibly strong, and it had far too many teeth in a jaw that opened far too wide. Weakened as he was already by wounds, it was only a matter of time before he was unable to hold the thing’s jaws from his throat and he knew it. Sensing this, the creature hissed with pleasure and leaned in further, the steaming saliva dripping from its fangs onto the front of his body suit. As Wily turned his head away, he caught sight of Muller astride his Lawmaster off to his left. Above the din of battle, Muller’s gravelly voice sounded over the comm; ‘Move…’.

Summoning a reserve of energy, Wily heaved the creature backwards and fell to one side. Instantly, the perp was shredded by high-velocity shells from Muller’s bike cannon and it was thrown towards the wall at the rear of the storage room. To Wily’s horror, however, the thing clawed its way upright once more, its body torn by huge rents, its eyes glowing a dull green as it moved towards him again...only to be turned into paste as Muller’s Lawmaster followed up by ramming into it at speed, its front wheel connecting firmly with its head and smearing its bloody remains across the wall. Reaching down, Muller pulled Wily to his feet to which Wily gave a simple nod of thanks.

Meanwhile, Kowalski had entered the fight on her own bike, spraying bike cannon shells at another freak that was creeping up on Muller as he assisted Wily. Looking around for Hart’s location, she could hear the tell-tale sound of hi-ex shells coming from the far left corner of the facility, accompanied over the comm by Hart’s attempts at pithy one-liners. Suppressing a sigh, she drew her Lawgiver, snatched her Lawrod and raced to Hart’s assistance.

Hart was what Academy Judge-Tutors would term ‘heavily engaged’. That is, he was face to face with a snarling mutie perp that was trying to bite his throat out with teeth that were altogether too large for comfort. From behind him, he could hear the screams of the citizens he’d been tasked with rescuing.  With a growled ‘eat this’, he fired a hi-ex round into the open maw of his opponent; he’d seen how resilient to damage these things were, so he was banking that this would be enough to shield him from the worst of a blast inside the creature at this close range. The creature staggered back, and in the moment’s delay before the shell  exploded Hart saw what the thought was human fear in it’s inhuman eyes...and then it simply exploded. Although he had been spared the worst of the blast, he was still thrown backwards by the chunks and body parts that flew across the room. Over the comm, Hart heard Kowalski coming to provide back up, to which he was about to reply with a characteristically terse ‘unnecessary’, but the word died in his throat. Through the bloody mist that smeared his vision, Hart could see another of the creatures moving forward, a half-empty blood bag hanging from its toothy maw. As Kowalski entered the room at a run, Hart raised his Lawgiver just as the beast lunged forward, thrusting his gun deep into the it’s mouth. Hurriedly, Hart snatched his hand back, leaving his gun caught in the fiend’s inhumanly wide gullet. Sizing up the situation instantly, Kowalski reached out with her trained mind and sent waves of psionic force pulsing through the creature’s synapses. Blood and ichor bursting from it’s mouth, the thing staggered back momentarily but still it came on. Tossing  her Lawrod to Hart, the pair of them beat down the creature with grim efficiency until, suddenly, it too exploded messily. Each Lawgiver was programmed to explode if the DNA of its wielder was not that of its owning Judge; apparently, it’s simple robot brain had decided that being surrounded by stomach tissue counted as being ‘wielded’.

All immediate threats having been suppressed, Hart barked a simple ‘leave!’ to the citizens he’d been defending whilst he and Kowalski escorted them, weapons at the ready. They joined up with Wily and Muller in the main storage area just as the remainder of their back-up arrived, sirens howling. As fresh Street Judges dashed in to secure the area, Justice Department robo-docs tended to the citizens, injecting them with anxiety suppressants and uttering robotic ‘there-there’s as the citizens crumpled to the ground; much easier to deal with that way. Meanwhile, Justice Department auxiliaries set about the grim task of piecing together their less-fortunate colleagues and bagging them up for Resyk. As Med-Judges tended the team’s wounds, specialist Med-Teks bagged up the remains of the perps and took them back to the Sector House for further analysis. Wearily, Wily allowed himself to be helped into a waiting Med-Wagon; a spell in the Speed-Heal machine beckoned...

Once the team had been debriefed and had their wounds patched up, they were summoned to the Tek-Labs, situated near the command levels of the fortress-like facility. Leaving the turbo lift, they were directed through a heavily-reinforced series of doors bearing increasingly shrill biohazard warnings until they arrived in an observation room. Thick plexisteel glass looked over a sterile med-bay, occupied by a figure wearing an armoured biohazard suit. Strapped to an autopsy slab in the centre of the room was the body of one of the creatures they’d put down at the Bathory Street crime scene. Even when clearly dead, it seemed to exude a palpable threat, although this didn’t stop the mortician-droids that surrounded it from doing their work. The figure in the biohazard suit turned to the viewing chamber and a tinny speaker crackled into life. As the figure came closer to the window, the gathered Judges could see a thin, bespectacled face peering at them over the armoured chin of his helmet. Clearly approaching the end of his active service life, grey hair swept back from his temples and a network of lines surrounded sharp, inquisitive eyes. The eagle on the front of his suit identified him as one Judge Helsing. Abruptly, he began to speak in a thin, querulous voice. ‘Ah, Tac Team Wily. I assume I have you to thank for procuring this rather magnificent specimen. I’ve been following your work closely since you bought in the Radley specimens. They were fascinating in themselves, but these are something else entirely; almost as though the earlier specimens were prototypes.’ He turned away from the glass and began to point out unsightly protuberances on the twisted corpse. ‘These aren’t surgical alterations’ he said, ‘they’re the result of some kind of massively accelerated bio-evolutionary change. The human base organism has had its body chemistry altered to a massive degree by massive infusions of a gene-reprogramming retrovirus. Their systems are saturated with the stuff, although we haven’t yet been able to identify it I’m afraid.’ Turning back to the viewing pane, he went on, answering the team’s questions in turn. The changes appeared to result in increased strength and almost superhuman resistance to injury. Compared to the Radley specimens, there were also significantly increased levels of thanaton particles present, the deadly residue of the Dark Dimensions where the Dark Judges had originated. During the period of Necropolis some decades before, the Dark Judges had almost succeeded in destroying Mega-City One before being defeated and imprisoned by Dredd and Anderson. As a result, large quantities of material contaminated with thanaton energy had been left behind. Huge efforts had been made to cleanse the city, although clearly some had been left behind.
Attempts to identify the humans who had turned into these creatures had been in vain, however. ‘The massive genetic changes caused by the retrovirus has made DNA matching impossible, and the physical changes to faces, hands and teeth is making it slow going. If they’re on the citizens register, we’ll find out who they are eventually, but it’ll take time’. Satisfied that they knew as much as anyone at that point, the team turned to leave. ‘One more thing’ said Helsing. ‘It would help us immensely in our research if you could restrain your destructive impulses and bring in a live specimen next time’. Turning back to his work, Helsing missed the sour looks on the team’s faces and the growls that came from Hart and Muller.

As they returned to the A-Watch ready room, the team discussed their next move. They were split on what to do, either returning to the rad zone where Agnes Radley had gone missing as a child or following up on the former members of the Black Spug band ‘Eternal Master’. As they exited the turbo lift, a figure hurtled out of a side corridor and collided with the immovable object of Hart’s form. The slight figure staggered back and mumbled an apology as he looked up into Hart’s humourless face. Kowalski recognised the reddening face of Tek-Judge Klop, who they’d last encountered in the search of the mo-pad they’d brought in whilst taking down the pirate-vidders ‘Dark Demon’ and ‘Death Angel’. Overcoming his discomfiture under Hart’s stare, Klop began to speak too quickly for them to understand his message. Grinding his teeth, Muller stepped forward to calm him in approved Department fashion by administering a sharp slap, only for Wily to interpose himself. ‘Take a breath, Klop, and start again’. Reassured by Wily’s tone, Klop did just that. ‘You remember that data you pulled from the mo-pad? Well, you asked me to analyse the location and timings of the crimes being encouraged by the vidders’ mysterious backer. I couldn’t identify the backer, but I did find something else. Once you combine the perp’s schedule with our own Justice Department deployments and model our likely responses according to standard strategic doctrines, it appears that everything has been planned to draw our forces away from and isolate Nixon Penitentiary!’ Seeing the blank expressions of all but Kowalski, Klop looked mutely at her for support. Turning to her team-mates, she said ‘you know, where the Dark Judges are being contained?’. Seeing comprehension dawn on their faces, Kowalski turned back to Klop. ‘When is this supposed to go down, Klop?’ Now it was Klop’s turn to go pale. ‘Tonight’, he said quietly.

The quiet, efficient hum of Sector Control was shattered as the team burst through the doors, trailed by Klop. ‘Get Nixon Pen’s Chief Warder on the screen, now!’ yelled Muller. He knew the Judge-Warder there, a dour, stiff-necked Judge from immigrant Cal-Hab stock by the name of McKay. Within moments, the pinched features of McKay filled the screen, wearing an expression of peevish annoyance that Muller knew so well. Cutting off McKay’s complaints at being distracted from his duties, Muller explained the situation in stark terms as the Chief Warder’s expression became more and more disbelieving. ‘Are you telling me we’re going to come under a concerted attack? Preposterous! Let me tell you, Muller...’ McKay trailed off as his attention was drawn to something happening off-screen. ‘What do you mean, an impact?’ he yelled at an unseen speaker. The whole picture shuddered momentarily, and a dull rumbling echoed across the audio link. McKay looked back into the vid and managed ‘Sector 13 Control, hold on...’ before the screen suddenly dissolved into static. The Control Room was momentarily silent with shock before everyone began to speak at once, trying to gain a clearer picture of what was happening at Nixon Pen.

‘Silence!’ roared a booming voice. All heads turned towards the back of the room, where an imposing figure stood backlit by a bank of monitors. Sector Chief Hal DiMaggio stood, arms folded, flanked by all the Sector House’s Senior Judges. As the voices faded away, DiMaggio barked a rapid series of commands, bringing order once more to the gathered personnel. Satisfied that all was once more proceeding according to Departmental procedures, DiMaggio turned his gaze upon the members of Tac-Team Wily, standing to attention in the centre of the ops centre. ‘Wily! What are you waiting for, a written invitation? Get your team airborne and en route to Nixon Pen at once! Your team has shown some promise in dealing with difficult situations, let’s see how you handle this’. Giving them a nod, he turned away to brief his senior officers.

Within minutes, the team charged out of the turbo lift on the top floor of the Sector House and leapt aboard the waiting H-Wagon. As they made to take off, a slim figure raced towards them, hair flying in the downblast from the H-Wagon’s powerful jets. As Wily held out his hand, Anderson grabbed it and pulled herself aboard. As the vehicle surged airborne and towards the distant bulk of Nixon Penitentiary, Anderson looked around the assembled Judges, weighing them carefully. ‘Are you ready? You’d better be, ‘cos this is going to get dirty as drokk before we’re through’.

As the H-Wagon hurtled through the Mega-City night sky, civilian vehicles seemed to melt out of its path as their robotic brains were overridden by Justice Department emergency protocols and shunted aside. Far below, bursts of flame and explosions became more frequent as they approached their destination, testimony to the truth of Klop’s dire warnings. The team clustered around a monitor showing the full picture of what was unfolding. A circle of violent incidents surrounded the Nixon facility, each of which had been designed to draw in Judges until the available resources were committed and Nixon was effectively cut off. As they watched the situation unfold on the screens before them, the life of the city continued unabated. As before, the H-Wagon passed through and over a gamut of holographic advertisements for products to distract the citizens from their pointless lives. One city-block sized vid-screen showed a dour, long-faced man slumped in a chair, his head in his hands as he stared miserably out at the passing H-Wagon. Above his head, in blocky lettering, viewers were asked to join the Apathy League without any apparent sense of irony. Their catch phrase said it all: ‘The Apathy League; if you don’t care, we don’t care either’. The next advert was much more in keeping with the expectations of most citizens. It showed a jolly robo-chef in a large white chef’s hat, pushing singing mutant pigs into a meat grinder, with the resulting meatish products coming dancing out of the other end, singing an annoyingly catchy ditty with the refrain ‘Lipsundsnouts Hottie Burgers; come on, you’ve had wurst!’.

As Nixon Pen loomed ahead of them against the night sky, a final advert for Everpet played on the side of a city-block, the green-eyed mascot Spot staring out into the night. Wily eyed this last advert suspiciously, feeling that a product that promised to reanimate dead pets could have all sorts of nefarious uses. Still, as the H-Wagon approached its target, he put this to the back of his mind as he prepared to address his team. Suddenly, the background hum of status reports was cut off with a squeal of static. A gravelly, authoritative voice cut across the static and the Judges stiffened as though they had been slapped. ‘All Justice Department units in the vicinity of Nixon, this is Judge Dredd. By authority of the Chief Judge, I’m taking over here.’ Every member of the team stood a little taller as they heard the legendary tones of Dredd’s voice reaching out to them. Hart in particular felt a thrill of excitement. Although he shared most of Dredd’s genetic make-up, he knew that in reality he was an imitation of the living embodiment of The Law that was Dredd. The next words from the speakers heightened the tension even more. ‘Tac-Team Wily, this is Dredd. You’re the team on the spot according to the strategic sims. Justice Department assets are inbound, but aerial units are being held off by perps with air defence capability. The matter of how this drokk-fest slipped under our radar will be investigated thoroughly, but for now you’re it, Wily. I need your team to oversee the defence of Nixon Pen. Are you ready?’ Almost too stunned to speak, Wily replied in the affirmative. ‘You don’t sound ready’ snapped back Dredd, but Anderson leaned in. ‘Dredd, this is Anderson. Wily’s team was the one that kicked over this particular stone in the first place. If it wasn’t for them, we’d really be in the stomm. As it is we’ve got a chance.’ Hearing Dredd’s grudging assent, Anderson held out her hand in a fist to Wily, held level with her chest. Confusion playing across his features, Wily held out his own fist and touched it to Anderson’s. Grinning crookedly, Anderson quipped ‘I guess you are ready’.

Quickly, Dredd laid out the mission parameters. One of the team would be needed to coordinate assets on-site to defend the iso-block, retaking it from the rioting prisoners whilst keeping the Dark Judges containment measures intact as far as possible. To support this effort, Anderson and Hart were tasked with heading down to the Dark Judge containment level, known as the Crypt, and physically retaking it to prevent any further release attempts. For their part, Muller and Kowalski were to locate, hunt down and take a live vampire specimen from within the building. The evil mastermind behind the assault on Nixon had caused a civilian hover vehicle to crash through the side of the iso-block. A collision of this scale would have killed human passengers, but early reports had indicated that creatures of the type that had attacked the Bathory facility had flooded out of the wreckage and were wreaking bloody havoc amongst the escaped inmates and warders alike. Dredd felt that Tek-Judge Helsing’s theories had merit, but a live specimen was needed.

As Anderson and Hart grabbed grav-harnesses and leapt from the open hatch of the H-Wagon, Wily donned a sophisticated VR helmet that controlled an advanced onboard strategic and tactical sensorium. Instantly, his mind was flooded with data that quicly coalesced into a real-time representation of what was happening in Nixon Pen. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Wily was truly in his element. He’d always amazed the Judge-Tutors at the Academy with his capacity to co-ordinate complex operations using sims such as this. As the H-Wagon touched down momentarily on Nixon’s rooftop pad to allow Kowalski and Muller to disembark, Wily began redirecting available forces to head off inmate movements and break up concentrations of perps. Simultaneously, he reset the security interlock protocols on the Vault, slowing down whatever was down there attempting to free the supernatural fiends within. He was beginning to enjoy himself...

As Anderson and Hart reached ground level, they could already see running battles taking place between warders and inmates who’d managed to overpower their guards and leave the building. Ignoring this flagrant law-breaking in favour of their mission, Hart led Anderson into the block’s ground floor through a ruined door. Within, the corridor was dimly lit, sparking wires hanging from dislodged ceiling tile whilst damaged lighting pods flickered intermittently. Switching to infrared, Hart gripped his Lawgiver and went on without hesitation.

Entering Nixon’s topmost levels, Kowalski and Muller soon found themselves in a control centre staffed by panicking Judge-Auxiliaries. Seeing the Street Judge and Psi Judge seemed to calm jittery nerves and Muller rapidly began to assess where their quarry was likely to be found using surveillance camera footage. Where cameras were not enough, Kowalski reached out with her powerful mind, searching for the location of the sour sensation she had felt when dealing with Radley’s Coven and again at Bathory Street. Between them, they found a likely starting point for their search, mainly due to the number of body parts lying around.

As his team carried out their missions, Wily remained airborne in the H-Wagon, coordinating Departmental responses as best he could. There were surprisingly large numbers of warders still combat-worthy, but the key was to keep them in the fight. Keying in to the block’s comms system, his voice echoed along corridors throughout the facility. ‘Nixon inmates, this is the Justice Department. Lawlessness will not be tolerated. Return to your cells immediately, or your sentences will be doubled!’. Incredibly, this seemed to work, and the balance began to tip in his favour.

Meanwhile, Kowalski and Muller had found what they were looking for. A grossly distorted mockery of a human form was crouching in a blood-soaked corridor, gnawing on what appeared to be an unfortunate warder’s leg. Seeing that the beast could not be contained sufficiently to take it alive, the Judges decided to take it down with Hi-Ex. As the resulting chunks rained down around them, Muller stepped back on one of the unfortunates that had been eviscerated by the vampire...only for it to reach up at him with a snarl, a green glow in its eyes! Crushing its head with his boot, Muller radioed the glad tidings to Wily that he had a new challenge on his hands; containing a zombie outbreak...

At ground level, Hart and Anderson found out about this new threat the hard way. They’d finally located a locked door that would take them further underground and nearer to their target. As Hart reached out with his key card, Anderson felt a premonition surge through her. She raised her hand in warning, but it was too late. As soon as Hart opened the door, a wave of reanimated dead poured through the door. Grunting in surprise, Hart fell backwards and went down under a tide of dead flesh. Disciplined firing from Anderson freed him and drove back the zombie threat, but Hart had a wild look in his eye that Anderson found disturbing. It was one thing to study zombies in the classroom, but quite another to be buried under an avalanche of them. Still, Hart pulled himself together, and between them they fought their way further downwards towards their target.

As Kowalski moved through the mid-levels of the block, she happened upon a supply store intended for dedicated riot-suppression warders. Thinking quickly, she accessed the store and emerged moments later with a specialised riot foam grenade, designed specifically for containing inmates in confined spaces, usually without killing them too often. Meanwhile, Muller had linked with Wily, who pointed them towards a point where he’d managed to close off bulkheads and trap what appeared to be a live vampire specimen. All that was required now was to go in and secure their prize. ‘As easy as that’ grumbled Muller.

Hart and Anderson had made good progress, and now stood at the entrance of the innermost sanctum of the Vault. As they’d moved further in, Anderson had briefed Hart as to the use of Boing! (TM) in the containment of the Dark Judges. During previous incursions, the Dark Judges had been imprisoned in cells manufactured from the miracle plastic. Something in its make-up meant that discorporate fiends couldn’t pass through it unless it was breached from the outside. Hearing this, Hart made a point of equipping himself with two emergency high-volume Boing! dispensers that had been strategically placed by some cautious planner, hoping they’d never be needed. Thus equipped, and wielding one dispenser in each hand, Anderson and Hart steeled themselves to enter the Vault.

In the mid-levels, Wily had been as good as his word. Not only had he skilfully used scarce Departmental resources to maintain control of the rioting inmates, contain the intermittent zombie flare-ups and  slow down the release of the Dark Judges, he’d managed to pen in a particularly bloodthirsty vampire. Luckily, Kowalski and Muller had a plan. As soon as they caught sight of the perp, Muller ran full-tilt towards it whilst Kowalski prepped the riot grenade. As the vampire leapt for Muller, he likewise launched himself into the air, boot first. With a satisfying crump, the vampire was propelled backwards and slammed into a far wall. Before it could launch itself back at Muller, Kowalski’s perfect lob landed the foam grenade squarely on its distorted head. Instantly, it was covered in restraining foam. Snarl and struggle though it may, it was held fast. With a grin of satisfaction, the pair called through to Wily; ‘mission complete’.

As they did so, Hart and Anderson entered the Vault. Coolant gases vented from short-circuited cooling devices and swirled around their feet, giving a distinctly eerie air to the place, if such were even needed. Ahead of them, two containment chambers were clearly empty, and two others contained swirling gases that behaved as though they were alive, particles of dark matter floating within them. Hearing a hiss of pure evil coming from above, Hart sprang into action. Warning Anderson to stay back, he threw himself bodily across the room, spraying vast quantities of sticky, rubbery plastic across every surface, but concentrating on the two intact containment pods. He was rewarded by a feeling of evil frustration emanating from all around him. From the containment pods as they were cheated of their longed-for freedom, and from the entities floating above them that their plans had been thwarted. Almost instantly, the feeling disappeared as the already-freed discorporate entities made their escape through the air ducts. Finally having time to read the ID plates on the empty pods, Hart and Anderson were greeted by names that filled their hearts with dread; Fear and Death were free.

As it was, by the time that Dredd arrived on scene to take command, having blasted his way past the perps with anti-air weapons, Tac-Team Wily had congregated on the roof and were taking a hard-earned synthi-synthi caff whilst they considered their next move in recapturing Fear and Death. As he stepped down from his H-Wagon, Dredd looked them over with what might have passed for mild respect. ‘I guess you were ready after all’ was all he said.

(To be continued)