Friday, 14 June 2019

13: A-Watch, Sector 13: A World of Hurt

As the Undercity gates yawned wide ahead of them, the Team reflected on the advice they’d been given about surviving in the ‘Down-Below’, as those charged with patrolling it knew it. As the H-Wagon carrying Tac-Team Wily and Anderson had screamed to a halt, grav-motors protesting, they’d been met by a motley figure. With a slouch hat and a rad/camo-cloak slung casually over one shoulder, the badge of a Judge could just be seen peeking out from under the bandoliers and ammo pouches that festooned her chest. To Hart’s disgust, he saw that the badge had been treated with something that dulled the parade-ground shine of Hart’s own shield, as had every other reflective surface she wore. This was a Judge-Ranger, one of a select group tasked with patrolling the Undercity. Not to bring the Law; the Down-Below was far beyond that. Instead, their task was to identify and destroy any threats to the City above. Their calling demanded a particularly ‘flexible’ attitude that usually extended both to their dress and demeanour. Still, they got the job done.
Judge-Ranger Bolt handed them a cup of synthi-synthi-caff as they gathered in the plascrete briefing room built into the fortified entrance to the Undercity. ‘Hear you’re going down there alone, then.’ Her face spoke volumes about her opinion of this idea, but she continued. ‘Dredd feels that the smaller the group, the less chance you’ll draw attention. And that’s true. Down there, the numbers are always on the side of the troggies, muties, gators, cannibals, rad-fleas, rad-rats and everything else that’ll want to eat you. Not forgetting the dinosaurs’ she added with a grimace. ‘There’s a reason why Rangers travel either alone or in pairs. The best and sometimes only defence is not to be seen in the first place. Here.’ Bolt indicated a pile of back-packs stacked in the corner. ‘These contain all the gear you’ll most likely need down there; rad-camos, munce-spray for the fleas, radiation counters, all that. We’re pretty close to Old Central Park here, so you shouldn’t need to travel too far to find whatever it is you’re after. The best advice I can give is to stay quiet, use your training and be alert. Something’s been riling the natives down there for a while now, although we haven’t been able to determine what. I wish you luck, ‘cos you’ll need it’. Muller nodded distractedly; on their journey to the northern rad-zone, the team had received some unwelcome news. The meat-wagon carrying Vernon Martins’ body to Resyk had been discovered on the side of the slab, its crew missing and signs of an evident struggle having taken place. Control had put this down to the ongoing unrest in the Sector, but one thing gave Muller pause; Martins’ corpse was missing, and although it had shown no sign of retro-virus contamination…still, he felt there was more to this than met the eye. Looking up, he saw Bolt giving him a hard stare, his distraction evident. Muller’s face hardened in return. ‘We don’t need luck, friend. We’ve got Hi-Ex.’
As the blast doors finally clanged open, the team began to file through. As soon as they reached the other side, they gates began to close. Turning back, the last they saw was Bolt, shaking her head. Feeling their eyes on her, she forced a smile and gave a half-hearted thumbs-up as the gates clanged shut. Giving their gear one last check, the five Judges activated their helmets’ low-light filters and looked about them. They were standing on a metal platform, stairs leading down to what appeared to be the top of a building. Above them could be seen the underside of the slab separating the Undercity from the Mega-City above. For the first time, they appreciated the scale of what the City’s original builders had done. Rather than rebuild the broken world of the past, they’d simply sealed it away under a layer of plas-crete and started again. There was a whole world down here, but it was obvious that the occupants weren’t happy with this. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom, they saw that the inside of the doors leading to the outer world were covered with scratches, gouges and blast-marks. There were things in here that had tried very hard to get out, and from the apparent claw marks on the plas-crete, not all of them were human.
Moving cautiously, the Team began to descend. The metal stairs did indeed lead to the top of an old-time tenement block. UV trail markings left by the Rangers marked a safe route, warning them away from unsafe floors or the traps they’d rigged to discourage the locals. As they approached city bottom, all of the Judges began to feel a growing sense of oppression. For Kowalski and Anderson, this manifested as a sick nausea, a worsening dull pain throbbing through their forebrains. Muller and Hart obsessively checked and rechecked their weaponry, grumbling to each other over a closed comm-channel whilst Wily suppressed his own disquiet by reviewing the latest map updates on his data-pad.
Eventually, they reached the original ground level and emerged into the open. Around them loomed building after silent building, their smashed windows appearing to stare at them accusingly. Crashed and burned-out vehicles littered the streets, as did mounds of rubble where the buildings had given up their struggle against decay. More ominously, skeletons could be seen here and there, many of them showing signs of having been a meal for something or other either before or after death. Even before Wily could point out their route, Kowalski knew which way they would be headed. Even though her precog and telepathic abilities were minimal, she could still feel the waves of malignant evil emanating from some distance away. Glancing at Anderson, she nodded and set off, swallowing the sour taste of bile.
Tac-Team Wily followed the Judge-Ranger’s advice and proceeded cautiously. Muller took point whilst Hart moved from one pile of rubble to another, taking the high ground wherever he could. He’d taken the opportunity to requisition a Ranger’s Long-Rod rifle, equipped with a low-light scope and silencer. All of the team had fitted silencers to their Lawgivers, even though it limited their use of the favoured Hi-Ex and Incendiary rounds, much to Muller and Hart’s disappointment. As they moved forward, Hart noticed movement off to his right; crouching and scanning through his scope, he saw a small group of figures moving parallel to their route. Pale-skinned, hunched and with enlarged eyes, they were well-adapted to their environment. ‘Troggies, three o’clock’ growled Hart into his comm. ‘Let’s keep moving’ responded Wily. ‘Reports indicate that they won’t attack a group like ours directly. Instead, they’ll wait until we have wounded, then they’ll move in’. Checking the scope once more, Hart could see other groups moving on either side of them, being careful to stay just far enough away to not present too tempting a target. Biting down on his frustration, Hart followed Wily’s lead and continued onwards.
Despite a couple of detours around fallen buildings, after an hour or so the small group could see what appeared to be a petrified forest ahead of them. Leafless, dead branches reached for sunlight that was no longer there, appearing rather disconcertingly like skeletal hands. Through the ancient trees could be seen a sickly, actinic light, its flickering seeming to beckon them onwards. Cautiously, they moved through the former parkland; once more, Hart took the high ground by scaling one of the trees. Scanning around him, he could see the light emanated from a disc that appeared to be floating in mid-air. Behind him he could see the troggies, gathered in a larger group now. But they clearly feared whatever was in the park and stayed some way away, watching and waiting for their chance.
Without warning, the brittle branches surrounding them burst into motion and three howling, deformed figures flew into their midst, a thin tracery of sickly green giving definition to their forms in the gloom. The speed of the vampires’ assault caught Muller off-guard, and he found himself desperately fending off claws and teeth almost before he knew it. Covering each other, the remainder of the team began to pick off the charging creatures, recognising the tell-tale effects of the EverPet retro-virus in their physiology. With disciplined fire, the two remaining attackers were handily dealt with using a mix of SE, Incendiary and Hi-Ex rounds; they figured that staying silent was now irrelevant given the feverish howling of their assailants. Meanwhile, Muller fended off his own attacker by dual-wielding his daystick and Lawgiver. Pushing the beast back, he gave Hart an open shot and he took it, sending a round into the creature’s head. As the fiend slid to the ground, however, Anderson and Kowalski let out a simultaneous groan of horror as terror gripped them. From his position, Hart saw an even more imposing shape crashing from side to side through the petrified forest. As it came closer, Wily recognised the figure as that of Jennifer Radley; following their encounter at the Church of Death HQ, Radley had gone missing despite a thorough search. Clearly, somehow she’d made her way to the Undercity somehow. As the Judges prepared to fire, it was clear that Radley was in some distress. As before, despite the gross mutations marring her hulking, distended form she retained the petulant face of a rather plain-looking teenager. But this time, the beast held its head in its clawed hands, howling wordlessly as it blundered from side to side. Suddenly, the cause became evident; overlaying Radley’s form like an ill-fitting funeral shroud was the ethereal form of a far more fearsome being; Judge Fear himself. Evidently Fear, having been frustrated by the Judges’ quick thinking at the warehouse, was attempting to possess Jennifer’s body, being half-way between death and life as it was. However, Jennifer clearly had other plans and was fighting him every step of the way. Without waiting to see the outcome of the struggle, Tac-Team Wily opened fire with a mix of standard ammunition types and the experimental ‘Adimax’ shells Helsing had designed at Hart’s suggestion.  As the Adimax shells struck home, the regenerative power of the retrovirus was stopped dead, as the life-giving Adifax molecule negated the thanaton particles that gave the retrovirus its foul potency.
The shock of physical damage appeared to break the Radley-Beast’s concentration momentarily, and Fear took his opportunity. The Dark Judge’s ethereal form suddenly became more solid and he turned his terrible countenance towards the attacking Judges. Instantly, a nebulous shape took form in his hand and shot out towards Muller, solidifying into a wicked-looking mantrap with razor teeth trailing a chain held in Fear’s grip. Muller grunted at the impact, then grinned as he realised his suit had protected him from damage. His smile was short-lived however, as he was tugged from his feet and drawn inexorably towards the fearsome spectre. Try as he might, he couldn’t prevent himself being brought face to face with Fear. As shells continued to pound his form, Fear reached up and opened the front of his helm. Muller felt his heart turn to ice as his deepest fears began to bubble up from the depths of his mind. Fighting to retain his sanity, Muller clenched his teeth so hard that several of them broke. In the next moment, Muller felt himself fall backwards as a shell shattered the chain holding him fast.
A dry hiss escaped Fear as he turned to find the one who had cheated him of his prey. As Muller scrambled away to retrieve his Lawgiver, Hart gave Fear a sardonic salute and raised his Long-Rod to his shoulder once more. Lightning fast, Fear reached out his skeletal arm, a second chained mantrap forming as it gripped Hart’s arm in its wicked teeth. Hart grimaced as the teeth sliced through his body suit and drew blood from the flesh beneath, then felt himself being dragged out of cover and brought face to face with Fear. As before, Fear stared deep into Hart’s eyes, drawing forth his deepest fears. Created from Dredd’s genetic stock as he was, Hart like to imagine that fear had been eradicated from his psyche. But he soon realised that even Dredd contended with fear; not fear of any creature or even death, but failing to protect the city he was created to serve. As images of the city being overrun by the forces of crime filled his mind, Hart likewise drew on his deepest reserves of sanity to remain whole. Distracted as he was by this struggle, Radley took the opportunity to loosen Fear’s grip on her body. Suddenly overwhelmed, Fear released Hart, giving the Judges the chance to redouble the fury of their assault. Surrounded by a nimbus of fiery destruction and locked in her struggle with Fear , Radley’s enhanced form finally succumbed and collapsed to the ground. As a sigh of…what, relief?...escaped Radley’s charred lips, Fear’s spirit-form coalesced in the air above, no doubt preparing to flee. With a scream of rage, Anderson reached out with her mind and held Fear fast. Kowalski felt her mind being drawn into the contest, marvelling as Anderson wove a net of psi-force around Fear and drew him in. It was a complex feat, no doubt, but Kowalski thought she could see how it was done…
All that the mundane Judges saw of this struggle was Fear’s spirit darting this way and that as it was drawn inexorably towards Anderson’s waiting figure. As one, they grimaced as Anderson seemed to draw the oily smoke of Fear’s spirit in through her eyes, nose and mouth until nothing remained. Catching Kowalski’s arm as she fell to the ground, Anderson spoke through gritted teeth. ‘I’ve got him, but he’s a feisty drokker. I can’t carry on and keep him penned in, so you’ll have to go on without me.’ She nodded to the circular shape floating in the air just ahead. ‘Odds on that leads somewhere no-one in their right mind would go, but something tells me Death’s got a plan. If we don’t take him down now, Grud knows what he’ll do next. At least now we can take the fight to him’. Exhausted, she collapse backwards, conserving her strength to fight off any curious troggies.
The Tac-Team regarded each other. ‘We could destroy the gate and leave that drokker where he is’ offered Hart. What the others thought of this plan would never be known, as Kowalski forestalled any further discussion by taking a running jump and diving head-first through the portal to who-knows-where. Stunned, Muller, Hart and Wily regarded each other wordlessly for a moment before racing after her. All at once, Anderson found herself alone. ‘Come on then, you spuggers; it’s dinnertime!’ she growled, raising her Lawgiver towards a group of troggies picking their way through the ruins towards her… 
The portal’s destination was clear to the Judges as soon as they landed on the dry, uneven ground on the other side. All around them, a grey light revealed a cruel parody of the City they’d left behind them. The ground was made up of a thick covering of human bones of all shapes and sizes. As the Judges climbed to their feet, the bones shifted and clattered hideously. Kowalski was on her knees, shuddering and retching as the horror of the place overwhelmed her. Wily and the others were affected too, feeling their sense of reality slip away. Wily realised he had to take the lead, and did so. ‘Right, Tac-Team, listen up. We’re the best the City has to offer, and we know it. We’ve beaten things that would drive ordinary people insane, and grinned whilst we did it. I don’t know about you, but this Death creep has caused me enough trouble already. Let’s mess his stomm up good and proper, and kick his skinny dead butt for good!’. Miraculously, this was enough to get his comrades up and moving. Without any discussion, they all began walking towards a huge building that appeared to be a twisted copy of the Grand Hall of Justice back on Earth. As they moved, they could see what appeared to be a glimmer of light emanating from within. Mounting the steps, they saw that the entrance took the form of a huge replica of Death’s face, swallowing them whole as they stepped within, Lawgivers at the ready.
Inside, the atmosphere was even more oppressive than ever, and an unearthly howling echoed through the spine-like columns supporting the ceiling. The bones of the judged lay piled in immense drifts, in places reaching almost to the ceiling high above. The eyes of those slain by the Dark Judges gazed sightlessly into eternity, testament to Death’s obsession with eradicating the crime of life. Muller in particular found this gruesome spectacle almost too much to bear; his practical, no-nonsense approach to life left him unprepared to deal with such cosmic evil. For Wily, the horror of seeing the tremor in Muller’s usually rock-solid gun hand was almost worse than the devastation around him. Summoning his courage, he once more spoke words of encouragement to his team. But although the call to action seemed to stiffen the resolve of his comrades once more, they sounded hollow in his own ears. He, for one, was convinced that Death would claim them.  As one, the four Judges turned towards the light glimmering from within what appeared to be a vast auditorium, perhaps where Death had first outlined his vision of a pure world without lawlessness. Realising the futility of stealth in this charnel house, Tac-Team Wily walked forward, pushing down the rising panic within each of them.
The floor fell away to a circular area at the centre of the auditorium. Its higher reaches were shrouded in a coiling miasma, but the centre was bathed in a sickly, pale light. Around the perimeter of the central area stood five pillars of the same black stone as that of the Monolith in the Church of Death HQ. Bound to each was either a vampire or a cultist, evidently the source of the unsettling howl as each writhed in apparent agony, bound to the pillars with chains. In the centre of the space was a five-pointed star, marked out in the blood of an unfortunate victim of the enormous creature that stood at its very centre. Sensing its presence, it turned towards them and with a shock they recognised the tortured corpse of Vernon Martins, its flesh bubbling and stretching as it changed before their eyes, getting ever closer to embodying the true master of this place: Death himself.
Death spoke in a low hiss, but the sibilant words sounded clearly in this, his place of power. "Our servant's spirit has left this flesh, but his sinful attempts to attain eternal life would seem to have had their uses. His serum flows in this body's veins, transforming its dead flesh. Now it is truly indestructible, a fitting new form to contain my spirit and a vessel with which to continue our great work." Dropping the pitiful corpse he held in his dead hands, he gestured to the writhing figures surrounding him. "Yes, with the energy from these little ones, I can open the dimensional gateways to their full extent. The Sisters of Death will be found and returned to us. Deadworld and your own corrupt dimension will merge together as one. I will cross over again to free my brothers. In this body, with our two worlds merged into one, I will be invincible, and all will finally be judged!" With that, he launched himself forward with a soul-shrivelling cackle, filthy claws outstretched.
For desperate minutes, the Judges tried to fend off Death’s assault. Convinced that the figures bound to the monoliths were somehow connected to the Dark Judge’s power, Hart and Wily methodically began to shoot the bindings holding them. As they did so, each figure slumped forward and the terrible howling lessened each time. Muller took up the responsibility of drawing Death’s attention, with a mix of Adimax, Hi-Ex and Incendiary shells. For his pains, he received…pain. With a hiss of glee, convinced of his invincibility, Death darted forward with preternatural speed. Thrusting its arm forward, the fiend caught Muller’s shoulder, its fist appearing to slide through the protective padding and into Muller’s flesh beneath. As the awful pain registered, the colour drained from Muller’s face and he sagged backwards, his Lawgiver falling from nerveless fingers. As he did so, Kowalski caught a glimpse of Muller’s face and was taken aback by the expression of terrible despair it bore. Clearly, he was hanging on to his sanity by a thread. At that moment, Hart and Wily renewed their own assault on Death, blowing huge chunks out of the beast. With a hiss, the Dark Judge let Muller fall and turned towards his new foes.
Kowalski saw this terrible scene playing out before her. Muller was slumped forward, desperately trying to lift his Lawgiver to assist his comrades. Hart staggered backwards, having taken a heavy blow to his chest. Wily’s helmet had been knocked off, revealing the wild look in his eyes as he poured round after round into Martins’ possessed corpse. Above all the pounding gunfire could be heard Death’s dry, gleeful laughter. Although his body was taking terrible damage, he was confident of victory. Kowalski knew with a terrible certainty that they and their City were doomed. Unless…
Unless. For Kowalski, time suddenly slowed to a crawl. Despite the regenerative powers of Martins’ retrovirus-filled corpse, the dampening effect of the Adimax meant that Death’s spirit was momentarily shaken loose. Not enough to make a difference for the rest of her team, but as the spirit made to dive back into its host it was enough for Kowalski. With a thought, she channelled every ounce of her psi-power into creating a net of force, as she’d seen Anderson do to Judge Fear. Contemptuously, Death made to break the flimsy bonds…and found he couldn’t. Kowalski was pouring every part of her heart and soul into containing Death. ‘My life for yours, creep!’ she hissed between bloody lips. Inexorably, the dark shape of Death’s spirit was drawn towards Kowalski. Finally, she stood there, fists clenched at her side, face to face with her nemesis. Blood poured from her eyes as she gave up the last of her strength to imprison the foul creature in her mind. Instantly, she fell to the bone-covered floor. As Hart and Wily raced to her side, she silently mouthed one word over and over, staring pleadingly into Wily’s face. ‘Boing! Get me some Boing here right drokking now!’ he yelled. Wordlessly, Hart slapped a canister into his hand and it was the work of a moment to encase Kowalski’s slight figure in the wonder plastic. Kowalski’s tortured face finally relaxed, and it seemed as though she slept. Without speaking, the remainder of Tac-Team Wily gathered around her form, leaning against each other for support.
"And the gateway in the Undercity?" asked Chief Judge Francisco. "Destroyed also," Psi-Chief Schenker assured her. Francisco sat back in his chair, digesting everything he had heard in the last few hours as the Council of Five had convened in special session to discuss the aftermath of the recent carnage caused by the Dark Judges' escape. It could have been a lot worse, he reminded himself, looking at the death toll figures that scrolled across the screen of the small desk monitor in front of him. It still made for grim reading but yes, he told himself, it could have been a lot worse. The Church of Death was officially no more, its members either dead or locked up for life in the cubes. EverPet had been shut down, and Icarus's secret research work seized by the Justice Department before anyone else could try to replicate it. Even before Justice Department med-scientists had started going through it in detail, Judge Helsing had been able to successfully replicate a cure for the effects of Icarus's retrovirus. There would be no more outbreaks of any plagues of undead in Mega-City One for the foreseeable future. Harsh lessons had also been learned. A new prison to hold the Dark Judges had already been built. Death and his three brethren would be its only inmates, and the facility's location was a closely guarded secret, even within the ranks of the Justice Department. Security procedures at the facility would be ultra-rigorous, with several systems of fail-safes in place. There could hopefully never be a repeat of the events that happened at Nixon Pen.


The Judge serving as the Sector Chief’s ADC knocked on the office door and waited for an answer. Everybody knew the Chief was a stickler for small courtesies: ‘Grud knows this City has few enough of those’ he was fond of saying. The younger Judges often sniggered about the Chief’s odd ways, especially as he’d ridden a desk for the past decade, but the more experienced Street Judges were quick to put them right in no uncertain terms. Yes, the Chief was no Street Judge, but he’d paid his dues ten times over. Besides, his kindly exterior hid a keen mind for strategy and an insight into the criminal mind that most Judges could never hope to have.  Through his meticulous preparation, planning and strategy, he’d saved the lives of more Judges and Citizens than any trigger-happy Slab Jock ever could.
‘Enter’ came the quiet, calm voice. The ADC stuck his head around the door: ‘your visitor’s here, sir’. The Sector Chief turned away from the view screen showing the Mega-City skyline and took a deep breath whilst straightening his dress uniform before nodding. ‘Send him in’.
The visitor wore the uniform of an Academy Judge-Tutor, but the Chief still saw the younger Judge his visitor had once been. ‘Hart. Good to see you’. He stepped forward to take the other Judge’s hand, and was surprised to find that he actually was glad, despite his earlier misgivings. ‘How long has it been?’ Hart turned his face away from the Chief as he considered his answer. ‘Fifteen years, three months and twenty-three days’ he said, without a trace of humour. Chief Wily shook his head slightly. Whilst he’d been a desk judge for most of his career, scaling the ladder of promotion, Hart had been a Street Judge until a brutal run-in with a bunch of Klegg mercenaries had ended his days on the Slab. Although he’d wanted to end his days out on the Street, it wasn’t to be. The Chief Judge herself had ordered Hart to join the faculty of Judge-Tutors at the Academy, and by all accounts he’d been an effective if merciless teacher.
After briefly shaking Wily’s hand, Hart had moved around the office, picking up mementos of a long and distinguished career until he finally lifted a commendation plaque in the shape of the Eagle of Justice. ‘All three of us got one of these. Mine’s in a box somewhere’. ‘Four’, replied Wily. ‘Four of us’. Hart looked at him briefly, before nodding assent. ‘Yes. Four.’ He turned back and gestured towards the door, his prosthetic arm and legs hissing. ‘We should go’.
It was only a short H-Wagon ride to the Wall Gate where the ceremony was to take place. The two senior Judges sat in silence for much of the flight. They’d never really had much in common anyway, and their separate career paths had pushed them even further apart. Still, Wily reflected, it felt right that they should both be here today, of all days.
As they dismounted from the H-Wagon, the Wall loomed above them into the haze. A small group of Judges stood talking quietly near to one of the innumerable sally ports that punctured the barrier separating the City from the radioactive wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. As Wily and Hart approached, the junior Judges straightened up and nodded. Standing amongst them was an older figure that Wily didn’t recognise at first. It was only when he turned and strode towards them that the trademark curled lip became apparent. He nodded curtly to Hart and shook Wily’s proffered hand. ‘Glad you could come to my going-away party’ he said, adjusting the heavy pack across his shoulders. Muller had spent the intervening years on the Slab as an uncompromising Street Judge. His impressively high body count and arrest stats meant that he was regularly put up for promotion, only for his relentless contempt for authority to keep him at street-level. He’d had several run-ins with SJS over the years, particularly with a Judge Smith before his untimely death. According to witnesses, this had been one of the few times that Muller had ever been seen to break into a grin. But street duty had changed Muller. He was now sour and cynical, having lost faith in the institutions he’d spent his life preserving. For such a Judge, there was only one recourse.
‘Come on, let’s get this over with’. As the sally port’s blast doors began to open, the Judges formed an honour guard on either side of the door, their Lawgivers held high. As Muller strode forward without a backward glance, Wily intoned the words laid down in the Book of the Law for those taking the Long Walk. ‘Let his name be recorded in every place of honour. Let him take the Law he served so well to those who have it not. Let him be written in our thoughts and memories forever as our brother enters the Cursed Earth, there to take the Law to the lawless, until death.’
His brethren at times fought and raged against the even more restrictive confines of their new place of imprisonment, but Death remained still and silent, content for the time being to merely observe the conditions of the barriers and wards that held them in check, and study the minds of their human jailors. Slowly, imperceptibly, the thinnest, most invisible tendrils of his psychic aura crept out to explore the limits of this new place and of the living minds that inhabited it. He was patient, never rash or greedy, and his slowly expanding knowledge of all that was happening around him passed beneath the psychic perceptions of the batteries of Psi-Judges who were there day and night to keep watch over him and his brothers. There were possibilities even here, Death sensed. Dim and remote they may be right now, but Death was patient in a way in which his still-living jailers were not, and after all he had all eternity to wait and plan, if need be. "Patience, brothers," he consoled the others, whispering to them in a voice so quiet that it existed at a level never even suspected by the living. "One day we will be free again, I promise, and then our great work will begin again."
But Death’s whispers were not unheard. Shielded from Death’s sight, a small bright thing lay undisturbed and undiscovered in the corner of Kowalski’s mind, watching and waiting, one thought cycling eternally: ‘Just you try it, you drokker, and see what happens. I haven’t been idle in here, you know; you’ve no idea what I’ve become. So come on, just you try it…’
On the other side of the dimensional void, in the empty silence of Deadworld, something stirred amongst the jumbled litter of ancient bones that was all that remained of the original victims of the Dark Judges. Death had been wrong when he had thought he had seized control of an empty vessel when his spirit had flowed in to take possession of Icarus's retrovirus-mutated corpse. Some vestige of the body's original owner had lingered, remaining trapped and helpless within the prison of its own dead flesh, powerless to intervene as the Dark Judge had claimed that same flesh for himself. That same remote vestige had survived the destruction of its body, but in being freed from that dead flesh, it found it had merely exchanged one prison for another, larger one. It wandered the far reaches of its new prison, receiving no response to its increasingly frantic entreaties for help. Dr Dick Icarus, aka Vernon Martins, had achieved his wish at last. Here in the empty, still spaces of Deadworld, he would live forever, lingering bodiless and alone for all eternity, with nothing but the dead bones to hear his whispered, begging pleas to be granted the oblivion he now so desperately craved.


(inspired in part by the 'Dredd vs Death' console game and novelisation. I've used some sections of text in my write-ups, without permission)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

3. D&D (Mis)Adventures: Fun in Phandalin

Honest Abba sat hunched against the night air, listening to the rain pounding against the roof of the woodcarver’s hut. As you might expect, the building had been lovingly crafted by someone intent on building a home for himself and his family, out here on the frontier. All that work, wasted; Abba stifled a snort of derision. The woodcarver, whatever his name had been, had stood up to the local lowlives, a bunch of scumbags going by the name ‘the Redbrands’. To Abba’s way of thinking, the villager’s death had been his own fault. If he’d only kept his mouth shut, he’d probably be sitting here with his family, enjoying some dull evening chatter with his dull wife, watching his children growing and preparing them to follow after him as dull villagers of the future. Instead, he was no doubt moldering in a ditch somewhere, his family either dead likewise or bound to be sold into slavery or some similarly grim fate. Ordinary folk should know their place, reflected Abba. He liked to think that his chosen name, ‘Honest Abba’, was accurate but not in the way that people thought. He’d cheerfully steal a starving man’s last bite of food; it was, after all, what he was trained for. No; he took pride in being honest about the ways of the world. The strong or sneaky survived, and the weak perished. Real honesty was understanding that truth and living by it, always.

Soft sounds of sleep came from the shadows surrounding him. Kang muttered to himself quietly in a strange tongue as he slept, seeming to be conducting a one-sided argument as he clutched his spell book tightly to his chest. Briefly, he considered honing his skills by stealing the book, but after the last time Kang had threatened to set his insides on fire. Abba doubted he could really do that, but probably best not to find out. On the far side of the room, Og and Grax lay curled up together in the way of Half-Orcs, low rumbles emanating from both ends of them. Grax’s snoring in particular had a particular sub-sonic quality that made Abba’s sensitive ears itch. Both Kang and Grax had joined them after being freed as they went about murdering every goblinoid they could find in the Cragmaw cave. Kang was, well, mysterious. Grax however was more forthcoming about his past; apparently, he’d wanted to be some sort of bard, but had had his heart broken by some no-doubt foul half-orc female. As a result, he’d left his tribe and wandered the wilds for some time, apparently picking up some moderately useful skills on the way. Dulron slept apart from all of them, the sound of his armour scraping on the flagstones as he shifted slightly. Abba and Dulron had a strange relationship; although he could be as flexible as Abba when it came to necessary violence, at other times he was unshakeable in his moral judgement once he’d made a decision. Abba had decided to make it his personal goal to see just how unshakeable Dulron could be, and whether his morals could be made just a little more 'flexible'.

Abba thought back over the last few days.After slaying the goblins and taking all their stuff, the companions had continued on their way to Phandalin. They’d also found another lost soul in the cave, an old man named Sildar Hallwinter who’d been near death. Somehow, he’d survived and accompanied them to the frontier town. Abba had been in favour of this, largely because he’d offered to pay them. Once at Phandalin, the companions had made a point of collecting all of the money owed to them, and now they had quite a tidy sum that they’d carefully divided between them. Abba grinned to himself; he liked a challenge.

Phandalin had turned out to be yet another frontier town, full of honest, bluff sorts wilfully ignoring all of the horrific dangers around them in the belief that hard work and a steadfast heart would get them through. Abba didn’t object to this, as long as he wasn’t expected to do such things himself. No, what really galled him was the relentless optimism that shone in their ruddy, outdoorsy faces. Again, he stifled a snort of derision. But, as was often the case, all was not rosy in their little patch of heaven. The Redbrands had set themselves up as the muscle in this town and weren’t afraid to show it, as the woodcarver had found out. As a result, as they’d made themselves just unpopular enough for people to offer good money for them to die. Again, not something Abba or any of his companions had a problem with. Just that afternoon, Og had started an argument with some of the bruisers outside a grimy tavern named ‘The Sleeping Giant’. Although the fight had started badly, the arrival of Dulron, Kang and Grax had turned the tide and soon there were a number of corpses lying blood-soaked in the street. Despite the resulting bluster from the Townmaster, a blow-hard named Wester Tobin, the news had spread quickly and the companions’ reputations had been raised with the locals. On the positive side, they’d learned that the Redbrands holed up in a ruin on the eastern edge of town known as ‘Tresendar Manor’, and that some of the local urchins had seen a couple of ruffians using a tunnel below the cliff to enter and leave unseen. Less positive was the fact that they were certainly now marked for death by the Redbrands, hence the fact they were sleeping here for the night rather than in a comfortable bed in a good inn. Although they had not allowed themselves a fire or any lights, Abba warmed himself with the thought of what they might find at Tresendar Manor, and what rewards he may be able to spirit away whilst his companions were otherwise engaged. As he sat, deep in thought, the first rays of the sun began to lighten the sky. Abba moved from sleeper to sleeper, rousing them quietly. Time to face whatever dangers lay beneath Tresendar Manor…