Monday, 16 September 2019

1. The Lay of St Grimitus (Part One)

In sorrowful Spire are Drow demeaned
By alien Aelfir, that came in conquest
Centuries since.
But below the black boundary hunches the Heart,
Fear-full, Mind’s dark mirror.
Who would dare wander where dark Witches wither?

Daring Delvers, five in friendship,
Summoned to sewers in the City Beneath
By the Sainted Sage. Devout Devora,
Copper-crowned, called noble knights
And crafty comrades to deeply delve
Unto the Red Market, there to release and return
The Spike of St Grimitus to the Vermissian fold.
Grimitus’ gimlet, rail-knight’s ransom,
Brazenly bound to the Incarnadine Carmina.
Strongly strained Devora to divine
Those wondrous words, deftly drawn
From the soaring spirit of Saint Grimitus!

Five, fast in friendship, searched through sewers
For the proven path. Sorrowful Signalman,
Missing memories, forged ever forward
Deeper in darkness. Terrible Tank,
Knight’s companion, onward he walked
Through winding warrens, strong at Signalman’s side.
The muttering Mage, with heartsick Heretic
Gazing grimly forward into the frowzy funnels,
Marked barbarous wards on warren walls
Placed by bandits to mark their mandate,
Their haunts for hunting. Soon came sounds,
Bandits baying, so forward the Vermissian!

Shining shields became a bonded bulwark,
Hammers hefted to fell the foe.
Muttering magick and flintlocks found,
Five stood firm ‘gainst the bawling mob.
Grim was the game of whirling weapons,
Battle-sweat’s bounty flowing freely.
First fell Frater, wearing wounds
Mortal to man. But Tank stood tall,
Vowing vengeance and felling foes.
Doughty delvers, ever forward they forged
Arriving to rest at Sump’s Station.

Then took they their ease, healing their hurt
And proudly boasting as warriors will.

But beat the Heart still, beckoning below,
Ever watchful and welcoming the unwary…

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

5. (Mis) Adventures in D&D: ‘Leeeroy Jenkins!’

Dulron watched the figure as it disappeared into the undergrowth surrounding the ruined fortress. As he did so, he felt his lip curl with distaste and a low growl made his barrel-like chest rumble. Looking around, he saw Kang staring at him in his usual inscrutable manner. With a grimace, Dulronpointedly turned back to the ruin, ignoring Kang’s soft chuckle as he did so.
The Dwarven race was often mocked by the other races of Faerun for their lack of imagination. To be sure, none could dispute their superb craftsmanship but most thought them dull and, well, boring. But to the long-lived Dwarves saw things differently; where humans and the rest valued spontaneity and apparent quick-wittedness, the Dwarves valued stability and tradition. Change was to be welcomed, but not for its own sake. Simply the act of revising the type of decoration to be found on Dwarven cooking pots required the approval of a whole clan; over the countless long lives of their Blessed Ancestors, the Dwarves had perfected a way of living in the world that gave them purpose, resilience and stability. Every element of their existence had been honed to perfection, and so would be changed only in the direst of circumstances. 
Therefore, when Honest Abba had been struck down by Twig Blights in the ruined village of ThundertreeDulron had mourned his passing. Although their races had very approaches to life, they had shared a common ancestor in the distant past and dwarves were nothing if not respectful of ancestry. However, when the druid Reidoth had offered to raise Abba from the dead Dulron had been in two minds. He was dead now, with the ancestors; tbring him back to life seemed to be almost an act of heresy. However, his companions had argued strongly for the druid to do his work, even at the cost of a geas being placed on them to rid Thundertree of a dragon that had taken up residence. But the greatest shock for Dulron was yet to come; when Reidoth had done his work, the being that stood before them wasn’t the familiar gnomish figure. No; Abba was now a tall, Elven woman with long flowing hair. As the others marvelled at Reidoth’s magic and made predictable crude jests, Dulron was appalled. Abba spoke in the same way as before, using the same words and with the same broad gnomish accent, but now with a voice like bird-song. This new being even walked and moved like Abba. For Dulron, it was almost too much. Change beyond belief, but yet the same. 

As the companions took their leave of Reidoth and Thundertree, the old druid’s words rang in their ears. ‘Don’t forget; you rid the town of that cursed dragon within the month, or it’ll be the worse for you!’; so saying, Reidoth took the form of a squirrel and disappeared into the trees. Hefting their packs, the party headed northwards towards the town of Helm’s Hold; the druid had also given them the location of Cragmaw Keep and they needed to make sure they were fully equipped before taking on that challenge. Besides which, Abba needed a new set of armour and weapons, one more suited to her new stature and, erm, physique…

After a short stay in Helm’s Hold, the companions headed southwards into the depths of Neverwinter Wood. As they rode, Abba had entertained them with one of his filthy ‘gnome and the centaur’ drinking songs, which had the rest roaring with laughter as usual. Dulron didn’t usually join in the laughter, but this time it was for a different reason. If he closed his eyes, he could hear Abba as he used to be, although with a higher-pitched voice. But opening his eyes, instead of the craggy gnomish face he expected, it was an elven maiden singing the last line of the song ‘…and that’s why the centaur walks with a limp!. Shaking his head, Dulron once more felt gloom settle on him like a shroud. 

Despite a night-time attack by ghouls, the companions reached Cragmaw Keep in good time. Arriving as the sun rose over its ruined towers, Abba had immediately headed off to scout the area; if anything, his scouting ability had been improved by his transition into an elf and he soon disappeared into the undergrowth. As Dulron, Kang, Og and Grax waited patiently, Dulron considered what he’d do if Abba managed to get himself killed again. However, his thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a small group of goblins leaving what appeared to be the ruined main keep and heading northwards. Seeing this, Grax hefted his longsword and moved silently forward, moving from shadow to shadow; goblins were usually creatures of the darkness, and so Grax felt confident he could avoid any inquisitive eyes. Og thought to follow suit, but as he moved forward he stepped on a large, brightly coloured snake warming itself in the spring sunshine. Jumping backwards to avoid its venomous bite, Og forgot himself and swore loudly in the barbarian tongue of his people. Immediately, a cry of alarm went up from within the keep and arrows began to fly from two arrow slits. Deciding that offense was the best form of defence, the heroes charged into the keep…straight into a horde of goblins and hobgoblins! Thinking quickly, Grax secured two doors with his rope, cutting down the flow of enemies before turning to hew them down with his longsword. This was the sort of blade-work that he’d trained for, and it showed with every slash of his weapon. As goblin blood flew across the room in great arcs, Kang quickly summoned a ball of fire that he deftly used to further channel foes into Grax’s reach whilst Og held the door shut against what seemed like a huge number of enemies. Stepping backwards to make room for his spellcasting, however, Kang found himself the victim of a deadfall trap; although he jumped quickly to one side and avoided the greater part of the falling rocks, he was in no doubt that all of the keep would now be alerted to their presence. For his part, Dulron found himself in a side chamber with a lone goblin. Thinking it an easy kill, Dulron found himself in a grim fight for life, his hammer blows deftly turned to one side by the goblin’s shield whilst the foul creature inflicted countless small wounds on the priest.
Finally, however, the tide of enemies slowed and stopped for the time being at least. Whilst the heroes took stock of their wounds and received a healing blessing from Dulron, a watchful stillness fell over the keep. Whoever or whatever was out there would be waiting for them, that’s for sure. Taking a deep breath, the party unlocked the door and stepped out to face their fate…

Monday, 2 September 2019

Strikeforce: Shantipole (part three): An Unstoppable Force

As Glave yelled from the open hatch, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Frost-Bow dragged Hate’s chassis towards the jury-rigged life pod, inch by desperate inch, blaster fire impacting all around him. The Stormtroopers were clearly unaware of the countdown being spoken calmly into the Rebels’ ear bead communicators, as they were continuing to act according to their conditioning; namely, blast everything not Imperial! Seeing his comrade in peril, Kibu yelled a war-cry and leaped into the fray. As Glave looked on in amazement, trying to draw a bead with his blaster, Kibu vaulted onto the shoulders of one Imperial and stabbed through a weak armour joint, bringing him down. As he fell, he used the momentum to propel himself at head height towards another Trooper, spear held out in front of him. With a sickening crunch, the point skewered the unfortunate Trooper through the eye piece and he too fell to the floor. As Kibu rose to his feet in triumph, he failed to see the final Imperial squad member behind him, blaster raised to fire. Giving the surprised Ewok a wink, Glave blasted the soldier, sending him flying backwards. Seeing how close he’d been to meeting his Ancestors, Kibu saluted Glave before heading to Frost-Bow’s aid. As they dragged Hate’s ruined chassis forward, they discovered that the droid’s vox unit was intact as it reminded them of their impending doom.

                                                (Illustration courtesy of Kaye Elling @K_O )

As blaster fire impacted on the other side of the life-pod, Glave risked a quick glance to assess the situation. The remaining Stormtroopers had recovered from the life-pod’s sudden appearance and were methodically pounding it with blaster bolts. Immediately behind the Imperials was the hangar’s main blast door. As the countdown continued, Glave caught a glimpse of a vac-suited Vora dodging down a side tunnel towards the recreation area, accompanied by Commander Ackbar. As time ticked down, Glave tried to reason with the Imperials, telling them to throw down their weapons. But their conditioning, combined with their ignorance of the impending reactor overload, meant that their only response was a further burst of blaster fire. ‘Stuff ‘em, then’ snorted Glave and he returned fire. Still, the blaster fire looked as though it was going to render the ‘pod useless until Glave heard a battle cry: peeking above the hatch, Glave saw Pollard charging into the midst of the remaining troopers, bringing three down in as many seconds before Glave lost sight of him in the ensuing melee.

(Illustration courtesy of Kaye Elling @K_O)

Taking advantage of the distraction, and with only seconds to spare, Vora and Ackbar appeard in the hangar bay’s side entrance and sprinted to the ‘pod. Dragging their crewmates with them as they passed, they piled into the open hatch before slamming it shut behind them. ‘Go!’ yelled Vora, her voice cracking with strain, but Glave needed no encouragement. Breathing a prayer to the Force, he deactivated all the repulsorlift limiters at once and the ‘pod practically leaped out of the hangar bay, careening off the floating wreckage of the Imperial Assault Shuttle as it did so. This mistreatment was all that the ‘pod could take and its interior was plunged into darkness as the power failed. Before the emergency lighting could flick on, however, a blinding light poured in through the viewports as the countdown came to an end: the asteroid was immediately vapourised, along with all of the remaining Imperials. With a  look of satisfaction on her face, Vora settled down to wait for whatever was going to happen next…

Despite Glave and Vora’s best efforts, the life-pod’s abused systems refused to give them control over its movement. Instead, they were forced to content themselves with the fact that life-support seemed operational. A steady, blinking light also showed that the pod’s distress beacon was transmitting, sending out their location on a range of secure frequencies to any nearby Alliance vessels. However, the crew’ natural and understandable paranoia won out and Hate’s advanced sensor suite was linked into the pod’s, enabling the droid to survey the surrounding volume of space for any threats.

After what seemed an interminable wait, Team Wraith and Ackbar were picked up by a Verpine vessel and welcomed aboard. Without ceremony, they were ushered into the presence of the leader of the Verpine Hive, a tall, grey-carapaced alien known as Speaker Jurfel. Ackbar and Jurfel greeted each other warmly, but quickly turned to the business at hand. Although the team had managed to obtain the vital B-Wing design files, the Empire still had possession of two fully-operational three-person B-Wing prototypes. These had been kept at Shantipole Station, a much larger Verpine research base that had fallen to Imperial forces in the last few hours. Furthermore, the Imperial fleet had massed around the Roche asteroid field and had threatened the Verpine with annihilation. As a result, the Verpine had declared for the rebellion and were concentrating their fleet for an escape attempt.
Turning to a glowing holo-display, Ackbar thought for a moment, his large eyes blinking slowly as he considered the Imperial and Alliance dispositions in the sector. After a moment, he stabbed out a webbed digit. ‘Here. Here is the weak point Speaker Jurfel. A single Nebulon-Class frigate is holding the Imperial line here; if we can disable it, the Verpine fleet will be able to escape the Imperial net’.

For a moment, Jurfel and Ackbar bent their heads together in discussion. Turning to the waiting crew, Ackbar’s expression was grave. ‘We have several problems that only you can solve, Team Wraith. We need to obtain an armed ship to help us break the Imperial blockade. We need to retrieve the B-Wing prototypes before the Empire can reverse-engineer them and remove our advantage. Also, we need to make sure all of the B-Wing data has been put out of reach of the Empire. All of these problems can be solved if a crack team can infiltrate Shantipole research station.’ The crew looked at each other uncertainly, before Glave spoke up hesitantly. ‘Well, I suppose we might be able to…’

‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Ackbar. "You must fly through the asteroid field to Research Station Shantipole, get inside undetected, and set the main generator to explode. I'll provide you with the detonite and timers myself. A 30-minute fuse should give you a reasonable safety margin. When the generator explodes it should destroy the entire station, and the prototype starfighters along with it. That explosion will be our signal to move the fleet into corridor G147. If you have not secured a combat vessel and begun your distraction maneuvers on the frigate, we shall try to escape anyway, but we'll be easy targets for the Imperial ship. Good luck, and may the Force be with you."

Almost before they knew it, the team found themselves once more in space aboard a flimsy, unarmoured repulsorlift vehicle known as an ‘Asteroid Hopper’. Whilst they had been preparing to depart, the Verpine techs had been working flat-out to reassemble Hate, this time with the addition of enhanced armour plating over the droid’s vulnerable circuitry. The Verpine Suskafoo had volunteered to go with them, also: he was familiar with Shantipole station and, although he refused to use weapons, he was an excellent pilot.

As they sped towards Shantipole station, the Hopper’s sensors picked up a suspicious transmission from ahead. Rapid analysis by crew revealed an Imperial Viper Probe moving steadily through the asteroid field, clearly searching for the Verpine fleet. Analysing its flight path, Vora realised that it would locate the fleet in a matter of hours! Quickly, the crew came up with a plan. As the Hopper lacked any weapons, Hate modified one of the detonite explosives so that it would explode on contact with the Viper droid. Once completed, the droid handed it to Kibu, who’d donned his miniature vac-suit. Clad in his bulky suit, Kibu would have looked ridiculous if not for the deadly explosive gripped tightly to his chest and the look of fanatical determination in his beady eyes. Hoisting Kibu onto its shoulders, Hate moved towards the airlock and began to cycle the locking mechanism. Meanwhile, Vora carefully edged the Hopper through the asteroid field, planning to get closer to the probot without it detecting them and give her comrades the best possible chance. But even the best pilots can be caught out and a random collision of two huge nearby asteroids sent showers of debris in their direction. Desperately manoeuvring to avoid the flying rocks, Vora came into full view of the Viper. Immediately, it detected them and began moving towards them, raining blaster fire on the fragile Hopper whilst signalling the Imperial fleet. Swearing colourfully, Glave rapidly hacked into the Viper’s security system and sent an error message back to the fleet. It wouldn’t fool them for long, but perhaps it would give them a fighting chance to escape.

As Vora sent the Hopper into a series of corkscrew manoeuvres, Hate and the vac-suited Kibu emerged onto the metal skin of the ship. Ignoring the rocks and the blaster fire flying around them, Kibu stuck out his tongue and screwed up his eyes, judging the movement of the Viper with the practised eye of the hunter. Seeing his chance, he let the detonite charge fly. It seemed to arc wide of the Viper, until at the last moment the Imperial probe jinked to avoid a flying rock...straight into the detonite charge. As the enemy droid was consumed in a huge explosion, Hate turned to the furry bundle held safely in its grip. Silhouetted against the expanding fireball, Hate spoke almost tenderly: ‘You are like a delightful random cruelty generator, Master, poisoning all you touch with your presence. You are a testament to all organic meatbags everywhere’. Kibu nodded sagely as Glave and Vora sent the Hopper speeding towards their target: Shantipole Research Station.

(To be continued...)