When last we met our heroes they were in Research 003, trying to decide how to handle negotiations with this strangely cooperative and peaceful arctic society. At first the PCs were unwilling to share too much detail with Connor about the purpose of their mission, but after a few days in the comfort of Research 003 they could find little reason to hold out on him. Their limited exploration of the research base suggested that if they really needed to they could probably take it – most of the resents were clearly incapable of serious combat, and for much of the day mostly outside, and they could relatively easily take on the people who did show any semblance of military skill. However, their hosts seemed remarkably unconcerned by security, which worried our heroes inordinately, and they also realised that, knowing nothing of the harsh environment here, there would be little chance of survival here if they had to flee – or even cross the ice back to the Vladimir Putin – without help from locals. Furthermore, they soon realised that the ice was huge, with many communities scattered across it, and they would never find the Ziggurat if they had to search it all themselves – and why should they when they had such amenable hosts to help them?
So they asked. On the third day they told Connor the situation, and asked if he or his allies knew anything about the Ziggurat. They described it in detail, carefully eliding some of the more salient information about the riches it held, and asked Connor if he knew anything of such a community? He did not, and nor did anyone else in his community. For a few hours he contacted other communities by radio to ask, but none of them knew of such a place. However, the westernmost of the known communities, a frozen-in ship called the Oiler, had experienced occasional raids over the past 30 years by barbarians who came from the west, primarily hunting for people to abduct. They only came in summer, and they must be coming from far away on some kind of reliable conveyance, because it was beyond the Oiler’s resources to track them back to their origins. Most raids were not successful, but on occasion the barbarians had carried off a small number of prisoners, to no one knew what fate. The Oiler lacked the combat experience to take them on effectively, or the resources to adequately pursue them. Perhaps these were the residents of the lost Ziggurat? It seemed likely: the Oiler had itself been trapped in ice some 50 years ago after drifting up from the old Atlantic, and since then the ice pack had expanded, and could have captured the ziggurat further to the west.
The Oiler was west of Research 003, perhaps a week’s travel, and perhaps another couple of hundred kilometres from the western edge of the ice. No group was planning to travel there from Research 003 for at least another week, and from the Oiler it would be impossible to head west over the ice, as the Oiler would not be able to spare equipment and guides for such a task. However, there was another way to find the Ziggurat. If raiders were coming from the west they must be near to the sea at that edge, and so it seemed the simplest way to find them was to travel around the pack ice to its edge directly west of the Oiler, and search for the Ziggurat there. Either the Ziggurat, or some fishing base attached to it, must be there, for there was no possibility a large community could sustain itself in the ice without access to the sea.
The characters decided to head back to the Vladimir Putin and take this course west. Before they left they made a trade agreement with Connor: they would return next summer with a squad of workers from the Gyre, along with supplies for them, and they would work here during the summer, returning to the Gyre when the freeze began. In exchange Research 003 would share some of its bounty with them: soil, glass and batteries from its stores for starters, and seal oil and skins. They took some samples with them when they left, including a polar bear skin to present to Dilver as a rug, and with the rise of the sun the next morning began the return journey to the Vladimir Putin, accompanied by two guides from the research base.
After they returned to the Vladimir Putin they set off west, skirting the worst of the ice pack and heading as fast as they could to the place they thought they might expect to find the Ziggurat or one of its outposts. It took them over a week to reach the area, and another week of careful scouting with airborne drones, but eventually Quark was able to identify what they were looking for: columns of smoke rising above the ice near its edge. They took the Vladimir Putin to a location near but out of sight of the shore, and let slip their submarine. Taking all their marines with them, crammed into the hold, they set off for the ice pack’s edge. When they were close to it they rose to within a safe distance of the surface and Ryan slipped out, rising up to the edge of the ice to investigate the outpost.
It was a typical fishing and seal-hunting base, similar to the outpost Research 003 was maintaining. Two small fishing boats, perhaps converted from the lifeboats of a larger vessel, were resting against the pack ice. Nearby a couple of large drums were being used to render seal fat, and it was the smoke from their fires that Quark had seen from his drone, rising high into the still air of this cold, clear day. A couple of rough igloos had been built further back on the ice, and amongst them sat some rundown snow-mobiles, including a very large one that looked like it was used for transporting goods.
The camp itself seemed to be occupied by three distinct groups of people. There were some people getting into one fishing boat who looked cowed, beaten and exhausted; they were sitting at placements for oars, and as Ryan watched someone standing behind them on the boat started hitting them with a stick. Two more men got in the front of the boat and a few more of the poor, tired-looking folks pushed it away from the shore, obviously heading off on another fishing expedition. On the shore, some men tending to the fires appeared to be in this middle class of weary but unbeaten workers; one broke off from the fires to approach the men who had pushed the boat out and begin beating them with a stick. The whole thing was overlooked by a group of armed men, carrying whalebone crossbows and savage-looking clubs, who might be some sort of guards or soldiers. Everyone looked tired and angry, and everyone was working very hard. Their clothing was rough and savage compared to that of the folk from Research 003, and it appeared to be made of different materials, with more fur and less sealskin. These men were all smaller than the people of Research 003, who had been large muscly – these people, bar one or two soldiers, were short and looked like they must be lean. They also did not look as comfortable either in the cold or with each other, and it certainly appeared as if some of them were slaves of the rest.
Ryan had seen enough. He slipped below the waves and descended to the submarine. This time he had timed it poorly, and by the time he was back inside he was shaking and in shock from the cold. As he recovered, they planned their attack. First they would take the boat, surfacing the submarine beneath it to overturn it and capturing the crew. Once they had the crew and knew what they were facing, they would make a plan as to how to attack the camp.
They found the boat and tipped it. The submarine rose perfectly out of the frozen waters, emerging beneath the converted lifeboat’s keel and tipping it into the water. Ryan was riding the deck of the submarine and was able to slip into the water as the boat tipped, watching as people fell out. One man – the one who had been beating the slaves – sank like a stone, probably wearing iron armour, a trail of bubbles drifting up behind him as he screamed his last, panicked curses to the darkness. The other two were able to swim for the surface, though slowly, but the slaves, Ryan realized, were chained to the seats of the boat and would drown unless freed. He saw that the boat had trapped a pocket of air that the slaves were not aware of, so he rushed up beneath the boat and pushed them, one by one, up into the air pocket. As he did this one of the free-swimming men emerged from the water near the submarine, and Crimson offered him the end of his spear, telling him he could live. The man grabbed the spear and dragged Crimson for the water, so now Crimson was forced to let it go. Leviathan, at the conning tower, fired at this man and killed him. The other man emerged, a marine shot but missed him, and realising he was in trouble he dived and tried to swim under the submarine. Crimson, the marine and Leviathan were shooting the other man in the water like a floundering whale, so Ryan finished saving the slaves and then set off after the remaining man under the submarine. Using his drone he soon caught the man, stabbing him in the leg with a spear and then using the embedded spear to drag the man, struggling, back to the ship. By the time they got him on the deck of the submarine he was nearly dead but they soon revived him and asked him about his fellows.
They turned the boat back over to rescue the slaves, and everyone returned to the Vladimir Putin to make plans. The non-slave they had captured declared that he was “a Freeman” and would not be bullied, but the slaves soon explained everything. Yes, they came from the Ziggurat, yes they were slaves. Their society consists of slaves, freemen, warriors, experts and the leaders, and they were here as slaves to help the freemen with fishing. There were 12 warriors at the fishing base, about 20 freemen and 15 slaves, and the warriors were led by a man called Everard. There were no communication devices, all messages would be taken back to the Ziggurat with the next fish transport, due in a day or two. Attacking the base would be easy – they simply needed to wade in.
They left the slaves with the freeman at the Vladimir Putin, and prepared a two-pronged attack. Quark and Leviathan took a squad of marines in the submarine to land a little distance from the base on the icepack and crossed overland to attack from the rear, while Ryan and Crimson took the fishing boat and four marines directly to the front, assuming that their use of the fishing boat would confuse anyone who saw them.
Their assumption was correct, and the raid passed off without any serious problems. Everard and six warriors were sleeping when they attacked, and although they managed to join battle they were too late and ineffectual, and the fight was soon over with the loss of just one marine to concerted crossbow fire. During the fight Ryan distinguished himself by killing a freeman who was beating the slaves, and by handing Everard over to them for execution – by flensing – when the battle was done. This gift of their greatest oppressor ennobled Ryan in their eyes, and they each presented him with a handful of Everard’s still-warm fat, prostrating themselves before the rider, and declaring him to be the Stormwarden. From this the PCs saw their way into the Ziggurat opened, and they began to make plans …
Taking the Ziggurat
Speaking with the slaves, they soon learnt the layout and structure of the Ziggurat. In summer most of its workers and warriors would be outside, the freemen and slaves labouring over farms dug into the snow and the warriors beating them. A few of the leaders and their guards would remain inside the Ziggurat, but not so many. The slaves would go inside and begin unloading their transport of fish, but if they arrived at night they would be essentially unsupervised. The PCs could leave the transport at the base of the ziggurat and explore the outside, then slip inside at night and come to the slave quarters. From there they would be able to learn the layout of the ziggurat, and take it. By the slaves’ estimate there were about 36 slaves, 120 freemen, 45 warriors, 25 experts (who ran the reactor and other specialist functions) and then the leadership: Old Prime the leader, his warrior chief Gunnard, three warrior captains called Fist, Stone and Salt, and the slave master Rack. These men would all be gathered in the leaders’ area, except Rack who slept near the slave quarters. During daylight 30 or so of the warriors would be outside, but it would be harder to approach.
They also discovered that the entire ziggurat society was held together by a strange religion of the storm, led by a priest called Pyro, which held that the ziggurat was the only bulwark against a worldwide storm, and anything except complete obeisance to the gods of the storm would lead to the destruction of the ziggurat and all of humanity, of which they were the last sane remnant. Anyone who didn’t believe in the storm gods and the ultimate power of pyro over them was doomed to die, and become a slave. It was through these religious teachings that the strict hierarchy was enforced. Unfortunately for the leaders of the ziggurat, Ryan had been pronounced storm warden …
The PCs decided to go in at night and explore before the raid. They left in the snowmobile, the slaves dragging it across the ice as they always did. The journey took two days, and when it was done the slaves were exhausted but jubilant. They rested out of sight of the ziggurat and headed in after the sun sank below the horizon. The slaves dragged the snowmobile through fields of snow and ice that had been cut into big farms. Pits had been dug into the ground in great arc around the ziggurat, and covered in glass. Cables snaked between the pits, carrying warm water from the reactor, and between each set of farms a small igloo had been built to house the freemen who would till the farms in the morning. The slaves who would do most of the hard work had been returned to their quarters, but the freemen would sleep in the igloos until dawn, when they would rouse early and return their digging and tending. The slopes of the ziggurat itself were not covered in snow, like the landscape around it, but steamed with warmth, and seemed to be encrusted with lichen. Scraggly goats hopped over the steps, grazing on the lichen, and bright lamps stood on poles above the slopes, lighting them up with a surprising brilliance. The Ziggurat glowed in the dark plains of ice like a wedge of hospital-lamp sodium brilliance.
You know you want to cast someone down here
The snowmobile slide between the farms and up to the ziggurat itself, stopping at the base of a huge ice ramp that had been built on the north face. This ice ramp led up to the ramparts far above, where two guards stood lazily watching over their sleeping landscape. Here the PCs jumped down from the transport crate and slipped into the shadows beneath the ziggurat, to scout the outside. The slaves resumed hauling, dragging their load of fish and seal fat up the ice slope to the waiting guards.
The PCs explored around the base of the ziggurat. They saw old, rusting cranes standing on the north side, and on the south side another ice ramp. In the shadows of the ice ramp were three large boats that had been converted into snowmobiles. They were resting on the snow on huge wooden skis, and had masts that obviously were used to propel them across the ice. Ryan crawled up into one, followed by Leviathan, and found inside three small snowmobiles, a machine gun on the bow and a locked room at the rear. Quark broke the lock and they slipped inside, finding a cabinet filled with ammunition. They couldn’t pick the lock of the cabinet but Crimson was able to force the door, and they pulled out grenades, a grenade launcher, carbines and ammunition for the machine gun. They took the machine gun, slipped back out, and headed off to the slave quarters.
It was easy to slip inside. Guards had only been placed on the ice ramps, because their main purpose was controlling the slaves, not seeking strangers. Anyone approaching the Ziggurat would be seen from kilometres away during the day by guards and pickets, and no one expected anyone to approach with the help of the slaves, so no guards were set on the east or west slopes, away from the ice ramps. The characters climbed the slopes of the ziggurat and slipped into the nearest door once they passed the parapet, taking the direction they knew would take them to the slave quarters. Even the slave quarters were unlocked – where could the slaves go, and what could they hope to achieve? – so the PCs simply slipped inside. Here they made their plans.
The slaves told them that there was a soldiers’ barracks on each corner of the ziggurat, and the experts slept above them, near the top of the ziggurat, unarmed and protected only by a few guards. The leaders were far away, on the opposite side of the ziggurat, but likely one of either Fist, Stone or Salt were awake and on duty. Rack was just down the hall, in his quarters, which were always locked. There were cameras on some hallways but “the spirits of the cameras have left, and the experts cannot bring them back.” This place, clearly, had lost any ability to renew itself.
They decided to pay a visit on the slave master, Rack. They took the slaves with them and gave them simple instructions: once they had dealt with Rack the slaves were to take any weapon they could find, run up the stairs to the experts’ quarters and kill them all. Without his experts, Old Prime would be lost and unable to control the place, and even if they lost in battle the PCs might be able to negotiate on that basis. They dispatched Captain Azel with one team of marines to the furthest corner of the ziggurat to deal with the soldiers there, and another team of four to the other corner. Azel took the machine gun with him, while Quark carried the grenade launcher.
They knocked on Rack’s door, expecting him to answer, but nothing happened. After a moment of waiting, from far away, they heard the sound of a siren, a powerful electronic buzzer, springing to life: obviously Rack had realised what was going on and did not want to open his door. The PCs told the slaves to go to the experts, fast, and cleared away from the door. Quark fired a grenade right at it, blowing the door in, and they charged into the room. Rack was there, but he was unarmoured and couldn’t put up much struggle – he went down almost immediately. In the corner of his room they saw a screen with a cctv camera pointed at his own door. Obviously he still could speak with the spirits of the camera …
The PCs now knew that trouble would be coming to them. They charged down the hall towards the nearest barracks, and before they arrived they could see that the soldiers had gathered outside, and were listening to someone talking. As they ran, Quark fired a grenade from his launcher straight into the assembled ranks, and Leviathan threw another. Crimson and Ryan charged in, and they found Stone there, injured but rallying his troops. Combat was short but brutal, with a few crossbows fired and one bolt hitting Crimson but no serious damage done. During the battle Ryan and Quark both invoked “Storm” when they killed someone, although Ryan isn’t very good at languages and got it wrong, yelling “Slut” instead. They took down Stone, but as they finished him off they heard more soldiers coming. Leviathan and Quark hurled and threw grenades down the hall, killing the first two ranks of men – Quark’s grenade hit one man full in the chest and redecorated a portion of the corridor – and then battle was joined as the remainder hit the room. They prevailed in this battle, but as they were fighting Quark heard the sounds of people coming down stairs from above. Guessing it might be Fist and Salt, he alerted the others and took a position near the stairs. While they fought behind him, he fired a grenade into the stairwell, doing serious damage to both of the warriors as they came down. Ryan slid stealthily up to the stairwell and Crimson charged in, and Leviathan finished off the soldiers behind them. Somewhere far away they could hear the roar of the machine gun in the ziggurat’s corridors. Fist and Salt surged out of the stairway to take on the group, but as they came Ryan stuck a spear in one, and Crimson smashed down the other. They died, and in truth no one amongst the group knew which was which. Nor did they care.
It seemed the battle had been done. After a short while Azel and his marines came running up, to report that all soldiers were dead and no marines lost. The second marine squad had gone up above and pinned down the remains of the leadership – Gunnard was dead and Old Prime was holed up with his priest, Pyro, on the ramparts.
At the ramparts they found Pyro and Old Prime hidden behind some steel cabinets in a room facing off with the four marines. The 36 slaves were gathered behind the marines, holding various precious items belonging to the experts and jeering the leader and his priest. The area around the ziggurat was in uproar, with freemen running around on the ground unable to understand what was going on, and no one coming down to tell them. Old Prime was broadcasting something over the public address system but they didn’t have time to check with their linguist, who had managed to stay out of the way during all the fighting and had conducted herself with all the aplomb they had been warned to expect of her when they had been given her by Dilver. They marched forward, Quark pointing his (empty) grenade launcher at the cabinets, and Pyro the high priest emerged slowly, looking terrified. As he came forward Ryan stepped out amongst the slaves and told him “Bow down before the stormwarden,” translated in a booming voice by their linguist. Pyro looked back briefly at Old Prime, who was shaking his head furiously, but then he looked at that (empty) grenade launcher, and bowed down before Ryan.
As the marines stormed Old Prime’s position, Ryan dragged Pyro to the ramparts of the ziggurat, the slaves following and crowding around him just below the ramparts, in full view of the freemen below. Ryan held Pyro up by his priestly robes and in his biggest voice, he yelled
“I am the stormwarden! See what happens when false prophets go against the will of the storm!”
and threw Pyro to the slaves, while the linguist translated. The slaves tore Pyro apart with their bare hands, throwing pieces of him down the steps of the ziggurat. The marines dragged Old Prime away to a secure spot, and the freemen cowered.
The ziggurat was theirs.
They enlisted the freemen to help them loot the ziggurat, and carried all that they could across the pack ice to the Vladimir Putin. It took time, and they were there for most of the summer, but during this time Ryan cemented his role as the stormwarden, dispensing judgment and wrath amongst the freemen. By the end of summer, when they left, the society of the ziggurat had changed irrevocably: they had formed trade relations with the communities of the ice pack, had given up on their slaving ways, and were terrified of the future. When the PCs left Ryan told them: I will come back in the spring, and if you have survived this winter of wrath I will rule you.
They returned to the Gyre by winter, and Dilver met them at Pier 18, Arashi by his side. He was pleased with all their reports, though disappointed in them for not freeing the ziggurat from the 10m thick ice in which it was held fast. He agreed to the trade mission with the other communities of the ice pack, and also agreed to Ryan’s unusual request to be allowed to return to the ziggurat the following spring as stormwarden. “Has the Gyre not been good to you?” he asked, as he watched Ryan hugging Arashi desperately. “Why would you want this time away?” But he granted the request. “Of course you can take Arashi with you,” he said, “we will arrange a way to carry him there in the Vladimir Putin – why, I even have a big metal tub I don’t need, that you can use!”
For a couple of seasons Ryan spent spring and summer in the arctic, returning with the Vladimir Putin in autumn, but the appeal soon wore off. Not only were the responsibilities of storm warden exhausting, but he could only ride with Arashi in the arctic sea occasionally, and when he did the rides were short due to the cold. He also had to keep a constant eye out for Orcas, which love sea lion fat, and after one particularly vicious encounter he decided the tropics might be better. He abandoned his converts, and returned to the sun. Here he was given his promised home in the Arc, and put in charge of a squad of riders who would play a key role in the raising of the arc that he and his fellows had made possible in their first adventure. Unfortunately Quark, Leviathan and Crimson’s mistakes during a mission to the Himalayan Kingdoms made the raising of the arc a much more complex job than it should have been, and they all had to show exceptional bravery during that breathtakingly chaotic mission. But that is a tale for another day …
Summary of events
For the faint-hearted:
- The PCs found out about a community of raiders west of Research 003
- They went there, found a fishing base set up by this community, Ryan spied on them, and they ambushed a boat
- From the boat they caught some slaves, who told them about a community of slaves, freemen, warriors, experts and leaders
- They attacked the fishing base and freed more slaves, learnt that this fishing base was the outpost of a community that was definitely their ziggurat
- The slaves believed that Ryan was some kind of religious redeemer, the stormwarden; the ziggurat community is held together by a religion of storms
- Using the information from the slaves they infiltrated the ziggurat
- They ambushed the slave master (kind of) and killed him, then all the ziggurat’s soldiers
- Ryan used his position as stormwarden to overthrow the ziggurat’s priest and take control
- They returned to the Gyre in triumph