Fantasy


Keep slaughter in your heart. A life without it is like a sunlit garden where the flowers are blooming.

– From The Epigrams of Warboss Wilde, Alvin Redmane

The party were four in number:

  • Aurak the Unborn, Lawful Evil Half-orc monk
  • Nemeia, Chaotic Good Tiefling Witch
  • Kaylee Sparklegem, Chaotic Neutral forest gnome rogue (NPC)
  • Ufgram Ironfist, Neutral Good Dwarven cleric of life (NPC)

The four served Mistress Servaine, a retired adventurer who runs a stable of mercenaries based near Baldur’s Gate. She had been asked by an old friend, Shirlwan Hukrien, to send a team of adventurers to her home to find her son and daughter, who had gone missing some two weeks ago while exploring an old ruin known as the Sunless Citadel. The party had been chosen for this mission, which was not seen as a particularly challenging one, as an introduction to their service for Mistress Servaine.

They set off immediately, trekking the two days to nearby Oakhurst, where the Hukrien family lived. Here they introduced themselves to Shirlwan Hukrien, and discovered that though she was once a powerful wizard, recently her powers had begun to wane and she was not herself able to use them to locate her children. This strange weakness was not her unique cross to bear, she revealed, but had been noticed by other powerful wizards in the land of Faerun. Shrugging off Aurak’s suggestion that they immediately take advantage of this strange circumstance by raiding the tower of the Red Wizards of Thay, the PCs asked Shirlwan for the loan of some horses, and set off to the Sunless Citadel.

The Citadel is an old tower that had fallen into a ravine during some ancient cataclysm. The locals said variously that the ravine had swallowed the tower whole as a punishment from the gods for the evil dragon cult that occupied it, or that its collapse had been the result of a horrible magical experiment gone wrong, or that the earth is made of great plates of stone that sometimes move like scales on the back of a sleeping dragon, and in their clashing lay to ruins even the greatest achievements of mortals; in truth no one knew the real reason, but all avoided the tower and its environs. The tower was perhaps five days’ travel on foot, the far side of the Plains of Ash, and easily visible from afar because one ruined tower of the fallen citadel still stood lonely watch on the plain overlooking the cursed ravine.

They found it easily, but their approach to the shattered tower was interrupted by a strange ambush. The land leading up to the tower was rough terrain of scattered bushes and small stunted trees, all dusted with a fine silver-grey layer of dust from the nearby Plains. In the distance, a little removed from the lonely tower, they could see the occasional smoke towers from remote farms, which hereabouts primarily grew apples and some wild fruits that need much sunlight and open space to thrive. Passing through an abandoned and overgrown orchard from one of these farms, the group were attacked by a strange group of four humanoid things, composed of dried up vegetation, tangled vines and tree limbs, all bound together in some hideous mockery of humanity and animated by some vicious spark of magic. The things lurched out of the overgrowth towards the PCs, who, ever on their guard, leapt to the attack. Aurak the Unborn let fly a boomerang, which missed it tendriled target and returned true to his grey-skinned grip; Kaylee fired an arrow into one with no seeming effect on its relentless advance; and Nemeia and Ulfgram the cleric surged forward to melee, where the strange creatures of vine and stick attempted to claw them from their horses with hardened hands of stick and thorn. The beasts, though disturbing in countenance, proved little match for the four, and were soon vanquished. A brief search of their broken remains revealed nothing of interest or use.

“There is,” Aurak the Unborn observed, quoting his icon Warboss Wilde, “only one thing worse than being attacked; and that is not being attacked.” With these wise words, they moved on.

A short ride took them to the tower, empty and broken, where it overlooked the ravine. Here they found a rope knotted tightly to a rock, and dangling down to a ledge and a set of stairs that began some 20′ below. Taking this as sure sign that they were on the trail of their targets, the party were discussing how best to descend when they were attacked from behind by a trio of giant rats. Their logistical discussion briefly disturbed, they slaughtered the rats contemptuously, and descended the rope. Nemeia fell halfway, but they were only descending 20′ and she landed in a lucky position, taking little damage. From the first ledge they found functioning stairs, and descended smoothly to the ravine floor.

At the base of the ravine they found the uppermost level of the citadel itself. It truly had sunken into the valley floor, and much of it was ruined, but the top of the largest central donjon rose above the ravine floor, a single door offering entry into the tower. To their north and south the broken ground swallowed up the outhouses of the tower, but here in the centre the building looked relatively solid and safe, so they pushed open the door.

From inside more giant rats emerged to attack them, but they beat them down with ease and pushed their way inside, finding a large room with doors to the north and southwest. Four goblins had been killed in here, with one still pinned to the far wall by the spear that had killed it. They guessed that the adventurers they sought had passed successfully through here, and though they thought there was little chance of finding anything valuable, searched the stinking, grimacing corpses anyway. They found nothing, but during the search Aurak the Unborn found a secret door in the south wall. After a moment of preparation, they bid him open it.

Pushing the lever that opened the door, Aurak barely avoided a poisoned needle that nearly stuck his hand. The door slid open, revealing a small room with arrow slits that would once have overlooked the inner courtyard of the citadel, before the scales of the earth had ground together and dragged it down into hell. Four skeletons, of archers who must have once defended this room, lay in an untidy pile in the corner. As the party entered to search them these bodies twitched and rose up, drawing rusty shortswords and preparing to attack. Battle was joined, with Aurak and Kaylee fighting in melee while Ironfist and Nemeia conjured eery ghostly fists to strike at the undead from outside the room. Again they prevailed, taking only minor damage, and soon the bones were quiescent again. They found nothing especially valuable here, so they moved onward, through the door in the northern face of the main room.

Warboss Wilde says “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”

Here they found a corridor, wide enough for them to pass along two abreast, down which they walked cautiously. When they were near the end they found a door on the left-hand side of the tunnel, which they opened and entered. Here was a small 10’x10′ room, with a strange keg-like structure in one corner. Two rusted iron pipes protruded from the keg and curved around into the floor, to what purpose none of them could guess. With some effort they hauled open the top of the keg, and immediately two nasty little demon creatures sprang out of the keg and attacked them – mephits! A steam mephit and an ice mephit, part of some infernal machinery that must once have warmed the castle or powered some ingenious torture device. This fight was harder than the last, and they struggled to hit and subdue the vicious little elemental spirits. When the steam mephit died it let loose a hideous cry of rage and explosion of steam that burnt them all, leaving them stunned and hurt. Ironfist cast a healing spell on Aurak, they shut the door and rested for a half dozen hours, and then they proceeded along the corridor to the door at the end.

The door opened into a much larger square chamber, that held a huge burnt-out firepit and a large steel cage, its bars smashed and burst open on the side facing them. Doors led out of the room at several points, and from a huddle of rags on the far side of a large stone table they could hear snuffling and whimpering. Once they had assured themselves the room contained no threats Nemeia marched over to the bundle of filthy rags and tore it aside, revealing a forlorn and sniveling kobold, its little draconic nose wrinkled in that expression of conniving self-pity that is characteristic of the lowest of the evil humanoids. Aurak raised his axe to end the piteous thing, but Nemeia gestured for him to hold. She hauled the little wretch up, not ungently, and began speaking to it in Draconic, its native language.

Tieflings. Never trust them.

After a short conversation she revealed that the kobold was one of a tribe living in the citadel, that its name was Mebo, and that it had been charged with looking after a white dragon wyrmling[1], that had been trapped in the cage behind them. Some goblins who shared the citadel with the kobold tribe had raided the room and stolen the dragon, and the kobold tribe held Mebo responsible. He was not allowed back on pain of death, unless he was bringing the dragon with him. Nemeia had asked Mebo about the adventurers they were tracking, and he said he knew nothing of any adventurers, so it was Nemeia’s guess that the adventurers had been captured by the goblins, or were in some desperate situation in the area where the goblins lived. She suggested that Mebo could take them to the kobold chieftain, and they could negotiate with the chieftain for a reward in exchange for returning the dragon. This would mean that they could pass unmolested through to the goblin area, with Mebo as a guide, and make haste to the adventurers they sought.

The rest of the party agreed with Mebo’s plan, and he took them down some corridors into a long room lined with ancient, crumbling statues. They passed through the statues into an area thronged with kobolds and reeking of their strange metallic, earthy smell, where they found the kobold chieftain. She wore a mouldering wizards cloak, cut down to size, and lounged on a throne of wood and rotting upholstery that must have been here when the castle was hurled down here by the gods. Behind her stood a platform adorned with various pointless and stupid kobold trinkets – a lizard brain, a rusted dagger, the usual kind of tawdry junk these strange fallen dragon-dogs value – but in amongst it sat a large and impressive bronze key on a special hook. That key obviously opened a treasure room somewhere in this patchwork of collapsed masonry.

They negotiated. The chieftain agreed with their suggestion, and offered them a paltry reward in exchange for returning the dragon. She agreed to let them take Mebo with them as a guide. When pushed about the key, she shrugged, and refused to give it to them because it looked pretty as an ornament behind her throne. They pushed her, and she agreed to loan it to them if they could return the dragon. A loan was all they need. They bowed appropriately, took their leave, and dragged Mebo away towards a door out of the throne room.

To the goblins, and glory!

 


fn1: an annoying recent trend in D&D modules is that they put in baby dragons for 1st level characters to kill, so we can feel like we’ve fought a dragon, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it’s not a real dragon and I want those things kept for when I can really earn the feeling of success that killing a dragon brings with it.

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The fellowship was composed of five members:

  • Tywyl Neidr, a hobbit and the sole survivor of the sacking of Rhosgobel
  • Eisa the Axe, Dunlending, an Eye of Saruman and Neidr’s oldest adventuring companion
  • Simir the Swan, a Wainrider from the East who sought the secret to his people’s troubles with the Shadow
  • Mercy, a Barding warrior-woman on a quest to avenge the death of her family
  • Olaf, a Barding archer

It was 2946, five years after the battle of the five armies. The fellowship had first met during that battle, and adventured together briefly in the aftermath, chasing Orcs and worst back into their rotten lairs in the iron hills. The fellowship had broken up but they had all made a solemn pledge: That if after five years of peace they still felt that the Shadow was undefeated, they would meet again and reform their fellowship, to commit again to struggle against the creeping evil from the south. Their appointed meeting place was the Easterly Inn, a small inn run by a hobbit family in the far north of the Vale of Anduin.

So it was that five years after the battle of five armies they met again in the Easterly Inn, all grimly certain of their purpose and bearing dark tidings of the Shadow that continued to hang over the west, and especially over the wilderlands. As soon as their greetings and reminiscences were done, they sought a task through which they could rekindle their fellowship.

The innkeep himself offered it to them. Rumour had been flying that the High Pass through the misty mountains was under siege from dark forces, and passage through it growing more perilous with every season. The innkeep had sent his own brother through the pass during the summer to return to the Shire for important supplies – pipe weed, brandy, the usual accoutrements of a well-stocked hobbit tavern – but now his brother was late and as the high summer passed he began to fear the worst. He needed reliable heroes to travel to the pass and find what had happened to his brother, and he was willing to offer a small portion of treasure for their troubles, as well as free lodgings in the Inn this coming winter.

That was all the trigger the heroes needed. They would investigate the High Pass, find the forces troubling it, and see what could be done to rescue the Innkeeper’s brother, Dilly. The following morning they set off.

The first stage of their journey was easy, taking a trade boat down the Anduin River as far as the Old Fort. From there they would need to take the Forest Road west into the Misty Mountains to where it rose into the High Pass. They reached Old Fort without incident and from there headed west, finding the going easy at first but increasingly perilous as the road rose towards the High Pass. Hunting became difficult and the journey wearisome, and on their first night they were forced to camp in a stinking bog where they were plagued by ferocious biting insects. Still, such minor inconveniences are of no account against the maraudings of the Shadow, and so they passed on into their second day.

The second night they set up a good camp in a secluded patch of woodland and old ruins, near the road but safe on slightly raised ground. In the evening as they settled down to eat they were disturbed by a weary, dirty stranger who came shambling out of the woods and set himself down at their fire, introducing himself as Shambler. As soon as he arrived Tywyl slunk off unnoticed into the shadows to search the area, and the rest of them set to interrogating this strange and arrogant newcomer. He claimed to be traveling east and simply seeking rest, but something was off about him. After a few minutes he pulled out a pipe and began smoking pipe-weed, which further bothered them – could this be weed from the hobbit caravan?

Meanwhile Tywyl moved quietly through the bushes until he had a view of the area between their camp and the road, and soon saw them – four men moving stealthily through the long grass, knives and swords out, intent on the fellowship’s camp. He returned stealthily to the camp and placed himself in position where Eisa the Axe could see him, gesturing the number four to her. She did not hesitate, swinging up her axe and striking Shambler full in the face where he sat at the fire. His rotten tooth flew out of his cruelly sneering mouth and he fell backwards away from the fire as the four men burst into the ring of its light, intent on doing evil but ferociously out-matched by their targets. The battle was over in but a moment, with three men beaten down and the other two desperately surrendering.

They revealed themselves to be bandits, but opportunists, who had decided to rob the camp when they saw it from the Forest Road. They had not robbed the hobbit caravan, but had bought a little brandy and pipe-weed from it some days ago when they came across it in the High Pass. They did not know how far behind them it might be, but it appeared to have been fine when they saw it. The hobbit’s bodyguards, four beornings, had been sufficient warning to the gang not to try robbery, and so they had done business and moved on.

This night they would not move further. The heroes tied the bandits to trees, and in the morning rebuked them with a good solid kicking before breaking camp and proceeding west along the Forest Road.

That day and night were uneventful, and the road now began to break apart as it rose into the mountains. The following day and night the road ascended sharply in switch backs and sweeping turns, and by evening they found themselves bracing against a chill wind, now in the highlands proper. They found a good place to camp, but something about its atmosphere disturbed Eisa. Checking tracks carefully, she noticed that wagons and traveling groups seemed to have come here to camp, but left behind no evidence of having ever actually left. The area seemed suffused with some bitter evil. She warned the rest of her fellowship, and they set a trap for whatever fell beast prowled this place.

It came in the deepest part of the night, first a creeping mist enveloping the camp and then a sinister dark shadowy figure gliding smoothly over the cold earth and into the camp. When it made to attack Tywyl the group sprung their trap, everyone surging up to attack it at the same time. Tywyl and Eisa both struck the tall wraith-like beast with their weapons, and felt a horrific jarring cold run through their arms, and a fear clutching their breast. Mercy struck but missed, and then Simir the Swan charged through the mist on his horse, striking the beast in the chest with his lance and breaking it apart into a million torn fluttering fragments of shadow. It disappeared, and the mist dispersed. Tywyl, versed in Shadow Lore, suggested that it must be the restless spirit of some long dead man, and so they searched the area for signs of remains. Finally in a bog they found the bones of a long-dead warrior, his body submerged in the bog, its armour rotted and ruined. They drew up the remains and took them to a hilltop far from the ambush site, giving them a proper burial that the spirit would never rise again. Then, exhausted, they broke camp and marched into the chill dawn.

During that day’s travel they found signs of goblins, and that evening they found what they sought – the hobbit’s wagon. On a hillside near the path a huge fire burned, and in the far distance they heard drums. Drums! In the Deep! A force of goblins must be on the march. They sent Tywyl ahead off the track to investigate, and he returned quickly to report that the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards were drawn up in a small hollow off the road, where once an ancient hill fort had stood. The wagon had been settled inside the partial protection of the fort’s old outer earthen rings, and they had lit a great fire to keep the night at bay. The beorning guard had been reduced to three, all of whom looked exhausted and injured. The drums, they guessed, were goblins coming to finish off the beornings and steal the wagon’s contents.

They made their way up the hill to a position with a good view of the action. Eisa and Tywyl crept forward to a position in hiding where they thought the goblins would arrive, and Olaf positioned himself well away from the battle field in a patch of rocky cover. Mercy and Simir waited below, a little distance from the fort, ready for the goblins.

The goblins marched down the hillside from hidden tunnel entrances higher in the mountain’s peaks, a force of perhaps 100 of the disgusting, wretched creatures, led by five Orcs and a giant Uruk Hai leader. They gathered in a ring around the fort, and beat their drums and yelled their cries. They obviously did not want to charge into the light of the bonfire, but the brutal urging of the orcs would surely eventually force them forward. The beorning leader stood atop the hill fort embankment and roared his challenge at them, but his voice was tired and it was obvious that he knew what his fate would be. The orcs laughed and the goblin drums beat louder.

It was time to act! Olaf fired a volley of arrows into the leader as Eisa and Tywyl emerged from hiding to ambush him, and Mercy rushed in to attack an Orc. The leader survived the initial attack, but only lived long enough to be ridden down by Simir the Swan, whose horse bore him on a wild careening ride through the goblin horde so that he could strike the leader with his lance. He charged through and up to the embankment, rearing his horse in silhouette against the golden light of the bonfire and yelling a challenge in his harsh native tongue. At the same moment Olaf blew his hunting horn, and its cry reverberated around the mountains, as if a force of a thousand rohirrim were rushing forward.

The goblins did not break immediately, though. Those nearest who could see the action opened fire, shooting Simir the Swan off his horse and injuring Tywyl and Mercy. Eisa, Tywyl and Mercy joined into a tight group and moved to stand over Simir the Swan’s body, beating off the onrushing orc leaders and killing three more. As Olaf rained arrows down from afar the last Orc died, and the three beornings came charging down from the embankment to crash into the nearest goblins. Fearing they were being attacked from all sides, their leaders dead, the goblins gave up a great cry of rage and despair, and broke and ran back up the mountain.

A solid victory! But followed by grim tidings. Though Simir was not badly hurt and recovered his strength soon enough, the beornings were spent. Worse still, one of the two hobbits in their wagon had been abducted by the goblins and was now surely held prisoner in their hideous lair. Would the heroes save him?

They assessed their wounds, gritted their teeth, and nodded grimly. The goblins would be allowed no victory this night. They urged the beornings to move the wagon to the road and make haste eastward while the goblins were in hiding, and set off up in the mountain in pursuit of the vile, grey-skinned monsters.

They found their lair entrance soon enough, and entered cautiously, Tywyl ahead. He found them the path towards the densest part of the goblin lair, but on the way they soon discovered that the goblins had a cave troll. It loomed ahead of them, snuffling around in the caves where perhaps they could pass it by unnoticed. But while Eisa and Tywyl could perhaps creep by, Simir the Swan was no thief in the night, and Mercy clanked in her proud barding mail. They decided to wait until the troll came close, and put an end to its foul life.

The attack was swift and ferocious when the time came. The troll came ambling around the corner straight into their path and they struck, all hitting it at once. It reeled under the blows but was not felled in the first onslaught, and with a roar of rage struck down with its huge club on Eisa the Axe. It struck a great blow on her shoulder but somehow, staggered though she was, she shrug off all the damage, grunted, “Not this day!” and rose up anew, a grim and dark light in her eyes, to hit it again with her trusty Dunlending axe. Its energy wasted on tough Dunlending sinews, the troll was torn down by the fellowship’s second onslaught, and soon lay dead before them.

They cut its head off and, dragging it behind them like a hideous trophy, moved further into the caves. Ahead they could hear cheers and singing, the goblins singing some hideous song about eating men, elves and hobbits, oblivious to their approaching doom. Hundreds of them had gathered in a large feasting hall just ahead, where they sang the song together to impress their leader, an Uruk Hai who made the leader the fellowship had killed earlier look like a leaf against a tree. They had no chance against that horde.

But they had not come to kill, only to rescue. They found the hobbit in a large room off the main hall, toiling over a multitude of fireplaces, preparing roasted meats and peppered potatoes and cooking furiously in the ruddy heat. As they watched from the doorway two goblins came in, one cursing him and the other cuffing him, and he handed over to them a huge tray of some dubious meats, prepared with the loving tenderness that only a hobbit can bestow upon even the rudest of foods. They cursed him again and sloped off to the main room, labouring under the weight of the tray.

The goblins had forced their captive to cook for them, and would treat him so until his cooking bored them – then he would be in the pot. Hideous creatures!

They crept into the room and replaced the hobbit with the cave troll’s head. From there they retreated quickly to the outside world, running as fast as they could to escape from the caves before the goblins realized their little slave-meal was gone. They burst into the chill of the outside world and sprinted down the mountain, listening terrified for the sound of drums behind them.

They heard none – perhaps their earlier attack had terrified the goblins into retreat, or perhaps they had decided they preferred to finish their feast than pursue a single prisoner. Or perhaps it was that faint glow of dawn on the horizon that stopped them putting up a chase. No matter. The fellowship retreated to the road and made haste downward, stopping to rest only when the sun was far enough over the peaks of the mountains that they were sure they would not be pursued. After a brief and dismal meal and the shortest of rests they returned to the trail, heading east as fast as they could while the sun was high. At dusk they did not stop, but beat their way along the now-familiar road all night to put distance between themselves and their enemies. Only the next day, when they had reached lower ground and begun to emerge into the vale of Anduin, under a bright summer sky, did they stop and rest at last, the hobbit safe in their company.

Their first mission against the shadow a complete success, they returned the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards to the Easterly Inn. It was a humble beginning, but in the ice and darkness of the misty mountains their fellowship had been forged anew, and now they would not rest until destiny overtook them. Only time would tell what future adventures they would find in the wilderlands, and what blows they would strike against the gathering shadows. As summer’s long glow faded into the cool of autumn they rested in the Easterly Inn, sure of one thing: they would do their part against the ancient evil that lay over this land, together, and before their bones were finally scattered across the wilderland, they would have songs sung of their deeds as far away as the shores of Gondor!

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, you can go it alone
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out and draw another breath
London calling and I don’t want to shout
But when we were talking I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain’t got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eye

 

Our heroes’ tasks continue, as they return to the Ark again from missions in the Zone, with still more exploring yet to do. They know that to the Ark’s northwest a cult of some kind lives in an abandoned apartment block, and they aim to visit them to learn their purpose and, if necessary, end it. With their successes abroad their reputation in the Ark grows, and people begin to look at them differently, approaching them for advice, deferring to them in debates, or avoiding them if they are joined to a rival gang. Bloody Jack’s star is on the rise, and the other gangs begin to cast longer shadows as her light waxes.

So it is now surprise that one evening they are approached by Shellah, the Stalker who came to them to tell them of the tower some months back, no doubt bearing a new secret to share. She sidled up to them where they crouched around the trash can fire, dragging a large lump of pure, dry wood in one hand and peering all about her as if she thought they were about to ambush her. Sniffing and jerking, she tossed the wood into the fire, and revealed the real reason she had come to talk to them, drawing a small oblong of shaped plastic from the folds of her stinking, multi-layered clothes. “Found this! Need your help!” The plastic block was about the size of her dirty palm, perhaps thinner than a finger, with a couple of buttons inobtrusively protruding from one side, and two small holes in one end of the block at its base. It shone in the firelight, a smooth and glittering piece of technology from the ancients. Shellah pointed at the larger of the two holes. “It charges! Needs a battery!” She stared around at them, snatched it away when Bloody Jack reached out a lazy hand to try and draw it closer. “Mine!” She looked pleadingly at Chang Chang, who managed to convince her to let Parsnip look at it more closely. It was definitely ancient technology, definitely electrically powered, and almost certainly no longer had a charge. But how could they charge it?

Shellah dragged another artifact from her pocket – a damaged black cable, one end of which she smartly snapped into the wider hole in the plastic block. The other was a mess of tangled wires. “It charges!” She declared, waving the ragged wires at the group. “I need a battery, I need your help!” Then she told them where they could find a battery: In the Dawn Vault. She could help them sneak in, if they were willing to help her connect the damaged wires to the battery in the Vault. They pointed out to her that no one can get into the Vault except the Chroniclers (and only some of them!) but she shrugged. She had a secret way in, and she went inside often. They looked at her in horror – no one was allowed in the Vault. And wouldn’t they get caught? At this she also shrugged, and told them no one goes into the Vault. “Got a nest there, sleep there often! Safe from the gangs!” They all looked at each other in shock – what was going on in the Vault? Now their interest was piqued, and they agreed to go with her into the Vault and help set up the charger, but only on the condition that she share the technology with them once it was charged and usable. They had no idea what it was, but anything from the ancients could be useful.

A few hours later, once the rest of the Ark were sleeping, they met Shellah at the back of one of the open areas under the bleachers, and began their expedition to the Dawn Vault.

Beneath the Ark

Shellah led them down a small hallway to a storage room, and there dug through some boxes to reveal a small area at the back of the room where the wall appeared to have partially collapsed. She dragged a piece of metal aside from one corner of the partially damaged wall to reveal a narrow tunnel that led sharply down into darkness. It was too small to walk in, so one by one – and following Shellah’s lead – they crawled inside and began to drag themselves through musty, mouldy stonework. A few minutes of spirited dragging and they plopped one by one into a narrow hallway, landing on cold rough stone. Shellah began moving forward immediately until Chang Chang told her to wait, and they gathered in a group in the darkness. Parsnip lit Lil’Kim’s disgusting lantern, and a rich but pale glow grew around them, suffusing the area with the stench of her oil-wax. They stood in a narrow hallway that descended into a larger space, the hallway ending behind them in a tumbling rockfall. They now stood beneath the Ark, in some ancient space that appeared to have been blocked from outside by a collapse of all the tunnels leading in. Shellah, apparently not needing light, led them down the sloping tunnel and into the larger space. Here they stopped in shock, and stood staring at a horrifying scene from the Time Before.

The tunnel led into a large, low-ceilinged space that looked like it might stretch for much of the length of the Ark. It was probably once a car park, judging by its shape and the markings on the dust-covered floor, but there were no vehicles of any kind in here. Instead the vast space was filled with hospital beds neatly arranged in rows that completely filled the room. Each bed had long since rotted down to its steel shell, along with the dead body that lay in it – each bed held a single skeletal human, long since rotted away to nothing but bone and a few scraps of mouldering cloth. Some of the beds had medical equipment next to them – here a wheeled trolley with some rusted knives on it, there a rusting metal pole with a mouldy plastic bag hanging from it, there a smaller trolley with bedpans and cleaning materials.

They moved cautiously through the rows of silent beds, looking down at the grinning skulls of their long-dead occupants. They could not tell how they had died, or what medical affairs had been taking place here – was this a treatment ward for sick people, or for injured soldiers, was it a recovery ward from some disease, or had it been used as some horrible experiment? They could not tell. All they could see was that everyone had died in their beds.

Finally they crossed the full width of the room, and that was when they saw it – a tunnel leading out of the room, down into musty darkness, open and unguarded, with the mark of the underground railway network embossed above it. To their horror they realized that this secret room under the Ark was open to the rail network beneath the dead city, and thus to the hordes of grey men who lived in the dark and fed on human flesh. They looked back at Shellah, who shrugged and told them she had never seen this exit before. She did not travel through here with a light, and had not realized there were dead bodies in here, let alone noticed the tunnel exit or the foreboding symbol protruding from the wall above it. She gestured them urgently on, and realizing that for now there was nothing they could do they followed her to the far end of the underground morgue.

Here she led them into another tunnel, this one much wider, that also ended in a rockfall a short distance out from the morgue room. But here they found even more shocking relics of the ancients. A huge hand protruded from the rockfall. It had long since turned to a skeleton, but the bones were so thick and huge that even with the rocks crushing them they had not broken or collapsed. The hand was almost as large as Lonnie, their diminutive stalker, a huge remnant of some even bigger beast that had been trapped on the other side of the rockfall. Is that why both tunnels into the Ark were collapsed, because the people in that hospital behind them had needed to block something out? They approached the hand cautiously to investigate its three huge fingers, each ending in a wicked claw the size of a machete, and only then did they realize that this hand was a perfect scale version of the hands on the grey men who had attacked them in the underground railway station a month ago – a much, much larger scale version. That horrid horde of flesh-eating beasts that were creeping below the dead city had a massive, ancient ancestor. Did such huge creatures still patrol the depths of the city? Were they leaders amongst the grey men? Could the Ark expect to be attacked by such horrors in the future?

Shellah hastened them on, crawling up the rockfall to a gap in the wall near its top. Here they saw another narrow tunnel, this one leading up. She gestured them in, pointing up eagerly. They turned their backs uneasily on the ancient corpse and began to climb.

Inside the Dawn Vault

The tunnel was short and nasty, but they pulled through it quickly and scrambled out into a small, dimly lit room – the Dawn Vault. It smelled of dust, mouldy paper and rot, and it was lit with strange tiny candles that glowed with a faint electric light. They had been placed on the tops of shelves and lockers, and although they did not cast a great deal of light it was enough for Parsnip to be able to extinguish their stinking lantern. They looked around as they gathered in the room, at a jumble of books, broken electrical gear, a few broken pieces of sport equipment and a rusty toolkit. The books were in piles on the floor and falling out of a bookshelf, and the other technology lay under a thick coating of dust, stacked in corners of the room. An archway led into the next room, a larger open space with benches and a shower room that was also full of jumbled gear and artifacts from the ancients, piled and scattered around the room without purpose or system, all dusty and untouched. Shellah led them through to a third room where she showed them her nest, a comfortable space with old rugs and blankets for bedding, hidden behind a broken photocopier piled with books. Everything was untouched, some material mouldy, some rusty.

They looked around the room in disgust, and at each other in horror. This was what the Chroniclers did with the artifacts they brought here – tossed them into this room and forgot them!? Nothing was being used, nothing appeared to have been catalogued or studied or put to any use, it was just thrown in here and abandoned them. What did the Chroniclers do with their time, what was their purpose? Why did the PCs offer up the fruits of their dangerous adventures in the wild just to have them abandoned here by uncaring old men? Grimshaw punched a wall in rage, and Bloody Jack began to offer up speeches of wild revolution, until Shellah interrupted them both and dragged them to the battery, a big old UPS that had been recently charged with a generator. While Parsnip set about attaching the plastic artifact to the battery Chang Chang, Lonnie and Bloody Jack wandered the rooms of the Vault looking for artifacts they felt comfortable stealing, and Grimshaw stood guard near the main entrance, muttering in rage to himself.

Parsnip finished attaching the plastic artifact, and a tiny light went on on its face. Shellah told them she would rest here in her nest while she waited for it to charge, and would bring it back to them later. Disillusioned and disgusted, they filed out of the room through the hidden tunnel, to return to their trash can fire and ponder the terrible secrets they had uncovered.

The Doom Cult

Looking for some meaning in their suddenly-upended world, our heroes decided to do what they do best – exploring. The next morning they climbed onto their Trash Hawks and flew off to the abandoned apartment block where they new the Doom Cult lived. By the time their circling hawks landed they had drawn a crowd of robed figures, who gathered in the courtyard of the apartment block to watch their eagles come to a screeching, preening and somewhat chaotic rest on the mould-covered flagstones. The apartment block was a plain five-storey building, once red-brick and white wooden frames now faded to brownish-greyish-black and overrun with vines and creeping rot, but its windows were largely intact, or had been covered over with shutters that appeared now mostly to be closed. The ground floor entrance was a large double door that appeared to work – as they dismounted from their restless hawks, avoiding slashing beaks and restless wings, they saw the Doom Cult’s leader walk out of the doors, swinging them casually closed behind him. He appeared to be unarmed, dressed in long off-white robes, wearing a surgical mask and with leather strapping loosely wrapped around the shoulders and belly of his robe. He strode forward purposefully, shying back only a little as the birds screamed and leapt into the sky. Chang Chang introduced them all. The leader introduced a few of the other Cultists, and the PCs noticed that, rather strangely, this entire group were vaguely insectoid in form, having non-human insectoid arms and a faint hairy scaliness about their skin. It was the first time they had seen a group of mutants sharing a single mutation – where had these Cultists come from?

There seemed to be no threat or risk, though, and the Cultists looked unarmed, so they followed the leader inside when he invited them. The ground floor of the apartment was an open lobby with a few sofas and an empty fish pond, opening into stairs and a small back room. He led them into the backroom and showed them a huge collection of perfumes, the “treasures of the cult”, and invited them to join the Cult in a ritual purge of the surrounding area. Intrigued, they followed the Cultists back outside and in a loop of the building as they swung bottles of perfume on chains, spraying occasional drifts of perfume at stubborn patches of rot, dying trees or marker posts, until they returned to the building entrance, intoning prayers to the gods of pure air.

Unimpressed, the PCs waited for the Cultists to disperse so they could talk more with the leader. He snapped his fingers and a couple of robed, hooded figures emerged from a side door, scuttling over to him with the characteristic gait of terrified subordinates. They began hurriedly packing up the perfumes and dragging them inside, keeping themselves well covered and well out of the way of the leader’s hands, typical behavior of slaves and captives, but their deception was not enough to fully hide their faces from some of the PCs, who noticed that the captives were all non-insectoid, and had strange mutilations marring their faces – in particular, they had glass and plastic embedded around their eyes, in what appeared to be ritual scarification intended to give them the appearance of insect-like eyes.

They had stumbled on a Cult with some kind of horrible sacrificial rituals, they realized. When the time was right, they would have to kill them all.

They were invited back inside to enjoy the Cult’s hospitality, and the leader took Chang Chang aside to make an offer to him – that they should team up, Chang Chang could become a leader of the Cult, and they would make all members of the Ark join the Cult. Perhaps the offer was a little too sudden, or perhaps the sight of mutilated and terrified servants bothered Chang Chang, but he dissembled until he could rejoin his fellows and discuss it.

That evening they sent Lonnie out to investigate the upper levels of the apartment but he was seen and battle started. They had to fight a horde of Cultists on the ground floor, and then the leader and the chief of slaves, a massive slab of a mutant with a vicious axe, before they could win, contending with the leader’s power to heal himself and the slaver and to cause terror in his foes. Eventually they prevailed, slaying all the Cultists and freeing their slaves to join the Ark. They returned, injured but successful, having cleared the only remaining near threat to the Ark and gathered more loyal mutants to their cause. The numbers in the Ark who supported them grew in number, and their authority in the Ark spread.

But they had a new unease, a caution, that made them doubt the value of their authority in their own stronghold. What was the Elder doing, and why did the Chroniclers neglect the Ark so? Was everything they did a waste of time, or had the Elder finally slid too far from sensibility, and from his responsibilities?

Was it time for a coup?

 

 

And another thing
I’ve been wondering lately
Am I crazy
To believe in ideals?
I’m a betting man
But it’s getting damn lonely.
Oh, honey, if only
I could be sure what I feel.
What’s my scene? (I’m dying to know)
I’ll never know.
Well, I concede
I’ve been caught in someone else’s scene (but that’s not me).
Where, oh where, oh where can my scene be?
Please answer me
What’s my ..?

 

A month passed after they killed the Purifiers, and nothing came our heroes’ way. Adam Lee spent the time fruitfully, preparing a safe house that they could begin to set up as a base of operations, the others searching out equipment and training. Jayden did a job for some old Filipino friends, the men who taught him how to fight with knives calling him in to do an extraction in New Horizon, for which he was paid with a qi focus[1]. They waited, hiding in their low-rent apartments and waiting for something to come up.

Of course something came up. New Horizon is a big city, and its claws cast long, dark shadows. Anansi called them with an urgent job – a woman called Rosemary from Rego Corp needed their help urgently. They broke off their lazy weekday afternoon and swung around to her offices, a small section of a penthouse space protected by serious troll guards who took their weapons and slapped disabling locks on their cyberware as soon as they walked in the door. This kind of office was obviously not the office of a corp that does anything – Rosemary was a broker for other corps, an agent. She was polite but dismissive – shadowrunners were clearly beneath her, but desperate times called for desperate measures. They wondered how often she found herself in desperate times – perhaps if the desperation is a calendar event, it’s time to start thinking things are going wrong?

Rosemary’s situation was simple. A group of student activists from New Horizon University of Technology – commonly referred to as NHUTs – had taken possession of a pharmaceutical company in the industrial zone, and were threatening to blow it up. They were in a stand off with police, and surely within a few hours it would all come to a head. Rosemary did not care at all about the students, the pharmaceutical company or public safety, but she did care about one of the student gang, a young man called Lionel Harper. She would pay the PCs very good money to get in, get Lionel Harper and get him out. She did not care who died in the process, but it was imperative that no one know he had been there, or that he had been taken out, and he had to come out unharmed.

From the dismissive air of her speech, and the way she spoke about Lionel and the students, it was abundantly clear to the ‘runners what was going on here. Lionel was the child of a rich corporate Somebody, he’d fallen into the wrong crowd, the wrong crowd was about to get wasted, and Daddy wanted Lionel out before whatever second tier corp owned this facility went fully mediaeval on these pesky students. But Daddy didn’t value Lionel enough to cut a deal openly with any other corp, so Daddy wanted to pay a few expendable nobodies to do the dirty work, and if everything went wrong, so what – he wouldn’t lose any money, easy come easy go. No doubt some PR flak was already preparing a story about how Lionel got caught up in a raid during his Work Experience week, poor kid was training in pharmacy so he could help the refugees in the Indo Zone don’t you know, isn’t it sad how these student radicals destroy so much that is good in the world with their misplaced activism? We’ve all seen the news … but better if the future heir is rescued, moderately unhurt, sees his friends (comrades?!) die in fire, and learns the error of his ways. We were all young once, right?

They nodded sagely, took the address, and left. Swung past a few people’s houses to pick up gear, and headed over to the scene of the crime. It was a typical third rate corporate facility, a factory jutting over the river, the front of the building a suite of offices and reception rooms. Like many third tier corporate types the boss had got delusions of grandeur, in this case leading him to build a kind of tower on the third floor of the office space that looked over the factory area. This factory was a series of balconies over a workshop floor, all covered in a glass roof, so the boss could look down on all the work of his eager little minions. The group’s hacker told them that whatever this corp made was semi-illegal, it had a section of the factory overhanging a canal where boats could load and take away whatever semi-dodgy pharma the company was producing, and it was nestled in between two other similarly proto-legal gangster companies. Take one look at the hacker’s report and everyone thought, “Dragon’s balls those students are doing the right thing,” and then “sucks to be them.”

The police and some corporate troops had gathered out front but weren’t going in yet, because rumour had it a senior exec had been inside when the hit went down. The PCs decided not to try and sneak in through the riverside, but instead found an old sewer entry from below that apparently even the corporate owners were unfamiliar with – some remnant from when New Horizon was actually New, that maybe the students had found out in that devious way that students do. Apparently some of these students had studied urban planning, so it stood to reason that they would know about it – though why urban planning majors were raiding a pharmaceutical company armed with AK-97s was outside our ‘runner’s knowledge. Kids today!

They entered the sewers, Adam Lee complaining vociferously about the stench, the moss and the architecture. After a few nasty encounters with the filthy water they found themselves in the older, original works, old stone tunnels that smelt more of must and rot than sewage, and were so dark it felt as if the walls were sucking in the light. Somewhere on that careful journey to the bowels of the corporate office Jayden felt something, a shrieked warning from his eagle spirit, and they stopped at his hiss. They stood in the dripping darkness, filthy water slicking around their legs, and watched as a little distance up ahead something horrid and huge swarmed past them. It wasn’t one thing, but a multitude of large, writhing bodies, glowing subtly in the deep darkness of the pits, skittering and hissing quietly, moving with careful deliberation around the edge of the water. Rats maybe, or lampreys with legs and a shared consciousness – they could not tell in the clammy dark, only that something vaguely luminous passed them by. Jayden held Genji’s arm in an iron grip, invisible in the darkness, Genji held Adam, and in a chain they stood perfectly silent as the throng slid past. They waited for the sound and the glow to subside, and Jayden was just about to motion the passing of the threat when somewhere to their right, in the path of the swarm, someone screamed. A horrible storm of chittering gnawing sounds clattered down the corridor, accompanied by desperate screams that soon faded into begging and then gurgling.

They ran to the entrance to the corporate offices. Here they found a small sealed door that opened into a small antechamber. They pushed in, stripping off protective gear and securing the door behind them. They were in, though they did not know what waited for them above. Adam Lee cast his clairvoyance spell and sent an invisible eye questing, revealing that their room opened into a larger sub-basement room, a kind of control room that held a lot of the equipment for monitoring and controlling the office environment above. This room had been taken over by two students, one of whom was lounging in the middle of the room holding a large pistol, and the other of whom was sitting in a hoverchair holding a pistol and looking intently at banks of CCTV screens. This was their entry.

For lack of any better strategy, Jayden and Genji charged in. They hurled the door open and Jayden was on the standing student before he could blink, wicked knife at his throat, snarling, “Drop it and give in!” Before the student could move Genji had his pistols on the sitting man, and they both decided to surrender. The sitting man was revealed to be a disabled student, the hoverchair his only means of movement, but his chair also contained an advanced cyberdeck. T-Rex, their technomancer, destroyed the deck, and they tied their two captives far away from the room’s controls. They then set about systematically deleting all video of the students’ attack, used the cameras to find Lionel, and turned off the feed.

Lionel was up on level 2, in the factory part of the building, in a group with the two leaders of the raid – an Orc and a human, and a bunch of activists. There were other activists at the front of the building, armed and facing off with the police through a wall of corporate glass across a small open square. The police were moving resources in but not acting too quickly. They had probably half an hour to make their move. They moved up, slipping past the activists in the entry way and taking a set of spiral stairs up to the second level. Here they hid in the shadows of the doorway to the pharma factory, watching the students. There was some kind of argument happening, with the Orc leader and the human leader debating what to do next and some of the surrounding students looking decidedly uncomfortable – perhaps they had realized there was no way out of this occupation except foot first, or covered in disgrace. It was then that the PCs heard that the students had planted a bomb in the basement, where the computer equipment was.

Well then, time to move. They all looked at Jayden. Lionel was in there, and these were students. Jayden could be in there, grab Lionel and get him back – or at least have a knife at his throat – before the rest of the students could blink. The rest, they guessed, would be random noise.

Jayden was just about to move when the back wall of the factory exploded. That wall had two blast doors, sealed now, but they blew in like sheets of china under the force of whatever explosives had been loaded on the outside. Even then they held up for a moment, and instead of a roaring wall of fire everyone inside the factory was treated to a blast of warm air and a loud clang! as the doors fell slowly forward. From the rush of smoke and sparks two men came rushing forward, one an orc in body armour carrying a heavy rifle, the other a pale elf armed with a single assault rifle. As they watched in horror a grenade bounced out of the shadows and burst around the students in a cloud of gas.

Jayden looked around at his team, shrugged, took a deep breath, and ran forward to grab Lionel. The students were falling over in spasms as the gas spread, Lionel the first to drop, but the gas was not enough to take down Jayden, who grabbed Lionel’s supine form, yelled “We’re just here for the kid!” and started dragging him out of the cloud. Genji stepped out of the shadows and opened fire on the elf, while John, who was sequestered on the balcony above, took a shot at the Orc.

That was when the mage appeared, with his three spirits of air. They started laying about them with bolts of lightning while the mage took cover behind a pillar. Two of them killed students, while another laid into Jayden with a huge bolt of force, knocking him back and nearly blasting him into unconsciousness. Holding Lionel’s stunned form, there was nothing he could do. The mage, hidden behind his pillar, made a gesture, and two of the air spirits drifted away down the hallway into the main offices, firing bolts of force as they went. Somewhere out the front, responding to the chaos in the rear, the police opened fire. Their window for extraction had fallen from 30 minutes to three.

The other spirit continued to fire bolts of force down into the gas cloud, killing another student. The Orc fired at Genji, and the elf took down one of the student leaders with a shot to the face. The party, still confused, weren’t sure what to do or who to shoot – until Adam Lee used his telekinesis spell to lift that annoying mage out from under cover and into the middle of the open space above the factory floor. The mage hung there in the air, looking shocked and horrified at his powerless position, calling to his spirit to come and rescue him – and John shot him in the head. Free from the cover, hanging there in open space, he could not dodge or avoid what was coming[2]. Moments later Adam dropped his bloodied, broken form to the factory floor, just to make sure.

They skirmished a little more, but by now Genji had managed to break the Orc, who was now badly injured, and Jayden was dragging Lionel back into cover. Now that pale elf held up his hands and in a decidedly Russian accent yelled “Okay chummers, time to deal! We see you just want the kid! Let’s all chill down and we’ll let you get your mark out!”

They agreed, and the elf gave them a few moments to get their man out. Unfortunately Jayden had succumbed to his injuries while they talked, and Adam had to sneak out of cover to help him up and drag Lionel into cover, the kind of situation that a fast-thinking, cold-hearted elf might turn to advantage, but their mage was dead and the Orc was badly hurt, so probably for the best. Below them they could hear the sound of gunfire and screams as the students went to war with The Man. They dragged Lionel and Jayden out, and headed down.

Their exit took them past the main foyer, which was a hell of gun fire and broken glass as the students tried to hold off the incoming corporate soldiers and police. John grabbed the nearest student as they passed and told him that his leaders were dead and it was all done, tried to grab him away, but the student shook off his arm. He yelled a little more and a few moments later three students – a scared boy, a girl making brave face like a teenager on her first date, and a gruff older man with dead eyes – slipped out with them, taking the stairs down to the basement two at a time. They slammed and locked the door behind them, grabbed the two tied up student prisoners, checked once to make sure they’d locked down the video of the scene, and ran out the basement entrance. As Genji stood at the hatch covering their exit he heard a deep, rumbling roar – the bomb going off in the computer room. Whatever the students had hoped to achieve, it was done.

They left, dragging their five students past the area of the slithering terrfiying sewer monster and out to the more modern parts of the New Horizon sewers. Here they parted ways with a few choice words about student life, and headed back to the surface. Once they had made a suitable distance from the collapsing student sit-in they called Rosemary and made the exchange. It was tense, and there were some blood tests, but fortunately they had grabbed the right guy. They left their job satisfied that they had done all they could not to cause more death than they had to, and that five young people would become perfect students by next semester.

On the far side of town, smoke rose from a shattered building, and the few surviving student activists were led away to be ransomed or indentured. Lionel returned to whatever corporate arcology he had been rebelling against. In the tunnels under New Horizon, hungry things stirred and roiled, thick in the shadows.

Nothing had changed.


fn1: Apparently Shadowrun requires you to roll for every effort to spend xp, but our GM has decided we don’t have to do that if we tell a story about how we got our training. I had to roll anyway. GMs – arseholes, all of them!

fn2: Resisting levitation is a Body check, which for a wizard is incredibly difficult. Levitating people and dropping them is absolutely the best attack – especially if your opponent has already burnt all their counter-spelling points resisting a direct attack spell I forgot to mention!

Maybe, maybe it’s the clothes we wear,
The tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair,
Maybe it’s our kookiness,
Or maybe, maybe it’s our nowhere towns,
Our nothing places and our cellophane sounds,
Maybe it’s our looseness,

But we’re trash, you and me,
We’re the litter on the breeze,
We’re the lovers on the streets,
Just trash, me and you,
It’s in everything we do,
It’s in everything we do…

The Ark has 174 People but few heroes. This story is not about its heroes, or its champions, only its desperadoes. There are four of them:

  • Barathos, Gearhead, who we find eating food from a can with a faded label of an angry, dangerous cat. His mutation: luminescence
  • Chang Chang, Fixer, sitting on an old packing crate eating his last twinkie. He is mutated into a symbiotic fungal life form, giving off a strange pungent smell and able to explode with clouds of virulent spores. No one knows Chang Chang’s sex, but most of the People think he is both, because he is fungal.
  • Bloody Jack, a smalltime Boss, always accompanied by a couple of her flunkies, today leaning back to eat fresh potato and dried, rot-free fish being fed to her by one of his gang. Bloody Jack is a revolutionary, leader of the 7th Revolutionary gang, which doesn’t mean much because there is nothing to overthrow and no means of production to seize. She flicks through an old comic that teaches her the ways of the Diadactic Materials, a strange cult; in mimicry of their mannerisms she wears a suit and a ludicrous top hat. She has frogs legs, and can leap faster than you can blink to put her knife in your throat.
  • Lonnie, the Stalker – every band of desperadoes has a stalker. Connie is eating white mush from an unlabeled can, thinking it is powdered potato and eyeing Bloody Jack’s real potato with carefully disguised envy. Connie is androgynous, a little slip of a thing in black leather, spends so much time in the shadows no one really knows who she is.

That is the team that Shellah sidled up to, grimacing and duck-walking carefully into the light of their trash can fire, hands close, coat clenched tight around her. Shellah is a stalker, like Lonnie if Lonnie had less charm and more integrity. Everyone calls Lonnie Loonie Lonnie because it sounds good, but nobody jokes with Shellah about being mad. She’s always one twitch away from running or fighting, and she’s seen so much out there in the ruins. Nobody really talks to Shellah at all if they can, because she doesn’t always make a lot of sense and she creeps you out with her stare and her hissing twitching ways. But everyone knows Shellah spends a lot of time Out There, Zone-walking, and she brings things back. Everyone trusts Shellah. But nobody who goes out with her seems to return, so she goes alone. Always alone. But everyone trusts here in the Ark.

This little gang of desperadoes know each other but let’s not wind this story up so tight it snaps like one of the threads on Grim Delilah’s razor-sharp yoyos, the ones she plays with when the Trash Hawks come around: they may know each other but they aren’t friends. They’re gathered round this fire in this trash can on this night because even inside the Ark there’s comfort in numbers, especially now when the Elder isn’t coming out of the gondola and there’s too much coughing and wailing going on in there, and his old speeches are too few and too weak to hear anyway, so that now people don’t come to listen when he drags his old bones out into the little pool of comforting watery sunshine that always bathes the gondola – they’re too busy now clustering around one or other of the bosses, picking sides for the trouble we can all feel is coming. People are starting to look at each other now, not like comrades in the gristle and bones of this shattered world, but like rivals for the last bits of tattered flesh – or like useful idiots in the struggle to put a new boss in the gondola when the Elder’s coughing stops. Bloody Jack is a boss, Chang Chang is a fixer, and Barathos and Lonnie are useful. That’s why they’re hunched around this trashcan, wondering why Shellah is sidling out of the darkness with one of her don’t-look-at-me-I-didn’t-do-it-I-swear-that-thing-didn’t-follow-me-back-from-the-marsh expressions on her face.

It’s Chang Chang who has the best rapport with Shellah, because she finds and he fixes. “What is it Shellah?” he asks all innocent, knowing from the hard squint of her eyes and the frown that she’s going to tell them anyway. “Find something out there?”

She snorts and grabs a can from Bloody Jack, who always has one spare for times like this, squats down and snaps it open with some ingenious tool, slugs it down over a minute or so of furious gobbling, splattering smacking sounds, all the while shuffling and throwing dagger glances all around like there’s a Zone Ghoul right there waiting to pounce as soon as she lets her guard down – which she never does. Throws the can over her shoulder into the darkness, some kind of wicked little knife-fork-opener thing slides away into her coat with a glint of viscous orange trashcan light on pewter. “Yeah Chang-a, yeah yeah, found something.”

She draws a thing out from under her coat, flashes it around just quick enough for everyone to gasp as the amber firelight flickers over the ammunition case’s curves, the bronze glint of bullet casings flashing at them from their rightful place, then slides it away as fast as it came. Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Found something, something good.” Takes it out again, where people can see it more clearly: it’s an assault rifle clip, maybe 30 bullets intact in the case, dirty and a bit rusty on the outside but the bullets are as clean as the inside of one of Fanged Rothery’s dinner cans (Fanged Rothery is a rot-eater, teeth like iron and a tongue rich with spines, he can lick a jagged steal tin cleaner than your favourite knife in no time at all).

Bloody Jack reaches for it, just to inspect of course, he wasn’t going to take it I swear! But true to her style Shellah has it back under her coat and she’s right back out to the edge of the trashcan glow before Bloody Jack can get a hand on it. “Not for you Bloody Jack, not yet and not you. We gotta deal to make.” She looks behind her sharp as a Trash Hawk’s claws, like she always does when she has to deal with Bloody Jack. Bloody Jack may talk a lot about justice and equality, but Bloody Jack isn’t above using her little band of zealots to even the scales on her own account, which I’m sure you guessed because as sure as you hear me telling you this, you’ve seen her kind before. So has Shellah, and Shellah is not one to trust anyone more than she needs to.

“A deal, Shellah?” Chang Chang asks, all innocent and surprised like he really thought Shellah was going to keep all thirty bullets for herself, she who never uses a gun and only ever keeps bullets to trade for grub. “What’s that then, you running out of grub?”

Shellah shakes her head and hisses, duck-squats her way back into the light a little. “No Chang-a, I don’t need me no grub.” Brown and broken teeth show as she bares her teeth back and lobs a fleck of spit into the fire. Rumour has it Shellah is a photosynthetic, gets her nutrients from the sun and doesn’t need to eat. A handy mutation, until someone locks you in a box. She looks around at them. “I need me a deal for protection. You know the story People – the Elder’s goin’ inta history, and the Ark’s running out of food, the bosses are startin’ to look at each other like they know what’s what and everyone’s starting to pile up their food, getting it ready for when the time comes. But people like me, me and you Chang-a, we don’t have no gang, and when the trouble comes we aren’t gonna have anyone to look after our backs.” She pauses and Bloody Jack takes the time to look affronted at the mere suggestion that she wouldn’t help out these her dear friends Lonnie, Chang Chang and Barathos. Are they not friends? No one is impressed by her performance.

“That’s why I wanna cut a deal. ‘Coz see I found this bullet case, but I also found the gun it came from. It’s a big gun Chang-a, and whoever or whatever holds that gun is gonna be in a mighty good position when the bosses start quarreling. And I tell you I want to be behind whatever boss has that gun, which is why I came to you first, because I trust you more than them others. I’ll give each of you three bullets now from this case, and tell you where the gun is, if you promise me you’ve got my back when the trouble starts.”

This kind of thing, now this kind of thing to Bloody Jack is like purest nitro to a helldriver. She swings her arms out expansively and begins one of her speeches. “Comrades! Comrade Shellah in particular, on this dark night and in this pinched moment of dire need, when the bosses Foremanize and Capitalistate and take and take, do I seem to you like the kind of Comrade who would abandon her … her duty of … Comradelyshipness, and sell you out to those who would tread the Workerman into the swamps and the rot? No, my gang fights for the good of all, and once we had overthrown the Yoke of Tyranny no doubt I would find a place for you in the new order. There is no need for this conniving and scheming to make deals! Are we not all one in the Eyes of the Great God Of Equals, Marx-who-was?!”

They’ve all heard it before of course and are unimpressed, so Chang Chang waves her quiet and asks in a low voice, “Where is the gun, Shellah?” Shellah shakes her head furiously and points at Bloody Jack. “Make that cursed boss agree, and you all too – even you Barathos, sitting there watching me with your eyes all glowing, I know what you can do and you won’t catch me so quick! Make a deal or I’m off into the shadows to talk to one o’ them up there.” She points to the bleachers, where no doubt some other boss squats in the darkness, scheming or maybe picking the scabs on his feet.

Chang Chang looks around, waits especially for Barathos to nod assent – that this really is a part of a gun, and they really have a chance to find it. “Sure,” He says, nodding quickly. “If you tell us where it is and we think we can get it, you give us the bullets you promised and we’ll go, and Bloody Jack’s gang and all of us will have your back when the bosses start their stoushing. Deal?” He spits.

Shellah looks around, seems satisfied after a moment and then spits back. “Elder’s Tears, Chang-a, you and me and these here in the light have cut a deal, and only the Elder or the Rot can break it.” She drags herself closer to the fire and hunkers up. “I found it at the base of one of the two towers.” Seeing their disbelieving looks she snarls a curse. “I swear I did! Went down to the river and sniffed around the tower on this bank. It stinks around the river but I’ve been there before, it’s safe if you don’t get too close! No one else goes there so you can find things, and I found this! It was in a patch of fungus at the bottom of the tower, like it fell there. Fell there it did! And when I looked up I saw the gun sticking out of the tower window, way up high. You can climb it I tell you, the outside all covered in leaves and vines or maybe go through the door in the base. The guns there, stickin’ out of the tower window, you can just take it!”

They all look at her in disbelief. The river?! But it stood to reason, if there was a weapon as dangerous as that any closer to the Ark someone would have found it by now. And nobody else would be going down there looking, because that meant slinking past the shadow of the Dark Castle, finding a way through the rot and probably cutting through the Crash Zone, which creeps anyone out. But if they did it … a gun … dreams of power.

They look at each other, shifty like there in the flickering light of the trashcan fire, wondering who amongst them is going to crack or be the first to venture some spirit. Somewhere behind them in the shadows of the Ark someone cried in pain, and a boss’s muffled imprecation followed, a wet thud. Maybe now was a good time to be looking for new weapons.

“Okay Shellah,” Barathos ventures finally, his cracked and deep voice cutting through the sudden silence. “Tell us exactly about this tower …”


They set off the next day, no fanfare, just a quiet exit at dawn into the Zone south of the Ark. The four of them went, packing only three days of food, accompanied by two members of Bloody Jack’s gang, her trusty Enforcers Carrot and Lennie. First they pushed into the sector they knew, sticking to trails everyone had seen before. Here was all overgrown ruins, thick patches of fungus crawling up over broken buildings, bushes and vines curled around and through old vehicles and shattered strange shapes of metal and stone and plastic. It’s clean around the Ark, but soon the fungus and the trees get higher and thicker and the air stills and you can smell it, that strange acrid stench of Rot, the Rot that suffuses this whole stinking Zone and rises from the earth to make the People crumble and fade. You have to move carefully through this place, and if you haven’t got a stalker with you you can get lost in here and then the rot takes you, or something worse gets you first. But Lonnie knows her work and got them to the Crash Zone fine. The Crash Zone was as far as they’d ever been before, and not without trepidation for very long at all. It’s a long streak of destruction through the middle of the Zone, a swathe of open air about a kilometre long that runs from near the slopes to the Dark Castle roughly parallel to the river, ending at the shattered carcass of a giant sky whale, one of those wondrous inventions of the Ancients that could fly even though it was heavier than steel. This one had two decks of seats all the way along, a huge thing bigger than anything the People could dream of building or finding, broken into three parts along the end of the Crash Zone. It used to have wings, or so Barathos insists, but those wings smashed into the buildings along the side of the swathe, tearing them down and making great piles of rubble behind it, shattered arcs of stone and steel and glass spattering out from where it bounced screeching and fiery to its end. You can tell it must have flown on booze or so Barathos says, because the buildings along the way were scorched and burned and if you pick over the ruins of the swathe of open space behind the sky whale you can find blackened stuff from an intense fire, melted so bad it isn’t even scrap. No one usually digs around in the swathe or spends much time in the Crash Zone but they were feeling brave and after a bit of egging on and a spot of booze Barathos ventured into the rearmost section of the whale. Here there were many skeletons still strapped into their seats, many broken badly, bits of roof and seats from the deck above smashed and pushed into the seats below. Some people might have got out or died in the aisles between the seats, and there were grass and moss and fungus and other things growing in between the bodies. He picked over the parts until finally he found a box, made of card and plastic, faded and rotted, and dragged it out. Inside was a little wind up train, made of brilliant green and blue plastic that shone in the pale sun, and a set of lines you could stick together to make it run around when you wound it up. “A clock!” Barathos said, “This can be a clock, look it runs for a time and stops! Maybe we can use it for timing things,” and he packed it up with care he would never show a person and hid it in his pack. Lonnie looked around at the gathering clouds and the distant watery sun heading to its zenith and whispered, “Wanna cross the section before lunch,” and they trudged off, crossed the Crash Zone and headed further than they’d been before.

Past the Crash Zone the ground started sloping up again, until they found themselves on a kind of ridge rising a little above the ruins around. This ridge was covered in small stunted trees and bushes, and gave them cover right up to the tower itself. The tower loomed over them, the tallest thing in the near hereabouts, a squat and powerful thing of stone and verdant overgrowth, still mostly undamaged after all this time since … whenever and whatever happened in the world-that-was. This tower was paired with another one on the other side of the river, and the two were joined near their top by a nastily uncertain looking gantry. The towers, the gantry and all the space between was overgrown with vines, creepers, plants and fungus of all descriptions, with vines drooping down from the gantry to hang over the limpid, dark waters of the river as it sluggishly rolled beneath, stinking and deadly. At the base of the tower near the river, facing the other tower, a kind of barrier stuck out over  the river, pointing diagonally up at the sky like an accusing hand demanding a query of the uncaring sky. “Why me? Why do I have to stand sentinel over this stinking sewer when all the others of my kind were knocked flat in a time before memory!?”

They crept up close to the tower and Lonnie moved ahead to look around. She found the place Shellah said she found the cartridge and there it was, the hole in the fungus patch still glowing slightly as the fungus repaired itself, and up above something sticking out of the tower window, pointing east. What thing? Lonnie couldn’t tell. She moved around a little more and checked the rest of the base of the tower. A kind of path of black stone led into the middle of the tower, which arched over it, ending at the unheeded barrier, and on one side of that tunnel a door barred an entry into the tower. Everything was still and silent. She called them up, and they examined the tower together. Barathos, looking up, grunted and hissed. “Not a gun,” he cursed, though he could not tell what it was.

Discretion would tell them now to retreat and return to the Ark defeated, but that ammunition box didn’t fall from the sky – it must have come out of the tower. Even if the thing sticking out of the window was no gun, there must be something in there. They forced the door and pushed their way inside. Here they found a small room, musty and empty, with stairs leading up into the tower. Another door beckoned, but when they forced it open they were greeted with the deep, repulsive stench of Rot water. Stairs led down into murky blackness, and from down there came the stench of Rot, strong Rot. Chang Chang tried to convince Barathos to go look but he refused, and no inducements could get him near that rot. They headed up, Barathos glowing gently with his strange pale blue luminescence to light the way. His mutant light seeped out of his eyes and through the murk like glowing tendrils, casting a flickering eerie light over the walls of the narrow staircase and putting no one at ease.

At the top they found a large room. A long narrow broken window on the east wall faced along the direction of the river, giving them a stunning view over an endless domain of broken, ruined nature. The wall on their right was also partially open, leading into the shadowed recesses of the gantry that connected this tower with the sister tower over the river, but it was overgrown with vines and shadowy, and they did not want to venture in just yet. There was a single body on the floor, and the whole room was musty and ripe with fungus and small plants. The thing they had seen sticking out of the window was here, on a kind of tripod of metal, dull bronze coloured and standing serene amongst the dust pointing east.

They searched. The strange pole-like thing sticking out of the window had glass ends and after some inspection Barathos was able to identify what it did: It made distant things suddenly closely visible, like the cracked glass lenses that Elomere the Strange wore when he had to stitch up the skin on his constantly-erupting boils, only much more powerful (and with no stench of pus). Barathos took it gently from the tripod and pocketed it. This, he said, could be useful for scouting the Zone. On the body they found a piece of paper in a plastic sleeve, with markings on it, and around the body a few old wrappers of what might have been food. They were just comparing the symbols on the wrappers with a symbol on the paper in the sleeve, and realizing they held a map, when the spiders came.

There was just one at first, crawling silent as the Winter Plague out of the whole in the southern wall, but they felt its malignant gaze and then smelled its corpse smell before it could get to them, and managed to spring away from the body and fight. Bloody Jack was just beating it out of the window when another one emerged, and they were fighting that one when Barathos, leaning out of the window to hit the first one, was hit by its web and dragged outside to dangle upside down from one leg, helplessly twisting in the faint breeze. As he hung there he saw the giant spider hauling its spiny, corpulent bulk back over the windowsill and inside the tower, no doubt looking to snare its next prey, and heard grunts and screams from inside. Looking along the tower’s edge he suddenly realized, as a rare break in the clouds suffused the space between the towers with a golden glow, that the entire space between the towers was spun with many webs of delicate, shimmering filigree. Strange black lumps he had mistaken for fungal growth now revealed themselves to be the cocooned, shrivelled corpses of Trash Hawks and Zone Crows – and there, crawling out from that hideous larder, a third massive spider, scuttling across the wall towards him. He started screaming, and someone hauled him up just in time. They took positions back to back inside and beat off the three spiders, finally killing them all, and a fourth that came skittering out of that wall to join the fray.

Panting and panicky, they ate and rested. While they rested Lonnie and Barathos pored over the paper inside the plastic sleeve, and they both concluded the same thing – this was a map, and the markings seemed to indicate that just south of the river, near the towers, was a food store. They had found no rifle, but they had found food. Again, where wisdom would advise retreat, they pressed on, crawling across the gantry to the tower on the other side. Here they found two more bodies, one carrying an ancient revolver that they tucked away for the Dawn Vault. Then Barathos climbed onto the roof to use his newfound artifact to scout out the surrounding area, and they ventured down to the ground, becoming the first of the People to set foot south of the river.


Following the map they headed west along the river from the base of the second tower. The land here had less ruins than the north side of the river, perhaps because they had been destroyed by some great calamity or perhaps because the city-that-was had been different here. Nonetheless as they followed the path along the rivers edge they could see rubble scattered in amongst the trees and scrub of the sector, and occasional jagged columns of stone or grass jutting out of the vegetation. The path they followed lay close to the river but some 5 metres above it, and the landward side rose steep again to the wooded landscape of the south, meaning they could not get far from the river. They could not head inland in any case, because from her vantage point on the tower Lonnie had seen the telltale yellow mist of acid rain, as low-hanging clouds swept along the southern side of the city streaming vile and deadly rain over the Zone. This rain could be deadly for anyone not under cover, and to trudge through it for an hour or two seeking grub would be a death sentence. Fortunately the clouds were skirting the river, so they were able to find a safe path, but even then they had to deviate inland after an hour of careful walking, because the path entered an area of broken stones and fallen buildings, from which they could see the Sunken Ship.

The Sunken Ship is near to a myth amongst the People. It was once a huge beast of grey and silver metal, festooned with guns and heavily armoured, but when the world collapsed it sank on its moorings so that most of it was submerged in the river. The tips of its guns and the bulk of its mid section still stuck above the water, festooned with reeds and dark vegetation and creating little eddies and muddy streaks in the torpid flow of rotten river water. From the north bank it was visible, rich with the promise of the artifacts of the ancients, but there was no way to get to it without going into the deadly water of the river. The Sunken Ship was also rumoured to be the home of dark and deadly secrets, beasts that come at night to snatch those passing nearby and unseen horrors that will snatch anyone attempting to pick their way over its muddy and partially-hidden deck. Nobody had been this close to the Sunken Ship before, but the explorers did not want to disturb whatever beasts laired there, and so cut inland through the broken piles of rubble, keeping bushes and old stonework between them and the foreboding steel bulk of the thing. Their path brought them perilously close to the acid rain before they could cut back towards the river, but they escaped the pinch safely and soon found themselves climbing another gentle slope, this only lightly wooded, that then broke into a series of culverts leading down to a large, abandoned building. The building was actually a complex of separate sections sprawling across quite a wide area, with big open gateways linking the buildings together. Parts of the roof had fallen in and weeds and bushes had grown up to block some of the pathways between parts of the building, but other parts looked roughly safe to enter. The area was dangerously quiet and they thought they could see evidence of habitation, but they could not be sure. This was the closest they could find to the markings on the map – this was their place. Perhaps once it had been a series of warehouses linked together, or maybe a farmer’s barns or a market – who knew what strange ways the people of the world-that-was held their food? Whatever it had been, now it was the cradle in which their Ark’s future lay – they must go in.

They approached the entrance cautiously, careful to keep under what cover they could find and scanning the silent walls for signs of threat. A large archway entered the building, surmounted by words in some ancient language they could not read, carved in faded and mouldy brass. They ventured in, stepping cautiously over rubble and scrap and looking for signs of ambush. Inside was a large open area, thick with fungus and weeds growing between crumbling wooden carts and tables. It had been a market! They fanned out a little and began searching, moving carefully and slowly further inside.

The rooms here were empty of any food, but for obvious reasons – someone lived here. A group of people probably, who had picked the outer areas clean of any signs of food or scrap and who must be living in the inner area. The group crossed a small road that bisected the buildings and through another archway into a wide path between two buildings. As they moved down it they heard voices, and froze. Lonnie moved stealthily forward and, looking around a corner, saw what they suspected – Zone Ghouls! There were eight of them, skinny dirty humanoid creatures a little smaller than a small adult human, heavily wrapped in cloth over every part of their body, wearing hoods and carrying bicycle chains and slingshots. They were squatting in a group in a kind of semi-protected space made by pulling three rotten wooden stalls into a semi circle. They had a small fire and were eating what looked like fresh food of some kind. Across from them on the far side of the room was a huge pile of cans, all with their labels long since torn away, and also strange plastic packets, bottles of amber and red liquid, even strings of onions, all stacked neatly in many piles. Behind them was a gap and then against the far wall of the building a tiered array of clay and wooden shelves on which stood pots and jars full of fresh herbs and strange red fruits. Further away large tractor tires had been converted into potato beds. It was a utopia of abundance!

Which they had to take. Lonnie moved back to the group and explained the situation. Bloody Jack indicated the roof, and jumped up into the shadows on her strange frog legs, motioning for her two gang members to stay and help. She leapt again to a perch near the broken roof above the Ghouls, and waited. The rest of them moved forward and burst into the room, ready to do violence – only to find themselves confronted by equally prepared enemies. The Zone Ghouls had heard them and stood ready in the shelter of the stalls, slingshots out. Now it was eight against six with no surprise, and no one was willing to act first. Chang Chang tried speaking with them but they could barely understand the Ghouls’ garbled, high-pitched grating speech, and the Ghouls seemed not to understand them. They stood at an impasse for a moment but then finally someone moved wrong, and the whole tense coiled moment sprang shut like a rusty bear trap. The Ghouls started firing their sling shots, Chang Chang dived behind the cans for cover, Carrot and Lennie charged forward, Bloody Jack dropped down from above, and battle was joined.

The fight was short and brutal. The Zone Ghouls gave a good accounting of themselves, hurting Barathos and Chang Chang and Bloody Jack, but six of the Ghouls died before the last two broke and ran. Barathos shot one dead as it fled but Bloody Jack managed to catch the last, springing onto its back from 10 metres away and dragging it down. They dragged the Ghoul back to the warehouse and tried talking to it but it was useless – they could not understand one another. They tore off its hood to reveal a skinny, almost human face, blinking back at them from large, dark eyes before it started screaming at the sunlight. Barathos bound it up tight, and they decided to drag it back to the Ark as a slave.

Their battle was done. They picked up as much food as they could carry and headed back to the Ark, climbing delicately across the tower and down the other side, lugging their prisoner and their food back through the Crash Zone to the comfort of the Ark. As soon as they returned Bloody Jack pressed his gang to work, taking them back to the ruined market to grab as much food as they could. They traipsed back and forth, exhausted and damp and tired and scared, for two days, constantly lugging as much as they could carry, until someone heard a crash and a strange haunting piping wail somewhere in the shadows of the market, and they decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer. After two days of work they had done enough though – the Ark was safe for a little longer, the food crisis averted, the bosses content, their life of hard scrabble unchanged by conflict and death. They handed the Revolver to the Dawn Vault, congratulated each other on a job well done, and tried not to face Shellah when she demanded her rights. For a little longer, the Ark would hold.

But they all knew it was not enough. Where next for their precarious little community, balanced on the edge of starvation and violence, trapped between the Dark Castle and the River? And what could they do now to make a future for the People, and for themselves?

Save

Save

Hey, hey
So why should I care
If somebody let you down?
That’s nothing new
I know just what that can mean
Hey, hey
Well, the way that they talk
The talk is all over town
And it’s no surprise
Little girls hurt sometimes

 

When last we met our heroes they had just blown apart a drug dealing operation with extreme prejudice, pushing back a gang from their turf and doing a big favour for the yakuza gang that officially controls their area, the Golden Dragon. Their Fixer, Anansi, had made contact with that gang, and now they had a chance to make their name known to the criminal bosses who controlled the shadows of Havensport. So it was that they found themselves in a meeting with the Golden Dragon’s boss, Mr. Tsiu, who thanked them for cleaning up the dealers on his patch, and assured them that they could operate with impunity in his territory provided they obeyed his laws – which would of course change at his whim, and in retrospect. Sometime in the future, he promised them, they would receive an opportunity to profit from their newfound position of the trust, and in the meantime they were welcome to make free in his territory on their own business.

But the future is another country, and while they waited to get there they had need of fast cash. Fortunately Anansi was in close with another crime family, a yakuza gang just beginning to spread their wings in New Horizon, in the wilds of Tolo harbour. Their patriarch, Shoji Yamada, had a pressing need of a good team of killers for a very important job: guarding his daughter at a concert by the heavy metal band Troll, a band named after the race of its members that could be characterized by two extreme properties of its performance: volume and violence. Any good girl slumming it in such an environment was going to need bodyguards, especially if her daddy had just started a gang war with a rival triad and was up to his neck in trouble with a bunch of other multinational gangs. Mr. Yamada promised them a decent payment for guarding his daughter; and in between setting the mission, he also .

Having applauded him on his principles of good governance and accepted their child minding job the PCs were on their way, to research both the yakuza daughter and the band. The daughter was as expected – a spoiled sullen brat with a penchant for slumming it in grease paint and crosses. The band was a little more complicated – a Troll heavy metal foursome with a reputation for extreme crowd violence, who run their shows exclusively in illegal spaces in dangerous areas. They would hijack an abandoned warehouse or an old market space, turn it into a killing zone, and rock it out while the crowd destroyed each other, until the police turned up or they ran out of juice. Standard sprawlzone stuff, but not the kind of place for a delicate wannabe rebel girl from a rich family – unless she was guarded by a crack team. Though in truth the PCs were less worried about the crowd than they were about the possibility one of the yakuza enemies would follow them and use the chaos as cover for a snatch-and-grab. Losing this girl in the crowd would be a one way trip to a bad place, no mistake.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and they had a perfect set up really – John capable of killing intruders from orbit, Jayden immune to surprise attacks, and Adam a master of crowd control. For this job their fixer had also set them up with a Technomancer, Heckerman, who could give them some forewarning of any impending assaults. An easy evening at the proms, right?

Their girl, Tegami, met them at the front door of her parents’ sprawling mansion, slouching out from behind a huge iron-studded wooden door through a moss garden to their car, remonstrating the whole way with the house butler, Mr. Niwa. Adam opened the back door of their hired car for her, and she flopped inside with a sneered remark about Koreans in suits. The butler raised an eyebrow at Adam and gave a small nod of shared sufferance before shambling away to the house. They were off.

Tegami chan was dressed in standard punk fare, carefully ripped and textured to look not too new but just stylish enough to mark her out as not from anything resembling the social class of the band she was attending. Nothing screams “slumming it” like a sullen little rich girl in faux dirty designer punk kit, wearing the most expensive make up money can buy (smeared, of course!) and staring resentfully at her bodyguards.

Still, they were professionals, so whatever, right?

They turned up at the gig fashionably on time. Last time Troll had commandeered an apparently abandoned yacht, which had only one entrance, and when the drug lords who owned it turned up to secure the supply hidden in the hull the ensuing carnage had been slightly chastening even for a band of Troll‘s infamous level of chutzpah, so this time they had scoped out their venue with an eye to avoiding suicidal escape stampedes, and set up a series of barricades around a complex of narrow streets surrounding a central square in a largely abandoned industrial park. Ragged semi-abandoned warehouses loomed over the streets on all sides, and the multi-racial, multi-species crowd moved with edgy caution between stalls selling vat-grown sausage hot dogs, Troll shirts (unofficial of course), stimulants and downers and personal defense weapons. The PCs left their hired car within easy calling distance of a larger entrance and walked Tegami chan through a distressingly security-free series of barricades. Troll bodyguards loomed menacingly around them but nobody bothered to check them at all. Normally entering a danger zone armed is sweet relief to a mercenary, but knowing the only reason you’re armed is that nobody checked the rest of the crowd offers cold comfort. They decided to get cautious, and John retired to one of the decaying warehouses, climbing up high to a point where he could get a view of the whole zone. Adam and Heckerman fell back a little, leaving Jayden and his heightened sense of danger to keep Tegami safe while they scanned the crowd physically, astrally and electronically. Jayden stood near Tegami chan, assuring her that all old men just loved the moshpit and she should really try it, thus ensuring that she didn’t go near it for fear of appearing uncool – and protecting her from the crowd of spiky, rage-pissed, insanely high troll fans currently grinding each other to mush in front of the stage.

Unfortunately the threat wasn’t in the stage. At some point a man turned up while Jayden was pushing away some random weirdo, and started talking to Tegami chan in a low voice, pointing back to the heights of a building on the far side of the square and muttering something about a private viewing area. Tegami probably couldn’t hear him over the pulse and throb of Troll‘s most famous song, The Other White Meat, but Jayden wasn’t taking any chances, and moved in to push the dude away from his girl. The man slunk away in short order, but then Heckerman told Jayden that the man had put something in Tegami’s bag.

Jayden didn’t waste any time – he knifed the guy in the back while Adam rushed forward to check the bag. Unfortunately for Jayden the room that ostensibly held a private party actually held a sniper, who hit Jayden with a tranquilizing dart that knocked him out for the rest of the night. Such a shame to miss such great music! As Jayden sank to the ground John shot the sniper in the head, and Adam and Hackerman drove the guy on the ground away. Jayden was down and done for, with no treatment in sight, so they dragged him to a quiet area of the barricades and returned to guarding Tegami chan. Tegami chan, of course, thought the entire scene was so completely uncool and couldn’t they just let her enjoy this great music? So hard to be a teenage girl …

Nonetheless Heckerman managed to check her bag and uncover a bug, which probably no one knew they knew about, and carefully left it broadcasting in the bag. They would tell Mr. Niwa about that later …

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, especially for Jayden lying paralyzed in the shadows of the barricade. Aside from some lethal side-eye from their ward the PCs experienced no other trouble, and things were just beginning to wrap up when the troll and his human buddy emerged from the crowd, clubs in hand, and marched determinedly towards Tegami, damaging intent in their eyes. With Jayden down and out, Adam and Heckerman had to take these two guys on right there in front of the whole crowd, while Tegami clapped her hands and cheered. Fortunately John was in his eyrie, unnoticed by the trolls, and managed to shoot the troll down before he could flatten Adam. In turn Adam and Heckerman managed to subdue the human with a combination of magic and good old fashioned brutality, and were able to drag Tegami chan away before anything really bad happened. They bundled the man into the car but decided that whatever awaited him at Mr. Yamada’s House of Polite Yakuza Questions would be beyond their stomach to bear, and dropped him off a few minutes later. Successfully out from the crowd, they returned Tegami chan to the house of her Honourable Father.

Mr. Niwa greeted them with a sigh of relief, Tegami chan’s rude greetings washing off him like engine lubricant off an ersatz duck’s genomic feathers. They warned him about the bug and suggested that he might want to keep it in her bag and use it to lure in whoever planted it, and showed him pictures of the troll and human who had attempted to hurt Tegami chan at the end of the night. “The Russians,” he sighed with an expression of weary expectation. “I’m sure we will Deal With It.” He thanked them, offered for them to stay in the guest room drinking tea as long as they wanted, and only barely perceptibly relaxed his manner when they declined his invitation and headed home.

Somewhere upstairs they saw Tegami chan’s pale moon face looking out of a window, watching their car pull away back into their wild unfamiliar world, her hand half raised in an unconscious gesture of farewell, make up smeared as if she had stopped cleaning up halfway through and run to the window. The lights of their car drifted off into the humid New Horizon night, leaving sullen little Tegami chan in her gilded cage, wondering at lives that could have been.

They didn’t wave back. They were already counting the money.

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