Were the hearts of men always corrupt, or did they become so when the world died? Before Eschaton, were men’s hearts as clear as distilled water, or in that halcyon time did only nature thrive pure and clean? Was Eschaton the cause of men’s corruption, or punishment for it?
I do not ask myself these questions as I burn out the evils of this world (there is much that must be burnt). But now I crouch on this hillside looking down at this thriving camp of filthy apocalyptics (there is much that must be burnt). And I wonder what came first – the impure fire in the sky, or the impure fire in men’s hearts.
I emerged from a test of fire in the bowels of the corrupt earth, and find myself facing only the unceasing corruption of men’s souls…
The catacombs and the lost man
We had traveled to these catacombs seeking a valuable transceiver for the untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler. Here we stood at the edge of the catacombs, checking weapons and gear. With a grunt our Apocalyptic slapped Tesla on the back, muttered something about being right behind her, and nodded at the tunnel entrance. She took a deep breath and slid inside, her filthy rags and oil-smeared face merging quickly with the shadows. We gave her a moment to move ahead before we slipped in after her.
Even Tesla could not help but be swayed near to terror by the tunnel we entered. Even that dirt-grubbing scrapper, who blinks unsteadily at sunlight and dreams of the comfort of crushing stone depths and darkness, crouched shivering at the bottom of the entrance tunnel, staring about her in disgust and horror. For once no one complained at the cold, harsh operating-theatre light of my splayer, because no light could render the hideous flesh of those tunnels more horrific than the simple fact of their brooding, grotesquely pulsating presence. The tunnels were lined with flesh, like a hideous oesophagus plunging into the gullet of some dreadful dark beast (if only we had known). It yielded spongily to our steps, and did not respond to our touch, but on a regular, slow beat the whole thing flickered as if disturbed by a distant … heartbeat. A sickly smell pervaded the place, as if they exuded some faint odour, and the air was warm and clammy. Somewhere, one of us retched. My finger twitched on the trigger of my fungicide rifle, and I noticed the hellvetic checking his explosives. No human is made for this horror.
We plunged on. Perhaps no human is made for this horror, but we had a job to do. A nod, a grunt, the Hellvetic hoisted his rifle and the Apocalyptic whispered a few assuring words, hulking protectively over the scrapper, and we pushed on. The tunnel opened into a large chamber, hideously papered over with living flesh and scattered evenly with entryways leading into smaller chambers. These chambers were all empty but one, which was scattered with adventurers’ implements: sacks, a few blade bracelets, some empty suits of armour, a scattering of blood. In this room also the walls were different, stained in places with a darker pattern. In one part this darker pattern bulged out from the wall, revealing a kind of sac hanging from the wall, perhaps engorged with some fluid. We approached carefully to investigate, and in the light of my splayer saw something move inside the sac – something vaguely human shaped, that began pressing desperately against the sac. The apocalyptic stepped forward and sliced smoothly up the side of the sac with a sudden glinting blade, and a man fell out of the sack in a splatter of amniotic fluid and a burst of grave-stench.
For a moment we all stood there stunned; he kneeled before us, coughing and gasping desperately. He wore a leather coat and a gas mask, still strapped on his face and maybe the reason he was still conscious. The Hellvetic gripped him on one shoulder as if to offer reassurance, but he looked up at us wretchedly through gore-smeared goggles and said, “Just make it quick,” in a tired, resigned voice.
In a corner of the chamber Tesla looked at those other sacs and the scattered remains of other adventurers, and keened quietly to herself.
“No, friend, it’s not your time yet.” Sylvan grabbed him under one shoulder and offered him water from a canteen. “You’re free.” Someone cleaned his goggles, and he looked around at us all with a brief expression of wonder.
Then he saw Tesla beginning to scrabble through a toolkit discarded on the fleshy floor, and lunged weakly forward. “Hey! That’s mine!” Looked around at the other discarded tools.
We returned to the surface so he could recover his strength, talked. His name was Stanislav (“Stanko to my friends – but you can call me Stanislav”). He was a Scrapper, hired with his friends by a group of mercenaries to scout ahead and find this cave. They found the cave but something – things – ambushed them and when he woke up he was in the sac. So were his friends, but something came and took them one at a time, screaming and desperate. Dragged them away.
He didn’t know where his mercenary employers were – maybe they had abandoned him, maybe killed by cockroaches. He didn’t care, but he wanted to find the things that killed his friends, and show them a similar mercy.
We agreed. We went back into the cave.
A single tunnel from the lower chamber descended further into the depths. It ended at a kind of kitchen, strange now that its furniture and implements dripped with horrible, misshapen fleshy outgrowths. An ancient blast door lay jammed open, almost as old as Eschaton and probably originally rusted into place; now it was held fast by tendrils of faintly rippling flesh. Beyond, a narrow tunnel led deeper into the complex, now lit by occasional flickering lights. We entered it.
We were only a little distance into the tunnel when they attacked, two vicious monsters bigger than men and armed with wicked claws. They struck from both ends of our group, strung out in the dim corridor, but we fought them off, killing them both. They were big, grey things, with blank expressions and strange, twisted bodies – once men, maybe, but ossified and warped by some terrible chemistry. I have read rumours of these things in the archives: beasts tortured and changed to monsters by the corruption of the spore zone, and acting with a single mind, often possessed by a single greater power. No doubt they nested here, preying on cockroach clanners and waiting to burn.
My surmise was correct. At the tunnel’s end we found an open chamber scattered with the bones of cockroach clanners. In the centre of the chamber was a broken grille that had once covered a shaft that plummeted into the earth. The grille had been broken upward, and the cockroaches attacked from below. Signs of struggle and violence suggested they had not gone lightly, and had perhaps killed more than one of their attackers; but now they were gone. The remaining beasts, and our transceiver, must lie below, at the bottom of that shaft.
We descended. The shaft opened into a large room, flickering with lights and cocooned in grotesque, pulsing flesh. This was some kind of control room, with many lights flickering, old chairs, perhaps a map buried beneath glossy skin. Holes in the walls sussurated with the faint movement of air from distant caverns, the flesh puckering around them like the disgusting lips of a blighted, mutated beast. Our transceiver was buried amongst flesh and steel on one side of the room, waiting for us to remove it. But at the far end of the room an ancient door was jammed half open. We did not see it, but we felt the movement inside.
Sprawled over the bench and desk next to the transceiver, partially covering the machinery in which it was buried, was a huge heart, pumping and twitching with a fell puissance.
We moved quickly. The hellvetic placed a triggered explosive on the heart and took a firing position near the shaft, while I placed my fire grenades at two points in the room. Tesla and Stanko began to dismantle the control panel in order to remove the transceiver, and Sylvan and I approached the door.
I threw my final fire bomb through the door, and all hell broke loose. Beasts swarmed out of the room beyond the door, screaming and smoking, and fell upon us. Vicious battle ensued, with the hellvetic firing into the fray with an angry chatter of peacemaker-fire, Sylvan moving smoothly amongst the battle slicing and stabbing and getting torn at by angry beasts while I tried to burn them and Stanko and Tesla desperately worked to free the transceiver. The beasts were many and vicious, and as they closed in Stanko had to stop working on the transceiver to fire at them with the pistol Sylvan had loaned him; he killed one, but the hellvetic was being pushed back and Sylvan seemed to go down under the beasts’ attack. Fortunately he rose up again, strengthened with rage and beat back the last attackers as Tesla and Stanko dragged the transceiver free. We ran for the shaft, Sylvan going up last and me and Ronan setting off the explosives before he was even clear of the shaft.
They all burnt.
We struggled outside with the transceiver and fled, putting distance between ourselves and anything that might be left behind. We doubted there would be pursuit, because we had heard the rumbling of collapsing caverns behind us, but we wanted to be sure because the fight had taken its toll, and we were all badly injured. Stanko’s left arm had been mangled at the shoulder, and everyone was exhausted when we stopped. I gave what battlefield treatments I could, and we made the decision not to return to Tumbler, but to go to Gesseln, where we could get healing and maybe find a buyer for this transceiver. Why return anything to those untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler?
Weary but not unwise, we trudged north.
Stanko’s merry band
After a day of travel we stumbled upon Stanko’s employers. Tesla found them while she was scouting ahead, not because she stumbled on their camp but because she followed the Cockroach clanners who were preparing to ambush it. By following the clanners she saw that they were digging tunnels under the camp and preparing to attack from below.
Stanko wanted to be paid. Cockroaches killing everyone in the mercenary camp would certainly stop him collecting his payment, but he was leery about going in with us, because he didn’t trust his employers. We agreed with him; they were a band of Apocalyptics, and a nasty looking bunch. Sylvan seemed particularly adamant that we should not trust this band, and that we needed a story to ensure they did not come after us. He, of all of us, knows the mettle of his kind – why would we doubt him? We decided to stay hidden, and he would go in and negotiate for his money, using the information about the Cockroaches as a further incentive. He would tell the mercenaries he had been rescued by a group of Spitalians who had destroyed the caverns he had been sent to scout; this would hopefully discourage the mercenaries from continuing on their mission, and maybe enable us to secure an escort back to Gesseln (not that I wish to travel with Apocalyptics – one is enough).
Stanko entered the camp. Would they listen to him, and pay him, or would they show the treachery typical of their kind, cut his throat and come for us, oblivious to the trap that the cockroaches had set for them?
Would our fate rest in the hands of a Cockroach warband? We watched Stanko begin negotiating, and placed our trust in the treacherous souls of men, and the brutal instincts of the Cockroach clan …
fn1: There were also some burn husks, which the Apocalyptic slipped into his pouch when Karl the Spitalian was not looking. This tale is told, as last time, from Karl’s perspective.
fn2: My friend Sergeant M from Australia was visiting Japan and wanted to join our session, so we made a temporary character for him. He played Stanko the whole day with a dour Russian accent, cynical and resigned to the evils of this post-apocalyptic world. “What could possibly go wrong?” Stanko was a perfect expression of wasteland fatalism.
fn3: Actually massively enhanced by a burn husk he secretly huffed, which vastly improved his fighting prowess; he should have done this at the beginning of the fight
fn4: Sylvan had discovered burn spores growing in the lair, and realized that the Apocalyptics had been traveling to the catacombs to harvest burn spores. This made him think they would kill anyone who had been inside the lair, unless we could assure them that there was no longer any value in protecting the secret of its contents. But he couldn’t tell the other characters that, because he was still hiding the fact that he had taken burn, and he now realized that the burn he had taken probably belonged to an agent of the Apocalyptics in the camp …