Horror


The beauty of Autumn

The beauty of Autumn

When late summer comes to middle earth, conversations in the taverns and marketplaces of Anduin naturally turn to the most hideous forms of arachnoid death. As the oppressive heat of summer fades from Mirkwood’s dim reaches, to be replaced by the moldering stillness of autumn, and the first red tips can be seen on the leaves atop its dense canopy, the great spiders reach the end of their spawning season. In the long hot days of July and August, their chitterlings still small, these hideous beasts could satisfy themselves with the blood of small woodland creatures that they caught in light webs scattered in wide orbits around their central nests. But by the end of summer their squirming horde of new grotesques are large, and hungry. They have already eaten the smallest of their brood, and as their many eyes turn a hungry regard on the remainder of the nest their parents set forth to snare larger prey. In Anduin around the Mirkwood the cooler harvest months of September and October are also called the gorging season, for that is what the spiders do. All of Mirkwood trembles with the fear of these merciless predators stalking in the lower shadows of the dense woodlands, and the folk of Anduin discuss the ways they can die. Is it better to be taken at the end of autumn, by which time the spiders are sated, to be stocked in their larder for weeks of slow bleeding, perhaps with a little hope of rescue, or to be run down and sucked dry in a brutal orgy of bloodlust in the undergrowth?

Opinions differ on this urgent question. These grizzled old woodmen and girlish scouts have all heard the stories – though of course none have met the man at their centre – of the survivor, who lived by licking rainwater from the webbing that held him, perhaps snapped on an occasional bug, crying out occasionally for help (better to do this after the chitterlings have fed on a nearby deer or boar, so as not to draw their attention) and praying to whatever gods can hear desperate whispers through the impenetrable canopy of this godforsaken forest; until after some weeks a miraculous rescue is mounted, and a band of Orc hunters or late-autumn woodcutters frees him from the web. This man had hope, or so they have heard. But all of them have seen with their own eyes the frenzied hunting packs, heard the desperate cry of their comrade and rushed to his aid only to find him writhing on the forest floor beneath a squirming, raging, chitinous mass of venom and death, his fate sealed. It is best then to run, your own survival guaranteed by his sacrifice, but your sleep forever after to be disturbed by the haunting sound of his weakening, desperate cries, the final gurgle, and then the clicking and slurping of feasting monsters.

This conversation will repeat itself in the taverns of the wood folk all across the wide banks of the Anduin. Perhaps someone will brush away a tear; someone else will turn their gaze to the rose blush of sunset over the distant trees, dark memories stirring. Then all will come to agreement – best not to go into the great wood at all during the gorging months, and avoid either fate.

So it was that the Fellowship decided to avoid the deeper paths of Mirkwood altogether on their journey to the lonely mountain. They met at the eastern end of the Mirkwood road and traveled north on the plains, cutting east of Mirkwood in the lightly wooded hills and valleys of the dale lands. Our story starts as they reach the long lake at its eastern end, where the ruins of Old Lake Town stand silent and watchful in the autumn mists. The Fellowship has four members:

  • Annunon, a wood elf, veteran of the battle of five armies
  • Durin, his friend, a dwarf who is also a veteran of the battle
  • Aregisel, a woodman scout the two hired to guide them through Mirkwood
  • Roderick, a barding squire whose father fought with the dwarf in the battle, and sent him to learn wisdom with the veterans

Their aim was Dale, where in the first snows of winter the five armies would enjoy a reunion to relive their valiant victory and bicker over who was bravest. Annunon and Durin were returning to the scene of their first (and only) glory, where their bond of friendship was forged atop a blood-slick pile of orc corpses, and to hasten their journey they had engaged the services of Aregisel; Roderick was a burden thrust upon them by old friends.

Having recommended a path that would draw them clear of the spiders commonest haunts, Aregisel had led them north to the lake. Here they camped on a promontory, enjoying the late autumn evening, while Aregisel scoured the lake shore for treasure. At this point the burnt and shattered remnants of docks and warehouses lay crumbling in the water, interspersed with the bleached bones of the dragon, and it was Aregisel’s hope that some treasure might remain – perhaps a merchants stash dislodged and drawn to shore in the summer storms, or a gem broken off the dragons scales and gleaming in the shallows, somehow missed by looters in the chaotic days after the destruction of Lake Town. He found nothing though, except a memorial coin minted to commemorate the occasion of the mayor of lake town’s fifth election victory – a prize of a kind, but none left alive to appreciate it. Satisfied this part of the lake had been scoured clean, and unnerved by the mists hanging over bones of city and dragon alike, Aregisel returned to camp before dusk.

The next day they headed west towards one of the lakes crossing points, a remote and little-used raft crossing that Aregisel expected to be quiet and cheap. They traveled without structure, expecting no trouble and setting no guards, enjoying the cool air of the valleys and the joyful bird song of late summer. But even this close to Dale there are wild things and wild men, and some hours’ journey after the midday break they heard yelling and telltale cries of altercation from just the other side of the slope they traversed.

The Fellowship are men of action, if not of wisdom, and both Durin and Roderick ran for the hilltop at the first sound of conflict. Annunon and Aregisel, none the wiser but much less courageous, melded into the brush at the side of the road and moved more cautiously forward. On the other side of the crest they saw before them a classic tableaux of rural banditry: Three roughly-dressed men carrying swords were harrassing an aging merchant. He had backed against a tree, leading a pony laden with supplies, and was holding off one of the men with a rough piece of wood grabbed from the trail side. A small boy clung to one arm, and as the Fellowship watched one of the men pushed the merchant back at the tree, yelling threats of death and worse.

Never known for their wisdom, Durin and Roderick rushed to intercede, marching down the hillside and yelling threats. One of the men stepped forward, sword drawn, while two others maintained a wary guard on the merchant. Roderic, resplendent in mail hauberk and a tower shield passed down from his father, tried to impress the rough-cut bandit with his poise and authority, but the bandit merely laughed off posturing by a man so fresh from childhood that he had yet to muster a proper beard. Durin, dwarven veteran, sported a resplendent beard and a menacing manner, but before he could assert himself the man threatened him dourly, “This ain’t no biz o’ yers, git gone now ‘afore I cut ye a new mine.”

Now Roderic recognized the trio, notorious bandits from Dale who had a reputation for elusiveness and viciousness. He tried threatening back, but the man was having none of it; he simply spat in the youth’s direction and grunted “Git gone, yer little twerp, or I’ll ‘ave your balls and your mammy’s too.”

Of course the man had not counted on the two hidden in the shadows of the verge. They both let fly with their bows, but both missed. Shocked, the other two men moved forward, and battle was joined. Durin and Roderic both tried striking the leader and missed, but Aregisel’s second arrow struck true, piercing the lead bandit’s chest and passing straight through him in a burst of broken fletching, then hitting a pot on the merchant’s pony with a resounding clang. The bandit fell, killed instantly by the blow, and a moment later Annunon’s arrow pierced the second bandit’s hand, pinning him to a tree. The third took one look and turned tail, bolting for the cover of the trees. Aregisel tried to shoot him in the foot but missed, and before anyone could make chase the fleet-footed bandit had disappeared into the shadows.

“No matter,” Aregisel called to the others, nocking another arrow and surveying the surroundings carefully. “Soon it will be dusk, and ’tis the gorging season.”

Battle done, they descended to talk to the merchant and hear his sorry tale. He was grateful for the rescue, and revealed to them that this sorry band of reprobates had been his employees, paid to escort him to the hall of the elf king, and had turned on him once they reached the isolation of the long lake. He had been given the choice of handing over all his money and goods or losing the boy, his only son. He was on a mission to collect trade goods from the elves and transport them to the woodfolk, and these treacherous knaives had been offered 2 treasure each to take him there; he had already paid 1 upfront, and if he did not complete this trade mission by winter he would be ruined. Would the Fellowship assist him?

Seeing a chance to make a name for themselves and a little money, as well as to help a good man in need, the Fellowship agreed, after some negotiation. Aregisel searched the body of the dead man and found nothing – not even his broken arrow could be salvaged from that carnage – while Roderic convinced the merchant to offer them 8 treasure regardless of how many survived the trip. They left the body where it lay, released the man pinned to the tree on his bond, and set out down the path to find a good campsite before sunset.

Somewhere in the forest, a man ran for his life – and the great spiders stirred as the lazy evening of autumn bled into night…

The Prince is dead ... long live the Queen!

The Prince is dead … long live the Queen!

[This is a guest post by one of my group’s players, Eddie, about his Vampire characters]

Lady Ashira (Elder)

A protecting mother, a lover of beauty, self involved survivor.

“ The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Lady Ashira has taken control of New York, after an extensive war with the Sabbath has ruined both groups and resulted in Final Death for most of the low generation vampires. Her rule is one of subtlety and charm, where those who make open threats or threaten ugliness have a tendency to mysteriously find divine retribution. As she would say, she truly, full-heartedly strives for everyone to feel safe and happy, and would gladly crush anyone who doesn’t.

Embraced by the Brujah, the clan’s fury shows in her only if she, or the kindred and kine under “her protection” are harmed. She has been known to rage when her advances are refused or some beautiful art or innocent person is harmed in front of her. The Queen is extremely possessive, and it is not uncommon for people to regret asking for her protection, for while when given she will honestly do everything in her power to protect her proteges, the lines between protection and enslavement tend to blur for the Elder vampire. Some kindred have woken after years, only to find they’ve been under the Lady’s spell because they asked to be safe…

Where the lady comes from is an unknown, but most agree it is probably from somewhere in north Africa. When asked, she always names a different country that touches the mediterranean sea; and follows it with a stream of phrases in the native tongue of the place she mentioned. Most people know not to push her too much on the matter; for some reason the Queen gets extremely … upset … when probed for information on her past.

Those very few who know her well know that there is a streak of hidden survivalism to her, there are ugly rumours of her breaking under pressure or war, havens that burned to the ground and scores of surviving neonates with their memories shuffled. Those who know or suspect of these events, know also to keep their mouths shut, it is better that the gears turn smooth and the Lady remain kind and homely, for when they don’t, death and destruction seem to follow.

The Good

Kind, Understanding, Peace keeper

The Bad

Overprotective, Obsessive, Irrational

Description

Medium height, light skin, long red curly hair, dark eyes, slender figure.

Camarilla

“Order and peace are safe havens. The Masquerade keeps us all from Final Death, and provides our weakest with protection. Nevertheless, beware of the Tyrant who would use it as an excuse for power.”

Anarchs

“I can’t help but love their passion, it is a thing of beauty; but the real anarch movement is long dead. What is left is rebels without cause. The Anarchs, whether they remember or not, achieved their goal long ago, and we all paid the price for that. I hold them accountable for the Sabbath.”

Sabbath

“Ugh, ugly, ugly, UGLY!!!!”

Independents

“As long as they keep to themselves, let them have their weird rites and beliefs, especially if they bring me gifts from time to time…”

Here's an offer you can't refuse ...

Here’s an offer you can’t refuse …

Johnny Falco (Ancilla)

Mobster out of time, Territorial Demon, Anti-hero Daredevil

“There are no atheists in a foxhole? Hah! What strunz came up with this shit? Spend a day in a trench, it’ll take you no time to realize, there is no God.”

Everyone who is someone in New York knows Johnny Falco, the man can’t help but to be in your face. Dressed like it’s still the ’30’s, the loud mouth maniac has an unhealthy predilection for “making sure everyone knows their fucking place”. If he weren’t Katherine’s boy (and the Queen’s toy by relation), someone would’ve tried to openly whack him long ago. Not that they haven’t tried on the down-low, but “fuckin’ with Johny Falco, it’s signin’ up for a one item instant bucket list”.

Johnny was impossible to deal with until the town got its senses together and gave him the perfect job, The Scourge. Now, instead of getting yelled at, icing random unannounced neonates is his fuckin’ job! What a sweet deal, though sometimes mistakes get made … but meh, watcha gonna do ‘bout it?

Apart from being the bosses boy, in case you needed more reasons to stay way the fuck away from Falco, I’ll give you two: One, the man is a world war survivor, I’m talking Great War here. He was a trench fighter, and if the stories are real, he was part of a band of lunatics who would raid enemy trenches at knife point, going direct body to body in the dark. If you doubt it, ask him to show you the razor he used to scalp people with. Me, I’m easy with believing, man says he gutted soldiers in the middle of the night, hell I need no proof.

Two, the man knows no fear. I’m not saying he is a hardass tough motherfucker, which he is, but I’m talking about borderline suicidal daredevil shit. I’ve seen him jump off roofs and into oncoming traffic, “just cuz it’ll be fun to watch ’em lose their shit the moment before the party started.” You wanna see crazy shit go down? Tell ‘im “I dare you to…” and add whatever the fuck crazy shit comes to your mind, then RUN, ‘cuz a massive fuckton of shit is on an expressway to meet the fan.

All in all, you keep the man friendly, and a safe distance away, never step on his territory, and never ever talk shit about the Lady if youse anywhere close to him, and aaaaall will be easy peasy.

The Good

Loyal, Fearless, Friendly

The Bad

Short-fused, Territorial, Dark Secrets

Description

Short black hair, black eyes, tan skin, slim and medium height, decent looking, easy smile, Italian, always dresses in mob fashion

Camarilla

“The Cappo de tutti Capi says we play by the rules now, so we play by the rules now.”

Anarchs

“Oh man, how I love these crazy fucks, they never back down from a fight and are always trying to break the rules, man I enjoy catching them off-guard.”

Sabbath

“The sorry SOBs in the trench facing ours, I don’t know and couldn’t care less why we’re raiding then, but by god I love it when the Boss tells me to go open them a new one.”

Independent

“Bookies and deal breakers the lot of them, excellent for when playin’ by the rules ain’t gonna cut it. Just remember they ain’t family, and never will be family.”

In the land of the mortal the One-eyed is king

In the land of the mortal the One-eyed is king

Michael “One Eye” O’Neal (Ghoul)

Dreadnaught, Dock Worker, Falco’s Toysoldier

“CHOO CHOO MOTHERFUCKER!!!”

 

Ever heard of the gentle giant? the massive slab of cuddles? One eye Mike is exactly half of those statements. A titanic irishman with a simple love of smashing into unsuspecting crowds. The simple straightforwardness of his lifestyle is an inspiration for the masses. Boss says jump, he smashes through walls and enemies (jumping is hard when you weigh almost as much as a bear).

And that’s that…

Oh yeah, Falco took his left eye after Mike tried to go for one of the Boss’s harpies, bad for the image to have the commoners mixing with royalty he said, Mike can “have it back when he starts playing nice.”

Before that, being the hulk of a man he is, Michael was on the fast track to becoming next in the Brujah line of nutjobs, but now, without an eye and in the bads with the Lady, there is little hope he makes it so far. He will try though, the recent events are his opportunity to shine and see if he can get his eye back.

The Good

Hulk’s body

The Bad

Hulk’s brain

Description

Hulk (colour variation)

Camarilla

“Eh…”

Sabbath

“Grr…”

Independent

“…”

How it was

How it was

Edgar Evans is an eighth generation kindred character in the new Vampire The Masquerade short campaign my group has started. The campaign is intended to involve not just the vampire characters, but also their elders (6th generation legends) and also one ghoul in the service of the ancilla. Edgar Evans is a rich man with a business empire, and he also has a small domain, and it is in this domain that his ghoul, Tia Nero, can be found. This post is the description of his domain and an introduction to Tia Nero, but in order to understand this domain, it is necessary to understand the politics of supernaturals in the second decade of the new millenium, as the humans they had long ignored, scorned or fed upon begin to build a world that is closing in on the supernaturals, and crushing them.

A brief history of supernatural failure

For aeons the main supernaturals ignored human development. Sure, the vampires fed on them and the Fae remained intertwined with them, but these relationships were not symbiotic or cooperative – humans lived in fear of the unknown, crouched in the dark and looked to superstition to rescue them from their night terrors. Over all the millennia of this unpleasant coexistence the supernaturals achieved nothing, made no mark on the world except, perhaps, to score fear in the human soul.

But then human science overcame human superstition, and those fear-scars became just a cultural memory. It wasn’t just that there were too many humans for the supernaturals to scare directly – it wasn’t just the thronging mass of these stinking, short-lived, frail and useless cattle. Science overcame fear, and then slowly science overwhelmed the natural world. For millenia humans and supernaturals had lived side by side, and nothing really changed – and then in one century humans changed the whole world. The supernaturals looked on in horror as humans harnessed the power of the sun to destroy cities, and tried to come to terms with the ability of humans to vanish darkness and fear with cold logic and simple technology. They dismissed all that – sure humans could build big things, but they were still just frail and weak cattle. What’s to fear?

But then the anthropocene began, and the supernaturals felt fear of their cattle for the first time. Every summer the werewolves would find new settlements, would get into fights over lost land, would find their wild reaches slowly stripped back and reduced, and though they might fight an individual farmer successfully, soon enough the hordes would arrive and they would need to fall back to a new redoubt. The mages discovered that it was harder to do their dingier works. It wasn’t just the new laws about child exploitation, or the sudden desire of humans to catalogue every one of their pathetic number, so they could never be lost. It wasn’t even the new laws on ownership and cruelty that made it so much harder to conduct animal sacrifices, or the sudden loss of empty urban space that mages would use for their less savoury experiments. The mages really noticed when they found they could no longer obtain the magical reagents they needed, because the mere existence of millions of Chinese using traditional Chinese medicine drained their reagents dry. There were so many of these pestilential creatures, consuming, consuming, always taking and taking and needing more … The vampires noticed that the dark and secret places of the old cities had disappeared, been replaced with warehouse apartments and subways and underground parking zones and all the paraphernalia of a civilization that increasingly was ignoring them – until it started making bad movies and games about them. In the space of a century they went from an object of fear to a kitsch joke, laughed at by the new science.

Nobody asked the mummies what they thought. Who would dare?

But the supernaturals that noticed it most were the Fae. Intimately connected to the patterns and cycles of nature, their supernatural home’s fate intertwined with the physical world, they noticed very quickly as the planet started to warm. As the summers lengthened and the ice began to retreat, the balance of power of the courts of Winter and Summer changed, and Summer began to rise. They watched the behavior of humans and they realized – disgusted at the potency of human science – that humans identified the changes a scant 50 years after they did. And worse still, humans identified the cause – humans were the cause. The Fae began to panic.

Most vampires did not care about the Fae, although a few had their connections; even after the Fae’s warnings began to spread, most vampires cared little for the threat of global warming. They were creatures of the night, and CO2 was not going to change the earth’s orbit. Some reacted against it with the same kind of visceral wariness that many humans show towards nuclear power, simply because of its association with nuclear weapons: Vampires have always feared the sun, and anything which enhances its effects fills many of them with a kind of unwary, superstitious dread. Others saw in global warming an opportunity – after floods and storms people go missing, and the chaos engendered by these catastrophes opens up an easy hunting ground for their kind, free of the increasing risk of reprisals that had made the Masquerade so important in modern life. For them, global warming was a chance to enjoy chaos.

But some thinkers amongst the Fae and the Vampire recognized the real philosophical threat. In a scant 100 years humans had gone from cowering, sniveling prey to a vast hive mind that could change the climate of the entire planet. They had become a horde, swarming over the planet in such numbers and building their greedy edifices in such abundance that they had not only destroyed the earth’s natural beauty, they had changed the weather, and now they were harnessing the sun and the power of the sun. The balance had been disturbed, and it was clear that its restoration would require extreme measures. A movement arose in kindred society, a movement popular among the Brujah and some of the darker sects and alliances – a demand for a cull, a real cull, before this horde overwhelmed all the dark spaces of the earth with their lust for things and their increasingly loving relationship with the sun. What if they found a cure for vampirism, some asked? What if they discovered the kindred’s society, and decided to purge it, or discovered a vaccine against the creation of new vampires? Many laughed at such fears, but the chuckling died down when the thinkers observed that humanity had eliminated smallpox in a mere 30 years, that there were societies where almost no child died, that in modern society it was impossible for a child to go missing without thousands of people descending on the scene of the calamity. They always found their murderers, and the time it took them to find a solution to a problem was growing shorter and shorter. From the discovery of smallpox to its vaccine took thousands of years. From the discovery of HIV to its treatment took 20. How long would it take them to purge the world of vampires if they found them? And as they swarmed over the earth, defiling it and investigating it and laying bare its dwindling cache of secrets, how could they not find the kindred?

It wasn’t exactly a panic, but a kind of paralysis set in amongst the supernaturals. They watched as the dark places, the wild places, the sacred places were first torn away from them, then paved over or turned into tourist spots, young couples taking selfies by the dozen in places that a hundred years ago they would have been terrified to walk within a day’s march of. What could they do about this? In their slow and sinister way the vampires schemed, and assumed that they would always be able to hide amongst the flesh folk, always be able to make some new scheme.

For the Fae, though, the philosophical debate quickly became a real battle for power, as it always does amongst the Fae. After the Court of Winter’s amateurish attempt to start a nuclear war in Cuba a fragile political truce was born – no more direct interference in human affairs, by any of the Courts, and everyone expected them all to honour it. But nobody counted on the Changeling, whose numbers grew as the human population swelled. Changeling were like sleeper cells for their courts, a kind of Super PAC of faerie power, who could act on behalf of their Courts without breaching the fragile agreement the Courts had made after the Winter Court’s foolish attempt to produce a nuclear winter. They manoeuvred their changelings like pieces on a chess board, infiltrating human business and politics to try and get their way. By the early 1990s everyone in the supernatural world knew the score: Winter and Spring were with the Democrats, and Summer and Autumn with the Republicans, because all of Fae meddling had shaken out along one deadly axis – global warming. By the early 1990s nothing else mattered, because every Court knew that Summer and Autumn would be forever ascendant if humanity failed to tackle the causes. All of the Fae realms had realized their fate was now tied to that of humanity, and they bent all their will to changing it.

Naturally they sowed the ranks of business and politics with changelings. One such changeling emerged in the 1980s in business, and began to grow in power and influence. He was aging but still robust, an orange-faced caricature of a rapacious businessman, making his money in dodgy real estate and casino deals, tied to the mob and bribing politicans wherever he needed to, playing fast and loose with every standard of business and human decency – a classic progeny of the Summer Court. This man was a crass, larger-than-life bully boy, a carnival barker with tiny hands and huge insecurities, the kind of narcissist who makes it big in Fae life, and by the end of the 1980s he had begun to reap the rewards of that narcissism in mortal life, with ghost-written books and tasteless TV shows. And in the early 1990s he began to make hints about turning his popularity to political advantage – he began to talk about moving into politics.

This was too much for one Vampire, Johnny Falco[1]. Johnny Falco had an irrational hatred of the Fae and their machinations[2], and the thought of a Summer Court Changeling taking control of American politics filled him with disgust – especially this repulsive, orange-faced ignoramus with his trashy tastes and his terrible architecture and his shallow opinions on everything. This was exactly the kind of person who really irritated Johnny Falco, and who made his grandsire despair of the cattle. So one day in 1996 while at one of his casinos in Atlantic City this businessman was murdered, horribly, with a trenching shovel and a gold-plated scale model of one of his own towers. No one saw the person who did it, no one understood how the perpetrator could have gotten into the businessman’s inner sanctum, or how he had managed to remove his face and leave it on a Ronald McDonald statue a stone’s throw away from the tower, in full view of a whole cluster of cctv cameras, but there it was the next day, leering bloodily at a small group of terrified Japanese tourists.

The mystery was never solved, and the businessman’s empire fell into ruin – and nowhere more so than his Atlantic City casino properties.

The Domain

Johnny Falco didn’t just kill the businessman – he also killed his property. The Atlantic City casino properties were bleeding money, but after the murder the authorities discovered an elaborate system of shell companies that covered up for … nothing. They couldn’t find where the money came from or who was responsible for the properties, as if the dead businessman had been a mere figurehead. The casinos sat empty as investigations continued, but even years later no trace of the original investors could be found, or their money. Occasionally a city authority or some rival business would set up a scheme to buy the properties but always at the last moment someone would get cold feet, or the key figure in the investment program would disappear or die, or suddenly their business would be bankrupted overnight by some strange market play. The business world gave up on them and they fell into disrepair, crumbling in the centre of Atlantic City’s glitzy gambling zone. But buildings like that don’t just decay – they poison. Their rot spread out from them like a cancer, infecting the businesses around them and slowly paralyzing the entire zone. Investors saw easier pickings in native reservations and the effervescent Vegas economy, and slowly they pulled their money out. By the turn of the century the collapse of the casinos had spread outward to infect a large part of the Atlantic City seafront, which became a low-rent junkyard of pawn shops, bounty hunters, gunshops and cheap liquor stores. A section of the city 10 blocks long became a wilderness of malfunctioning neon and broken lives, a self-governing conclave of the poor and the destitute.

It was here, in 1996, remarkably coincidentally with the death of the businessman, that Edgar Evans decided to set up a surf shop – right across the road from that Ronald McDonald statue. His Polaris foundation bought up an old gaming parlour and turned it into a massive surf emporium, drawing expressions of disgust and disappointment from investors across the eastern seaboard. People had had high hopes for Evans, a reformed extreme sportsman with robust business sense, but this deal made no sense at all. Sure, the entire Jersey coastline was a haven for surfers and they all had to pass through Atlantic City at some point but did he seriously think they would slum it at his surf emporium amongst the broken glass and broken dreams of this banged-out strip?

They underestimated Evans. He didn’t just sell surfboards, but rented combi vans, set up a vegan organic restaurant called 20,000 Cows, established a live venue and a cheap hostel over the surf shop. Life returned to this tiny part of the seafront, and somehow surfers from all around the world came to enjoy his hospitality. The Atlantic City surf festival was founded, and his business thrived. He expanded to the warehouse next door, turning it into a branch office of the Polaris Foundation and using it to store equipment for the Foundation’s Atlantic Coast Research Project. Once a year the Sea Shepherd ship, Polaris Quest, docked nearby and held an open day.

And above it all loomed the businessman’s abandoned, crumbling tower, his name still emblazoned across its penthouse level in tarnished gold, bragging about the long-dead icon’s fame. The building was occupied now, by squatters and homeless and crack gangs, but they seemed to have a kind of respect for the area, because they never caused any trouble for Evans or his business. Dark rumours spread about his means of enforcing his will on these local homeless, but no evidence ever came to light. He opened a boxing gym for local street kids, ploughed money into a drugs program, funded local rejuvenation projects – he was in every way a perfect local citizen. But still people wondered – how did he have such a hold over these locals.

How had he made this his domain?

The Ghoul

Of course the press came sniffing around, looking for answers, for clues to Evans’s business vitality. They always ended up meeting the same person: Tia Nero. Tia Nero was the corn-haired, blue-eyed, mesh-and-leather skater girl who managed the surf emporium. Short, slight and cheerful, always dressed in a mixture of black punk and skater style, she was the antithesis of the good business person, but she had a way – she had a certain charisma, a certain personality, that made people listen to her and trust her. She was sassy, she had a reputation on the skate scene for extreme bravery, and she was a sharp manager. She would talk to the press, show them around, introduce them to colourful characters, show them photos of her skating days, take them to enjoy the phenomenal food and atmosphere of 20,000 Cows[4], and by the time they left they were writing glowing reviews of this new social project.

In reality Tia Nero is a revenant, the illegitimate child of one of Polaris’s ghouls, sent to serve Edgar Evans in the new world. She is everything her public persona suggests, but she is also a steely agent of the night, ruthlessly enforcing a set of strict rules on the residents of the neighbouring tower and ensuring that they are always available for Evans to feed upon or call upon. She also administers this most public branch of his business empire, helping him to retain his connection to a community of surfers who still view him entirely positively, and supporting the activist credibility he needs to maintain connections with the environmental movements that he is manipulating for his own and Polaris’s ends. Evans is mostly in New York city now, and when he needs an agent he knows he can trust to operate on his behalf in the daytime, with initiative and sense, he calls on Tia. He knows she will do what he wants, and over long years of working together he has never met anyone he trusts more. There is only one aspect of their relationship that creates any friction between them.

She can surf in the sunlight.


fn1: Actually another player’s PC

fn2: He got the worst end of their behavior in our World of Darkness campaign and the player hates hates hates them

fn3: Tia Nero is a loose anti-person to Tia Blanco, a vegan surfer I have on my instagram feed

fn4: 20 years ago I had a phenomenal afternoon experience in a vegan restaurant called 20,000 cows in Byron Bay, now dead (though its Lismore branch lives on). Nothing special happened, just a wonderful atmosphere, great food and a feeling of wholeness and comfort that I have never forgotten. Here it is resurrected in Atlantic City, in the shadow of a … certain business person’s … untimely bankruptcy

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Edgar Evans 1

Guard and defend when forces hinder and collide
Solemn intentions both blessed and divine
You still pulled victory from shattered hope
Count your doubts with broken smiles
Covered your hurt in your pride

 

The Terra Nova expedition set forth to reach the South Pole in 1910, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Through tragedy and hardship its entire complement was lost, and with its leader the real reason for the expedition – robbery.

But in fact one member of the expedition did survive, after a fashion. This is the tale of Edgar Evans, his progenesis, the lies told about him and his mission, and his modern day purpose.

The Terra Nova expedition was led by Scott of the Antarctic, and the tale of its ultimate dismal end is usually told as one of ruthless competition between Scott and his long-term rival in exploration, Amundsen. In fact their rivalry was much more deadly and serious than a mere rush to be first to the pole. For Scott and Amundsen were both secret occultists and tomb robbers, and they and an elite group of their comrades knew that the poles were rich with treasures hidden by strange occult beasts. Their rush to the poles covered a small period of history when occultism was at its peak, before the ascendance of science and the mysterious deaths of many of the explorers leading the movement to loot these secret lairs.

These treasure troves in the poles were the secret safe houses of ancient vampires, elders who sought a place on earth free of humans, with long periods of darkness and, in the north, a close supply of kine in the native inuit populations. As human pressure in the north intensified they moved their bases south, believing that humans could never find a way to cross such vast and inhospitable oceans and ice plateaus.

They were wrong, of course, as vampires are so often wrong about human persistence and ingenuity, and in 1910 both Amundsen and Scott began the race to plunder the southern tombs. Amundsen found the tomb first but his party was rebuffed by ghouls, bad weather and violent magicks, and rather than risk his whole team he gave up and retreated.

Scott suffered his own setbacks in the foul weather of the southern ice, but eventually he and four specially selected members began the final push across the icy wastes towards their goal. It is not clear whether all members of this team knew its true purpose or whether they believed in the pure scientific goal of the mission, but they must have learnt the truth at some point, because they were able to penetrate the tomb while its guardians were distracted by the battle against Amundsen, and made off with a sizeable cache of highly valuable treasures and occult artifacts. Unfortunately they hit bad weather, and were pursued in the few hours of night by a single vampire from the tombs. Somewhere in the journey the vampire caught up with them, but with the summer light fast approaching and needing to retreat to a safe lair, it had no time to close the distance. However, before retreating for the day it stumbled upon a single member of the team who had been left behind while Scott and his fellows set up camp. This was Edgar Evans, injured in an icefall and unable to continue under his own strength. His team had left him in a shallow dugout, promising to return and collect him once they had made camp at a safe distance, and the sun was up. Evans was delirious from his head injury and frostbite, but when the vampire found him he understood well enough the offer it made – eternal life in exchange for the destruction of his party. Showing a degree of treachery well beyond that often claimed for him in subsequent years, Evans took the deal, and so he became a vampire, sired by a monstrous creature called the Bear, and ancilla of a mysterious and remote beauty known only as Polaris.

After the sun came up, and before his change was fully upon him, Evans was collected by his team mates and dragged back to the camp, where they intended to rest in the bright sun and wait out the stormy weather. Their plan was sound – in the Antarctic summer they had many hours to travel, while their pursuers had only a scant few hours to make chase. Finding Evans still alive though delerious in the snowdrift they assumed they had shaken off their pursuers, and decided to spend a single night resting before continuing the following day with Evans on a sled. But that night Evans died, and woke again, and consumed his teammates in an orgy of destruction. He then made his way south, dragging the recovered valuables with him, hiding in the snow during the long hours of daylight.

With Scott’s death the great age of exploration ended and the southern hideouts were safe – for a while. But after the second world war scientific expeditions began to proliferate on the shores of both polar landmasses. At first Polaris believed they would stop there but she soon realized that the human lust for land and knowledge – and energy to achieve its goals – was boundless, and she would need to find new ways to protect her wilderness redoubt. She sent Edgar Evans north, first to New Zealand and then on to the centres of power. His progress was slow and seemingly purposeless, and much of his history is lost. Sometime in the late 1960s he arrived on the Atlantic coast of the USA and became involved in the budding surf movement, making a name for himself as “the midnight surfer,” capable of amazing feats of surfing prowess but only swimming at night. After the surf scene became too large he disappeared again for a while, before he reappeared in a different guise in the extreme sports scene of the 1990s, now also at the head of a successful surfing products company. Once the extreme sports world began to be too heavily filmed he dropped out, setting up an extreme sports, snow and surf media company that soon dominated much of the sports market. A minor celebrity in this world, he also set up a foundation – the Polaris Foundation – that funded environmental activism and research connected to the poles. Through this foundation he began to influence the activities of polar researchers and political movements. He poured funds into the Sea Shepherds, into Greenpeace campaigns against arctic drilling and exploitation, and into global warming activism. He made secret, tentative contacts with the faerie court of winter, and reached out to the werewolves of the great steppes to find ways to seal off the many entryways into the arctic wilderness. Wherever the sun was extinguished for months at a time, the Polaris Foundation could be found advocating for national parks, wilderness sanctuaries, and the gradual exclusion of humanity.

Evans sat at the heart of this web of foundations, activist groups and movements, pulling strings from his headquarters outside of New York. Rich and vaguely famous, handsome and widely respected for his achievements in surfing and extreme sports, a minor celebrity amongst scientists and activists alike, Evans slowly worked to force the withdrawal of human influence from the frozen wastes of the earth’s poles – and for whatever darker purpose his grandsire, Polaris, secretly schemed.

Polaris

Polaris is so old that she has forgotten her name, and much of the lore of the realm of humans. She was no raider – a simple Inuit girl living in Greenland when the Vikings came, she was turned by a visiting Danish vampire in the 14th century. Driven out of her own community after the change, she lived wild and reckless in the mountains north of the norse settlement. She would hide in the bright summers, and stalk the Danish towns in winter when the sun was largely hidden, consuming the Danish kine with gleeful abandon. In the 15th century, as Danish wealth grew in Europe and her predations became more open, many of the community began to leave, fearing to stay another winter; eventually in a single winter of brutal extravagance she slew the remainder of the community, wiping it out. That summer she took the first ship back to the mainland, and moved her predations to the bigger cities of the wider world.

For the next few hundred years Polaris learnt the ways of the Camarila, learnt to control her hunger, and fed and studied across the cities of Europe. Eventually tiring of the Masquerade, after 400 years of petty vampire politics and growing jaded with the taste of human blood, she returned to the lands of her youth. Unfortunately they had changed beyond recognition, the beautiful fjords of her youth now transformed into whaling stations red with blood and rich with the stench of burning blubber. She realized that humans were beginning to encroach on every part of the earth, and yearned for somewhere pure and pristine to retire to, to escape from both vampire politics and human stench. Taking her wild childe the Bear with her, and a coterie of ghouls, she headed slowly south, winding her way over 10 years to the vast open plains of the Antarctic.

Here, surely, humans can never come, she thought. But half a century later there they were, sledding across the ice towards her lair, intent on robbery and murder. It was then that she sent her childe forth, with instructions – turn one of this new breed of adventurous human, for I have forgotten how they think and why they even bother. I see they are fragile and weak as individuals, but as a mass they seem to be capable of anything. While we can no longer claim to know how these kine think, we need one of our number to bear this knowledge, to hold the memory of humanity in his heart so that he can act properly against its interests, to keep us safe. Turn one of them, have him kill his fellows, and bring him to me. A new era has dawned, an era in which the silent and dark places of the earth will soon become bright with human light and rowdy with their empty chatter and barked commands. We cannot fight such a tide, so we need to learn the dynamics of its flow, that we can divert it away from those places where we hide and seek solitude.

And so the Bear went forth, and so Edgar Evans survived the cold, and entered into the kindred in an orgy of bloodshed and betrayal in a tiny hut on the edge of the world’s last great wilderness.

And so too did Polaris’s schemes bend under the pressure of the human flood; and her gaze turned north, and her cold, inhuman mind turned its thoughts towards new schemes, to use human’s own curiosity and volatility against them, and to protect her and her kind.

No one knows the truth of her schemes, only that she is ancient and cold and deadly, and that Edgar is her weapon against humanity – a lonely, gangrel weapon as cold and harsh as the adiabatic winds, and as implacable as the ice.

On Thursday last week the British people voted to leave the EU, sending shockwaves through the British political establishment and the EU leadership. In the aftermath there is a lot of finger-pointing and blame going on, and as I predicted in a comment at Crooked Timber before it happened, people are lining up to blame Labour for what is a very Tory disaster. Here I want to talk about the limited available data on who voted what, to put paid to the idea that this was primarily (or even partly) a Labour failure. I’m then going to talk a bit about the “white working class” and the EU, and also give a brief opinion about what this means for health and the NHS. I intend to be polemical. By way of background, I have British citizenship and British parents, I’ve talked about growing up in Britain before on this blog more than once, and I really am not surprised by this result. I have only lived briefly in Britain since I was 13 – I immigrated to Australia and then worked for a year and a half in the UK on issues related to the NHS (during this period I started my blog, which is why it has the Thames as its header image). All my family still live there and I think in many ways my family present the ideal anti-EU demographic – I grew up in an environment steeped in racism and heirarchies of discrimination that I think people who grew up outside of the Tory working class, or outside of Britain, really can’t understand. This background informs my interpretation of political movements in the UK, and at its base is a simple theoretical position: for many British people, race consciousness always beats class consciousness.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

The demographics of Brexit

There isn’t yet much clear data on who voted what, but we do have two data sources: the electoral returns for the local authorities, and an exit poll conducted by John Ashcroft. Let’s look first at the electoral returns, which are summarized neatly in the Guardian‘s referendum results page. In case that page dies I’ve put some screenshots of its contents here. First is the map, above, which shows clearly the regional pattern of voters: Scotland and the city centres voted remain (yellow) and the country areas voted leave (blue). For reference, the region I grew up in is the area of Wessex in the south west; I’ve magnified it below. This is the land of King Arthur and even contains a tiny separatist movement in the far south west (Cornwall). It doesn’t include Wales, which I’ve had to include a bit of in this map. The yellow (remain) areas are the cities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter and Plymouth. Outside these cities it is entirely blue. I grew up in towns like Salisbury (the furthest Eastward big blue blotch); Frome (south west of that blotch, in light blue); Falmouth (the dark blue patch west of the two small yellow ones) and Cornwall (the light blue patch poking out into the Atlantic). These are areas that benefit hugely from EU funding under the Common Agricultural Policy, were once strongholds for the Lib Dems, and are now shifting fast to UKIP. They’re heavy tourist towns with very low proportions of migrant and non-white people; unlike in London, if you go into a cafe in Torbay (where my parents live now, the dark blue patch east of Plymouth, I think) you’re likely to be served by a white local, rather than an Eastern European worker. These areas have received most of the benefits of the EU, and very few of its migrants, and have been largely isolated from previous waves of Commonwealth migration (ie Indians and Caribbean people).

Oo-arrh, Oi've got a brand new combine 'arvester!

Oo-arrh, Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester!

These areas are old, with only three major universities in Bristol, Bath and Exeter. They’re rural and tourist-focused, and they’re also repositories of British history, holding places like Stonehenge, Avebury, and Tintagel. They’ve always been a little bit wayward and remote from the concerns of Londoners, so I suppose a bit of restive anti-EU thought makes sense here. But what about the rest of the UK? The Guardian has some graphs showing the proportion of people voting leave/remain by major socio-economic and demographic factors, which I’ve placed below.

Let's make a classic political science error!

Let’s make a classic political science error!

It’s very clear what’s going on here: the more higher-educated, wealthier people, and the more people not born in the UK, the more likely the area is to vote remain (for those not steeped in British class lore, the UK office of national statistics classifies people by their social class, and “ABC1” is the professional and higher class groups). If you remove Scotland from this chart it will probably be even clearer, since Scotland’s poorer areas were more likely to vote remain. Note also that older areas were more likely to vote for leave.

It’s a classic political science error to infer individual voting patterns from area-level statistics, because it’s well-established that these statistics often go in the opposite direction at individual and regional level (Andrew Gelman famously showed this for the USA: richer states are more likely to vote Democrat, but in all states poorer people are more likely to vote Democrat). However, this pattern in this case is so clear that even though we don’t know how individuals in those areas voted, we do know that areas with higher numbers of poor and uneducated people were full of people pissed off at the EU. It’s fundamentally the job of politicians to understand these kinds of big population-level movements in politics, and for Cameron to call a referendum on this topic despite the existence of such a powerful and fundamental dynamic in the electorate is either incredibly reckless, or incredibly ignorant, or both. This stupidity is compounded by the fact that areas with large numbers of poor and uneducated people are more likely to be labour-held areas, so Cameron was going to be relying on his political enemies to support him. I don’t think Corbyn is venal or stupid, but coming hot on the heels of the era of Blair, it’s incredibly risky of Cameron to assume the leadership of the Labour party wouldn’t be venal and stupid enough not to leave him hanging on this issue for cheap political gain.

This brings us to the next issue: who actually voted how in these areas, and was the failure of the leave campaign the fault of Labour and its racist voters? For this we cannot rely on area-level data, but need to look at individuals, and sadly so far the only information we have is from John Aschcroft’s exit poll. I won’t screenshot this poll, which I linked to above, but the conclusion seems to be that this was a very Tory disaster. Here are some key figures:

  • No difference in gender (52% voting leave in both)
  • Young people were much more likely to vote remain (73% for 18-24 vs. 40% for the over 65s)
  • Big trends by social class, with the wealthier more likely to vote remain (a similar difference between the “lowest” and “highest” social class to that in age)
  • Labour, the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems voted heavily in favour of remain (over 2/3 for all groups) while Tory and UKIP voted for leave, so that only 20% of leave votes were drawn from Labour, vs. 40% from Tory
  • 33% of leave voters listed immigration as their main concern, and 79% described themselves as English not British

The big caveat on these statistics is that the party affiiliation is based on voting in the 2015 General Election; turnout for this referendum was higher than the 2015 General Election, and so it’s likely that a lot of people who voted in this referendum did not vote in 2015 but did vote in 2010, or never vote; in this case describing them in terms of the last vote they cast may not be very informative. Nonetheless, of those who were recently involved in an election, those who voted for the tenets of the labour party were not interested in leaving. This fact is backed up by looking at the map, where the big labour heartlands in London were all for remain. The Guardian has analysis of some of these heartlands (because of course journalists immediately latch onto the meme that attacks Labour, not the obvious responsibility of all the Tory areas that voted leave). It describes a strong leave sentiment in the otherwise labour-focused area of the Thames estuary (the land of Eastenders), and a suburban revolt outside the Labour heartland areas of Merseyside and Tyneside. Tyneside is a good example: the former industrial heartland and labour stronghold north of the river voted remain, while the more suburban Tory-voting south side went with remain.

My conclusion from this is that the leave vote was driven by pensioners, the “lumpen proletariat”, and Tory voters. The remain vote was driven by labour stalwarts, the educated, and working people in the big cities and former industrial heartlands, who perhaps understand that their future depends on being part of an integrated market. Obviously this is a broad brush, and a disappointingly large number of Labour voters (about 35%) sided with leave. Some people are saying that Corbyn should have gathered these people up with a better campaign, but I think this claim is doubtful. To the extent that Labour voted leave, they’re largely rebelling against the policies of New Labour, and for Corbyn to be more involved in the remain campaign he would have had to have shared a platform with Vampire Blair and the Pig-fucker General. I don’t think this would have convinced more people to vote remain, and would likely have had the opposite effect. If the Tories wanted Labour to help drag the country back from this disaster, they were going to have to make it less of an obvious Tory shitshow, and tell the idiots from New Labour to stay home and out of the sunlight.

What about the white working class revolt?

People do like to bang on about how the average Labour voter is a racist and the only way Labour will get the “white working class” vote back is by appealing to these baser instincts, but I think this is fundamentally flawed. Yes, many working people in the UK are opposed to immigration and can express shockingly racist views, but a lot of these people were prised away from Labour back in the 1980s, and more left during the era of New Labour. I don’t think Labour will ever be able to get these people back, and it’s silly to talk about them as if they are part of the Labour heartland. The sad reality is that British politics realigned in the 1980s, at the same time as its industrial heartland hollowed out, so that the Tories have a reliable stock of poor white people voting for them on racial grounds. This is the “victory” of Thatcher-era politics and the vicious racism of the Daily Mail and the Sun. Amongst these groups, these newspapers have been pushing an anti-EU agenda for 25 years (just try reading the Daily Mail on Europe!), and also a vicious anti-Labour agenda. Of course these papers were going to do all they could to mobilize these readers against the EU in this referendum, and there’s very little the remain campaign can do against 25 years of constant anti-EU propaganda, much of which is straight up lies. This is hardly helped by the willingness of journalists to consistently let the leave campaign get away with their lies about the 350 million pounds (that Farage admitted wouldn’t go to the NHS the morning after the referendum).

It needs to be made clear too that racism was a central part of the leave campaign, and they weren’t deploying a nuanced critique of immigration. The leave campaign was doing very poorly, well behind remain, until they dug up the claims about Syrian refugees, boats on beaches, the sexual assault “nuclear bomb”, the breaking point poster and the constant terror campaign about Turkey joining the EU very soon. Once that stuff came up, leave started catching up rapidly in the polls. Then of course political geniuses like Osborne screwed up the remain campaign with their petulant threats, and the job was done. When people as unscrupulous as Boris Johnson are willing to put out the kind of misleading, deliberately untrue, and viciously racist stuff they did, there’s very little a principled campaign can do except watch the election getting stolen from them. Fundamentally you can’t win a campaign against people who happily tell juicy lies and a media that supports them.

I think a lot of commentators from both left and right in the UK fail to see how potent this stuff is because they didn’t grow up surrounded by it – they grew up in pleasant leafy neighbourhoods to professional or wealthy families, and didn’t have to put up with this stuff day-in, day-out during their childhood. If they did they would know, as I do, just how filthy and nasty the underbelly of the British polity is, and just how ugly its views are. A previous generation of Labour political leaders might have known this, but Tony Blair flayed those people and replaced them with his soulless ghouls, who know nothing except focus groups and servitude to the Elder Gods. I described this kind of politics two years ago on this blog, and this referendum is the vindication of my analysis. There are solutions to this problem, but “giving the racists the chance to shine” is not one of them.

The implications for health policy in the UK

The UK has been out-sourcing medical training and workforce development to Europe and the Commonwealth for years. Up to 26% of doctors and 11% of all NHS personnel come from overseas, a great many from the EU, and once the UK leaves the EU these EU staff will need to be replaced from elsewhere. More could be drawn in from the Commonwealth, but it’s unlikely to be able to fill the shortfall quickly because many Commonwealth countries have only small numbers of medical staff, and may not be able to provide a great deal more. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a country that just voted to leave the EU out of fear of immigrants is going to suddenly implement policies to bring in more immigrants. The result of this will be further pressure on the NHS workforce, with even more difficulty in replacing staff as they retire and leave at a time when the aging population is putting more and more demand on health services. It takes 10 years to train a doctor and 5 years to train a nurse, but the government has been cutting funding for these training programs (including the nurses bursary) and has been repeatedly warned that it is facing a shortfall in health personnel even without leaving the EU. Pressure on universities is likely to increase with the sudden loss of EU funding, and in the huge economic readjustment that has to happen when EU funds disappear, universities are going to face major shifts in funding sources and needs. Without central organization they are unlikely to prioritize nurse training – they haven’t to date, why should we expect they will do so in the future, with tighter funds?

This problem will be even more pronounced for small and medium enterprises outside of the NHS that provide services to the NHS, and also to financial services companies. At the moment there are a range of barriers to employing non-EU staff that were put in place in response to past concerns about immigration: you have to prove the job can’t be done by a local, and it’s very hard for non-EU workers to bring in spouses. As a result most small companies don’t sponsor visa applications, preferring instead to recruit from the EU where such rules don’t apply. For financial services companies, the sudden loss of their most qualified pool of staff is going to have huge implications, and I suspect for many of them the simplest approach will be to move to Europe. The same will apply to universities, who will suddenly lose access to the best-educated region in the world. This likely won’t affect senior staff but it will have a huge impact on the supply of graduate students and early-career researchers and teachers. These jobs aren’t just boutique jobs for underwater basket-weavers – the UK has a huge pharmaceutical industry that depends on universities and research institutes, as does its high-tech industries like oil exploration services, the arms trade, aerospace, and growth industries like alternative energy. Suddenly putting up barriers to employing people from the most highly-educated part of the world is going to be really bad for high-tech industries in the UK, at a time when industries that primarily employ lower-skilled professionals (like tradespeople) are offshoring rapidly.

This is going to be an economic disaster for the UK for a very long time to come. Their only chance of a decent economic future is to implement an industrial policy, significantly improve funding to health and education, and shift from austerity to a Japan-style deficit-financed industrial society. The only person with a vision to do this – Corbyn – is about to be eaten alive by the Blairite ghouls still shambling through his own party, which will leave the political landscape ruled by Boris Johnson, who has no vision for the UK economy and is going to be so reviled by the time the UK exits that he won’t be able to make anything happen even if he had a sensible idea.

Conclusion

This was a political disaster that is going to leave Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Farage the most reviled politicians in modern British history. It will likely lead to the breakup of the Union, and if it doesn’t, a return to civil war in Northern Ireland. It will also plunge the UK into a long period of economic collapse that it has no way out of, and no scapegoats for. The EU, coupled with a decent economic policy aimed at renewing British industry, was the only chance for the UK to remain globally relevant and for its citizens to enjoy a good quality of life. Cameron has wrecked that one chance in order to score a victory over the idiots in his own party, in a reckless and breathtakingly stupid political gamble. The tidal wave of economic and social problems about to hit the UK is the perfect proof that conservative politics is a wrecking-ball through modern life, and they should never ever be trusted with power.

soul assassin

These are known as darkling days
rhyming schemes gone askew,
crackling gifts of light and air,
exploding worlds,
ours to share

-Lament of the Unredeemed

Sometimes unexpected things happen in unpleasant places. The PCs have stumbled on a death cult that seems to be wandering across the galaxy digging through old tombs in search of something called “the ansible.” They were paid by a remnant holy man called Michael to kill a priest of this death cult, and having done so find themselves under the protection of the rulers of Pearl 7, in the pirate system known as the Reach. Killing this priest had been traumatic for them, since he was accompanied by a couple of demons and seemed to be able to conjure more when he needed them; our heroes are not used to the idea that demons could be real entities, or that someone would conjure them, or that when they drift into striking range the air turns cold and the victim hears faint echoes of dying children and tortured animals.

They also weren’t expecting to discover the death priest’s purpose, documented on grainy old videos of the death priest raising the souls of long-dead heroes and torturing them to force them to tell him the location of the ansible. Though at first they didn’t believe what they were seeing, their puzzlement soon turned to horror as they realized the extent of this death priest’s reach, and perhaps also his ambition.

They agreed to Michael’s request to help him hunt down the death cult. His plan was to return to his planet and trace the priest’s travels backwards from there, but before they left with him the characters decided to clear a few things up. First, Alpha the psionicist had a background in archaeology, and had realized that they might be able to find out more about the mysterious ansible and the links between the long-dead heroes the death priest had sought out. To do this he needed to set up an archaeological dig in the tombspine, which would mean seeking the support of the tombspine management committee – yes, even pirates have committees. To this end he would need to prepare an application, because even pirates have forms, and bureaucrats.

Second, the PCs realized that the death priest must have a base of operations on Pearl 2 – where he was under the protection of the local authorities – and might have some materials there that could give them more information about where he was from and why he sought the ansible. Since no one yet knew he was dead, and probably believed he was still working quietly on his vile task in the tombspine, they guessed that they could raid his lodgings relatively easily if they moved quickly. While they waited for the first stage of Alpha’s research application to be processed, they set off for Pearl 2, to find the death priest’s lair and storm it.

In the slavers’ lair

Although all the Pearls maintain slaves, Pearl 2 is the heaviest user of slavery and the largest trader in slaves. The Pearl trades, breeds and trains human slaves, bringing in captives from around the sector and breeding carefully-selected slave stock to trade with other Pearls, and to use in its heavy industry. Pearl 2 is packed full of heavy industries, and slaves are used extensively in all the worst jobs in these industries. Pearl 2 also maintains an extensive and rigidly policed caste system, with many tiers of free workers who are treated little better than slaves, though clearly above them. Densely populated, polluted and constantly riven by low-level social conflict, Pearl 2 is a model of all the problems the Spiral Confederacy aims to eliminate from human society.

The PCs entered this sprawling den of iniquity with a strong sense of foreboding and trepidation. Even the approach to the Pearl is forbidding, with the entire structure swathed in clouds of toxic dust. The Pearl is not a spherical habitat, but a series of obloid structures of differing sizes, interconnected by huge spars that carry traffic and goods between the separate sections. The upper half of the major sections stands clear of the miasma surrounding the Pearl, and the higher one lives in the habitat the wealthier one is. Slaves live, toil and die in the bottom-most sections of the Pearl, never seeing the light of the weak red dwarf that powers the Reach. Like the other Pearls, Pearl 2 has no field technology outside its superstructure, and as a result its surface is discoloured and pitted from the constant contact with the miasma.

The PCs disembarked at a small service dock in the mid-level of the main section. No one greeted them, and the machine for registering their weapons was broken so they simply walked into the Pearl itself bearing all their weapons unremarked. Pearl 7 had organized accommodation for them in the area called Silicon Valley, which was near the dock, so they proceeded there immediately. Silicon Valley is a light industrial area devoted to reclaiming silicon from imported sands, and consisted of a kind of canyon of buildings stretching perhaps a couple of kms along one edge of the habitat. At its base were the reclamation facilities, shrouded in silicon dust; higher up the valley were light industries and chip makers, and near the top the shops and traders and residencies of the better-paid workers. The PCs took small rooms in an area relatively free of silicon dust, and set about finding the death priest.

They started by visiting a local public web access facility, from which Simon Simon tried a little low-level hacking. He could not find the death priest’s address directly, but he was able to identify the dock from which the priest’s ship had set out for the Gardens. There was a dockmaster with a full manifest of addresses which Simon Simon could not access, but he was able to make a fake identity for himself as a representative of a shell company that dealt directly with the Confederacy for illegal technology, the kind of company that one did not ask too many questions about. He sent an email to the dockmaster from this shell company, informing him of the PCs’ imminent visit.

Their visit was a success; after a 40 minute wait and with a small amount of payment to the dock master they were able to obtain the death priest’s address. Unsurprisingly for a pirate haven, no one was particularly cautious about information privacy – at least, not other people’s. It was relatively easy to establish that he lived in a particular location in an area of a subsidiary habitat, called The Bones.

As they left, the dock master’s agent warned them they might not want to visit the Bones.

Everything has to end somewhere

Everything has to end somewhere

Among The Bones

Deciding it might be wise to listen to the dock master, they returned to the web access shop so that Simon Simon could investigate the Bones.  They soon found out why they had been warned against the Bones: this area was where old, sick, surplus or dead slaves were sent for “reprocessing”. It was essentially a giant human abattoir. The only people who lived in the Bones were the few free workers in the processing plants, and criminals and radicals on the run from the law, bounty hunters, or enemies in the main parts of the Pearl. Gangs that had been cast out of the rest of the Pearl would flee here, living alongside dissidents and hermits and homeless people with nowhere better to hide. It was a dangerous place.

While he was searching, Simon Simon stumbled on a layer of Pearl 2’s web that he had not expected. The information network here was heavily stratified, with different layers available to different classes of people and careful restriction of who could put information onto any of them. Simon Simon was alternating between a common information layer used by the local municipal authorities and a general knowledge and news layer – as close as the Pearl had to a real internet – to gain information on the Bones. But in switching layers he discovered a common information exchange protocol between the security forces and the municipal layer. He could not hack the security forces’ secure network, but he could hack messages coming out of it to the municipal services. These would be messages requesting rerouting of traffic for an ambulance, or the closure of an electricity supply during a raid. Simon Simon noticed that the municipal authorities had been asked not to meddle with the area around the death priest’s lair by none other than the Pearl 2 leadership’s personal security force; and that this same force had been raiding the safe houses of two particular cults, and making requests for municipal support during these raids. These requests had begun a couple of weeks ago, at about the same time as the request for the priest’s lair to be freed of interference. One of the cults was of no concern to Simon Simon, some kind of cult with an ancient messiah who had been killed by his own father, and whose flesh promised eternal life when eaten; but the other was a mysterious cult called the Unredeemed, with a heritage at least a thousand years old, that claimed to be a cult of Adherents with no AI. Simon Simon was intrigued by this cult of Adherents without an AI, and also wondered why a cult that had been left unmolested for a thousand years would suddenly start being attacked just as the death priest arrived. Coincidence – or was there a link?

Once Simon had determined a safe and quick route to the death priest’s lair, they bought a cheap wheeled (!) van and set off. Driving from the spar into the Bones proper they noticed that the section was deserted, with few people on the streets and very little activity except large, ominous factories. Interspersed amongst the factories were grimy accommodation for the area’s few free workers, and occasional workshops. Abandoned factories and crumbling ruins scattered the level they drove through, rusting gates and tumbling walls a testament to the Bones’ ancient, thankless task.

The death priest’s lair appeared to be one such abandoned factory, set back from a narrow road, surrounded by shuttered warehouses, and seemingly completely unguarded. The ground floor was a large warehouse with closed roller doors, and above that were three levels of tiered office space. On one side of the building was a scattering of containers, but they were stacked against the wall of the building and could not be accessed. The whole building was dark and silent, and gave off an air of menacing isolation.

They entered the ground floor through a small side door, which Simon Simon opened with the help of his AI. Stepping through a narrow entry way, they opened the inner door, and Ahmose ducked inside to crouch behind a crate of some kind that was just inside the door. This was the main warehouse space, but it was shrouded in deep darkness, so Lam flicked on the lights near the entrance. Moments later, as the warehouse was flooded with cold halogen light, Ahmose found herself staring into the blank eye sockets of a human skull. The “crate” she had hidden behind was actually a bale of bones, stacked tightly together and bound up with packing wire and plastic, a line of skulls staring out at Ahmose’s crouching eye level. The rest of the warehouse was scattered with similar bales of bones, and in one corner lay a huge pile of human bones, attended by a small tracked excavator. There was nothing else in the room.

They searched it carefully, but aside from an empty gantry with some control equipment on it, there was nothing in the room. A freight lift at the rear of the warehouse led up to the next level, and with only empty skulls at their backs, they were in no mood to delay. They took the lift to the next level.

The doors opened into a pitch black hallway. Ahmose, Simon Simon and Alpha could see down this hallway dimly with their nightvision, so they knew someone was moving at the far end, but they could see little more than that. Lam, blind without combat armour or genetic enhancements, flicked on the lights just as she had downstairs. The hallway lit up, revealing a strange and horrible tableau in the moments before the lift doors closed again. The hallway stretched the length of the building, to a stairwell at its far end. On the left hand wall a single large window stretched the length of the hall, enabling the PCs to look into a large, empty medical room. Bodies were strapped to gurneys inside that room. The other side of the hall had three doorways; two were closed, with narrow glass windows next to them opening into empty rooms. The third doorway was open, and from it had emerged two corpses. These corpses were staggering down the hallway towards the lift doors, arms outstretched, in a kind of shambling lurch. One wore a pair of coveralls and was covered in hideous radiation burns; the other appeared to have been operated on, and wore only a surgical gown with blotches of dried blood all over it. Both stared sightlessly down the hall as they stumbled forward, growling hideously.

Lam and Alpha reflexively opened fire, Alpha with his auto-rifle on full automatic, spattering chunks of radioactive zombie all over the infirmary window; then the lift doors closed. Simon Simon hit the button to jam them open, and moments later they slid open to reveal those same two zombies, closer now, and two more emerging behind them. With a yell Ahmose leapt forward, blade in hand, ordering the others to shoot down the zombies at the end of the hall while she held off those that came too close. Her tactic worked, and after a frenzied few minutes’ work they had cleared the hallway, killing 16 of the shambling dead with no injury. They stood in the hallway, panting and staring at each other in shock.

First they had met demons, and now the walking dead. What next?

They searched the infirmary, noting that all the dead bodies on gurneys had had organs carefully removed, and that the organs were nowhere in the infirmary’s freezers. A grim foreboding grew as to what they could expect to find next …

They took the stairs to the next level, finding a hallway with the same structure as the hall below: a single door on one side, and three doors on the other. Inside these three doors they found two offices and a kitchen. The first office seemed to be a simple secretaries’ room, with signs it had been suddenly vacated but no evidence of a struggle. The second, a kitchen with rotting food inside its primitive refrigerator, also spoke of the building having been suddenly vacated. The third was another office, perhaps for a more senior staff member, which had a locked drawer. They set about smashing the drawer.

Although Simon Simon stood on guard outside the door as they set about the drawer, he did not see their assailants until the grenade was inside the room and the door shut. A moment later he heard the muffled thump! of the explosion, and felt a blade penetrating his ribs. Thankfully spared the worst of the damage by his combat armour, he turned to see his assailant. Before him stood a small, wiry man, wearing some kind of leather armour but surrounded by a strange miasma of shadow. What little Simon Simon could see of his face through the shadows wreathed about it suggested an aging man with his skin shrivelled tight against the bones of his skull, like ancient paper. He carried a semi-transclucent sword in one hand, which glowed and shimmered in that flickering miasma of shadow, and sizzled where Simon Simon’s blood ran along it. Beyond this man, near the door, a second, similar figure stood, shimmering sword in one hand and a scroll unrolling in the other. A moment later that figure disappeared.

A chill ran up Simon Simon’s spine and he collapsed, paralyzed, to the ground. Moments later the PCs ripped the door open and opened fire on the assassin. Bullets and laser beams could penetrate the miasma of shadow around him, but they seemed to slow or dissipate when they hit it, so that he did not seem to feel their full force. They had him pinned down but Simon Simon could not tell them about the second assassin, who stabbed Ahmose with the same devastating effect moments later. Alpha managed to subdue the first assailant, but not before the second assassin had beaten Lam into unconsciousness. The assassin was about to finish Alpha when Ahmose’s paralysis faded, and she was able to push herself out of the door, firing her Gauss pistol on full auto as she did. Thankfully this shot cut down the second assassin.

Once again they survived a battle by the skin of Ahmose’s combat armour. One assassin was still alive, so they bound him and gagged him. Ahmose insisted on gagging him in case he could “do magic,” at which the other PCs shrugged in disgust, but now they were beginning to suspect that Ahmose’s constant warnings about necromancy and ancient lore might have more truth to them than old wives’ tales should.

Alpha administered first aid, and once they had recovered and rested a little they finished searching the room where they had been breaking into the drawer before the grenade had surprised them. Inside the drawer was a disc of pornography, and a note saying “When the boss is away: 681983.” They took it.

Injured and with a nagging, primal fear creeping up on them, they opened the last door to a scene of horror.

The door opened into what had once been the office meeting room, a large room with a few tables and chairs, and a large set of glass doors opening to a balcony with a view over the rest of the section. Through the grimy windows they could see the industrial skyline, smoke belching from sinister chimneys, the squat hulks of the reclamation factories and their evil exhaust smeared against the off-white walls of the dome of the habitat. The view was obscured, however, by a naked body hanging upside down from the ceiling of the meeting room, its flayed skin in a neat pile on the floor next to it and the whole rotting thing hanging over a large ceremonial bucket.

“Oh, that’s where they put the organs,” Ahmose said matter-of-factly as Alpha retched behind her; arrayed around the ceremonial bucket were a series of open jars containing the various organs harvested from downstairs. In front of the bowl was a knee cushion, exactly the same kind as they had found with the death priest in the tombspine, and a silver sword that glowed with its own light. All the furniture in the room had been shifted outside onto the balcony, and the floor carefully painted with a symbol of some kind using what looked like many layers of dried blood.

They had found the death priest’s lair. Ahmose warned them not to step inside the symbol and Alpha, not believing her, fired a bullet at the rope holding the body; the bullet stopped at the symbol’s edge with a loud bang, and sank to the ground with a clatter. Careful not to touch the pattern on the floor, they cut down the body and, once it had hit the ground, Ahmose carefully scrubbed away a part of the symbol. Something in the tense atmosphere of the room relaxed, and suddenly a wave of stench rolled over them as the barrier dissipated. They grabbed the silver sword, wrapping it in a towel and stuffing it in a sack, and retreated to the hallway. With nowhere else to put him, they bound the assassin to a table in the kitchen and set off up the last flight of stairs to the top floor of the building.

By now Alpha and Simon Simon were beginning to unravel. Good citizens of the Core of the Confederacy, they had been raised on science and logic, and they could not understand anything they were seeing. Nothing that had happened to them since they entered the Reach made any sense, and nothing they had been taught prepared them for it. That creeping horror of the unknown, with which Ahmose and Lam were still vaguely familiar, had begun to sink through the barriers of their education, and now they were beginning to panic. They were on the verge of cutting and running, and twitching to get this job done as quickly and dirtily as possible. Cautious only out of terror, they jumped at shadows and twitched to shoot anything that moved.

At the top of the stairs was a door, closed and painted with the same symbol from the room below. Ahmose dragged it open, revealing a small office antechamber to a larger room. Alpha sent his surveillance drone into the room, using infrared and motion sensors only, and finding nothing threatening. The drone drifted through the door of the office into the larger room beyond, and twitched right immediately as its motion sensors triggered. Something was hovering in the air in the room, moving rapidly towards the drone. It was a blob of frozen air, much colder than the rest of the room and floating at about the height of a human head. Moments later it passed through the drone and into the antechamber, heading towards the PCs, who were ready …

… But not for a ghost. The thing that entered the room had a glowing skull floating atop a disembodied, ghost-like body, all shrouded in tattered robes. It drifted straight at them, ignoring the laser blast from Simon Simon’s gun and then straight past Ahmose, clawing at her as it passed. Then it fled down the stairs, a frozen, stinking wind blowing briefly in its wake. Ahmose sank against the wall, reduced to imbecility by one touch from its clammy, icy touch. Simon Simon and Alpha, too scared to follow without the group, dragged Ahmose into the room and leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. Lam stepped into the inner room, but now Lam was beginning to feel their mood, and had lost her temper. She saw the death priests notes and religious items on a table at the far side of the room, strode over, and hurled them all into a sack. Then, turning back, she started storming around the room, kicking things. Simon Simon came in to calm her, but she pushed past him into the antechamber, staring around with wild eyes and ranting.

“First a pile of bones and them I’m attacked by a radioactive space zombie and then there are space ninjas and then a fucking ghost! I am so sick of this!” She stared around at Ahmose and Alpha, leaning wretched against the wall, and then her gaze alighted on the kitten. “SPACE ZOMBIES!” She yelled, and tore down the kitten post with a single sweep of her right hand. Then, shaking the sack at the others, she yelled, “I’ve got the loot, let’s get out of here and back to civilization before we see any more of this hoodoo guru’s madness!” And with that, she marched off to the stairs.

Alpha followed, trying to calm her down but mostly sympathizing with her, but not before he noticed the safe hidden behind the ripped poster. On a whim he dragged out the note from downstairs, and punched the code into the safe. It slid open, revealing a line of test tubes containing what looked suspiciously like human embryos … hastily grabbing them and stuffing them in a container of dry ice from inside the safe, he dashed downstairs after Lam.

Meanwhile, in the inner room, Simon Simon cast about desperately for signs of anything else that needed to be taken. He didn’t want to be left here alone but he also didn’t want to waste the trip, and he was sure that Lam’s search had been just perfunctory. Sure enough, in the corner he saw a primitive leather backpack and a staff. The backpack appeared to contain travel documents, and had a tag from a spaceline on it, and probably carried the information they were actually after. Grunting, and not thinking very clearly about what can happen when you touch a death priest’s staff, Simon Simon gathered them up and hustled after the others.  He grabbed Ahmose on the way, leading the suddenly imbecilic woman down the stairs and into the hallway below, to be confronted by Lam and Alpha at the end of the hall, jabbering. They had found the corpse of the assassin, drained by the ghost, which was now lost somewhere in the Pearl.

None of them thought about the possibility that they were carrying the only three weapons in the entire Pearl that could kill that ghost.

They hurried out and piled back into the van, Lam driving erratically. On their way back, Simon Simon convinced them to let him visit the safe house of the Unredeemed, which was nearby. They agreed, but told him there would be no more adventures. They parked outside and he approached the building, an old worker’s residence in a street of abandoned worker’s residences. Someone threatened him with a gun, but he mollified them by telling them his AI’s call sign in a technical code that only other Adherents would understand. They agreed to give him an hour of his time, and while the rest of the party waited outside, he stepped inside … into the lair of the Cult of the Unredeemed…

Cleansing the hearts of men

Cleansing the hearts of men

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[1]. 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”)[2]. 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.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

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[3] 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?[4] 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 …

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