Infernal adventures


And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

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Is this gonna be a stand up fight, or another bug hunt?

 

Months passed after our heroes captured their ship, and nothing happened. Lean times in New Horizon, first as they hunkered down to avoid attention after their last job, then as they waited out the repairs and reconfiguration of the HS Fortuna. Jayden and Genji moved into the ship and time stretched out, spent cleaning and training, money draining away – HS Fortuna was a great catch, but she cost money, a lot of money, and they were also maintaining a second base, which they called Firefly, a  hidden complex in a waste dump that they had designated as their safe house. Time passed, and money flew.

So it was that they took the first job they could get when they were ready to work again. Anansie set them up of course, a noodle meal at a stall set out in one of the bigger street markets of Sai Kung. They found the stall soon enough, an oasis of quiet and empty seats in a thronged night market, and sat down at an empty bench with a sleazy-looking man in a cheap suit. On the fringes of their noodle stall cold-eyed men stood watch, quietly steering potential customers away from the shop while they ate. Signs of a man working at the edge of the law, with more money than class. The kind of guy the characters needed to do business with.

His name was Yap Wei Man, one of those sleazy property magnates that thrive in Sai Kung like cockroaches behind a noodle stall. He flipped contracts, took over crumbling blocks and “relocated” their residents quickly to enable rapid renovations, dealt cheap rentals between slum lords the way a street dealer cuts low-grade cocaine to college kids, backed up by the same quality of muscle, muscle he could bring to bear with a grim, jaded patience on laggards, people who thought they had rights, families who couldn’t afford to see their whole pay packet squandered on greasy six-mat rooms but had to anyway. The kind of man they all hated.

The kind of man they had to do business with, because business was not good. Not for them, and not for Yap Wei Man, who had made an investment he wasn’t turning around. Pearl View Complex, a big ugly nightmare of interconnected tower blocks long since backslid into slums, coffin apartments and illegal extensions, the kind of tower block where tenants disappeared in a typhoon, where shady businesses took over the basement and the car park had long since been converted into a night market, or a drug market, or worse. These were the kinds of properties that Yap san flipped, but not Pearl View, because people were disappearing – well, he should clarify, more people than usual were disappearing – and tenants were starting to get queasy, moving out, missing the rent, and if yields dropped much more Yap san wouldn’t be able to flip it on, and then he’d be saddled with a loss, and worse still with the tedious task of daily managing rent collection and the desperate poor. No thank you, chummer, he did not need that. And so he needed a group of people who could do dirty jobs quietly, subtle people not afraid of deploying a bit of muscle, but able to keep it quiet. Anansie had recommended them – urgent jobs done subtly, he was told – and so here he was, their humble supplicant. He wanted them to go in, find out what was causing the disappearances, and stop it – all quietly enough that no one who might be looking in the direction of the property with a commercial eye would even notice. He offered them 3000 nuyen each, nothing if the job was not done quietly.

A room of one’s own …

They agreed, and set off to explore the complex. It was two separate blocks, the north eastern a more upmarket tower of actual apartments, mostly legally occupied, while the south western block was a nightmare of subdivided rooms, surreptitious hostels, businesses, and redivided spaces. The two were linked by a complex network of walkways, mostly ad hoc swing bridges of dubious design. The roof of the north eastern tower had turned into a kind of residents-only night market, the bottom two levels of the south eastern block had long since fallen into disrepair, abandoned by tenants and converted to darker, more subterranean uses.

They split up to explore the building and search for clues, and they soon found two. One part of the south western block had been taken over by a gang, the Ascendant Rats, who had slowly begun blocking off the hallways and entries to their part of the block. They had been dealing medical goods and medical care to the poorer members of the block, and seemed to have a good reputation, but about two weeks ago they had aggressively sealed up a lot of entrances to their part of the block, and stopped communicating with the rest of the block. Meanwhile down in the basement there was some new religious group that had moved in a few months ago, the Clarity of Unity. They had been painting art works around the building, and with a bit of careful mapping and thought Adam was able to confirm that yes, the art works were images of arcane power, that had been placed in the positions necessary to establish the Clarity of Unity’s home base as a magical lodge. Someone was working powerful magic in the basement.

First they visited the section held by the Ascendant Rats. They found it empty, and disturbingly so. The rooms were smeared with dried blood, holes in the walls, one room that had obviously been the scene of a vicious battle had a hole in the floor that fell through many levels below, into darkness. As they explored the dark, silent rooms they found strange new walls that had been erected, of smooth extruded concrete that held a faint astral presence. They also felt themselves watched, heard strange clicking sounds, like the voices of aliens – or spirits. In particular a malevolent, six-eyed shadow that they saw watching them from the end of a hallway, clicking menacingly. They retreated to the thriving life of the rooftop market and put in a call to Mr. Yap – he had a vermin problem, and they were willing to fix it, but it would cost him. He agreed – bring him proof, and he would give a hefty bonus. Details were not discussed, but an understanding was reached. They decided to examine the Clarity of Unity, though they were already sure what they would find.

First they visited them at the time of the evening meal, having heard that they ran a soup kitchen. They were welcomed into an old parking space at the ground level, that had been converted into a kind of open air church and food area. Benches were set out, and a big serving area where anyone who asked for it got a big hearty bowl of congee and some slabs of cheap chicken. The PCs did not eat any, and found themselves speaking to stony, closed faces as soon as they started asking questions about the Clarity of Unity’s purpose. Before the meal started an old, weary-looking man emerged, and the crowd began to whisper his name – “Rahman, Rahman.” He gave a short, strangely perfunctory speech about finding clarity in unity before retiring and leaving everyone to eat.

The PCs were not satisfied. They left, and worked their way through the basement to the area behind the Clarity of Unity kitchens. Soon enough they found it – a tunnel that did not match the structure of the building, leading down into fetid warm air. Down they went, heading deep beneath the original structure of the building into a warren of tunnels, all made of the same extruded, concrete-like substance they had seen above in the lair of the Ascendant Rats. They had found the vermin nest.

As they descended deeper into the nest they began to hear the sound of clicking and hissing, always a little way ahead, always fleeing. They were being led into a trap and they knew it – but that’s what they were being paid to do. They advanced slowly and steadily, Jayden in the lead, following the clicks. Somewhere far above, Jayden’s guardian spirit soared in the sky, heedless of barriers of stone or mud, lending him that strange and supernatural sense of danger that enabled him to walk into any trap already prepared. No one would surprise them while Jayden led the way. Behind walked Adam Lee, moving slowly, half his sense in the astral plane, watching for signs of the spirits they were sure would ambush them.

Eventually they found the centre of the nest, a huge cone-shaped cavern far beneath the apartment, shrouded in darkness and stifling with hot, stinking, moist air. Their commlink lights did not reach far enough to light the whole place, but they showed enough: a mound of earth and junk in the centre of the cavern; beyond it a hulking, shadowy structure rising into space; and around them strange pulsing blue sacks stuck to the wall. In the darkness Adam Lee stumbled into one and shrunk back in disgust; Jayden, unfazed by mere horror, stuck a knife in the thing and tore it open, revealing a living cat encapsulated in its pulsing blue goo. The slime fell out, the cat keening and dying as it slid off Jayden’s razor sharp knife. Adam stepped back in disgust and as he did his gaze chanced up, commlink lights reaching out to strike a similar glow from larger egg shapes – and up there, at the edge of vision, the silhouette of humans inside the eggs.

Adam screamed, John opened fire on the distant shape, and they all charged forward. In the half light they saw a horrid, pulsing thorax, a quiescent monster rising above it into the shadows. It was guarded by four strange humanoid creatures, men whose bodies had been hideously reshaped so that they had mandibles protruding from scaled faces, arms grotesquely distorted to protrude behind their backs, ending in wicked insectoid claws. One through a barrier of thin concretoid excretion around the queen and the rest attacked. Behind the queen Rahman stood, arms raised in ecstasy, droning some ancient wicked ritual to the insect gods.

The battle was brutal. From the walls enormous termites emerged, firing noxious spray or attacking with huge mandibles, trying to defend their queen. The queen herself began to stir, slowly waking from some long slumber and beginning to shake herself free of her egg sac, massive angel-like wings twitching. They realized that the cone-shaped cavern opened to a wide, sweeping tunnel that must reach up to the surface, and that the queen was going to escape into the city if they did not stop her. They fought desperately, trying to reach Rahman before he could complete the ritual of awakening, but the termites and transformed humans blocked them, and more kept emerging. John fell to the blows of the termites and Genji fought against a fog of confusion from the termites’ poisonous breath, the queen shook more, Rahman laughed in sick glee between the beats of his ritual … but at the last Jayden was able to push through the final guardian and hit Rahman with his full might, slicing and dicing in a whirl of super-fast knife blades, cutting both of Rahman’s arms and slicing through his spine, bringing his evil chant to a halt moments before its crescendo. He fell without even screaming, too badly hurt to do anything except gasp and bleed, and the queen collapsed back into senescence. Around them termite soldiers and mutated humans reverted to uncontrolled madness, the spirits inside them free. The characters, realizing their job was done but only madness would follow, fled, dragging John with them.

Minutes later, panting and exhausted, they emerged into the dim light of the Pearl View courtyard. They dumped John in the shadows of the tower and sagged against the wall, panting and cursing. The distant sound of shrieks and clicks faded as the termite spirits returned to their home plane, or killed each other, and somehow they knew that the queen would die. They had done it. The strange curse of Pearl View Complex was lifted, and just as its seedy owner had demanded, no one would know. Somewhere down below the encapsulated Ascendant Rats would wake up in their suddenly disenchanted sacks of insect pus, to be slaughtered and eaten by their enraged captors, but our heroes had no intention of going back in to rescue them. Jayden looked over at Adam Lee, pale and exhausted, leaning on the wall fighting off the sickness of too many spells, and saw him shake his head gently; looked at Genji, leaning panting over his sword, wiping ichor off his face, and heard him grunt a gentle “fuck it.” They had no spirit to fight. They retreated, and put in the call.

Below them a gang was eviscerated, a queen died, spirits slunk away to their own realm. Ahead of them money, and sleep.

All was right with their world.

 

 

Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

On the 30th December I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword and sorcery RPG with a simple engine and stripped down rules that I wanted to try out. This is the game report.

There were three PCs:

  • Kazaam, hunter and assassin from the lost Bone-Eye clan of the Beshaar desert
  • Batiz, shaman of the Bone-Eye, an alchemist, beastmaster and magician too old for combat or any vigorous activity beyond cursing, accompanied on all his adventures by his faithful skorpider
  • Zeddek, mercenary-physician from the Pirate Isles

The group of them had previously been on adventure, Kazaam and the Sea of Evil, in which Kazaam was sent to rescue a farmer from the lair of the Wise, where he had been taken for nefarious purposes by a merchant, who held the Sword of Hideous Death. Kazaam received this challenge simply because he was Kazaam; however, he managed to succesfully rescue the farmer, only to find the reward was less than he had hoped, but he was marked by the Gods for his deeds[1]. After this adventure, the PCs went carousing together in Malakut, and had been carousing for 9 days before finally they became bored and found themselves at a table in the tavern called the Red Empire, pondering what deeds of glory to attend to next.

Thus do adventures start: Batiz plucked his bone eye from its socket and shuffled over to the fire pit, over which a large lizard roasted on a spit. Squatting near the ashes like a savage, he dug into the skull of the beast with his knife and tore forth its roasting eye, which he stuffed into his own gaping eye socket and, with a roar of fear and joy, fell backwards to spasm on the floor, whereupon he suffered one of the rare visions his god sends him. He saw a rich woman and her bodyguard walking through one of Malakut’s many spice markets, strolling down an alley lined with sacks of spices in many colours, the floor a dusty carpet of variegated shades of powder. Suddenly men lunged from the shadows, throwing clouds of spice in the eyes of the bodyguard and dragging the woman away into the darkness beyond the stalls, tipping over a barrel of cardamom and pushing through a curtain of hanging saffron threads as they did so. The vision snapped away and with a squeal of pain Batiz pulled out the burnt lizard eye and hurled it into the fire. He returned to the table, pushing his bone eye back into its socket, to tell his fellows of his vision[2].

Recognizing a woman who needed to be rescued, the characters asked around, finally identifying the spice market where the attack had taken place by the hanging threads of saffron and the cardamom barrel. They rushed there through the narrow streets of Malakut on their war-ostriches[3], arriving in time to find the bodyguard, a woman called Damaya, standing despondent at the entryway. She told them that the woman was Raemis, daughter of a rich merchant who would reward them handsomely if they could rescue her from her abductors before a ransom demand was made. They needed no further prompting, and began searching the market. Finding no evidence of the footprints of the abductors despite the abundant spices scattered around all the floors of the markets, they asked amongst the stall holders. Finally one told them that there was a war ongoing between the Ragged Knaves and the Brotherhood of Shadows, and it was likely one of those groups had abducted her. The Ragged Knaves knew everything that happened in the markets, perhaps they should ask? So they asked around for the Ragged Knaves until finally they met a man called Juss who was willing to lead them to the Knaves’ leader, a beggar-king known as Jandor Hookhand.

Hookhand told them he had heard rumours already that the Brotherhood of Shadows had abducted Raemis, and he would tell them where the Brotherhood’s headquarters were for free, in hopes of receiving help in his war against the Brotherhood, who were slowly strangling his guild of beggars and street urchins. Perhaps they could reason with the Brotherhood leader, Zolat the Scimitar. The PCs headed off to the Brotherhood headquarters, a tavern called the foaming mug. On the way they were ambushed by brotherhood assassins, all six of whom they dispatched in short order before proceeding over the Bridge of Sorrows to the quarter in which they could find the tavern. As they neared, Batiz cast a spell on Kazaam’s hawk to enable him to see through its eyes, and Kazaam hurled his hawk aloft. They found a safe pathway to reach the headquarters without being noticed by its watchmen, and settled in an alley near the rear entrance of the Foaming Mug. Soon a messenger entered the tavern through that back door, emerging again accompanied by a man in a scarlet hooded cloak, who carried a scimitar over one shoulder. Guessing this must be the leader, they trailed him at some distance. Kazaam took the lead, following close to the pair. In fact his stealthy desert movements were so skilled that not only could he follow them closely, he could listen to their conversation and even sneak close enough to steal the keys on the messenger’s belt[4]. Listening to their conversation, he learnt that they were heading to a shop, that there was a demon guardian in the shop, but it would not attack them if Zolat stayed close to the messenger.

Kazaam followed until they were near the shop, taking a position with a view of the door. The messenger opened the door and Zolat entered first, the messenger stepping in behind him, at which point Kazaam shot him with an arrow. One shot killed the man, who fell dead inside the doorway. Kazaam ran forward and slammed the door shut, locking it from without using the keys he had pilfered. From within came yells and roars, strange flickering lights, and then silence. With one arrow Kazaam had slain two, and possibly three opponents. The rest of the party joined him and they opened the door, charging in to take on any survivors of the battle.

Zolat the Scimitar was dead, parts of him scattered around the shop. In his death throes he had overturned a shelf of herbs, and in the battle the decorations and contents of the apothecary had been damaged, but the demon had not been killed. It swarmed towards the characters, a horrific beast with the head of a carnivorous ape and a cylindrical body ringed with disgusting tentacles, the whole thing covered with a thick slimy apes fur. It was Vul’Mazzanlu, the Ape-Thing! Fortunately for the PCs it had been injured in the fight with Zolat, and they were able to kill it quickly. Batiz tore out its hideous tongue and they proceeded to the back of the shop, where stairs led down into a basement from which emerged the sound of chanting, and a flickering light. They had found their kidnappers, surely!

They descended the stairs to see a terrible sight: A large room with a magic circle in the centre, within which lay Raemis’s unconscious body. A triangle was drawn inside the magic circle, and at each point of the triangle stood a chanting acolyte. Smells of incense drifted out of the room along with the droning chanting of the acolytes, woven in with the strident calls and song of the master conjuror: Valtriz of Ill-Omen, who no doubt intended to use Raemis as a human sacrifice to draw forth some hideous demon from beyond!

Before they attacked Batiz consumed the demon’s tongue and used it to cast a cantrip of misdirecting sound, the screams and yells of an angry demon, to confuse the participants and delay the ritual. Then they charged into the room, to find themselves facing 9 more acolytes, Valtriz himself, and an evil assistant. Truly, a battle worthy of heroes!

They fought, Zeddek laying about himself at the acolyte rabble with slaughterous intent while Kazaam fired arrows at the tougher assistant, and Batiz threw acid at the chanting acolytes. However, they could not disrupt the ritual: after they had killed all the rabble defending the ritual Valtiz of Ill-Omen cast a paralyzing spell on all of them – twice! – and they were forced to watch in horror as the shadowy form of a greater demon began to manifest in the circle over the supine body of the helpless woman. Finally they were able to free themselves of the paralysis, and Zeddek killed Valtiz of Ill-Omen. Unfortunately he was too late, and though they managed to disrupt one of the acolytes it was not enough, and the horrifying demon Mazallakos of the Severed Veil appeared in the circle as the Acolytes called his name in adoration and fear. The magic circle snapped, and Mazallakos was free in the world!

They grabbed the nearest ritual weapons they could find and attacked the non-corporeal monstrosity, Zeddek hacking at it with a silver sword and Kazaam firing silver arrows. As they did this Batiz fell to his knees, tore off his shirt, and carved the name of the demon on his body from his chest along his arm; he called to Kazaam, who slew a fleeing acolyte and drained the blood onto Batiz’s shoulder, that he might work this human sacrifice into the carven name like tattoo ink; having done this he then consumed the eye of the Ape-Thing from upstairs, and called forth a mighty spell in the name of all the gods to bind this demon Mazallakos in place[5].

The great spell did not work! The demon was immune to even Batiz’s most desperate spells! But they did not give up, hacking at it with rage and abandon. The demon, perhaps not realizing how close they all were to spent, looked about itself at the dead conjuror and the room strewn with the dead bodies of acolytes, saw a mad mage eating a demon eye, felt the stabbing pain of silver sword and arrow, and perhaps decided that on this day discretion was the better part of valour. It disappeared in a thunder clap, preferring to retreat to some subterranean lair to nurse its wounds and gather followers, that it might decimate the living world in its own time.

They carried Raemis forth from that vile place and returned her to her father, who paid them handsomely despite the discovery that his daughter’s mind was partially lost from the demon sucking her life essence before they could drive it away. They left the compound of the merchant on their war-ostriches as dawn coloured the minarets and rooftops of Malakut with its first pink light. Burdened with treasure and exhausted from a night of battle, they paused at the heights to look over the town, and turned their faces to their next challenge: To find Mazallakos, and restore the rightful order of things by slaying him and any who followed him.


fn1: The Barbarians of Lemuria rulebook has a random generator for sword-and-sorcery adventures, and rather than try to figure out why the PCs were together I just decided they had adventured together before, and had them roll up the details of the adventure they had been on. I was going to give them advancement points for that adventure but decided not to bother; given the flow of events once the adventure started, I probably should have.

fn2: This was a level 1 spell, with the bone eye and the visible effects of the spell-casting counting as requirements to reduce the cost of casting it.

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

fn4: The player rolled a 12 on 2d6 and used a Hero Point to upgrade from Mighty Success to Legendary Success, which proved incredibly useful a moment later

fn5: Batiz only had 6 arcane points left and binding the demon I decided was a second level spell, which costs 10 arcane points that can be reduced to 6 with requirements. For Batiz this was a) human sacrifice, b) permanent focus (tattoo), c) eating the demon eye and d) doing d6+1 wounds to himself [this is almost enough to kill Batiz].

The last of the lost ones ...

The last of the lost ones …

While they sojourned in The Reach the characters killed a death priest who was committing foul acts in the old tombs of many planets. They have been offered a job traveling back to the priest’s origin planet and avenging the damage he has done in other planets, as well as finding out why, but while they were in The Reach they had no idea who he was or where he was from. They recovered some documents of his but they could not read them, and they expected that they would need to retrace the priest’s journey from planet to planet to find out where he came from, a long and exhausting task. However, when they visited the Oracle at Niscorp 1743 they showed her the books, and she was able to immediately identify their origin. They were, she told them, books written in the language of the Cult of the Last Barrier. She told them all she knew on this Cult and its mysterious origins.

The Cult of the Last Barrier

My halo a crown, a crown of bones I’ll hate

I wear a robe, the robe of souls I’ll burn

Under the shroud

Where seeds of chaos will grow

Waking the dead, entering the ethereal

The Cult of the Last Barrier is the name commonly given to an entire society of nomadic remnants, who live in three giant sub-light spacecraft and travel from planet to planet like celestial nomads. The name is taken from the cultural history of these people themselves, but they do not refer to themselves as a society; they simply call themselves The Last Barrier. They are one of only a few remnant societies that are genuinely space-faring, but one of  multitude of nomadic space-faring societies scattered across the Confederacy. Unlike most of these societies, they do not consider themselves to be part of the Confederacy, and although they benefit from its post-scarcity society wherever they travel, they have little regard for its rules or norms, and they jealously protect themselves from interference. Although they welcome trade and allow some small anthropological research, they are a closed society who give away little to the outside world, and do the barest minimum required to be tolerated in Confederate space. They are rumoured to be older than the Confederacy itself, but little is known about their history. This secrecy is not uncommon in remnant societies, although it is rare in those with existing space travel, and there is some debate as to whether they can be considered uplifted. This scholarly – and occasionally legal – debate is intensified by their two genuinely unique properties: the common practice of necromancy, and their use of living spaceships.

From the Ashes of Angels

A new day is dawning

My world is prepared, barriers dissolving

They no longer hold

I know

Dreaming in symmetry

No gravity, the enemy

This resonance will be in exordium

The Last Barrier live in three spaceships that have been constructed from the husks of ancient interstellar Behemoths. Although these Behemoths appear not to be sentient, they are still in some sense alive, and appear to be in some form of symbiotic relationship with their inhabitants, though understanding this relationship is complicated by the Barrier’s insistence that one of the three ships is actually undead. The three ships reflect three aspects of the life that Barrier members live, and are divided between three separate religious cults:

  • The Shared Creation is the ship on which all members of the Barrier are born, and is maintained by a cult of life and healing that claim to practice a kind of priestly magic based on worshiping life, the sun and the feminine forces of creation. The shell of an ancient Behemoth somewhere in form between a squid and a ray, this ship is also used to grow food and supplies for the other two ships. When the ships travel between planets in full sub-light travel mode, this ship radiates light and appears to act as the guide for the other two ships.
  • The Lost Eden is the ship where members of the Barrier live the majority of their lives, primarily in quiet contemplation and study, or working in basic manufacturing and repair work to maintain their lifestyle. It is similar in shape to a giant mollusc or nautilus-like creature, though longer and thinner, and its many cavities and hollows offer many places for people to live and work. The Lost Eden is run by a cult of warrior monks, who worship order and knowledge. They provide the technical skills to maintain the ships, and organize the laws and rules of the whole society. Most outside observers liken them to a theocratic dictatorship.
  • The Necromanteion is the ship that the Barrier claims is undead. Shaped like a huge dead spider or a kind of starfish, it radiates almost no light and its cramped hallways and tunnels are dimly lit and silent. This ship is run by a cult devoted to death, eternity, destruction and silence, and it is on this ship that the death priest must have originated. All members of the Barrier come here to die, or are brought here after their death, and it is at the centre of this ship that the Barrier is rumoured to maintain a kind of spiritual force that contains the memories of all the souls of all the generations of the cult of the Barrier – a kind of after-death backup, that never gets used for resleeving but is visited by elders of the death cult to seek advice and knowledge.

These ships are huge – perhaps twice the size of an Ocean class confederate ship – but sparsely populated, almost empty in the case of the Necromanteion. There are no recorded instances of interstellar behemoths of this kind ever being witnessed in the Confederacy, which gives many scholars reason to think that the Last Barrier come from beyond the Confederacy. The Barrier themselves deny this. They say that the ships are the bodies of their dead gods, and that they originated within the Confederacy. If challenged on this, their representatives argue that the ancestor memory at the heart of the Necromanteion would confirm it, if outsiders were allowed to ask.

This Priesthood

Time for initiation, the origin of all

To be revealed

Buried down

Deep in hallowed ground

The flame of life

Will burn out

The Last Barrier are controversial, of course, for their practice of necromancy. Because the Confederacy cannot accept fully the existence of such a thing, it is not possible for the Confederacy to oppose it or to demand it cease, but it is clear that the Last Barrier’s priests are incredibly powerful and up to no good. They are capable of sustaining their population through years of sub-light travel between stars, and are also able to somehow compel most of their society into a kind of quiescent semi torpor to reduce their activity during this stage of travel. They also claim to maintain a backup of the souls of all their dead stretching back to the beginning of time, which would require a degree of storage and energy that is unheard of even for the Confederacy.

Many scholars believe that the priesthood’s vast powers are drawn at least in part from the spaceships they occupy. These spaceships draw upon subspace power to move, to maintain body temperature and also to construct fields and atmospheres around their bodies which protect their hosts, and many scholars believe that the priesthood are able to draw on these powers when they work their strange rituals. If the Necromanteion is dead then this might explain also its ability to travel through space with the other two ships; they seem to exert some kind of subspace field over it, although there is also evidence of power generation of some kind happening within the ship. Unfortunately the organic structure of the ships and their strange functions prevents deep scans of their internal functions, in the case of the Necromanteion preventing even a proper understanding of the internal layout of the beast’s empty halls. Occasionally scholars have pushed for a military takeover of the vessels so that their full function can be explored, especially given the apparently unique ability of the Last Barrier’s priests to manipulate subspace and hyperspace, in contravention of most theories of how priest magic works. The Confederacy has resisted these demands, and for now allows the Last Barrier to move freely within its borders so long as it obeys basic laws.

Such a position of non-interference and the moral relativism underlying it would likely disappear if the Confederacy were made aware that the Last Barrier had been employing necromancy outside of its borders, and interfering with other remnant societies’ burial practices. Unless, of course, the Confederacy is keeping the Last Barrier free of interference for darker reasons of its own. Perhaps the authorities of the Confederacy see some value in courting the favour of those who can manipulate death itself. Or perhaps they know more about this mysterious society of wandering priests and necrophiles than they have been willing to reveal to their own scholars …

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The final roll call

The final roll call

So we were sent in by ‘is high and mighty lordship to kill the Swine Prince. Ain’t nuffink to it, ‘e says, not that ‘e’d know since ‘e don’t never go down there ‘isself, prefers to stay all lordy and poncey in the ‘ighest room of the inn but ‘e sure ain’t shy about sendin’ in others to clean up his sweet dad’s mess. “Singular and unsettling rumours abound,” says ‘e in ‘is oity-toity way, “Of an experiment of my father’s that went awry, and in the doing of it trapped some antediluvian outsider in the grossly misshapen body of a tortured pig. It falls upon thee – ” oh yes ‘e likes ‘isself some Shakey Spear does our lordship, ” – to cleanse the warrens of this foul monstrosity. Be warned, it is accompanied by a much smaller, runt-like pig that it is said to hold very dear and precious, and one should not harm the little one until the big one is done for. Or so I have heard in talk about the hamlet, from those who came before you.”

So that’s that, there’s the promise of a fat stash of glinties and a nice little magic ring when we get back wiv the Swine Prince’s ‘ead, so off we go. It’s a slightly dodgy marchin’ order this day because all the Vestals are down the brothel lickin’ wine off the tits of their fallen sisters, and the last crew wot got back from some big reccie job think this kind of slaughter and jiggery-pokery is beneath them, everyone says they’re gearin’ up for an attack on the Necromancer ‘isself. Wot means it’s me, Gael, your very one and only Plague Doctor; then there’s Thibault, the Occultist wot gives me the creeps and gets a leery look in ‘is eye every time ‘e calls down those ribbons of extra-dimensional ‘orror; then we’ve got Gomboult the Crusader, ‘andy chap to ‘ave around in a pinch though ‘is sermonizing and heretofores get a little bit tiring down there in the deeps; and at the front we’ve got Mr. Middleton ‘isself, Man-at-arms, wot everyone says made a motzah smackin’ Russky arse in the Criminalean, though I don’t credit it myself – methinks ‘e’s put in a few years’ time at the bars and flophouses round the Criminal Sea, but not so much elbow grease on the front line, if you get my drift.

The plan woz pretty simple stuff. Mr. Middleton and Gomboult stand at the front, whackin’ anythin’ wot gets in arms reach; Thibault stands at back where every Occultist luvs to be, workin’ ‘is Wyrd Reconstruction on anyone wot ‘as the misfortune to get bit, and occasionally ‘aulin’ those extra-dimensional death ribbons out and whackin’ the enemy’s arse with ’em – ‘e calls it Abyssal Artillery, but I just call it the Tentacle Slap. Thibault’s Wyrd Reconstruction works a charm for stitchin’ up big cuts but it’s a bit … unreliable, and sometimes it, ah, it makes ya ooze, know wot I mean? But I’ve got a sovereign remedy for when mortal bits come unstuck, so on the occasion that ‘is Reconstruction goes wrong I ‘astily throw on a bit of Battlefield Medicine, and when I ain’t patchin’ up Thibault’s extra-dimensional mistakes I’m givin’ the same sovereign remedy for acid, poison and other cuts – ’cause my medical skills are rough but effective, don’t ya know? – and the rest of the time I’m lobbin’ little grenades of unpleasant goo at wotever takes my fancy.

And there’s a lot down there in the warrens that you want to cast some acid on, if you get my drift. This day it woz extra mean, wiv all manner of nasties crawlin’ out of stone and sewer to whale on us, but we made it right through a real long set of tunnels to where we fought that old pig might be. Sad to say, but Thibault got done in by a nasty little spider right outside the Swine Prince’s lair, just took one dram too much spit from the nasty bugger and I didn’t get to ‘im in time. ‘E’s an Occultist too so ‘is eyes went real wide right before ‘e went, and he started beggin’ us “No! They’re coming! Don’t let them take me! These aren’t the angels I was promised!”

‘S kind of funny when you think about it, innit? Those Occultists make some kind of skeezy deal with the Big Gentleman At The Tentacle Farm, and ‘e promises ’em glory and power and greatness, but they die faster ‘n anyone else and they all do that little chorus ‘o regret right before the end. Whenever a new one turns up I wonder if I should point out to ‘im my ‘istory of watchin’ his colleagues die gibberin’ in terror at their Inky Boss, but I just don’t ‘ave the ‘eart, me. No, and I figure they can’t back out o’ the deal anyway – why spoil it for the little blighters? Maybe if they didn’t all come from stinkin’ Eden College, wiv airs o’ nobility about ’em, I might be a little more forthcomin’ wiv me tears, but I can’t bring meself to shed none for such as them. Still, he stitched me up good a few times, didn’t ‘e? Shame to see ‘im go like that, all smeared wiv spider goo and smokin’ and cryin’ and beggin’ his mummy to save ‘im from the big scary octopus. You’d ‘ve thought his teachers might ‘ve shown ‘im a picture of his boss, eh?

Anyway so once we’d given Thibault a proper burial (well akchually we woz pretty close so we just stripped ‘im of ‘is stuff), we girded ourselves and went in for the Big Pig. ‘E was slummin’ it inside this mighty girt cave wot woz completely stinkin’ of pig shit and dead bodies and there woz a dozen corpses and ‘im and ‘is little bum-buddy chowin’ down on the remains ov wot looked like a grave robber though I can’t be sure, on account of it bein’ ‘alf-eaten and smeared in pig shit. But Mr. Middleton, ‘e’s all gee’d up for a stoush after Gomboult gave us all a mighty inspirin’ speech at the camp, and so ‘e yells “I’m gonna make you squeal like a pig under a gate!” and then the shit-show’s on for real like, innit? And the little pig-runt goes and cowers be’ind ‘is master, who is like this towerin’ pig from another dimension, my friend, ‘e is absoLUTEly monstrosterous. ‘E must ‘ave been 20 feet ‘igh and 10 feet wide, and ‘e was standin’ on two legs and ‘oldin’ this massive meat cleaver wot could carve a whale in twain, and ‘e’s got this feral glint in ‘is massive piggy eye, and ‘e don’t squeal but grunts and roars and comes shufflin’ forward but Gomboult and Mr. Middleton are all gee’d up for a fight an’ let me tell you it was quite a stoush. But the little runt pig would throw mud on us and wotever one the mud stuck to, the Swine Prince would rain a storm of meat-chopper death on ’em, and I ‘ad me work cut out keepin’ ’em patched up enough to go back into the fight.

We did wot we were warned and didn’t ‘it that little runt, though once or twice Mr. Middleton let rip wiv a sly spankin’ just to remind ‘im whose boss, but the little runt didn’t do nothin’, and we woz startin’ to look good. But then the Big Pig dropped such a storm ‘o choppery on us that you would not ‘ave seen your way through it no matter wot, and when the mud and pig-shit ‘ad settled both Mr. Middleton and Gomboult were lookin’ seriously the worse for wear, and there were bits of ’em fallin’ off. I patched up Gomboult, and Mr. Middleton went valiant back into that fight, and got in a big ‘it, but then the Pig rained down more o’ that stompage just as Gomboult was wadin’ back in, and when the festerin’ slime was cleared Mr. Middleton ‘ad become unfit for ‘uman consumption, if you get my drift. ‘E woz just bits of old campaigner, rainin’ down on us. But this made Gomboult quite the mad Crusader, mortal wounded though he woz after that last rain ‘o death, and before I could patch ‘im up ‘e ‘ad charged forward and let rip such a blow wiv ‘is sword that the Swine Prince didn’t ‘ave no chance, and fell dead as a Sunday sucklin’ roast, right there at our feet. Victory!

But then no sooner ‘ad we felled the big bastard than that little pesky runt came heelin’ over the corpse, set down in front of us and let rip with the most god-awful pig squeal you ‘ave ever ‘eard. And wot wiv Gomboult bein’ in a right mortal state, he just upped and died there on the spot. That squeal ‘ad some infernal power in it, ‘coz it turned my legs and arms to jelly and I couldn’t do nothin’, not even run away through all that swirlin’ mud and Middleton mush. And ‘e just kept screamin’ at me till I passed out!

So I’m glad you found me when you did, sirs, ’cause it’s mighty stinky in their and I could’a drowned in the mud, but I’m sad to tell you I’ve got nothin’ left in me. I’m done for, I’ve already lost most of meself in that there mud. You’ll find the Swine Prince just down there in the hollow, dead as a demon doorknob and stinkin’ up ‘is own mud pit. As for that runt, if you find ‘im, kick ‘is arse for me. But I’ve got nothin’ left to run on. I’m just one more corpse for the wagon now …

 

Our World of Darkness campaign, that we began by accidentally exterminating a native American tribe from history, ended today when we accidentally reset history to a parallel world ruled by a Thousand Year Reich built on justice and honour.

In the process we went from a group of ordinary mortals struggling to understand why we were trapped in a pocket universe with a genocidal spirit, to generals of a supernatural host, leading armies of magical beasts in a war against heaven. My character, John Micksen, went from a washed-up, ageing hippy sitting alone in a bar, to Winter Knight wielding a sword out of legend (Excalibur!) and leading an army of the four courts of faerie.

We did great things while we wound our ugly and complex path to this brutal ending. In the last session alone we caused an angel to fall from heaven, destroyed an army, killed a god, had lucifer sacrifice himself to open a gate into the primal stuff of the universe, and reset the world so that an evil god never existed. As we wound our way across continents seeking the keys to the destruction of the God Machine we did great things, and saw great evil. From the first moment we opened a door in the basement of a psychiatric hospital, to find an infinite space filled with chains and cogs, we knew we were up against something relentless and evil, and our actions had to be bold, powerful and often cruel.

We started small, rescuing children from paedophiles who were smuggling them to an evil corporation; we burned the paedophiles alive and fought a fatal battle with the petty angel they served. We crossed into the land of the dead from an abandoned concentration camp to save the children’s’ souls from undead scientists who were performing hideous experiments, and while we were there we liberated lucifer himself from a thousand years of captivity. We fled destroyer angels who laid waste to whole city blocks trying to find us, hid in anarchist squats in East Berlin and vegan fascist terrorist lairs in Chicago. We dealt in pride and babies with the courts of faerie, so that we could betray a demon to a vampire, in service to a cause we didn’t yet understand. We did a deal with an ancient dragon and crept into hades to kidnap its ruler in trade for a faerie queen; that same god of death we later saved from a hideous experiment that used his essence to resurrect Jesus – and that same queen rode back into the faerie land of winter on the back of a Russian T34 tank, that our demon violinist drove. We carved a kingdom out of faerie, and bought a mansion in Ireland to connect to it using gold stolen from hell. For a while Cerberus itself (an intellectual and arrogant beast if ever there were one!) was our mansion’s guard dog, but of course we had to flee when angels came to destroy our mansion – a destruction John Micksen watched while speaking of lost love with an angel more terrible and beautiful than the sun. “The Winter Knight,” he said, after fleeing from her wrath, “Tires of this shit.”

We tired of many things, because we were constantly fleeing from great powers. We destroyed corporations digging around for the answers we sought – literally, leveled their offices and killed their officers. Anyone who helped us or even met us died – bodyguards, wives, children, allies, friends, political fellow-travelers, anyone who sheltered us, anyone who did business with us, and almost everyone who crossed us. They died in fire, the rubble of apartment blocks razed by enraged angels who sought after us, in the pits of hell or in the snowy wastes of faerie, they died chained to a steering wheel in a flaming gasoline stand or savaged by berserk werewolves on vast fields of battle. Some of them were pounded into red mist by the Winter Knight, some left to experience an eternity of frozen pain in the deepest darks of the wastes of faerie winter. Some were tortured by our enemies, or just disappeared into nowhere by ancient powers we had angered. For every one of our allies or friends who suffered, our anger grew and our list of retributions extended. We were not patient, or careful, but we did all we could to destroy those who crossed us.

We were no match for our foes. An implacable god without emotion, possessed of infinite patience, sought to change the world to suit its cold mechanical whims, and the angels that served it felt no mercy, fear or compassion. They slowly reworked the political landscape of the world to suit the mysterious machine passions of their master, turning America  into a fascist dystopian nightmare, laying waste to whole nations with plague and war, exterminating races and cultures with machine precision that no human could ever master. They sought to tip the balance in every dimension. For a short time the courts of faerie waged war against each other and a strange machine god, and all the seasons were thrown into chaos – until we intervened to restore peace and kidnap a mad faerie queen wed to a despicable machine. But for every victory our terrible foes became more ruthless and more wrathful, so that we were forced to flee, and flee again, always running and hiding.

Some of us died three times. Some of us were infected by the God Machine’s sinister viruses, rebooted, cleansed and returned to us unrecognizable. Some of us were cast down from our powers and left to rot and die, before we rose up again to take on new and greater roles. Some of us tried to strike out for freedom and failed. Some of us had to dig deep and fight hard to uncover the secrets of our past, and strike a path into the future. Some of us lost everything, rebuilt, and lost it all again. We reached our wits’ end, burned our patience, rampaged through our enemies’ lairs in rage and anger destroying everything in sight. We stole a sacred stone from Mecca, and books of gibberish from under the noses of angels that could destroy whole armies. We were epic, and constantly terrified.

All of this came down to a final battle on a dusty plane in the American mid-west, to find a gate that would change the past and the future. Our Demon Violinist opened the gate, while armies fought to end the world, and we reset everything so that all our enemies were extinguished. We triumphed! And the world was restored to an order of peace and justice that could never exist in any boring, cold reality.

Truly, this was a glorious campaign of great deeds, terrifying struggle, mysteries unraveled and paedophiles flame-grilled. It was exhilarating, terrifying, deeply absorbing, sometimes incredibly frustrating, confusing and exhausting. I don’t think it had anything in common with a normal World of Darkness campaign, and the Demon book on which it was all based only arrived for the last session. But it was amazing in its scope, its power and its content. And it ended in glory. It was role-playing at its finest!

When we left our heroes they were leaving the dubious safety of the village’s largest house, on a reckless mission to close the hell hole. The villagers watched them fade into the darkness beyond the dim glow from the shuttered windows, and the demons circled cautiously in the darkness, grunting and hissing but temporarily cowed enough to restrain themselves from attacking. The party carried lanterns, and a small marsh light sauntered ahead of them under Thyvalt’s control, the pool of light soon lost from view in the deep blackness of this demon-infested night.

As they moved away from the village, the group drew together, their lanterns seeming to dim in the inky darkness, strange sounds disturbing the usual bucolic peace of farms and forests. No frogs croaked; no foxes bayed; no fireflies drew up from the pools and streams of the rice paddies to their left as they walked. Where once Thyvalt had known to expect an ageing, wizened toad to croak resonant grunts at his passing there was only silence. The nightingale in the hedges beyond Linus’s bean fields was obstinately silent, and the owls beyond the carp pool dared not stir. They had entered a liminal space, somewhere between two worlds, and soon they were lost in it, all sight of the village obscured in the mist and the impenetrable shadows. The only sound in this cloistered emptiness was the grunt and hiss of the demons circling beyond the light of their brave lanterns; the only movement the gentle swishing and sighing of the trees, and occasional shapes stirring in the mist – shapes that were darker than night, except where flaming red eyes pierced the gloom. The only reminder of the gentle farming community they had left behind them were the post-markers by the road, which loomed slowly on their left side as they walked, even the comforting fenceposts rendered eery and unnatural in the glow of the witch light and mist.

Cog soon noticed a lull in the hissing and groaning of the lurking demons, and guessed an ambush was coming. He directed the little cluster of mortals off the trail, gesturing for silence and care, and brought them straight on top of a nest of imps lurking near the road. Battle was joined before anyone had a chance to draw breath, and soon over. Lithvard threw a lantern amongst the imps, blinding them in a flare of burning oil and splintered glass, while Cog 11 disappeared into the shadows and Thyvalt drew a useless curse screaming from the netherworld. The imps spread out to attack or spit, and six lumbering dretches dragged themselves out of the shadows to their death. These dretches did not come by choice, but were driven by a giant red flame demon, whipping them with a spiked chain. Ayn called forth the Spirits of the Righteous, and four pillars of fire greeted her entreaties, consuming a dretch and terrifying the others, while Cog 11 appeared from the shadows to gut four of the imps in a sliding, diving whirlwind of wicked knives and mist. Where Ayn’s pillars of fire guttered out they left a huge gap in the mist, and into this gap charged a red-skinned, dog-haired demon, that barked and whumfed its way to its own doom. Lithvard hurled a fire spear at the big demon and Thyvalt yelled imprecations of pain and terror in a desperate voice, hoping to scare away the beasts before they could be surrounded; but to no avail, for these creatures were devoid of fear or mercy. It was then that Syrion hurled himself into the line, singing battle songs in a brave and clear voice, sword singing, drawing all the drenches to him to tear uselessly at his armour. Ayn and Lithvard joined back to back, hurling contrasting bolts of magical energy – one brilliant white and apocalyptic, the other burning with wrathful fire – until all five dretches were thoroughly consumed, their corpses steaming and wreathes of foul-smelling demon-wrack drifting through the mist. Syrion and Thyvalt entered close combat with the giant red demon, but seeing all its minions scattered it turned to flee, taking the dog demon with it. Seeing it injured and terrified the party decided discretion might be the better part of valour, and quickly halted pursuit. They stood on the edge of the road, panting and gasping in the lantern light, Syrion cursing a myriad cuts and small burns and Cog 11 leaning against a fence post, staring into the mist with wide dark eyes.

They moved on. The hell-hole beckoned, a green glow in the mist ahead.

Closer to the hell hole the mist was burnt away, revealing the creek bed limned in green light from the hell hole, over which loomed a scraggly willow tree. The willow tree and nearby bushes were cast into stark relief against the distant fog by the green light of the hole, which scintillated and purred in the shadows of the far creek bank, ominous and impure. As they approached a demon slunk out of the hole and into the mist, reality shimmering disturbingly as it hauled itself through the dimensions and into reality.

Syrion grunted and charged forward, his sword leaving a trail of sparks on the stones of the creek bed as he rushed in to guard the hole. Everyone else followed, trying to hold their fear at bay as they realised that the creek bed was now swarming with demons, materialising out of that hideous gap in space and time as the characters attacked. The two demons they had fought before came crashing through the brush of the far side of the creek to join the battle, as a hell hound and a green-skinned, spiky human-like thing popped out of the whole, stinking of sulphur and rot and snarling with anger. The green thing, the red winged monster and its dog-haired friend all attacked Syrion, determined this time to snuff him out; the hellhound struck at Thyvalt. Syrion, laying about him with his sword, yelled to Thyvalt and Ayn to begin the ritual, but they refused to leave him, and joined battle. Ayn called on her gods, who were apparently more terrified of demons than she, for they abandoned her and her flame pillars fizzled uselessly in the demonic mist. The great red thing took a vicious swipe at Lithvard, a blow so ferocious it would surely have killed the little druid, but Syrion stepped in at the last moment and took the brunt of it on one armoured shoulder, grunting as something important gave way inside his enormous chest. Somewhere a demon cast a spell, and Thyvalt began attacking Lithvard, useless in his confusion but a confusing threat nonetheless. While Lithvard struggled with Thyvalt to try and bring him back from darkness, the dog-haired demon turned on Syrion, halberd striking at shield and armour. Ayn continued to aid him, striking with her sword at any demon that came close enough, while Cog tried to ambush the big red thing and Syrion desperately fended off a cascade of monstrous blows. The demons were grinding them down, but somehow they fought them off. Syrion smashed the halberd-wielding dog-haired demon and Cog disembowelled the green-skinned thing, appearing out of the mist at its feet and gutting it from hip to hip. Thyvalt recovered from his confusion and he and Lithvard dispatched the others – just as a new beast, made entirely of mist and shadows, appeared from the deeps. Gasping with exhaustion, everyone turned on it and cut it to ribbons before it could even fully draw itself from the hole, and for a moment the creek bed was suffused with calm, a calm broken only by the gentle hissing, popping, groaning sound of dying demons dissolving and rotting and returning to their foul brood nests.

Time being suddenly on their side, Thyvalt and Ayn began the ritual. Thyvalt plunged his sword into the ground, and Ayn began chanting, clutching the sword and swaying from side to side, looking for all the world like a singing shade in her uniform of flowing black robes, dimly illuminated in the sickly green light of the hell-hole and swathed in mist. Lithvard noticed something about the tree and began to investigate it. While this was happening more demons started dragging themselves from the hole, and Syrion, Thyvalt and Cog set about the unpleasant business of slaughtering them as they came.

A grim and desperate battle followed, as new demons emerged from the hole only to be cut down by the three defenders, who began to suffer increasing damage from the claws and teeth of the fiends. Clouds gathered and mist began to swirl around the fixed point where the sword was embedded in the ground. The sword itself had begun to glow red hot, and Ayn was trembling and shaking in fear. Glowing glyphs appeared and hung in the air, shimmering in the mist, forming a tenuous pattern in the air around the sword. The ground began to rumble and the hell-hole grew gradually brighter, becoming so bright that the branches of the willow tree cast shadows on the overhanging clouds. As Syrion, Cog and Thyvalt fought on, Lithvard talked to the tree and Ayn chanted, and the glyphs began to pulse in unison. Ayn’s voice grew in strength, and she hurled an imprecation at the sky:

Thou shalt not envy the light, thou shalt not spread thy demonic blight.
Thou shalt not defile what is right
Thou shalt perish in the night

More demons began clambering from the hole, but now the mist and the overhanging clouds were beginning to be sucked into the hell-hole, stray tendrils at first and then larger, thicker strands of mist as the hell-hole began to swirl and groan. Syrion slew the last extant demon, and the demons crawling out of the whole began to waver, fighting now against some powerful force from below that gripped them and began to stretch them. They screamed and struggled, but to no avail – Ayn’s wrath had them now, and the sword was flaring up with purpose. The tree began to move under Lithvard’s guidance, its roots reaching out to curl around the whole and choke it off, entangling the emerging demons and drawing them back in, choking and breaking as it did so. Its branches grabbed arms and spines, tearing them off and beginning to seal up the hole. Demons screamed and the hole began to narrow, glowing brighter and roaring like the wind through doorway in winter. The tree roots tightened their grip, and horrible crunching sounds and screams resounded through the creek as the demons met their horrible end. Moments later, with an anti-climactic sigh and a blink, the whole was gone. Our heroes stood in an empty, darkened creek bed, blinking at the darkness and tripping over the roots of an old, hoary willow tree. The battle was over. They had prevailed!

Exhausted, they lowered their weapons. Syrion, covered in bruises and scratches, shoulder broken, battered beyond mortal endurance, sank down onto his shield and then, with a shudder, fell sideways, to lie on the dusty ground moaning and gasping. Ayn fell to her knees, shaking in terror at things only she had seen. Lithvard leaned against the tree, panting and muttering his thanks, while Thyvalt looked around in exhausted wonder. Cog 11 emerged from the mist, flicking demon ichor from his face and panting, though unhurt.

They had closed a hell-hole.

Somewhere far away, the hooded servant of a giant dragon approaches it, bows and speaks. “My lord, shall we execute the plan? All arrangements are in place.” The dragon moves its huge eye slowly, alien iris narrowing so that only the narrowest slit of black cut through the gold of the iris. “No,” it hissed, the very ground trembling at the restrained power of its mighty voice. “It is too late. The scent is gone.”

The characters knew nothing of these icons. They rested on the creek bed until some of them had  regained a little strength, and then carried Syrion back to the village. They emerged into the village square with the first light of dawn, Syrion still unconscious on a makeshift litter, groaning in pain and exhaustion.

They had closed a hell-hole. They had prevailed against all the forces of hell. What next for them? They could feel it moving now – some fate had them in its grip. Where would it take them, and what would become of them? Only time, and many adventures, would tell…

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