I never thought that I would find myself
In bed amongst the stones
The columns are all men
Begging to crush me
No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes

And no flags wave me home
In the caves
All cats are gray
In the caves
The textures coat my skin
In the death cell
A single note
Rings on and on and on

The Ark’s heroes have secured the Dark Castle and looted its treasures, which they found to be tawdry gold- and silver-plated baubles covered in strange glittering stones. Having previously made a deal with an old man to give him a haul of these stones – and one in particular, the koh-i-noor – in exchange for knowledge, they decided that it was time to pay a visit to two old men: The old man who had promised them the knowledge, and their own Ark’s Elder, who they wanted to confront while their power in the Ark – and their confidence – was still high.

The Old Man’s Secrets

They rested for only as long as they needed to recover their strength, and set off for the old man’s abandoned army camp the following morning. They drove to his camp this time in the car they had liberated from the Dark Castle, its boot stuffed with sceptres and crowns and heaped jewellery and gems.  As they approached he emerged from under the attached lean-to, squinting at them in the gloomy zone light and scratching quizzically behind one ear. By the time the car trundled to a noisy halt he had hidden any sign of surprise, however, and had lined up a set of chairs for them. They dragged their loot out of the boot and sat on the chairs.

In exchange for the koh-i-noor and the diamonds the old man was true to his word, and offered them his boat. He even showed how to hitch the trailer to the car, so that they could drive it straight down to the water near the Ark without having to enlist the help of their fellow mutants back at the Ark. They pressed him then for more – the knowledge he had promised them – and discovered that he had lied to them slightly. He would not give them any knowledge, but he could tell them the location of a great library where they could learn everything they needed to about the ancient world. A library with millions of books, that could tell them everything they needed. It was not far, he assured them that it was completely safe, and he had soon explained its location to them. Feeling slightly cheated but hopeful that they would learn more than they had ever expected – and without having to endure his irascible manners – they thanked him and left with the boat.

The great grey librarian

Having learned of this strange new “library” full of books they could read, the mutants decided to delay their visit to the Elder, and to instead immediately fly to the Library. They could not hope to read all the books immediately, so they decided to do a strategic grab. They loaded their Trash Hawks with sacks and set off, hoping to scour the library for its most valuable and immediately important books and return with them to the Ark. As they soared westward they saw the old man, standing on top of his caravan, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun atop a gaudy golden staff. He did not wave to them.

They soon found the building they had been told about, a huge L-shaped ruin of orange brick entangled with vines and creepers and the ever-present fungal rot of the zone. Its upper floors had been wrecked by some huge blast and lay open to the elements, their books and contents long since crumbled to nothing, but the lowest two levels were still mostly intact, though many windows had been smashed, and as they circled above it they shared high hopes of finding a large haul of books.

They landed in a large plaza in the crook of the L, leaving their birds to preen in the courtyard, and approached a huge shattered entrance. Through the entrance way they found a gloomy, mould-covered entry way, with stairs leading up to a higher level and abandoned counters overgrown with creeping vines and moss. To the left of the entry way was a door, with a grubby sign on which they could partially read the words Exhibition Room. They decided to start exploring there. When they approached the door, however, it exploded backward in a shower of shattered mouldy wood, and a huge grey beast emerged in a furious rush from the shadows of the room. It was three times the size of Grimshaw, covered in a thick scaly grey hide, walking upright like a man but with a nearly featureless face, a mouth distorted by huge fangs and deep set eyes that burnt with an unholy fire. Its hand were huge battering rams ending in three thick, clawed fingers, as did its feet, and its legs bent backwards like one of their Trash Hawks. As soon as they saw it they felt a wave of revulsion and terror, but they knew immediately what they faced – a giant grey man like the one they had found entombed beneath the Ark!

As the beast lunged forward Grimshaw unsheathed his shotgun, Reason, and fired point blank at the beast’s chest, yelling for the others to flee outside. He did not expect to have any success, having seen in the videos that these grey demons appeared to shrug off rifle fire, but was stunned to find that at this range he could harm it – for a brief moment it staggered and the others retreated. They hoped that it would have the same fear of light as its smaller brethren, but they were wrong, and so found themselves fighting it in the murky light of the front entranceway. It fought by slashing with huge claws and unleashing great gouts of concentrated rot from its mouth, which surged over all the mutants in the group and afflicted them terribly. Although it nearly killed two of them, and many of their weapons bounced off of its thick hide, they finally managed to slay it, felling it just inside the entrance. It twitched briefly but then to their horror began to rot and decay rapidly in front of them. Within minutes only bones remained – and it was then that Parsnip saw a necklace around its neck, of gold with a central diamond embedded. One of the Old Man’s … they had been tricked.

They discussed what to do. They were all sure that the old man had tricked them into coming here so that this beast of his could kill them, but they also wondered how could this old man control such a creature? Could it be coincidence? They were also injured and needed time to rest, so they decided that they would not rush back to confront the old man. Instead they would explore the room the demon had been found in, and grab some books from one other part of the library, rest, and then head straight to the old man’s lair to confront him.

In the Exhibition Room they found a collection of ancient books of great cultural value: one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta of 1215, a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s own hand, the original handwritten copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and notes written by Leonardo da Vinci. They had been torn up and strewn around the room, covered in rot and filth, but the mutants managed to recover them. They then went to the science section to grab some important science books, and left the Library to kill the old man.

War for the Ark

They flew back towards the Ark, turning north at the last and dropping in on the old man’s base, but he was not there. His caravan was unattended, and he did not shuffle out from under the lean-to to meet them. He obviously had not fled though, and all his belongings lay where they should be, as if he had tidied up after himself in an orderly way and set out on some errand. Disappointed, they decided to head to the skies and see if they could find him. As they searched in wider and wider circles they finally saw it – smoke rising from the direction of the Ark. They turned their Trash Hawks and headed home.

They soon saw it – a massive attack on the Ark. Grey Men swarmed towards its entrances, whipped on by a pair of great grey demons. In the distance on a hillside stood the old man, holding his staff of gold aloft, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun. Near him a third demon hulked, and a squad of grey men for his personal guardians. The People fought valiantly, and thanks to the projects the mutants had pioneered the Ark was holding its ground. The barricades on the door held, someone stood in the Sky Temple firing a pistol into the clamouring grey men, the Phantom of the Opera played the Organ in a mighty dirge to support the troops, and the Ark’s organized militia fought in a disciplined style against the beasts. Nonetheless, the situation was dire: they were outnumbered, and the grey men tore at the barricades and swarmed over the facade of the stadium. Fires burnt on the edges and as the great grey demons pressed forward the defenders fell back in terror and disarray.

Their task was clear. They dived their Trash Hawks towards the barricades, and attacked the first grey demon. With her first strike Bloody Jack cut it down at the knees, attempting to knock it over, but failed. As Preacher circled above, exhorting them to greater efforts to the glory of the sky god, they hacked and slashed and fired at the beast until it finally succumbed. Injured but not defeated, they downed their painkillers and soda pop, some of them knocked back hard quantities of booze, and they leapt into the air again, this time to attack the old man himself.

The old man had some special power, which caused them to divert from attacking him to attack his grey demon instead, and with its rot blast it felled Parsnip, but they persevered, fighting both the demon and the grey men. While they fought the old man assailed them with doubt and pain and fire, but eventually they prevailed and finally the demon was felled. With a cry of rage Grimshaw struck the old man in the face, and he fell to the ground with a sick thud. Their leader slain, the remaining grey men fled back to the tunnels from whence they came, leaving behind a small number of dead mutants, and a large amount of damage.

They had come only in the last moment, but through their efforts the Ark had survived. They had prevailed!

The Elder

Having won the day for the Ark, they had one more thing they wanted to do. The next morning, as the Ark was still being repaired, the wounded still tended, they marched up to the cupola lying in the middle of the Ark’s open stadium and demanded admittance to the Elder’s inner sanctum. One of the Chroniclers at the door tried to stop them, but Grimshaw tapped his hammer Justice and with a sigh he allowed them in. Another Chronicler led them down a short corridor to a small, stuffy room that stank of human excrement and decay. On a tiny bed in the corner, heaped high with grubby blankets, lay the Elder. In another corner sat a dour old chronicler, who roused resentfully when the mutants entered and even more angrily when they demanded he clear away the bucket of festering shit that sat in the corner. Chang Chang threw aside the thick curtains, letting in the weak zone light, and Lonnie and Parsnip began cleaning the room. Meanwhile Bloody Jack and Grimshaw approached the bed, pulling back the sheets and filthy blankets to find the Elder, their inspiration and guide over these years.

He was a shell of his former self, a thin, disease-ravaged wreck of a body. He had never been strong or overbearing, always a frail man, but now he had been reduced to a shred of a man, a sack of bones and bed sores. What had happened in this fetid room over the past months as they had been busy at their work and their missions, what had fallen on this man? He was obviously dying, but now they needed to know. There was so much they needed to know: Who were they? Why could they have no children? What did the future hold? What should they do? This man, the source of all their knowledge and inspiration, lay pale and shrinking on the bed, oblivious to their demands.

They cleaned him up and waited, but he lay their in weak disregard, looking away at the faint light from the newly-opened window with obvious desperate longing. Finally Grimshaw lost his temper and, standing up, looming over the old man, began to rage at him, threatening and yelling and demanding answers. The old man ignored him. Then Bloody Jack stepped forward and ordered him to speak, for the Ark, for the People, for the Seventh Revolution! She gave a stirring speech about leadership and command, the responsibility of the leader to the future, and to everyone’s shock he responded. Just briefly his eyes cleared and he turned to face her, spitting an oath of power up at her and reminding her that it was him who had saved them, to him that she and hers owed fealty.

She demanded answers. And he gave them! He told them a story of horror and desperation that they had never heard before:

  • A group of powerful wizards unleashed magic on the world, and with it came demons and dragons and the grey men. No one knows why they did it.
  • The world was overrun and destroyed but many of the creatures unleashed in it could not stay – they were chained to “somewhere else” and had to go back.
  • In their savage return, the demons and dragons and fairies took most of surviving humanity with them
  • This included the apprentices of the powerful wizards.
  • In hell, humans became slaves, food and fuel. But the wizard apprentices found each other and tried to help some humans escape
  • When they got to the gates of hell, a secret way out, they found a gate keeper, and had to cut a deal. He took their future and left them in stasis – destroyed the mutant’s ability to have children – but let them free
  • The wizards took groups of humans through the gate but they all emerged in different places and lost their magic when they emerged
  • But the mutants retained some of the impact of hell, and emerged into the world with powers
  • They set up arks, but never made contact with each other again

Then his head fell back onto the pillow and, spent, he waved them away with a weak twitch of one hand. Their audience was done.

So it was that the mutants emerged into the light of the Ark, newly educated, knowing their place in the world – and knowing they were lost. Their only hope was to find humans who had been left behind on the earth before the apocalypse, and find out if those humans could still make children, or their Ark was doomed, and all their dreams with it.

But that is a story for another time.

 

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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.

Oh when there’s no future
How can there be sin
We’re the flowers
In the dustbin
We’re the poison
In your human machine
We’re the future
Your future

God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future

No future
No future
No future for you

 

The Ark’s heroes have returned from pacifying the Doom Cult that they found to the northwest. Now their attention was fully focused on the last remaining aboveground threat, the Dark Castle that lay just to the west of the Ark, menacing and grim broken towers looming over their near horizon. But first they wanted to find Shellah, and investigate the strange black tablet she had shown them before. It must be charged by now …

She found them, however, before they could look, in an urgent haste. They were waiting in their sky temple perhaps an hour before service started, chatting and relaxing, when she appeared from down below in an unusual hurry, not even wearing her outer layer of ragged stinking clothes and in such an urgent rush that her usual caution and reticence was all but forgotten. She produced the black tablet without suspicion or fanfare and swiped a strange, arcane pattern across its face. The thing came to life, a vibrant brilliant screen festooned with bright icons across a background of pure grass and sky. She showed them one particular icon, a white triangle on a grey background, and pressed it. The screen changed, revealing a mosaic of squares with different pictures on them. She pressed the top left one, and they all jumped back in shock as the sound of one of the other bosses, Pieces, jumped out at them. Moments later they realized they were watching a recorded image, and relaxed.

The video had been secretly filmed by Shellah at a waste site near the Ark, maybe 200m away, that the Ark’s members use to discard rubbish and search for old remnants of the ancients. It was taken at sunset, with a pink sky and pink light reflecting off the dome of the ark. There were two bosses – Pieces and Jared – standing alone in a small hollow of the waste dump, the shadows of a few guards visible in the far edge of the video, just visible on the far side of the hollow. They were talking about a plot, and Shellah must have been filming the whole thing from a hiding place within earshot, her camera undetected amongst the junk.

PIECES: It’s gone on long enough yo. The hawks and the church are too much.

JARED: Agreed. Any more of this and she’ll own all the whole rotten bleachers. I’ve got trouble enough with my supplicants, I don’t need her rabble-rousing with her stupid revolution.

PIECES: No helping it now, the stupid bitch is in heat now, and we just gotta deal with the noise. Her gang ain’t the only problem though – she’s got fucking friends.

JARED: We could deal with that. Snag ‘em on a mission, take ‘em down and make everyone think it’s the Zone. We could –

PIECES: Don’t be stupid! If it fucks up, or even one of them escapes, we’re in deep shit. No, mate, we gotta act smart, not brutal. Get the punters to take her down for her own ambition, leave us smelling like roses after she’s gone. Gotta get her smart, mate.

JARED: Smart ain’t your strong point Pieces. Remember when you –

PIECES: Shut the fuck up about that, it’s ancient fucking history. Now listen, I’ve got a plan. We can fix this real smooth if we can set her up. You wanna hear?

JARED: Sure, what’s your bright idea, Pieces? Right now I’m thinking a knife in the dark, but if you got something better …

PIECES: Everyone knows she’s sniffing around the Elder, got in sweet with a Chronicler, right? But right now they all think she’s so sweet she can’t do nothing wrong, but if we turn that on her, she’ll look like the conniving bitch she is, and a crim to boot. We just gotta plant a little something on her to make it obvious.

JARED: How you gonna do that, Pieces? She’s fucking stitched up tight!

PIECES: Not so tight. Her fixer Monja owes me a big line, some shit I sorted out a while ago, been feeding me juice from inside her gang for a while now. Nobody knows. Not even you, you little shit.

JARED: How the fuck, Pieces?! That’s some smooth operating. Looks like I’m gonna have to shake down my gang and flush out your fixes, you little fucker.

PIECES: You won’t find them, pigshit. Now listen. We got an inside in the Vault, right? With Shenagler, the silly old idealist. He tells me he can smuggle out a few pieces of prime goods, small but valuable. A jar of antibiotics, some painkillers and a tattoo kit, he’ll hand them over to Monja right here tomorrow night. Then Monja takes them back and slips them into Bloody Jack’s room while she’s at church. A few hours later Shenagler leads a mob of Chroniclers over to Bloody Jack’s and demands to search the stuff, makes a right fuss about stolen shit. Then bang! Finds them after a bit of faffing around pretending to search, Bloody Jack’s as good as dead. It’ll get the stupid Chronicler she’s hanging with too. The rest of them probably will get away, but if any of them move to help her we can cut them down legitimate. You and me, we have a word with L’il Kim and see if we can’t all three push to break up her gang and have her friends exiled. Problem solved.

JARED: Sounds great to me Pieces. But what do you want me to do?

PIECES: Everyone knows about Bloody Jack and me, but they think you’re mostly out of it. I want you to step in and make my case. I’m gonna be doing one of my boys, nowhere to be seen, innocent as the driven snow. You gotta provide the muscle to make sure it works out – have your gang get there in time to make sure the search ain’t interrupted, have your men rile up the crowd when the time comes, get the mob up and at ‘em. It needs to look like it’s the real deal, not a set up by the guy everyone knows is Bloody Jack’s enemy. You do it, and we split her gang and her stuff. But I get the stalker, Lonnie, that’s the deal. I wanna find out if it’s a man or a woman. Not that it matters, once I’m done with it it’ll wish it had never been born. Had my eye on Lonnie for a while, that’s my personal treat from this little mission.

JARED: Alright then, so tomorrow night, sometime after church? Get my gang ready for some rabble-rousing and a bit of security for the Chroniclers. Hang Bloody Jack and her pet Chronicler out to dry, hand Lonnie over to you, exile the rest. Split the stuff.

PIECES: That’s right. Remember the man who’ll be making the case is Shenagler. Don’t fuck it up, okay?

JARED: I won’t, Pieces. But hey, how many Chroniclers have you got in your pocket, anyway?

PIECES: More than enough, man. More than enough. I’ll get to the Elder eventually, don’t you worry.

JARED: That’s heresy, you fucker.

They slapped hands, and scramble out of the hollow in two different directions. The video ended, to the sound of gentle sighs from the assembled group.

They all looked at each other. This video was taken yesterday, and Shellah had only just brought it to them, so time would be tight. They had to get something organized by the end of the church service or they would all be exiled … or worse. And Lonnie … They needed to act.

Breaking the Bosses

Their plan was simple. They would grab Monja when she slipped into Bloody Jack’s room, and offer her the choice of death or turning double agent. Then Monja and Shellah would take the stolen artifacts and hide them in Pieces’ room, somewhere where it looked obviously like he had been keeping them to himself. When the crowds came to Bloody Jack’s room she would open it for inspection, and then some of Bloody Jack’s contacts and gang in the crowd would begin demanding that Pieces room be searched. While everyone prepared their trap, Preacher gave a resounding speech in the church of the sky god about how they were all a community now, and they must have rules and that anyone who went against the common good was betraying all of them, working the gathered mutants in the church into a fever pitch of righteous anger about theft and breaking the rules. As the speech came to an end Pieces seized the moment to declare that he had evidence right now that one of the mutants had stolen from the Ark, and they must show the righteousness of Preacher’s ideas by holding this person responsible.

While Preacher preached the party moved into action. They ambushed Monja as she was in the act of placing the goods, and caught her hiding behind a curtain. She agreed to help rather than face the inevitable bloody end that her betrayal warranted, and accompanied Shellah to Pieces’ headquarters to bury the stolen goods in a suitably incriminating place. By the time the agitated crowd arrived at Bloody Jack’s quarters, led by Pieces, Jared and Shenagler, everything was ready. Bloody Jack blustered and played her part, but welcomed them in to search the quarters, where they found nothing. As the search came to its conclusion Shellah and Chang Chang began to yell in the background, and Chang Chang revealed the video recording. The entire over-agitated crowd then went to Pieces’ quarters, where they found the stolen goods exactly where Monja had placed them. Monja claimed to have had a change of heart and returned them to their original place in Pieces possession, and the trap was sprung.

Pieces and Jared tried to fight, but they had been caught red-handed. By the time full night was upon the Ark they were hanging from ropes outside the upper halls of the Ark, and their gangs had been broken up, the leaders exiled and the rest returned to lives of toil and insignificance. The Ark had gone from four gangs to two, and L’il Kim’s gang was now on the outer, weakened by her tacit submission to Pieces’ heretical plans. Bloody Jack and the group were in the ascendant, and their thoughts turned now to the last remaining task – reckoning with the Elder and the neglect of the Dawn Vault.

But before they did that there was one final threat to the Ark they needed to extinguish – the Dark Castle. They began their preparations.

Visions of the Apocalypse

Before they headed to the Castle, though, there was something else they needed to do – Shellah’s tablet. They realized that if she had been able to film Pieces’ and Jared’s conspiracy then whoever had owned that tablet in ancient times must have been able to film the world before … the old world. They wanted to look through all the other videos they had seen on that screen, and see what they could learn. Had this tablet’s owner filmed the apocalypse itself? Could they see what had really happened when the ancients’ world fell? They sought out Shellah on the higher steps of the bleachers, and sat with her to watch the videos on the tablet.

They were right. The previous owner of the tablet had filmed the apocalypse. They watched in horror as the world fell under a wave of fiery monsters, and its people were consumed by an army of Grey Men – and their gigantic cousins.

The things that ended the world were swarming in the tunnels beneath them.

The Dark Castle

They decided to tackle first the last of the aboveground threats, and the next day, flush with their victory over the bosses, they gathered their forces and headed west to the Dark Castle. The Dark Castle was a brooding hulk of shattered stone surrounded by solid high walls and a moat of foetid, rot-filled water, that could be accessed by a small gate on the riverside, or a bridge crossing the rotten moat from the west. They did not like the look of the river at this point at all – it was dark and stinking, it’s torpid surface occasionally disturbed by the splashings of large, unseen beasts. At the western edge the bridge was largely intact, though only wide enough for them to cross two abreast. The thick dark waters of the moat reached almost up to the bridge, and a fine oily mist hung over the still mire, giving off a dreadful smell. They were halfway across the bridge when a huge eel-like creature surged out of the water and grabbed Bloody Jack. It was followed by a second one that hit Chang Chang. These things had huge muscly tubular bodies, mouths that hinged open in four directions, and four beady, malicious eyes. Once they hit their targets they writhed and splashed and tried to drag them into the water, but fortunately both Chang Chang and Bloody Jack were able to stand their ground as Grimshaw and Bloody Jack’s gang members hacked into them. The beasts let go and slithered back into the water, only to attack again a moment later. This time, though, the group was ready, and managed to hack the eel creatures to death. They twitched and spasmed on the bridge, flooding it with a vile slick of greasy black blood, before they slid off and floated away into the mist. As the mutants stood on the bridge panting and checking their numbers, something grabbed the corpse of one of the eels from below and it sank under the bilious surface of the moat, which began to churn with the movements of a swarm of scavengers. Disgusted, the mutants ran across the bridge to the far side and the shelter of the entrance gate.

Already damaged after just one battle, they retreated into the shadows of the gateway and sat down to rest, eating grub and drinking clear water and recovering. The gate formed a tunnel stretching through the wall to a narrow pathway between the outer wall and a thinner, smaller inner wall that was broken and crumbling in many places. Once they had rested they went through this inner wall and into the inner courtyard, which was ringed with buildings. In the middle of the courtyard was the main tower, a crumbling wreck of white and brown masonry thronging with trash crows, huge evil-eyed raven creatures perched all atop the wall and looking silently down at them as they entered. The ruined main tower was surrounded by thick grass, but the northern side of the courtyard was paved, and on that paving lay a horror show of scattered bones and corpse parts. Mostly they were animal bones, but in amongst them lay many human bodies. At the foot of the tower on its southern side an intact car lay untouched in the long grass of the courtyard.

First they ducked into a ruined building immediately to the left of the gate through which they had entered, uncovering a functional blowtorch that could be used as a weapon and a jar of antidepressants. Then they moved to the western side of the courtyard, where a skeleton clothed in tattered red cloth lay in wild grass. From that body they recovered a polearm that Grimshaw declared would make a fine weapon. Then their attention turned to the car. They approached it, but as their gearhead attempted to move into the long grass it began to swirl and curl around his legs, trying to drag him in as the blades began to sweat acid. They grabbed him and dragged him out just in time, but realized that the car was surrounded by acid grass, a deadly hazard of the Zone. Fortunately Grimshaw had brought his scythe, the Law, which was perfect for cutting grass. Sweeping the wicked weapon ahead of him, he cut a safe path to the car, and once there their gearhead was able to drive it out safely.

All the while the Trash Crows stared silently down at them.

They decided to drive the car around to the north of the tower, with most of the group inside it, Bloody Jack on top, and two of the group walking behind. However as soon as they approached the butcher’s arena to the north of the tower the Trash Crows leapt into the air and began to dive bomb the group, targeting Bloody Jack and the people behind the car. They turned the car around and fled to the house at the gate of the compound. As they drove they attacked the crows, but nothing worked – there were so many, swarming thick and fast around them that they could not do any damage with sword or hammer. Only fire could work! Fortunately Chang Chang had the blowtorch! He turned it on and set the gas canister to fully open, flooding the swarm with fire as Preacher chanted and sang and encouraged the gang. The fire of Preacher’s words inspired Chang Chang to reckless abandon with the blowtorch, and soon he had turned the entire swarm to cinders. Safe!

They explored the rest of the outer rooms in the tower, and the bones on the north of the tower, finding various treasures of the Ancients: a broadsword, a semi automatic pistol, a compound bow, a shotgun, and a suit that offered almost perfect protection against the rot. They also found an ID card of some kind. Then they opened the door to the northernmost building, which they guessed must hold the treasure they sought.

As soon as they opened the door they were attacked by a gang of wild dogs, who had made their lair inside the shattered remnants of the western half of the building. The dogs attacked fast but were no match for the group, who cut them down quickly, leaving one wounded one to run away yelping in fear through a gap in the far wall of the building. Here they found the building was split into two halves; they had entered the western, crumbling half but the eastern half was intact and the door to it locked, protected by a small box with a single blinking red light on it. They touched the ID card to the box and the door slid open, dim lights flickering on in a long corridor. This corridor ran between two walls of glass, behind which lay the treasures they sought: Many gaudy gold and silver sceptres, crowns and tiaras embedded with a furious assortment of tacky gems. And there in the middle, on a mouldering cushion, lay the huge chunk of diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor. They smashed the glass, grabbed the Koh-i-Noor and as many of the gems and over-shiny settings as they could, and fled the Dark Tower.

They had the gem they had sought. Now it was time to have two conversations with two very different old men. They would return the Koh-i-Noor to the old man north of the Ark, in exchange for whatever secrets he knew; and they would finally demand an audience with the Elder.

Since they had broken the bosses and the Dark Castle their view of the landscape had changed. As they trudged home across the gentle grass slopes north of the Dark Castle they looked across the ruins to the distant Ark, and they all agreed: This is ours, it is no country for old men. Let us take it from them!

I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Dawn Vault

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

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

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

The Doom Cult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it time for a coup?

 

 

I screamed aloud to the old man
I said don’t lie don’t say you don’t know
I say you’ll pay for your mischief
In this world or the next
Oh and then he fixed me with a freezing glance
And the hell fires raged in his eyes
He said do you want to know the truth son
I’ll tell you the truth
Your soul’s gonna burn in the lake of fire

 

When we last left our heroes they had returned from a successful overland mission, bearing a new gift for their Ark and wary of a new threat. Over the ensuing weeks and months their new gift came to fruition, and eventually the Ark had its Trash Hawk stables, and our heroes became the first to ride them from the Ark. This time their goal was to explore the areas north and northwest of the Ark, to see if there were any threats there and if possible to eliminate them. From the hill north of the Tower they had seen a damaged military base with only an old man living in it, and further to the west of there a stretch of ruins infested with nightmare flowers. They aimed to explore both of these places.

Nightmares bloom

First they flew their trash hawks to the northwestern area, circling over the area to look for threats. Their reconnaissance centred on a theatre at the centre of the sector, which stood at the junction of several wide roads and was surrounded by crumbling ruins. The entire area around the theatre was overgrown with stunted trees and rich fungal growths, the shattered and scattered brickwork of the old buildings slowly being submerged under the unstoppable tide of nature; but near the centre of the sector, around the front entrance of the theatre, the ruins were more clearly visible and the plant growth less abundant. Here the ruins were wrapped in vines as thick as a human leg, which crawled over old lamp posts and up the sides of remnant walls. At the top of these serpentine green cables hung huge scarlet flowers, each the size of a human, hanging pendulous and partly closed over all the area around the theatre. These flowers formed a kind of ring of blooms around an open clearing, which was overgrown with short, dusty fungi and small plants – and in the middle of that clearing lay a half-covered body, clinging in death to a hunting rifle that the PCs desperately wanted to take.

They landed their birds at a safe distance near an old stretch of grass studded at regular intervals with lozenges of concrete. Grimshaw saw a small shed at the edge of this park and decided to investigate, thinking there might be a scythe within – opening the door he was proven right, and was about to lay his hand on it when a massive Zone Spider ambushed him from the shadows of the shack. Fortunately his hammer justice was at the ready, and he dispatched the thing with a hail of vicious blows. Triumphant, he emerged bearing the scythe in one hand, and named it Truth. Better armed, and newly wary of their surroundings, they advanced carefully to near the edge of the clearing. A rope tied about him, Loony Lonnie crept carefully forward into the clearing, manifesting his plant-man mutation to try and appear part of the undergrowth, rather than as an intruder. The plants seemed not to notice him, so he crept in close to the body. The hunting rifle was still attached to it by a strap, so he had to carefully cut it loose, but then he noticed that it had other belongings, and began searching it carefully. First he found some magazines for the rifle, which he pocketed, and then he foolishly cut open the shirt over the skeleton’s shrunken chest, thinking to find something hidden within. But as he pulled open the old, dry cloth of the shirt he found himself staring at a huge human eye, embedded in the middle of the corpse’s chest and connected to all the nearby plants by a complex web of creepers and tendrils. Startled, he fell back in horror, and the plants reacted. At the top of every flower there was a shiver of movement and a ring of human eyes opened, followed almost immediately by the flowers themselves, which suddenly swelled as if taking in deep breaths of air. Then as one they jetted out bursts of brilliant scarlet powder, and Lonnie was lost to view in a cloud of pollen.

Grimshaw charged forward, scythe out, and began hacking at the plants. One of Bloody Jack’s gang rushed forward with him and unleashed a burst of fire into the plants, hoping to burn them into submission, and while the two of them laid into the supporting vines Bloody Jack herself sprung with her frog’s legs into the cloud, grabbed Lonnie, and leapt back out again before she could inhale any of the pollen. She landed back amongst the group carrying a semi-catatonic Lonnie, who lay twitching in her arms, eyes open, mouth wide in a silent scream.

They waited a few hours for Lonnie to recover from his nightmares, and decided to take the back entrance to the theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

They passed carefully through the strange park of concrete lozenges to get to the back entrance to the theatre. Here they found a small door next to a rubbish dumpster, that seemed to have fresh meat in it. Only slightly perturbed, most of the team entered carefully through the downstairs door while Bloody Jack and one of her gang climbed to the 2nd floor window and crept in through that. Bloody Jack found herself in a make-up room, which opened into a narrow hallway that led to the upstairs entrance to the auditorium itself. Downstairs Lonnie, Chang Chang and Grimshaw picked their way through a different hallway into another entrance to the auditorium, and entered cautiously.

As soon as they were a few steps inside the auditorium they heard a hum and a brilliant column of light picked them out in the musty darkness. The room suddenly came to life, swelling to the tones of a rusty old pipe organ that, after a few bars of some ancient song, moaned and wailed away into silence. It was replaced by a huge booming voice demanding to know who they were. After that voice fell still a much smaller voice repeated its demand in a squeaky, scratchy whine, and they saw a tiny figure running into the darkness somewhere just ahead of them. From under the bleachers the same scratchy voice berated them.

As Chang Chang spoke carefully with the hidden figures, Bloody Jack moved carefully into the auditorium. She saw a kind of gantry on one side of the building near where she had come in, and spotted a tiny flickering light inside, so drawing her katana she advanced into the narrow space. It was empty but for some strange machinery sitting at the end, a single red light blinking on and off. Looking into the gloom of the room she could see the pillar of light striking down from a large lamp in the ceiling, and once her eyes adjusted to the dark and the dust she noticed that the ceiling and the gantry in which she stood were covered with many other similar lamps. Perhaps the machinery controlled the lamps? She considered advancing closer, but with no knowledge of machinery there was little she could hope to do, so she retreated and watched events below.

Under Chang Chang’s careful seductions the voice in the darkness revealed itself. Someone shuffled out from behind mouldy curtains on the theatre stage and drew himself up to his full height – a terrifying 3 metres! The creature they addressed was some kind of manbeast, a huge monstrosity of a mutant grown giant beyond normal dimensions. He argued and threatened Chang Chang, until finally Chang Chang realized what this thing wanted – an audience! So he offered the manbeast a deal, and of course when Chang Chang cuts a deal, he always comes out on top.

They emerged from the theatre a short time later with two new additions to the Ark: the mighty manbeast known as the Phantom, who would perform songs and plays from the old world for them; and his trusty sidekick piggy, a tiny wizened creature that barely seemed human, but seemed indispensable to the Phantom’s threadbare sanity. The Phantom revealed himself to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays and stories of the ancient world, and he promised to educate all in the Ark through theatre and pantomime. Another win for their slowly stabilizing society!

The Old Man

They returned slowly with the Phantom and Piggy to the Ark, and after a day’s rest set out again, this time flying to the disused military base northwest of their Ark. They circled slowly in the sky looking for signs of danger, but saw nothing moving in the camp. It was a small camp built out of tents and makeshift walls of sand and rubble, already partly overgrown with fungus and creepers and slowly merging back into the blight of the zone. It must have been established a long time ago and long since abandoned or overrun, and it seemed to hold nothing of value except a boat on a trailer in one corner of the camp – and the strange old man who shuffled out from under one ragged awning to watch them land. He appeared harmless, just a bunch of rags with no weapons, but they were cautious nonetheless. They alighted from their birds and sent them back up into the sky, and slowly approached the man on foot.

He greeted them and welcomed them to his camp, but from the nasty looks he cast at Chang Chang they guessed that maybe this old man could read minds. He refused to tell them where he had come from how he had stayed alive so long in the Zone, or why he seemed to be unconcerned about the rot pervading his camp. Sitting them down at old seats under the awning he served them a vile apple liqueur he called “Scrumpy”, and talked to them randomly about many things in the past, but gave them no clues as to who he was or what he was doing in their area. He simply assured them he had arrived there “some time ago” and would leave “when he was ready.” He also saw them eyeing the boat, and then his manner became sharp and clear-eyed, all pretense of muddle-headed senility gone. He would swap the boat with them for a diamond. The diamond he wanted was called the Koh-i-Noor, and it was lost in the halls of the Dark Tower. He wanted brave adventurers to go in there and get it for him – “oh aye! And one o’ them scepters too if ye don’t mind” – but he would not tell them why it mattered to him. He implied that two or three previous groups of mutants had gone in and failed, but shied away from talking about who they were or how they met. He told them he did not need them to rush – “I’ll be ‘ere ’till my time ‘ere be done” – but also implied at some point he would be gone. He also threw in a second offer – bring him the diamond and he would throw in some secrets about the Ancients.

With that they were hooked, and they agreed to his deal. Something about his manner made them sure he really did know things, though they could not say why or how they were so sure. Perhaps he was an oracle, like the distant Oracle of the Silver Egg that they had heard about? Or perhaps he had simply learnt many things in his travels – regardless of the reason, they felt he had knowledge they needed and could not take. They also wanted that boat – they had a plan to build a road to the Two Towers and establish an outpost on their side of the river, and having a boat to operate on the river would strengthen their outpost. Yet somehow it felt deeply wrong to just take the boat from the Old Man – they needed to offer him something. And in any case, everyone knew at some point they would have to penetrate the Dark Castle, and neutralize whatever horrors lay within. Their map of the tunnels under the zone told them that there was an opening north of the Castle through which maybe Grey Men could emerge to harass them; the Dark Castle itself remained an enigmatic and continuing menace to their west. Having secured themselves against a major threat south of the river, they would need at some point to turn their attentions to those closer, but perhaps more quiescent, dangers. They were not quite ready yet, but with a little more time, and a little more delving in the ruins of this world, they would be.

They returned to the Ark, solid in their purpose, to prepare themselves for their next task.

Save

Save

I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree
By the standing pool where you drank me
And filled me full of thirsty love
And the memory of water?

I wonder if a king still fishes there
His back towards the burned-out air
His laughing catches singing loud
The memory of water

 

Our heroes have explored the area around the river near their Ark, and after raiding a radio station full of cannibals they feel stronger now, and their Ark is stronger too. But they are not yet ready to fight the Helldrivers they know live south of the river, and since they fortified the Ark and returned from their last mission carrying a katana, they have begun to wonder if they are safe from those dangerous men with their vehicles. They are separated from the Helldrivers by a river, but the river still has a few bridges that cross it. The nearest functional bridge is to the west of their Ark, inland from the two towers, and it seems likely that if the Helldrivers are to cross the river they must come over that bridge. So the PCs decided they should travel there and investigate the bridge, to see if it offers an easy way across the river and if so, whether they can block it.

Before they left the Ark they contributed to its ongoing project, to establish a system of hunting parties. This month they stumbled upon great success: Lonnie, stalking south east of the Ark, found an abandoned complex of cages and enclosures full of animals. The walls and barriers of the enclosures had long since broken apart and decayed, but many of the animals remained in the shelter of the enclosures, protected from the elements and the wilder predators of the Zone. Unfortunately they had not expected Lonnie to find his way through the outer barriers of the ancient zoo and begin picking them off for food, nor did they expect him to tell the Ark and bring a steady crew of hunters over the next few weeks. With this discovery the Ark’s food supplies grew, and a new guild of hunters established themselves. Around trashfires and in the meagre allotments at the centre of the Ark, people began to whisper hopefully of the possibility that tomorrow might be no worse than today.

Still, the People were not satisfied just to have more food. The Helldrivers had vehicles and gasoline, which the Ark lacked, but perhaps they could do something to improve their mobility and their power in war. They began a project to construct a stables, converting the remaining covered car park of the stadium into a dry area where they hoped to raise bitterbeasts that the hunting party would slowly catch in the wilds to the South. Not an easy project, but with the future promise of great things. The People set this in train, and then the PCs decided to head East to find the second bridge.

This expedition would be longer and more dangerous than anything they had previously tried. They would need to head west across uncharted lands in the sector north of the Dark Tower, then after some travel through the next sector they would need to turn south and pass another sector to the bridge. That would be a two day journey, two day’s back, and enough grub and water to survive the journey and any battles in the interim. Bloody Jack set about some racketeering to try and raise the necessary grub and water but his efforts were dismal, and in the process one of his gang turned on him, switching sides to join Li’l Kim. Vowing to make the filthy turncoat pay, Bloody Jack chose three of his best followers to go with them into the wilderness, and they set forth with all they had.

First they headed east, into a wide open area of low grasses and scrub north of the Dark Tower. Some distance into this sector was a small hill that they could use as a vantage point, and from this hill Lonnie could scan the surrounding areas. To the south he could get a glimpse into the Dark Tower, finding himself looking into an open courtyard inside the walls. Zone crows constantly circled, breaking his view, but he could make out a skeleton clothed in some gaudy outfit, lying in the middle of the courtyard with a long weapon of some kind discarded next to the body. Nothing else moved, and the whole area seemed to have several doors opening into walls and further buildings inside the outer walls. It was a large and forbidding complex.

Looking west, Lonnie could see a road that ran through the next sector before turning south and heading to the bridge. This road was relatively free of rubble and overgrowth, and though it would not be a perfect way to travel it was obvious that the Helldrivers could bring their vehicles to the Ark along that road. They definitely needed to get to that bridge…

They set off along the road into the next sector. This sector was a forest of dead trees standing sentinel in a misty expanse of ruined, collapsed buildings. Almost nothing stood more than a metre above the ground, and in between it all rose the trees, stunted and broken, grey and leafless. As they passed the trees Barathos touched one and the branch crumbled to dust in his grip, giving off a rank smell. Rank, stinking water ran sluggishly between the trees, trickling in streams and rivulets of rot down to the distant river. A single broken tower loomed over the expanse of decay, just the concrete and steel skeleton of the building remaining. Some giant force had blown across this area, destroying smaller buildings and reducing the largest tower to a burnt husk. In places the dead trees had collapsed, forming open spaces that the PCs had to struggle to cross, picking their way over entangled boughs and trying not to fall into the gurgling streams of rot. Here the branches and trunks of the trees sagged into the creeks, and slowly suffused with rot that had begun to turn them into blocks of toxic petrified wood. They hustled, moving as fast as they could to get through the rot.

The hustle was exhausting and distracting, so they missed the Trash Hawk until it fell screaming from the leaden grey sky. Fortunately they heard the wind whistling through its massive feathers, and though it struck them first they were not flat footed. It attacked them when they were halfway across one of the broken open spaces, so they were forced to scatter amongst the fallen trees. It struck at one of Bloody Jack’s gang but missed, landing amongst them with a beating of huge wings, a body the size of a large van that stank of dust and rot smashing down into one of the trees. Huge, vicious claws struck at the gang member, and the beating wings raised a storm of dust and rot. They all struck at it before it could take off, and with a lucky strike Grimshaw smashed its head in like a melon. The Trash Hawk grunted and sank dead to the ground.

“This beast must have a nest,” Lonnie observed, and their gaze turned to the single high point in the entire sector – the shattered hulk of the high rise building. With a sigh, they set out to climb it.

It was empty, the entire west face scoured by fire and the rest of the building reduced by fire and wind to just empty, wind-blown chambers. They dragged themselves up endless flights of spiraling stairs, eventually emerging onto a windswept rooftop covered in bones and guano. This was the home of the Trash Hawk. At one corner of the rooftop they found a huge edifice built of office furniture and chunks of dead tree, crowned with bedding of fresh grasses, torn up cushions and car seats – the Trash Hawk’s nest. They approached cautiously, but this time they checked the skies too, so they saw the second Trash Hawk coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, but that was not enough for Four Armed Marl, who was hit by the beast and lifted from the ground before they could attack it. Fortunately Four Armed Marl could hang on grimly as the bird rose, and Barathos blinded the bird before it could flee far, stopping it from taking Marl too high. The rest of them fired slingshots and arrows at the thing, and managed to knock it down before it could take Marl over the edge of the building. It fell screaming and Marl rolled free with only a little damage.

Inside the nest they found bodies, which carried bullets, and a couple of eggs, giant things that would obviously soon give birth to Trash Hawks. Everyone thought of the stables, and they agreed that this would be a project of the Ark. Why have bitterbeast stables, when you can have Trash Hawk stables? What would the Helldrivers do then? They agreed to take the eggs back to the Ark after their journey was complete.

They trudged down from the building, stopping halfway down to rest and eat, and returned to the road that had carried them through this sector. They followed it west a short distance to a point where the dead trees began to falter and fall, and the land rose slowly into a new area of crumbling ruins. The air cleared and the road descended in amongst the ruins, their previous smooth journey returning to the familiar jumble of rubble, broken buildings and dense undergrowth. They picked their way through the ruins, seeking paths where they could move more quickly, and after perhaps an hour or two of careful walking stumbled into an open space rich with menace. It must have once been a junction or a market area, because it was wider than a simple crossroads. On four sides it was surrounded by the shells of old buildings, broken now but still stretching three or four stories towards the low-hanging clouds, and plunging the entire area into partial shadow. The fifth side of the place was open, but standing in the middle of this area was a kind of obelisk on a plinth, reaching perhaps 30 metres up. A skull and crossbones had been painted onto the plinth, standing as a stark warning – but against what? Did it mean they should not proceed further west beyond this square? Or did it mean they had already come too far?

In the middle of the square a hole opened into the ground. Surrounded by twisted metal railings, a set of steps led down into darkness. Was the skull and crossbones a warning against this? They moved closer and sniffed, but there was no scent of rot, just musty old empty tunnels. They decided to go inside.

You are here

The stairs led down into a semi-circular room, dark and musty but not rotten. Their lantern revealed more tunnels leading down further into darkness, with a strange barrier of intermittent metal blocks standing between them and these further tunnels. On one wall of the room, hidden behind mould and fungus, they found a strange diagram, all coloured lines and dots, that seemed to have a huge place of prominence in the room. They carefully peeled it off the wall and rolled it up to take back with them to the Ark, though they were not sure what it was. Then they headed past the strange metal blocks and on to the next tunnels, which plunged down into darkness at a steep angle. Footsteps clanged on metal steps as they began to descend. One of Bloody Jack’s gang balked at the darkness and fled in terror for the light, but Nischata and four-armed Mort stayed with him, and down they went.

They were halfway down when they heard them coming. They barely had time to react before the ceiling above the stairwell collapsed on them and they were attacked. They caught a brief glimpse of grey, slippery skin and huge dark eyes, mouths with many teeth, before someone smashed the lantern out of Nischata’s hands. There was screaming and chaos, but after a moment Barathos engaged his mutant power and the stairwell burst into light. They found themselves facing off with eight hideous monsters, naked humanoid figures with slimy grey skin, huge eyes and wicked claws and teeth. The beasts shied back from the light, their advantage in the darkness suddenly reversed to weakness in the light, but they did not run. One was already dragging Nischata down the stairs, leaving a great bloody smear along the side of the narrow stairwell from a huge wound in her ankle, and she was too stunned to fight back. Down below chittering and hissing sounds suggested that her fate would be brutal and slow.

They fought back. The battle was vicious and the grey men gave no quarter, but in the harsh glow of Barathos’ radiance the beasts eventually relented. The last two fled down the stairs and Grimshaw and Bloody Jack followed, but they decided against chasing these beasts too far into their own world. At the bottom of the stairs they found a long, narrow tunnel with a walkway on one side, which appeared to end at gateways to other tunnels and more stairs. Deeming it too risky to explore just yet, they retreated upward.

In the room with the metal blocks they found Bloody Jack’s cowardly gang member, Bennie, dismembered and half eaten. They fled to the surface, emerging into the half light of the shadowed square at a sprint and only stopping to rest when they were far away in the direction of the river, standing in a patch of pale sunlight. Barathos unrolled the strange picture and pointed to a spot with a larger circle and special writing. “I think we’re here,” he said, and drew his finger east and north in the general direction of the Ark. “Are these tunnels? These grey men – they can come up anywhere!”

They shuddered in horror, but there was nothing to be done – yet. Once they had weapons, and rocket fuel, then they could go back into those tunnels. Until then, they would have to trust the Ark’s defenses to hold…

They headed south to the river, and soon found themselves facing the bridge. The road rose a little and then joined the bridge, a long, simple structure with low balustrades on both sides, now overgrown with grass and bushes and fungi but not heavily enough infested to stop the helldrivers if they came over in force. Hopeful of finding some blockage further across, they ventured out onto the windswept open sweep of steel, picking their way between bushes and huge fungi.

They were halfway across when Grimshaw triggered something, and a huge explosion threw fire, twigs, grass and burning toadstool all over them. They hurled themselves away from the blast, and Barathos found himself lying on the ground staring at an unexploded bomb. Backing away carefully, he warned everyone not to move and began searching the rest of the bridge. He found more of the bombs – many more. Sometime long ago a flight of bombs had hit the bridge and somehow all of them had failed to explode, and now here they lay, waiting for some foolish traveling mutant to trigger them. Grimshaw had set off a bomb near the edge, but Barathos calculated that if the one in the middle of the bridge went off the damage would be devastating.

It only took them a moment to grasp the implications before Barathos set to work, carefully jury-rigging the entire collection of bombs into a single linked explosive. If anyone tried to drive across the bridge, they would bring the whole thing down. The work took him several hours of tense, careful work, but when he was done the problem of the helldrivers was solved. They could not now cross the bridge, and the explosion would be so loud that they might even hear it at the Ark. A perfect trap!

With that they retreated carefully from the bridge and returned to the Ark, skirting the entrance to the grey men’s lair and making time to collect the Trash Hawk eggs as they went. They were forced to sleep in the tower beneath the Trash Hawk’s nest, and returned exhausted and hungry to the Ark the following afternoon. The People greeted them in triump, cheering their egg prize, and speaking eagerly of hope for a better future. At the end of another hard adventure, our heroes stood at the gates of the Ark, looking south towards the distant river, and for just the briefest of moments as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, they felt their was some hope for them yet.

Then a sound drifted to them on the fresh breeze. The subtle scratching of wood blown against brick – or the snicker of a watching enemy? They thought of the sinister enemy crouching below the ground, waiting to pounce and stock its hideous larder, and retreated behind the newly-build barricades of the stadium.

Out in the dark, large black eyes blinked shut, and the shadows moved with vicious intent. The darkness watched, and waited.

 

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