Friday, September 9, 2011

Lum, Chap 5

And so we return to the story of the big barbarian, Lum. I've had some fun with this guy, trying to write the way he would think...slow, plodding, but not necessarily stupid. I hope you have fun reading about him. This is fictionalization of play from the free module "Base of Operations" by Ed Stark, with some modifications to fit our campaign.

Marrakest is a medium sized village, Ivy tells me. Seeing it, it is larger than any tribeholding, but much smaller than the city in which I met her. We have traveled a week to be here, near to a keep that we have heard of. It is called Brightstone, and is said to be unoccupied. I have no belief that it is, a deserted place always has some owner ready to claim it. Though it may only be rats, still they claim it. But the stories of gems as large as a fist intrigue us.

Drakha, Relowen, Ivy and I are here, as is Zem, the shaman. The others have gone with Revikh for some other matter, to be tested, he said.

Drakha has spoken with some of the people in the village as I have gathered provisions. She tells me that the Keep had been occupied by an army, but that the army moved on. This army kept goblinoids away from the mines, and the people worry that they might come back.

“If they promise not to become bats when we kill them,” I say, “then we can take it back.” She chuckles, and nods agreement.

We eat and drink, and get directions to the council hall. We are met by an assistant, a young girl who bids us wait as she informs the council of our interest. It is not long before she returns to us, and bids us enter the council chamber.

The council chamber is decorated with parchment and cloth and ink; it is the place of those who war with words, not with weapons. Five people sit, sure in their importance. Their leader, or so I take her to be, speaks to us.

“I hear that you are interested in Brightstone Keep. Tell me, what are your intentions?”

Drakha steps forward, one single step. Her scales are visible, and she runs a hand through her blond hair to keep it from her eyes. She waits just long enough before speaking. “Things have gone badly here, and we are…curious. We may be more force than you can muster in a month.”

The councilor can see that we do not boast, and looks us over. “The army redeployed,” she says, “and everyone in this town is worried about greenksins. Someone or something could take that Keep and use it as a base for raiding.”

“It is our plan to at least check it out,” Drakha says.

The council woman leans back in her chair. “This is good.” She signals another of the council, and this man gives Drakha a rolled parchment.

“A sergeant of the army gave this map to us. You may have it for your scouting. Good luck.”

I grin, and Ivy thanks her with a smirk. We make our own fortune. Zem likes that we will help these people, and tells us he will come along.

Ivy asks of the others, and I say “We will save the others some shiny baubles.” Drakha gives me a glare, and I amend my speech quickly.

I will save them shiny baubles, then.” She smiles and winks at me, and we set off for the Keep.


We ride, heading to the crudely drawn Keep on the map. I hear a snarl from just behind me and am truly surprised. I dive to the side, freeing my morning star from my belt.

As I stand, I see that a dog has just missed biting me. I am confused; I heard no dog, smelled no dog…and yet this one has just snapped at me. And it has two companions with it, attacking Rel and Drakha.

The thing disappears with a pop and I see it reappear just in front of me, damnably quick. Drakha’s flame breath just catches one, as I swat the one before me across the nose. It rolls with my strike, then blinks away again.

I see Ivy float up into the air, levitating to get out of reach. She sends her purple lines of magick into the dogs, hitting them from time to time. She kills the burned one before I can get to it, and it twitches on the ground.

I feel a pain in my calf, and know that one has appeared behind me. Grunting through the pain, I backhand blindly with my morning star, batting it away. Drakha breathes flame again before it lands, burning it in the air. It lands as a blackened lump. Ivy finishes the last, and we are free to move on. We have fought well, turning what these blink-dogs thought would be a meal into their death. We are now starting to fight as a pack ourselves, knowing when one another will act, trusting our backs to each other.

We ride on, and soon see the Keep before us, three towers rising high. There is a high wall, fifteen feet perhaps. It is difficult to be sure from so far away. We stop at great distance, shielded by trees from any who might watch.

Relowen and I look about, and we see tracks of boots, only days old. I tell Drakha, and she discusses this with Relowen. I do not hear their talk, as I am thinking long on this. I have an idea, and tell them.

“We approach the Keep. If challenged, we say we are travelers, and we go along our way. Then we know who is there.” My three companions look at each other strangely, and then Relowen tells me I have had a good idea. We walk along the road then, walking straight to the Keep.

As we near, I hear strange music floating in the air suddenly. I look about, but can not tell its source. It is perhaps magical, as it nearly calls my rage. In the next breath, arrows crash down into us. We must flee.

“Not my best idea!” I shout. “Perhaps fleeing and returning under the cover of darkness would be wise.” We are wounded as we flee, even Ivy, who attempts to run in my shadow. I am a large target, and such is unwise.

As we reach a safe distance, Ivy whines to Zem “Will you heal me?” I pluck out an arrow from my left arm, and see that it is crude. I grunt and ignore the pain. “Their fears have come to pass,” I say. “This is orcish work, or that of a child.”

“I doubt the keep was taken by children,” Relowen says.

“Just so.” I agree.

Zem approaches me, the words of healing magicks on his lips. “Stop,” I say, and see the question in his eyes. “Pain is a teacher. Heal me before we try again tomorrow night, but leave me with my lesson for now.”

“That is either wise or insane,” he says.

“Both.” I answer, through a smile. He leaves me to my thoughts, and I think long on when to be bold, and when to be cunning. The wise warrior can be both, but often I rely on boldness.

We spend the night resting, and the next day preparing. We will not abide these orcs, and though they are many, we are mighty. And cunning. Better that we deal with them than the villagers so close by. Many would die, I think.


As night falls, we set our plan in motion. We approach cautiously, keeping to shadows in the moonlight. At the edge of an archer’s range, Relowen readies a spell known to rangers, a wall of wind. This will blow arrows away from us as we run. We watch him, and he nods, casting the magick. We charge in, running for the Keep’s entryway.

Ivy blasts the great door with a line of power, and I follow it by only two breaths with my battering ram. I feel the impact throughout my arms, shoulders, and into the small of my back as the wood resists. I strike it a second time, and the great oaken door is sundered, flying wide like a tavern door. We have caught the orcs by surprise, no archers are on the wall.

We immediately turn to our left coming through the gate, running for the first tower. This Keep has three of them. We will take high ground first, to cut down on the orcs’ advantage of archers. On our way through, we notice a great wolf, nearly as large as a horse, chained at the center of the courtyard. I pay it no mind, setting my thoughts to the task at hand.

The tower door is hearty, resisting the ram once, twice. Ivy blasts the latch area, and it gives way. As we charge in, three orcs are running down the stairs to greet us. They are met first by Drakha’s fiery breath, and again by Zem’s lightning. One is cooked like bacon.

I run up the stairs, meeting one with a morning star against the side of its knee. It continues to fight from its back, and it takes me some time to pound it into the stone of the stairs. As I look up from the bloody mess, the third is killed by my companions.

I take the lead up the stairs, and find a small dining room, sloppy with the remnants of three unfinished meals. These orcs would have been well armored, had they bothered. I take a breastplate from a rack, strapping it on. Ivy tells me it is magical, and I believe her. The armor seems lighter than it should, and is comfortable. I ignore the smell, and resolve to clean it later.

Relowen asks if I will give him permission to cast a spell on me, and I accede. He tells us, after laying his magick, that we have become hidden from animals, and can pass by the wolf outside unnoticed. We descend the tower and cross the yard to the smaller of two squat buildings at the Keep’s rear, and indeed the wolf lies still, unaware of our passing.

Having been bold, we now rely on cunning. Zem opens the door, cautiously. We are greeted by snores, and count 8 snoring and drooling orcs. Relowen sneaks among them, slitting throats. As each cut is made, a snore becomes a wheeze, and becomes silence. In minutes, there is no sound from this bunkhouse.

We move to the larger of the two structures, and are met with similar sounds. These orcs have slept through our invasion as well, and will pay for it with their lives. Eleven more opened throats join their companions in the eternal sleep. There are now two towers left to clear, and Relowen points at the nearest. I nod agreement, and we set off.

I work to keep my mind focused. This has been easy, and it would be tempting to relax. Still, we do not know how many orcs may yet live, and we must be ready. I breathe deeply, letting the air swell my chest, and hold it there for a count of five. I exhale. I am ready.

We climb the stair of this tower, and do not need stealth. The orcs above are loud, but their laughter is muffled. It seems the door is closed. Rising to the level of the door, we see that this is true. I count three guttural voices from behind the door. Drakha raises her hand, and makes a chopping motion, and I shoulder into the door with a great heave. It opens with a crash, and we see three orcs, armed and armored.

I bash the first with a mighty swing before it can even look at us. The fight happens in a rush. Relowen is swift, dancing about the room. Drakha’s flame casts shadows, as does Zem’s lightning. Ivy’s magick seems to suck the light from the room. As it finishes, I look to see the elf’s blades dripping blood. I nod to him, and he nods back. We crashed upon them like a storm wave upon the beach.

The last tower goes much the same, though one of the orcs is able to draw a line of blood upon my forearm before I can kill it. We can find no more living orcs, and we breathe a bit easier.

“What shall we do about the wolf?” Drakha asks.

“Kill it,” Ivy says with a shrug.

“Release it,” Relowen says, with feeling.

I care not either way. Zem tells us that it is a winter wolf, intelligent, and capable of speech. Relowen goes to speak with it, and returns quickly. We busy ourselves while he is gone with the gathering of the orcs’ fine swords and armor, knowing that they shall be valuable.

“It is here against its will. It has given a vow to leave this place and keep to the wilds, in exchange for its freedom.”

“You believe it?” I ask.


We walk to the courtyard, and I grasp the iron collar binding the wolf to its chain. I heave, pulling it apart steadily until I feel it suddenly give way, the pins flying somewhere in the darkeness. The wolf is free, and I am shocked to hear it say “Thanks” before loping off into the night. This world has more surprises within it than ever I knew.

We take our rest upon the parapets, exchanging watches in case there is an orc patrol. The night passes without event, and in the morning we gather the orc valuables, and retrieve our horses from our campsite. We have only to check the mines before we can declare our task complete.

It is a short walk to the minehead, and it is gated. There is a chain and a lock, the chains as thick as my wrist. Drakha, shaman of dragons, breathes flame upon the lock and the metal softens somewhat. I strike it soundly with my ram, breaking it apart.

Walking into the shaft, we can hear sounds from within the mine. The entrance is a hub, there are five shafts. It is from the center that we hear the sounds, and so it is into that dank stone tunnel we walk. In but a minute, Rel whispers “Trolls,” and holds up three fingers. His elven eyes can see much farther down the tunnel than ours.

“Quietly”, I ask, “or my way?”

“Right behind the magicks”, Drakha says. I smile.

Ivy and Zem immediately launch their magicks into the trolls, and I charge behind those bolts of power. I call the beast to me, and the rage. I smash into the center troll, releasing all my fury into it. Drakha and Zem envelop another in fire, and I smash my foe’s head repeatedly, without finesse. I crush its skull into a bloody lump, finishing it for good with the magical fire of my morning star. Relowen’s arrows thump into the last, and it is anyone’s guess which of my companions finish it off between magical fire and dark power.

A voice, deep and rough like hewn stone, calls from deeper within the mine. “What is happening you fools?” Silence reins for perhaps a minute, and Relowen sneaks down the tunnel to have a look at what awaits us. We hear the voice again. “You oafs! Answer! I hear you creeping around, you filthy elf-lovers!”

Relowen reappears. His look is grim. “One very large orc. It wears plate armor under a robe.”

We rush down the tunnel, and I am led by Relowen’s arrows as I charge, again calling the raging beast within me. We cannot interrupt its spell, though, and I realize it is a necromancer as skeletons arise from piles of bones on the floor. One rises directly in front of me, and I try to shoulder it aside to reach the orc.

The skeleton stands firm, as hard as stone. I strike at it, trying to take it down quickly. It does not fall, and I am amazed to note that I am not shattering bones with my strikes. I have never fought a skeleton so tough.

Drakha manages to reach the big orc, and breathes flame upon him. The others are surrounded by skeletons, and I see Ivy rise to the ceiling and cast her magicks upon the orc, dark lines of power slamming into its armored chest.

Finally, I am able to strike a mighty enough blow against the skeleton I face, sending its skull flying like a shot from a catapult across the stone floor. Two more close on me, the ones that Ivy had been pressed by. I hear Drakha scream in pain, a sound born of great anguish. I cannot get to her, though.

Relowen calls to me, and I see he is hard pressed, his swords near useless against the rock hard bone of the undead warriors. He faces four of them. I fight hard to get clear and join him, and I tear the spine out of one of my foes. I cannot get to him in time, and I see him fall under the weight of their numbers. I scream out my rage.

I hear Ivy cheer, and I look to see that she has felled the orc. But its minions still press us. Relowen is down, the skeletons he had faced now spreading out to attack the rest of us. Drakha is barely standing, and Zem holds her up as he heals her. Only Ivy is free to move, floating safely like a tiny human stalactite.

I call upon the magic of my gauntlets, and feel my strength grow. I crush the skeleton before me, and rush to stand over the elf. I call to my ancestors, and continue smashing foes, every swing hitting hardened bone. I am dimly aware of Zem beside me, and Relowen rises groggily to his feet. Zem has healed him, as well. The tide of the battle is turning, rising in our favor.

We fight in concert now, Ivy driving spikes of power into skulls from above, Zem shattering bones with his magick, Relowen distracting the skeletons for Drakha and I to crush them with our weapons. It does not take long for us to finish them.

I release the rage, and am surprised to find that I am unwounded. I have fought well, have done my ancestors proud. I am relieved that we all stand, it was a near thing.

I tease Relowen in my relief. “It is not so easy to win a battle from your back, elf.”

He responds with a gesture, a crude one he learned from me. My laughter fills the room.

It has been a month since we liberated the Keep. The town council was less than enthused with our success, worrying that they could not man the Keep. Revikh suggested that we make it our own, and we have agreed.

I look around at the armsmen we have hired, watch their work on this, our stronghold. We have hired a mage and a priest, as well. And we have hired a fine cook, to keep the men happy. No coin buys as much loyalty as good food. We have also given work to many of the villagers, paying them a fine wage to work the mine we have liberated from the orcs.

The stones are strong, and a small plinth has been added to the center of the courtyard. It is a focus, I am told, and the new bracelets we wear can return us to it by powerful magic, though only once in a sevenday.

We have changed our fortunes from a small band on the run. It remains to be seen how long the wheel will turn in good fortune. None of us have forgotten the power of the foe we face. I have not forgotten the riddle of crystal, nor will I rest until it is solved.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Zarkov, Chapter 9

We moved cautiously but quickly back down the hall. I walked point with Ignace just to my left, Barrick bringing up the rear. We approached the grand stair, weapons ready. As we neared it, we could hear the lift whirring, and I hustled to the banister. They say the Emperor has a sense of humor, and I think “they” are right on the money.

Just as I hit the rail, I heard the soft “ding” of the door chime on the lift, just below me. I could hear the doors as they slid open, and footsteps just beneath me. Then they came into view, a man in green robes wearing the trappings of a director surrounded by four of the rag-wrapped creations. Without hesitation, I ripped a grenade from my harness and dropped it straight down, rolling back from the rail. “Five contacts, four red-eyes and head honcho,” I spoke into the vox.

Ignace took a fire position to my left, Barrick at the head of the stairs. Sila took cover at the wall, and Venus moved just next to her. I peeked over the banister to see my handiwork, and it appeared the dreg-mummies had taken the brunt of the damage. The director ran for cover at the welcome desk, while 3 of the altered hive-dregs headed for the stairs in a rush. The fourth was slowed by a torn leg, thanks to my grenade. It left a bloody trail across the tile as it hobbled after its companions.

The techpriest worked methodically, taking careful aim, firing the single-shot from his lascarbine, reloading a new hotshot. He put some very large holes in the dreg-mummies. Sila even managed some good shots. Barrick and I just kept a steady rate of fire, though the lawboy did have to dive for cover as the director rattled off some fairly accurate autopistol fire.

I heard Venus say “Pain” under her breath, and then one of the rag-wrapped sods started twitching, unable to move further. Our shots converged on it quickly, and I voxed “Again.” We had a working strategy, and we thinned them out in short order. The director proved a harder nut to crack, staying behind the desk as he did. We exchanged ineffective fire for maybe three minutes before Barrick said “Frak this,” and stood.

Before I could stop him, he was running down the stairs at full speed. We attempted to give him cover, but the director was cagey, and slid out at floor level to unleash a long burst of shots into the Arbite’s charge. He went down like a dropped sack of tubers. He looked bad off, dropping in that way I’d come to associate with death on a few too many battlefields.

Sila yelled out “Barrick!” and rattled off all the shots in her revolver in rapid succession, chewing up one end of the welcome desk. I moved to my right, eager to get down the stairs to check on him, but not so eager that I’d share his plight. I waited for my shot. The director rose from the behind the desk, autopistol up, pointed directly at me.

Before I could take the shot, I heard the distinctive crack-whine of the cogboy’s hotshot, and saw the bloom of red mist from behind the director’s head. He crumpled to the ground, a goodly portion of his head no longer in his possession. I ran down the stairs, Sila close on my heels. I reached down and felt Barrick’s neck, and heaved a sigh of relief as I felt a pulse. I couldn’t see any blood, and Sila had already pulled out her medikit and was unbuckling his chest armor. I moved on down the stairs to make certain the opposition was truly down. A feel of the director’s neck revealed a different story than Barrick’s, and I collected the autopistol and a couple of spare mags off the corpse, as well as a key on a chain around his neck.

When I got back to Barrick, Sila and Venus were both working on him. He’d come around, but was still quite groggy. The adept looked up from her work with the medikit.

“It looks like he’s got several broken ribs, and likely some internal bruising. But he should be OK,” she said. For his part, Barrick mostly groaned, until she used the injector to load him up on a stimm and painkiller cocktail. Seconds later, his eyes were wide open.

“Alright, let me get up dammit,” he said.

“You ever hear of cover?” I asked him facetiously.

“Laugh it up asshole,” he replied. I offered him a hand and helped him to his feet as we grinned like fools. He reached for his chest armor, but it was in terrible shape. He tossed it on the stairs and made the sign of the Aquila over his chest. “The Emperor protects. And Sila fixes what he can’t, I guess.”

She smiled her thanks at his compliment, and loaded her emptied revolver. I handed the autopistol and its ammo to Barrick. “Here’s a souvenir to go with those ribs,” I said.

With that, we headed for the lift, waiting to take us to the top level of the building. Ignace used the director’s key to select the third level, and the doors closed with a gentle groan.

We exited the lift to a silent reception area. A sign warned us that only those with an appointment could continue past the door from this tiny room. We decided we’d make our own appointment, and Ignace made short work of the lock with his multi-tool.

The 3rd level of the building appeared to have been a medicae facility, but one that had been run by a butcher’s guild. Bloodstains decorated the walls and floors in random patterns, though a few of the blotches made my eyes hurt to look at. Venus made the sign of the Aquila, and began praying to Him on Earth, and we all mirrored the Holy symbol with our hands for a moment before we continued.

Looking about, we saw that some of the medicae tables held corpses, all face down and flayed open. Each had one of the white organs wrapped within their tissues, though it was obvious that these were all failed implantations.

Passing one of the tables, Venus gasped suddenly, a sound of horror escaping her. We rushed over, to find that one of the poor bastards was still clinging to life, though just barely. He kept trying to scream, but in eerie silence. Only the hiss of rushing air into the respirator device made any sound, his vocal chords long ruined by the strain of his cries. He had suffered horribly, and made no response to us as we tried to communicate with him. Barrick looked to me, and I nodded my head once, and closed my eyes. One shot rang out in the room, and then the silent screaming came to an end, the Emperor’s Mercy given with finality.

We walked on in silence, passing perhaps 20 tortured, dead souls. At the end of the room, a very solid wall stood, more at home in an Imperial bunker than an Alms house. One massive amourplas door punctuated the wall, and the hair stood on the back of my neck. I motioned to Ignace, and he made ready to open the portal, as Barrick and I took fire positions just to each side of the massive door.

Ignace gave the door a mighty tug, and as it opened, an entirely new hell greeted us. Barrick and I stepped through quickly, and I took the room in at a glance. It was obviously an operating theatre, and in fact one of the occupants of the room was performing a surgery.

She was tall, and I could see more metal than flesh on her as she was bristling with augmetics. Her entire face was a metallic mask, and several mechadendrites moved over her shoulders functioning as extra arms wielding numerous surgical implements. The screams of her subject assailed our ears. There were several massive glass tanks in the room, and one held a massive version of the white organs we’d seen, easily 3 meters in length.

What kept my attention, however, was the vat grown monstrosity that was the twin of the one we’d dealt with downstairs. Especially given that it was charging us with its chain-ripper whirring.

It hadn’t made four steps before falling mid stride onto its face, writhing in agony. I knew that Venus had done something to what there was of its mind, and I moved the front sight of my lasgun over to the augmetics-laden churgeon, firing rapidly. Those few shots revealed to me that her augmetics covered her center of mass, and was pretty damned tough. She didn’t so much as flinch, even when Barrick added his shotgun to the volley.

With a clicking hiss, the mechadendrites on her back detached, revealing themselves to be a sort of metallic spider of many limbs which began to scuttle toward us. I’d seen more than enough, and chucked a grenade in her direction. I was a bit too enthusiastic in my toss, and it rolled between the twitching monstrosity and the big vat of goo, detonating moments later. The glass vat shattered, the organ perforated in dozens of places, and the monster with the chain-ripper ceased its twitching. I kept shooting just as if I’d meant for it to happen that way. It was probably the luckiest miss I’ve ever had, or the worst. Jury’s still out.

Ignace took a shot at the spider-thing, but his lasbolt seemed to bounce off the polished metal. I immediately dropped my lasgun and pulled my revolver, as it slashed a scalpel the size of my forearm at Barrick, which the lawboy barely avoided. One shot from the big caliber handgun slagged the thing, tearing into its casing in a shower of sparks.

In all this time, the metal-clad churgeon had been weathering a storm of fire from the rest of the team. She ran to the far corner of the room, ducking behind the ruined specimen tank, and dove into a large shaft in the floor. I cursed, and moved to advance. Barrick sprinted after her, stopping at the lip of what turned out to be a shaft straight down to the kitchen…where her failed experiments were turned into menu items.

He jumped down into the shaft, intent on climbing after her. From my vantage across the room, I could see some of the ichor from the specimen tank had pooled there, and a flash of panic clenched my gut in an icy fist. There was no scream. There was no shout of denial. There was only a screech of metal as he lost his grip and a sickening thump from the shaft across the room.

I don’t recall making my way to the edge of that shaft, don’t remember holstering the pistol or recovering my lasgun. I only remember making the Aquila as I looked on the broken body of a man of the Adeptus Arbites who would not give up, who died in the line of duty. A man who I trusted would stand at the Golden Throne moments hence and be judged worthy, if hasty.

There would be no catching the Churgeon, and we all knew it. We’d succeeded in uncovering the truth, but we still felt failure wrapping around us like a shadow. We stood there, gazing down, listening as Venus prayed.

The Emperor is our guiding light, a beacon of hope for humanity in a galaxy of darkness. As we serve Him, He is our greatest servant. As we pray to Him, His thoughts are only for us. And in the dark when the shadows threaten, the Emperor is with us, in spirit and in fact.”

One week later, the reports were finally finished, the evidence all collected. Our investigation had come to a close in the Coscarla, and our masters of the Holy Inquisition would pick up the pieces and discover the truth, the heresy which we’d exposed to the light.

We stood around one single lit candle, placed atop a ruined chestplate of Arbites armor. We each had a drink in our hands.

Sila stood in her robes of the Adminstratum, her blonde hair reflecting the candlelight. Venus clutched her pendant, the psy-focus of her trade. Ignace seemed immobile, a statue in the red robes of the Mechanicus. Me, I just clutched my amasec in one hand, thoughts of justice echoing in my mind. In the other I had our orders, an astropathic dispatch to embark on a system freighter to “maintain readiness”.

We drank one final toast to Barrick Zadin, Adeptus Arbite. The amasec was smooth, if a bit harsh on tongue. Venus, most pious of us all, reached out one hand and extinguished the candle.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zarkov, Chapter 8

The next day greeted us with soreness and discomfort, and most of us returned to the hostel to get something approaching rest. Ignace decided to stay with the corpse for a while longer; he was still taking samples and doing analysis. The rest of us had no desire to impede or even witness his work.

All paths lead to Terra, they say, and we were convinced by all the clues we’d unearthed that the Alms House was something more than a place to receive a meal. Something was very wrong there, and we would have to find out just what it was. Such was our mandate, and our duty.

Ignace re-joined us at lunchtime, and a short strategy session ensued. We decided to visit the Alms House that night and take a good long look around. We spent the remainder of the day preparing ourselves, as Sila and Ignace searched Imperial Records for all entries relating to Coscarla’s Alms House. Finally, the night cycle approached, and after a nearly lethargic day, we moved out with a quickness.

Sila and Ignace had used their skills to good measure, and we had a printout of the building’s floor plan. We decided to enter through the refectory rather than the front or rear…if challenged we could just ask for a handout, like so many before us. We intended to go as quietly as possible. Funny how things turn out.

I was loaded for bear, wearing my full turnout. My harness was strapped over my flak armour, sword at one hip and laspistol at the other. The lasgun and shotgun rested in their customary spots on the magclamps on my back, and I still had the revolver at the small of my back. I’d even brought along a couple of frag grenades, just in case…I’ve found in my lifetime that it’s never a good thing to wish you’d brought your grenades along to the party. All that gear makes for a heavy load, but I’d grown accustomed to it on too many battlefields to count.

The rest of the team were as loaded as they ever got; Barrick with his combat shotgun, Ignace with his hotshot-loaded lascarbine. Sila clutched her revolver, and Venus appeared to be unarmed…but was likely the most potent of us all with her mindcraft. We seemed a motley crew indeed, three in robes and two in combat armor. We walked with purpose, ready to do the Emperor’s work.

Entry was simple, as Venus defeated the simple lock with a mere thought. We spread out, not really knowing what we sought beyond “proof of heresy.” That is a fairly wide swathe of possibilities, but if it was easy they wouldn’t need us.

Only minutes into our search, Ignace raised one hand, fingers splayed. We rushed to him, and he pointed to an odd device in the food service line.

“What the frak is it?” Barrick asked in hushed tones.

Ignace answered him quietly. “It appears to be a rudimentary bio-auspex. See here where it couples to this cogitator?”

Barrick gave him a blank stare. Ignace punched a few buttons on the cogitator array, and the Arbite nodded in sudden understanding.

“It further appears that it is programmed to track identification and biostatus of anyone receiving food from this establishment. To what end I cannot say.”

I held up a closed fist and all conversation ceased. I had heard something from the kitchen door, and I held my hand out, palm down, to let the team know to stay put and stay quiet. The door had a circular window in it, and I crept slowly over to peer through it.

It was a typical kitchen, all stainless steel and ceramics. A man in the green robes of the Alms House was working, bent over a large vat, and I nearly turned away. Then I noticed a glint of metal through a sleeve, and my head whipped back around. He had an autopistol in a shoulder rig, and I’d caught a glimpse of it through the gap of his robe. I pointed at Barrick and motioned him over, and he joined me quickly and silently.

He took a look through the window, then nodded to me. I mouthed a silent countdown from three, and we burst through the door together, leveling our weapons at the poor bastard.

Startled, his eyes flew wide open, and his hands went up over his head. He was a scruffy man, his filth and demeanor at odds with his pristine robes.

“Good evening.” I said it conversationally. “Let’s keep those hands up, and we’re going to answer a few questions.”

His answer came in a rush, as he grabbed the barrel of my lasgun with one hand, the other going for the pistol. He wasn’t quick enough by half, and Barrick spoon-fed him a blast from his shotgun. It was loud as hell, and I winced, sure that our stealth was blown.

I reached down and plucked a microbead out of the corpse’s ear, hearing a voice asking for a status report through it. I graveled my voice and rubbed a finger over the mic to simulate static as I replied.

“Sorry boss, that was an accident,” I said into the mic.

I thought I heard gunfire?”

“Just the one shot, sir. It was a damn big rat. I missed.”

Don’t let it happen again, Furnik.”

“Yes sir.” I heaved a sigh of relief, the stress of having to lie my ass off draining away from me. Then I smacked Barrick in the back of the head. Hard. An old sergeant of mine used to call that slap a “training aid.”

Barrick whispered to me “Did you want me to let him shoot you?”

“You’ve never heard of a buttstroke with your weapon?” I replied.

“Good point,” he conceded.

The others had filtered in, weapons drawn, and we continued our search in the kitchen. Moments later, Venus said simply “Here.” We gathered in one of the cold storage lockers, and she showed us some large barrels with numbers on the side. The numbers matched some of those we’d just seen in the cogitator, and my stomach flipped once. Sila covered her mouth with her hand.

The tech priest opened one of the containers, and quickly confirmed that it was filled with meat. “Human remains,” he said. Some of the team looked a little green, but nobody lost their dinner.

“Close it.” I said. “That’s enough…somebody goes down tonight.” I handed Ignace the microbead I’d collected. “Here, monitor this. It’s their comm freq.”

“Excellent,” the tech priest replied. He performed a quick ritual of attunement, and adjusted his own vox to monitor both our channel and theirs. I trusted him not to broadcast on the wrong one.

We made quick work of sweeping the rest of the first floor, finding nothing of interest. Our sweep took us past the main entrance with its lift and grand stair, through more storage areas and a conference room, and to the back staircase. We wasted no time heading up to the second floor, Barrick and I taking point.

We opened the door to a long hallway, with several doors along its length. We filed out of the stairway and into the gloomy passage, its sickly yellow sodium lights fighting to dispel the darkness. A general sense of creepiness hung in the air, and I looked to Venus to see if there was any warpcraft about. She shook her head gently, her blue eyes darting from door to door.

As a team, we moved from door to door, slowly and quietly clearing each room in turn. Minutes crept by, closing in on an hour. I felt an anxiety building; we’d been a long time with no contact. There’s a feeling in the air when a fight is about to happen, intangible but intense. That feeling was stirring now, and I reminded the team to stay alert.

The very next room we entered was the director’s office, and we gave it a bit more attention in our search for clues. Ignace noticed that one of the desk drawers was locked, and pried it open with his multitool. I heard him say “Interesting,” drawing the word out to leave it hanging among us in the room. We all looked at him, and he held up a small book from the drawer. On its face was the symbol of the Logicians, the heretical cult that had been crushed once before. Sila spoke first.

“That about cinches it then. Definitely heretics.” She spat the word, her righteous hatred dripping from it.

Suddenly, Ignace held his hand up, fist clenched. We all fell silent instantly. He tapped his ear, letting us know he was listening to vox. Then he said the words that changed our method for the night.

“We are discovered. There is a man just outside the door, reporting our presence.”

“We are go for active,” I replied, letting the team know we were now in a shoot-first-ask-later mode.

Barrick and I rushed the door; I took care of the opening part while he handled the pointing a shotgun through it part. Our target was in full flight, running hellbent for leather down the hallway. Ignace rolled through the doorway just before I stepped out into the gloomy passage, and we all sent rounds downrange. The green-robed runner staggered once, but made it to the end of the hallway, opening a steel door. Our next volley caught him just as the door slid open, and he crumpled to the floor.

From within that room, we heard a mighty crash and breaking glass, and a green fog issued from the door. I kept a sight picture on the doorway, assuming that all that commotion was a bad sign. Some days, I hate it when I’m right.

My eyes flew wide open as a huge humanoid thing charged through the doorway. It was a mass of vat-grown muscle, its right hand replaced by a meter-long chainripper. A low growl issued out of a mouth full of pointed teeth, and it showed no signs of slowing down as the chainripper revved up.

I fired as fast as my trigger finger would allow, trying to maintain fire discipline. I heard the booming of Barrick’s shotgun next to me, saw blood spatter and paint rip from the hallway walls. I heard the sharp crack-whine of Ignace’s lascarbine, watched a hole open in the thing’s chest. It seemed not to notice, closing the distance to us with preternatural speed. I felt the pressure of fear in my chest, but forced myself to stand firm and keep shooting. It still seemed not to notice, and it raised the chainripper high over its head.

Finally, Barrick caught the charging thing in the eye, and it crumpled a mere 3 meters from us, the chainripper digging a hole in the wall before sputtering out. Its torso heaved one final breath, and it fell silent. I released the breath I’d been holding, and felt the euphoria of certain death avoided flood through me.

I looked at Ignace, still on one knee beside me. “Rolling?” I asked.

“It seemed the most appropriate strategic procedure,” he replied. All I could do was laugh.

We cleared the rest of the hallway without incident, including the room that had recently held our rather enthusiastic attacker. Its containment vat had been shattered, and nutrient slime coated the floor, thick and green.

“Nothing else here,” Barrick said.

Sila, being careful to stay out of the slime-coated room, added “There’s a third floor.”

“Then we go up,” I said.

Ignace tilted his head to the side for a moment, and I knew he was visualizing the floor plan in his augmented mind. “The only entry point for that level is the lift. It is our only option.”

“No other options?” I asked. I was met with a chorus of silence. “That’s about what I thought. Let’s get this done.” We had no idea our night was about to get much, much more interesting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Zarkov, Chapter 7

It was late afternoon, and we’d regrouped together at the hostel. Barrick had provided a plate of sandwiches we were tearing into, though I honestly didn’t want to know what was in them. Some things are better left unknown, especially downhive.

Venus was first to speak, once we got down to business. “Lili was fearful when we found her. We managed to put her at ease, but it took some doing.”

“She was most irrational,” Ignace added.

Venus continued, running a hand through her dark hair. “She told us she hadn’t noticed Saul’s disappearance at first, evidently he liked the bottle and wouldn’t come home sometimes. When she did notice, she became frantic. She’s got the same story we’ve been hearing since we arrived; disappearances in the dead of night.”

“We used our cover, and bought her a ticket out of here,” Sila chimed in. She looked at the floor. “We told her we knew Saul was dead. She deserved to know.”

Barrick and I nodded our agreement as Venus went on. “Something is very wrong here, that much is obvious. Lili, however, didn’t have a lot to add to our knowledge.”

“Well, I might know where Saul was last seen,” Barrick said. We all looked at him expectantly. “I was asking around, and I met a guy taking shelter in the Templum. Evard Zed. Saul’s best friend.” He was now grinning like the felid that ate the canary.

“Do tell,” Sila said.

“To make a long day a short story, Evard last saw him going into the Alms House. No other useful info.” He sat at the table, lighting a lho stick and taking a long drag.

“Well,” I said, “that’s quite interesting. I met with Luntz, local narco-runner. He wanted to hire us to take out a woman who crossed him. Guess where she keeps shop?”

“Alms House,” Barrick and Venus said in unison.

“Prize to the pair,” I said. Barrick stood within the smoke cloud he’d created, grabbed his combat shotgun, and started for the door.

“Where are you headed, lawboy?” I said.

“I’m going to recon the Alms house while it’s dark.”

“Not a bad idea,” Ignace said, looking thoughtful.

I nodded agreement. “Well, do me a favor and keep your vox bead on. Night cycle gets rough here, you know.”

“I will,” he said, and left the room. The rest of us attacked the sandwiches like pack-hounds.


An hour later, the vox went off, Barick’s voice driving into my ear.

“Frak! Contact, two contacts! Red eyes!”

I ran to my room, harnessing up and grabbing my weapons from the makeshift rack in the closet.

“Where are you?” I asked into the bead. Off the bead, I yelled into the hallway “Saddle up, Barrick’s in deep!” and was rewarded by a flurry of activity from the others. I headed down the stairs as Barrick updated us on his position, and I could hear his shotgun hammering over the voxcast.

It took us only a couple of minutes to reach the young Arbite, and we found him hard pressed by two of the rag-wrapped things. He was furiously backpedaling and using his shotgun like a club, parrying their grasping arms.

“Down!” I yelled, and we opened up on them as Barrick dropped to the ground and rolled toward us. The tech-priest’s hot shots seemed to be doing the most damage, but his rate of fire left a lot to be desired, since they’re a single shot mag. Venus was able to distract them with her peculiar abilities, and Barrick reloaded once he was clear.

For my part, I just kept pulling the trigger, my lasgun on semi-auto. I stuck to a disciplined fire drill: front sight, slow squeeze, reacquire, repeat. I’d done it so many times over a lifetime of merc work that it was reflexive, like breathing.

The damn things soaked up a lot of damage, but finally both fell to our combined fire. We stood over them, taking a breather. That’s when I heard more scraping in the darkness. I looked at Venus, and she closed her eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. Then she held up 7 fingers. I cursed, and grabbed one of the rag-wrapped things.

“Let’s go” I said, and put thought to action. I hoisted the corpse into a fireman’s carry and we moved out, all of us with weapons at the ready.

“They are ahead of us, Zarkov,” Venus said. “Closing like a trap. We won’t reach the hostel without more of these things.”

We were near the Union Hall, and Barrick pointed it out. “We can hole up there, get a good defensive position.”

“Best idea you’ve had all day” I said.

We hit the back door like a wave, Sila pounding on it in a frenzy. The same ganger answered as before, and I brushed him aside as we poured in. Barrick slammed the door shut behind us, as the ganger gaped like a landed fish.

I dropped the corpse like a sack of tubers, and Ignace set to work immediately unwrapping the rags that hid it from our view. Under all the cloth, he found a hive dreg, just a man, with cheap bionic eyes. “Night vision modified,” Ignace said, pointing to the augmetics. That accounted for the red glow.

Barrick leaned in closely. “What do you want to bet we find one of those organ things in there?” he asked. There were no takers.

I kept watch at the door, and could see no figures approaching through the viewslit. I looked at Venus, the question on my face. “None” she said. “They have either dispersed or moved toward the hostel, I’d guess.”

Just then, Luntz blew into the room like a stormfront. “The frak is going on in here?” Then he saw the body on the floor, and his face went pale. “What the…you can’t…you can’t have that here!”

“Luntz” I said. “Man up. We needed a spot, we got cut off.” He looked at me with murder in his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”

“The bloody sump it’ll be fine. You trying to get me killed?”

Ignace stood from his macabre work. “Good sir. You will note that this is no monster, but merely a man. It is nothing to fear.”

“Who the frak is afraid?” Luntz replied, his voice rising an octave. I decided not to answer his question, and shook my head slightly so that Ignace wouldn’t either. He’s a little soft on the concept of rhetorical questions.

“We’re going to need to borrow this room for the night, Luntz”, I said.

He gave me a long look, looked down at the body on the floor, and seemed to make a decision.

“Yeah, yeah that’ll be fine. I can send my boys through here, let them see the boogeyman’s face. Maybe they’ll quit pissing themselves at night.”

He turned on his heel and strode from the room, his dignity restored. We found ourselves alone.

“So”, Venus started, “Alms House?”

“Alms House,” I replied. All the clues pointed to that place as the source of Coscarla’s cancer.

Ignace waved the auspex over the body, and it chimed with a cheery tone, indicating the presence of the modified organ. “I do believe that would be the place to visit. May I suggest we go in the morning, and I will retrieve a sample of the organ from this poor soul?”

We all agreed, and settled in to get some rest. Sila grumbled about not having her bed, but none of us wanted to head to the hostel in the night’s darkness. A grim reminder of what awaited us outside lay on the floor, slowly revealing secrets under the tech-priest’s knife.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zarkov Chapter 6

After a too-long shower and a too-short sleep, we rose to face the day. Of course, day in the Coscarla is only slightly less dark, a perpetual gloom hangs around like a fog.

We tossed Draylock’s office for clues, finding precious little. There was a note with a scrawled reference to Lili Arbest, Saul’s sister, so we made plans to visit with her for information. Sadly, none of us had remembered that we had planned that very thing back in the Interrogator’s briefing room. I felt like a FNG for a moment, but I let it pass and put my mind back on the mission, as we all met back in room 3, which Sila and Venus were using.

“We would be best served dividing our labors”, Ignace began.

“Second”, Barick said.

“I’ll head back to the Union Hall, see if I can drag up more info”, I said.

“Barick, perhaps you could check around for some other leads in the stacks?” Sila suggested.

“I’m on it”, he replied.

“We will talk with Lili”, Venus added, including Sila and Ignace with a glance.

“Alright then, let’s hit it. Vox if there’s trouble. We’ll meet back here.” I said. I shrugged on the heavy overcoat and headed out into the gloom of the Coscarla, making my way to the Union Hall.

As I walked, I got that itchy feeling between my shoulder blades. The feeling has served me well through the years, and I stopped dead. I scanned the street, looking around me with an eye to detail. I saw nothing. Still, when I resumed my walk, I did so warily.

I made my way to the Union Hall and into the bar at a brisk pace. Many of the same faces were here, professional drinkers racing their livers to the grave. I sat on the same barstool, and the tender brought over the same ale I’d ordered before. A good memory can be an asset for a bartender.

“You must be a tough one”, he said. I raised one eyebrow, a bit taken aback but waiting for him to continue. “Heard what you did to ol’ Draylock’s boys. Heard it from Luntz, actually. He wants to meet you.”

“Man’s quick”, I said.

“He keeps his ears open, that one. And always willing to pay for muscle.”

“Man’s smart”, I said. When I get a good theme, I stick with it.

“He keeps an office of sorts here”, the bartender continued. “It’s the door around back, doesn’t connect to the rest of the building. Knock five then three.” I couldn’t suppress a snort and a grin. “I know”, he said, “Luntz likes his pictdramas.”

“Tell him I’ll roll around later today” I replied. Then I finished my ale and I left.

I had a few hours to burn. I didn’t want to go straight to Luntz, as I didn’t want us to seem like a gang of overeager simps. I strolled the market for a while, taking in the sights and sounds. I’ve visited livelier intensive care wards.

I had some time to think about things. I knew that the Coscarla was dying, and would be another faceless underhive in maybe two decades. I knew that somebody had altered Saul Arbest, and not for the better. I knew that we’d seen a strange creature, human in shape, that we couldn’t find. I knew that I didn’t know near enough. I’d have to rely on the whole team to put it all together.

I decided that enough time had passed, and made my way back to the Union Hall to speak with Luntz. I made my way to the back door, and tapped the code out on it, shaking my head the while.

When the door opened, I was met by a one-two punch of odor and ugly. The stubjack that manned the door looked like he’d gone ten rounds with an ork and lost, and he smelled like said ork’s armpit.

“Whaddyer want?” he said, and I suffered the affront of his halitosis.

“I’m here for Luntz. He’s expecting me. I’m with the crew that aced Draylock’s half-wits.”

He took a step back, letting me enter. “Hey boss!” he yelled, “Got’s a visitor!” Hell, he talked like an ork, too.

The man I assumed was Luntz came into the room like a rolling fog. He looked like he’d been augmented with some vat-grown muscle, as his arms were about as big around as my thighs. The plug of a lho-stick protruded from his lips, unlit, and a stubble clung to his jaw and the top of his head. He was wearing old fatigues, likely surplus or lifted from a shipment.

“I’m Luntz. Thanks for showin’.” He stuck a massive hand out, and I shook it.

“Thanks for the invite.” I lifted my chin a bit. “It’s your place, your show. What can I do for you?”

“Direct.” He nodded his approval. “I like that.” His voice issued out of him like a bass drum dragged over gravel.

I answered with a slight grin, and said nothing.

“You seem a capable crew. I heard what you did to Draylock’s boys, and they were some hard bastards, through and through. I do things here that could use a capable crew.” He looked at me expectantly. He wanted me to ask. So I did.

“What kind of things?”

“I keep things running here. Try to hold off the dark a bit. Yeah, we move narco goods, but people here need ‘em to get by, yeah?” This was a pitch he’d practiced. “Sometimes a bit of muscle’s just the trick. You’re more than a bit of muscle, and I like that.”

“Sounds worth talking about,” I replied, just to keep him going.

“Well, here’s the thing. I want to find out what all you’re good at. You up for a test?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

He looked me over, and I watched him decide to buy in. “Alright. Got a job needs doing. You’ll find me generous if it gets done. There’s a queen bitch over at the Alms House I want dropped like a habit. Keeps herself to herself, but went sour on some trade with me. You take her down, you pass.”

“You want this pro bono?” I let a bit of an edge creep into my voice.

“No, man, nothin’ like that. You drop her, it’s worth a cool five hundred.” That was real money to the Coscarla. I let myself look impressed.

“All right, I’ll check with the team.”

“Do that. While you’re at it, you come across a friend of mine named Saul, you let me know. Went missing a bit ago.” I kept my face still, even though I recognized the name.

He turned and left, quite unlike a man holding court in the backrooms of a bar. There was nothing left for me to say, so I said it. I left, heading back to the hostel. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth our time to run an errand for a narc-runner. It was certainly distasteful. But sometimes you crawl through a bit of muck to reach an objective.