Strange blooms on far shores

Strange blooms on far shores

The Spiral Confederacy restarts with the characters leaving Niscorp 1743 for The Reach, a pirate system a short jump away. On Niscorp 1743 they had killed some ice spiders at great personal risk, getting a research administrator out of a spot of trouble and earning themselves some zero-g training as a reward. They had also met a priest from an ocean planet, Michael, who had offered to pay them in exchange for taking him to The Reach. The Reach is a fine spot to drop rumours of human trafficking, and also a great place to pick up the kind of weapons that are illegal for ordinary citizens in the Confederacy; they also had a crate of laser carbines to sell, so a journey to The Reach seemed inevitable.

While they rested and prepared equipment they recruited a second pilot, a young woman called Lam with a dubious naval history. Given the risky nature of many of their ventures, they guessed it might be wise to build a little redundancy into their crew, so they recruited the only pilot in Niscorp 1743 who was willing to go to The Reach and who could shoot as well as fly.

Stable personality was not in their list of essential criteria, so Lam was hired.

After a week of travel they arrived in The Reach, jumping in to a point beyond its extensive asteroid field. From the jump point the system’s red dwarf star was a tiny, distant red speck, flickering in and out of view through the curtain of asteroids. They passed around the asteroid field slowly, on a pre-assigned route, and by the time they emerged on the other side they could see the 7th Pearl, shining in the far distance. Between them and it a small flight of fighter vessels approached, hailing them for travel details. Their first encounter with the Pirates of The Reach passed in a completely mundane manner, with an exchange of basic credentials and a docking trajectory for Pearl 7. They docked where they were told and disembarked into a small lounge where they were met by a man who introduced himself as an ambassador for foreign guests, and a small rat-faced man named Ampoule who Michael told them would be their guide for the day. Michael showed them how to use their mysterious payment, and left them to themselves.

Basic rules for Confederate travelers in The Reach gave them one week of free accommodation, after which they must pay in local currency (“credits”) or leave. Overstaying this welcome would see their ship impounded and the crew bonded as indentured labourers for a year. They could live on their ship and organize basic energy and fuel for free, but if they wanted any comfort they would need to make some money. Stir-crazy after a week on their tiny ship, they set out immediately to sell the laser carbines and begin stocking their armoury.

There was a large market place for all manner of unsavoury enterprises a short distance from the docks, and it was here they went first. Here they found arms dealers, slavers, and even a prohibitively expensive dealer in black market memory backups. They sold their carbines and organized delivery of a slew of laser rifles and a suit of combat armour, then retired to their ship to relax. Over the next few days they began visiting slave markets and dealers, dropping hints about their illicit cargo and looking to lay down lots of clues about where they found it. Once the armour and guns arrived, they began to think about looking for a little work.

They booked some rooms near the docks, to spread out a little, and it was then as they were settling in that they received an invitation to meet Michael at a place called the Rubble Bar, to discuss possible work. The Rubble Bar is a small tavern at the part of the docks closest to Pearl 7’s ruined superstructure; from its single large window customers can watch workmen repairing the spars of the damaged section, while they sip drinks from lost civilizations. Each of them ordered a drink from a civilization that had passed away, and sat sipping it contemplatively while they waited for their mysterious priest.

Michael arrived with a glass of the last water from a dessicated planet, and began to talk business. He had come to The Reach to kill a man. This man, a priest named Jaccus, had been welcomed to Michael’s planet as a guest, but had defiled one of his culture’s sacred tombs and killed its guardian. The most ancient tombs on Michael’s planet are dessicated sky burials placed reverently on islands made of the calcified bones of giant sea creatures; these tombs are often thousands of years old, and are tended by elderly monks in a role of great honour and little responsibility afforded to senior religious figures. This priest Jaccus had visited such a tomb-island and desecrated it horribly, then fled the planet. Michael, who had traveled a few times before, was sent to find Jaccus and kill him. Jaccus had assumed his deeds would go unnoticed for months, so isolated are the tomb-islands, but hadn’t realized a supply ship would arrive just a few days later on a scheduled visit. So it was that they were easily able to track his movements out of the system, and Michael could follow him, though he fell further behind with each jump.

Unfortunately, after Jaccus arrived in The Reach a few weeks ago he had managed to obtain the protection of the Viscount of Pearl 2, making it difficult to obtain mercenaries to kill him. So it was that he turned to the PCs to do it; as outlanders they were free to take contracts on anyone they wanted. Currently it appeared Jaccus had made a trip to The Gardens, and so would be easy to ambush and kill if he was approached there in the next few days. For this job he would pay them 100,000 credits, almost enough to buy another suit of combat armour.

The PCs did not agree to kill this Jaccus, but they did agree to go visit him in The Gardens, see what they thought of him, and kill him if necessary. Michael was not phased by this conditional offer. “Once you meet him you will want to kill him,” he assured them, and left them to their drinks.

To the ruins

To the ruins

Death in the Gardens

They left for the Gardens the next day on a small sub-light flyer, a rickety thing that took a few hours to get them to their destination. Its approach took them across the 100km long face of the Gardens, a lush expanse of steel, forest and planes hanging in the middle of space. The mist trapped within its field generators shrouded much of its expanse, and shone with the lurid reflected light of the distant sun. Some strange technology transported that light through sub-space portals so that the Gardens were bathed in sunlight vastly more powerful than its distance from the faint red dwarf warranted, ensuring that the Gardens roiled with mist and heat. In the breaks between these clouds they caught glimpses of the Gardens themselves, vistas of green or gold splayed out across rippling uneven territory, scattered with occasional deep holes where the wreckage of spaceships interlocked. The Gardens started with a low plane of wreckage that crawled slowly up through foothills to shallow peaks formed by the spines of ancient Confederacy capital ships, wrecked by the system’s strange defenses and pulled to this Lagrange point to be recommissioned for The Reach’s bizarre experiment in herb gardening. Beyond the jagged ridges of those wrecked ships, now softened by a shroud of vegetation, hung the infinite blackness of space, cordoned away from the lush fields by a thin layer of field technology.

They disembarked at the Gardens’ tiny docks, noting the presence of another flyer, encoded with the emblems of Pearl 2, and stood for the first time under the Reach’s starry night, unprotected by steel shells or spaceship hulls. Ahead of them stood a low wall and a custom’s house, blurs of green and misty grey visible beyond; but here at the docks they stood under a stunning vista of stars, scattered around the black firmanent like diamonds on velvet. Shielded only by the thin barrier of the Gardens protective field, they could view the full glory of the stars of their sector, try briefly to find their home stars before they were interrupted by the dockmaster.

Brought back to humdrum reality, they dismissed his questions and offered him 100 credits to forget their presence. He aimed to argue, but one look at Ahmose’s stern reproach and he thought better of it. Jaccus, he told them, had headed “that way”, waving vaguely in a certain direction, and headed back to his hut. Simon Simon used his Adherent Grace, scrying, to access all the cameras in the vicinity of the docks, and soon found video footage of an old man in black robes with a staff, accompanied by three men in light armour with assault rifles, heading in the direction the dockmaster had indicated. They were dragging an anti-gravity sled loaded with audio-visual equipment, heading up into the hills. Time to go.

They passed through the low wall and into the Gardens. From here the trek in the direction Jaccus had headed started easily, but it got harder. First a stretch of rhododendron forest steeped in rain and mist; then an open stretch of field, followed by a series of fragrant herb gardens and some hikes through mossy hills. They could see the skeleton of the broken spaceships beneath the fields and forests, with occasional parts protruding from amongst the greenery – here a rusted cannon, there a lichen-encrusted plexiglass window. As they headed up the wreckage became older, and increasingly harder to discern from nature, until they found themselves walking through ancient, silent, mist-shrouded forests, so old they seemed almost hallowed. Old growth rainforest, floating in space on a mere sliver of steel, billions of kilometres from the sun.

It was in this forest that they stumbled on the cameras. Simon Simon noticed them with his scrying Grace, all connected together and filming the zone they were entering. They moved past the cameras and headed upward over the cupola of some ancient battleship, passing through a small copse of trees at the summit. Weapons drawn, they moved out of the shadow of the trees to find themselves looking down into a narrow vale, beyond which stretched slopes leading up to the rim of the Gardens. Black space hung in the near distance, the horizon unevenly scattered with trees and the slopes before them heavily wooded. They stood on the wreckage of an ancient cruiser, but the horizon was formed entirely with the wreckage of an ancient Confederacy warship, its gun turrets, now long dead, rusting in between trees and brooks. Below them the vale opened out towards the lower slopes, a small stream trickling merrily through it. To their right lay the wreckage of the cockpit of a crashed fighter ship, the hull shattered open around an open space that had been turned into a campsite. Three tents had been erected around a small fire, and a little computer ran a set of screens on which the vision from all those cameras could be seen. They had found Jaccus’s camp.

They had also found his men, who opened fire on them from positions in the valley. The battle was short and brutal[1], and with minimal injuries the group prevailed, killing all three mercenaries. They descended into the camp to search it, looking around carefully for Jaccus. The AV gear they had brought with them was nowhere to be seen. They were searching the camp when Simon Simon decided to use his scrying Grace to check the cameras in the vicinity, and saw movement in one. Looking closer he saw something in the shadows, descending the hills towards them.

Lam and Ahmose took defensive positions, guns ready, pointing out at the hills, but they didn’t see it coming. Something emerged from the shadows of the trees and hit Alpha from behind, tearing through his weak armour and disappearing before he could react. Something else hit Ahmose and Lam, but before they could react it was gone. They looked around, gasping, weapons ready, and then the things hit them again. They were beasts of some kind, 3m tall monsters made entirely of shadow but for their glowing red, fiendish eyes and long, lascivious red tongues. They attacked with wicked claws and beat huge, black, bat-like wings behind their misshapen, demonic bodies.

Actual demons, conjured from shadow, were attacking them. They fought back hard and valiantly but Alpha went down with the next strike. Ahmose killed one, and as it died they heard the distant sound of crows screeching, and the thin wail of a tortured child. Ahmose moved on to the second beast, and Lam shot down the third; a cold wind blew over her, and she heard whispers from the shadows, a young man begging for his life, gaggles of students telling lies about their friends in the corridors of a school … evil whispers …

As the fight proceeded Simon Simon desperately searched the area, until he found Jaccus standing in the shadow of a tree, staff in hand. The old man was singing a song, and the air was rippling around them. “There!” Simon Simon yelled, and fired his laser rifle. He missed Jaccus but the beam passed through the coalescing shadow-form of another demon. As they killed them, more appeared! “Kill the priest!” Simon Simon yelled to Ahmose, and Ahmose duly acted.

Jaccus died quickly, but before he did two more of those beasts appeared. One managed to escape their violence, fleeing with the death of its master, and they never saw it again. The battle was done. Where each demon had died was a patch of blackened, dead grass that stank of rot. They stood looking at each other in shock. What had they found, what had they killed?

They searched Jaccus’ body and the area of the camp, but they didn’t find anything to tell them anything about what they had seen. Where was the AV equipment? Why was Jaccus here and what were those things? With no evidence in the camp they expanded their search, trawling the whole area for any information about what Jaccus had been doing there.

History by the blowtorch

They found the reason after a day of searching. They soon discovered that all the disused turrets on the spine of the Gardens contained bodies. This was an ancient burial site, with bodies placed in careful position inside the turrets, wrapped in shrouds and accompanied by gifts for the next world, now long-decayed and crumbling. Two of these turret-graves had been defiled, the bodies broken apart and their skulls burnt in some way. Another turret-grave had been partially defiled, the body broken up and the skull placed in a ritual position. Candles had been set out, along with a silver bowl, a small silver knife, and a blowtorch. Behind this strange tableau was the AV  equipment, some kind of ancient, primitive video camera the size of an artillery piece. A cushion sat between the camera and the skull, presumable waiting for Jaccus, with a microphone next to it.

Back at the camp they found a box full of discs of some kind, with writing on them. Alpha suspected these discs were from two specific locations, and dated in some non-standard dating system: 7 all had the same glyphs written on them, and some numbers, and two had more numbers on them and different glyphs. Acting on a hunch, they put the first of these two into a playback system attached to the camera. And saw…

The camera crackled. Primitive, this camera. The shadows of one of the domed turrets they had seen before, but no burnt bones: in the middle of the room sat a skull, shrouded in shadow, and between the camera and the skull the dim shape of Jaccus, cross-legged on the cushion, rocking backwards and forwards, chanting. One hand sat near the blowtorch, and candles glowed in the dim light, set out around the skull. The chanting continued – so boring.

They fast forwarded the video until they saw movement, stopped and rewound a little. Jaccus’s chanting fading, drifting away, his rocking going still. A shadow rolled in, crouched over the candles, which guttered and dimmed. They heard the sound of a sigh, and then some kind of howling, the room becoming darker, Jaccus hunched. Something stirred in amongst the candles around the skull; they flickered and dimmed, then burned bright. The darkness faded, and Jaccus emitted a kind of grunt, like an old man doing something disgusting; in the distant background of the soundtrack they heard the thin reedy sound of a child crying and begging, quickly fading away. Smoke formed dimly in the air above the skull, coalesced into a semi-solid, vaguely humanoid form.

“Who calls me?” A sound like rocks grating on each other, a grim crackling rustle of anger, emerged from the ring of candles.

“I, Jaccus, your master, call you. I would speak you, and you had best listen.” Jaccus stirred from his listing position, and spat the words out with odd harshness.

“You worm. You grub. I was a great warrior, I have slain men a thousand times your equal, I fought on the marches of Ellas, I was a hero before your ancestors were apes, you cannot command me, wo-”

The grating voice descended to screaming. Jaccus had calmly picked up the blowtorch, turned it on, and started bathing the skull in flame. The screams were horrid, rippling out of the darkness from every direction and sounding as if they would tear the microphone apart and leap through, monsters of agony, to attack the listeners.

After about 10 seconds of this, Jaccus turned off the flame.

“You thought your death put you beyond pain, but I have found you. There is nowhere you can run to. You are mine to play with. You will do as I tell you.”

The voice protested. More flame, more screams. It carried on like this for a few minutes, but slowly the voice became weaker, more desperate, until finally it broke and begged Jaccus to tell it what he wanted.

“Where is the ansible?”

“I don’t know what you -” More flame.

This proceeded for several minutes, the same question and the same answer. Finally, Jaccus gave up. “You know nothing, do you?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned on the blowtorch and took a full minute to burn the skull black. The voice screamed and screamed and screamed, but he didn’t stop until he was satisfied the whole skull was black. Then he flicked his fingers, the candles faded, and the screaming voice sank away, replaced briefly by a horrible howling sound like wind over frozen ground.

Jaccus reached back and turned off the camera.

Of priests and lost things

They returned to Pearl 7 with the videos. Once they were back in the ship Simon Simon obssessively watched all of them, but no one joined him in the video room. They called Michael and showed him the video from the tomb. He guessed, as they did, that the other seven videos were from his home planet. This Jaccus had invaded these tombs looking for something called the “ansible”, and hadn’t found it. Obviously he had some plan to search for it – first Michael’s planet, then The Reach. But he had come from somewhere. Someone knew what they were looking for.

Michael made the group an offer: would they come back to his planet, and from there trace Jaccus back to wherever he had come from, find the people he worked for, and destroy them? His people, being just uplifted, had nothing to offer them as a reward, but he would speak to his ruling council and they would speak to the Confederacy, and he thought then a reward could be organized. Would they help?

They looked at each other. Something terrifying had moved in those tombs, something they didn’t understand. But while they couldn’t understand its power, they could feel its evil.

Of course they would help.

fn1: I think this is going to be a common phrase in this campaign. In this battle one soldier died instantly, and another got so badly damaged that he was basically useless. If you don’t have combat armour this is a game of one-shot kills.