Horror


Day 1

HUMAN SLAVE
KNOWLEDGE IN THE BLOOD
MINE MINE
THIRTEEN NIGHTS, TEN AND THREE THE HORRORS BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD IS LIES

It has me prisoner. My guards enslaved. It speaks in my mind. It cannot write but it knows what writing is, it has seen our kind before. It tells me my fate. I am resigned.

Day 2

SIMPLE SMILES ELUDE PSYCHOTIC EYES
LOSE ALL MIND CONTROL, RATIONALE DECLINES EMPTY EYES ENSLAVE THE CREATIONS
OF PLACID FACES AND LIFELESS PAGEANTS

TWELVE TWELVE THE BLOOD IN TWELVE

It makes me tell it things, some compulsion over me. I can write these notes only when it dances its bloodthirsty glee. If it sees me, it will hurt me.

Day 3

KILLER, INTRUDER, A HOMICIDAL MAN
IF YOU SEE ME COMING, RUN FAST AS YOU CAN
I HACK UP MY VICTIMS LIKE PIECES OF MEAT BLOODTHIRSTY DEMON, SINISTER FIEND BLUDGEONOUS SLAUGHTER’S MY EVIL DEED
A MERCILESS BUTCHER WHO LIVES UNDERGROUND I’M OUT TO DESTROY AND I WILL CUT YOU DOWN

ELEVEN ON THE HIGH SUN OF ELEVEN

Writing hurts, the voices in my head, like venom in my hand. It keeps me here in the dark while it laughs, I cannot move except to write and speak to it. This morning it took Alassa, and it gorges on his viscera while it stares at me. I cannot kill it.

Day 4

TEN TEN THE FINGERS ON BOTH HANDS TEN TEN TEN THEY ARE MINE IN TEN

I learn more about it. Drown the body in the pool or it will come back. If you are reading this and you have killed it, sink the body in the pool or it will come back. You have until the

sunset of the day it dies. It cannot read, it cannot read this. Show it no mercy, it dreams in my blood now it is so horrible, the deeds it has done. Drown its body in the pool.

Day 5

LET’S DRINK TO THE DEAD LYING UNDER THE WATER AND THE CRUST OF BLOOD ON THE DRIVEN SNOW

NINE WHILE NINE AND I’M WAITING FOR THE RAIN…..

It is old, and it has been weak for so long. I think it is as old as the great spider in the woods. Is it her servant? I found only her lieutenants, she is far away in the dark of the great wood, but I think she commands more like this and worse. Her marshalls, in a horrifying chitinous army.

Day 6

OH, BUT YOU ARE IN MY BLOOD, YOU ARE MY HOLY WINE YOU’RE SO BITTER, BITTER AND SO SWEET
OH, I COULD DRINK A CASE OF YOU, DARLING
STILL I’D BE ON MY FEET

I WOULD STILL BE ON MY FEET

It drank my blood yesterday. It danced around and spat on me and I swear it was drunk on the blood. It has learnt some words of my tongue since it drank. I have to keep my secrets from seeping into my own blood. I think it will drink more. I cannot escape …

Day 7

AND THE CHILDREN OF THE HYDRA BORN OF BEETLE, BLOOD AND DUNG DANCE LIKE DERVISHES IN SULPHUR ON THE ASHES OF MY TONGUE

AM I FALLING, AM I WALKING?
IS THE UNIVERSE RUN DRY?
GIVE ME BLOOD, GIVE ME BLOOD OR I WILL DIE

I tried to escape last night. It seems to sleep at night. I used a spell to slide out of the web ropes. It caught me by the pool, it moves so fast. It wasn’t sleeping. It knew. It knows my secrets. I am trapped in its web. Nothing can save me.

Day 8

DON’T SAY IT’S EASY
TO FOLLOW A PROCESS THERE’S NOTHING HARDER THAN KEEPING A PROMISE

BLOOD RUNS THOUGH YOUR VEINS THAT’S WHERE OUR SIMILARITY ENDS

I wonder if my death is a ritual, bound in time. It drank my blood again yesterday, and today it held the quill pen itself. It is learning. I do not want to live on in its foetid blood.

Day 9

YOUR TASTE IS BLOOD AND ECSTASY BUT I MUST DRINK YOU ALL ALONE YOU’RE FRECKLED LIKE A SPECKLED EGG A DOVE… BUT THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN

O stay with me sweet memory
O stay with me
It drank again. I am tired. I am so tired. I cannot think. I KNOW. I cannot rest, I have lost track of time. Alassa’s empty eyes stare at me. It ate Alassa.

Day 10

I’m all alone
Matter and shadow
In the darkflow
Treading deep waters Searching for the shore Waiting for the dawn to come

Day 11

IT IS MINE

Day 12

I dreamed of you at night time
AND I WATCHED YOU IN YOUR SLEEP
I MET YOU IN HIGH PLACES
I TOUCHED YOUR HEAD AND TOUCHED YOUR FEET
SO WHEN YOU DISAPPEAR IN THE POOL
You know, I will never say goodbye
Though I try to forget it
YOU WILL MAKE ME CALL YOUR NAME AND I’LL SHOUT IT TO THE BLUE SUMMER SKY

I am losing myself. The poison in me burns. It knows my name, AND WHISPERS IT FROM THE SHADOWS. I don’t know who is writing which words now WHY DO I CARE THE BLOOD IS ALL it is inside my blood I AM THE WAY THE TRUTH AND THE END

Day 13

I’ve waited hours for this
I’ve made myself so sick
I wish I’d stayed asleep today
I never thought this day would end
I never thought tonight could ever be

This close to me

On the edge of the great forest

Hugo Tuya’s guards have almost been caught robbing a grieving widow, and now have to make amends. They need to spend several days in the wilderness pretending to track down iron they already own, to receive only a fraction of the money they had hoped to earn by selling their stolen goods in Estona. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, human explorer

The guards woke up early and set out to track the sole surviving bandit from the original group that ambushed them, and to begin their thankless task of making amends for their callous thieving.

The Truth About Deepfolk Iron

They followed the bandit for a day, tracking him back to the site of the original ambush and beyond, and confirmed that he had not attempted to dig up any cache or secret hidden wealth. He simply ran away from Ibara as fast as he could, heading east to the coast road and the chance to escape from certain death in the village he had been preying on. The guards let him go once they had confirmed he was not hiding anything, and decided to go back and investigate the strange place where they had originally discovered the widow’s iron. Calim was convinced there was something more to learn from the site, and they guessed that now they knew its location they could travel there quickly and search it during the daytime.

Unfortunately they lost the path, cutting overland to the northeast of Ibara, and there was not much light left when they arrived at the burial site. They worked quickly, splitting the group into two. One group searched the area around the burial site, looking for any sign of skulls or other remnants that were not buried with the iron itself, while another group – led by Calim – dug back into the site and explored the bones in more detail. The first group found nothing, but Calim’s group were able to determine that the bones in the burial site were deepfolk bones, and they were old – much older than 100 years old. They had found something ancient, but could not tell if it was a burial site or the location of some ancient battle, since buried by time and forgetfulness.

They also found a magic amulet, but Itzel concluded it was deepfolk magic and dangerous to wear. They kept it in case it might be useful later, and made camp for the night.

The next day they returned to Ibara, and handed over their stolen iron – all 10 ingots – to Hugo Tuya, as he expected. They made a good show of pretending they had dug it up on this trip, and of looking forward to their reward. Pompous as ever, he invited them to join them in trading it with the bailiff, and they set off to the Bailiff’s residence. Here they were led into an office, and a strange ritual took place: Hugo Tuya took out a piece of cured leather and laid it on a desk, and he and the bailiff then carefully drew each ingot out of its sack singly, sprinkled salt on it and placed it reverentially on the leather. When his guards asked him what he was doing, Tuya explained to them that Deepfolk iron was cursed, and any attempt to take possession of it was fraught. The best thing to do was to melt it down immediately, thus dissolving the curse, but even then it was best if storing it in a house to salt it, lest the curse cause the house to burn down before the ingots could be melted. Had they taken the iron with them, Tuya told them, thus taking possession of it themselves, they would have inherited the curse, and all its unseemly consequences: snapped wagon axles, spoiled food, arguments between friends, impotency, and other wreckage[1].

Quangbae made a nervous joke about how it was a good thing they had been honest about the iron then, wasn’t it? And they returned to their hotel.

The road to Miselea

The next day they set off for Miselea, the next town on their journey. Miselea is two days’ journey from Ibara, on the border of Hadun and Ariaki, a good town for trade in a slightly dangerous place, not so far removed from the Valley of Gon. From Miselea they planned to turn northwest and head to Estala, skirting the edge of the Valley of Gon.

The road to Miselea cut close to the great forest, running alongside a small stream never more than 500m from the looming mystery of the elves’ southern homeland. They followed it happily until mid-afternoon, when someone in the party suddenly heard a baby crying. They stopped and began to search for the sound, soon finding it: there was an abandoned camp between the road and the forest. They approached cautiously but found it empty, except for a baby that had obviously not been fed or cleaned for about a day. The camp’s other five occupants were nowhere to be seen, but there were obvious signs of a struggle, and spider webs strung around the perimeter of the camp.

Spiders had taken this camp. Big spiders. The guards decided to follow and rescue whoever they could, while it was still light. They headed into the forest.

The spiders

They walked on into the forest, and the spiders found them soon enough. They were moving in the trees above them, crawling through a network of webs on the trees and waiting for the chance to attack. The guards started shooting, and the battle began.

The first wave of spiders stayed in the shadows of the lower branches of the trees, throwing webs and missing, but then a second wave emerged from the undergrowth after the party separated, ambushing the archers who had moved back to cover their friends. These spiders had bodies the size of large dogs, and horrible hairy legs stretching meters away from the bodies. Fangs like daggers chittered and dripped venom, and they fired webs to try and entangle the guards. The tree-lurking spiders dropped to the ground to attack their melee squad, and they began hacking at the hairy, disgusting, chitinous thugs.

Soon a much larger spider, with a body the size of a small horse, emerged from the shadows of the trees. It spat acid in Kyansei’s face and then entangled her in webs, and began dragging her into the woods. Calim and Quangbae rushed into help her, and somehow wrested control of the battle from the spiders. They drove back the small ones and freed Kyansei with fire on the web, and then the battle turned. Soon all nine spiders, including the giant leader, were dead in the glade, oozing ichor into the web-strewn carpet of dead leaves beneath their feet.

They found the captured humans a short distance away from the ambush site. There were five humans hanging cocooned in a huge complex of thick webs. One was dead, partly eaten, and so completely invested that even its bones had liquified; when they cut open the cocoon holding this body it fell out as a sack of vile-smelling fluids, with no shape, barely recognizable as the human it had once been. The other four they cut out, heavily poisoned and barely alive. They put them under guard in the corner of the spiders’ lair and searched through the webs for treasures. The webs were surprisingly clean, the spiders’ feeding being so complete that nothing was cast aside, and they were able to gather large amounts of high-quality spider silk to sell in town. They cut some venom from the smaller spiders to turn into anti-venom, and Quangbae fashioned himself a halberd from the fangs of the giant spider.

As they searched the webs they realized that these spiders were newly arrived in the area. They must have been pushed out of their original lair by some other, more powerful force of spiders, deeper in the forest – giant spiders of this kind did not usually venture so close to the edge of the forest. Were they to venture further in and fight off the beasts they found there they might be able to gather some truly rare and splendid spidersilk, from one of the older spiders that live in the great forest, and maybe some truly potent venom. They looked at each other and back at the injured, nearly-dead human trappers, and considered their fate.

Life was short, and the death they had witnessed was terrible, but spidersilk was valuable, and the chance to gather it rare. What should they do ..?

 

 


fn1: Including upgrading the difficulty of every single skill check they made, including selling it: and if they roll a despair on the attempt to sell it, well, they decide to keep it, and the curse goes on …

Distance  Separation
Leaving  Terra Firma

Darkness  Ringing empty
Lights out  Resurrection

Burn it down and start over
I want to leave this all behind
Abandon all the trepidation
Weighing heavy on my mind

 – Catechism of the Cult of the Dancer

Our heroes have ground their way through waves of soldiers defending the secret base of Samina’s Corsairs. Having destroyed more than 40 enemies, they stand in control of the elevator hall that leads to all levels of the remote star base, ready to descend to their final confrontation with Samina and her few remaining soldiers. The roster for this (last) session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Saqr, pilot
  • Kaarlina, mystic and technologist

Oliver Greenstar remains on the Beast of Burden, ready to leave and warn the world of the corsairs’ location if the rest of the party are killed.

The PCs had been given floorplans for the corsair base, so they knew that the level above their current location was a public area, gardens and a few rest spaces. Immediately below them was the station’s main hangar, a space 100m long, 200m wide and 40m deep. Below that was a residential level, almost certainly mostly empty now they had killed nearly all the station’s guards, and below that the secret prison and medical level where Samina herself lived and worked. They needed to get down there, but only one elevator went all the way down and they could not fit their whole team into it. Two other elevators descended to the level below the hangar, and they could fit their whole squad into those two, then transfer to the elevator that went all the way down, and travel to the last level in two trips. They decided that Kaarlina would use her technomancy skills to control all the lifts, sending them down to the sub-level but sending signals to the central computer to indicate they were going up. They would skip the hangar and head down to surprise Samina in her lair while she thought they were heading up.

The monster in the hangar

Unfortunately their strategy failed, because Samina took control of all the elevators over Kaarlina’s mystic powers, and opened them all one level down, in the hangar. The doors opened into darkness, lit only by the faint red emergency lights in the elevators, and by one or two of the party’s suit lights. In the faint glow of these lights they saw a huge hall stretching out into darkness, scattered with crates and equipment in seemingly random piles around the elevator shafts. Somewhere nearby they could hear sounds of sniffling and desperate breathing, and the air of the room seemed to be faintly misty or suffused with a fine smoke.

This fine mist saved their lives. Adam saw it first, a beam of laser light questing towards them through the mist, and in the last moment realized there was a sniper about to target them. Since he was in overwatch he immediately opened fire, sending a wave of automatic fire in the direction of the laser. Clementine followed him but neither could hit their target, and a moment later a wave of thermal energy struck Adam in the head, almost shredding his remaining ear. Saqr, also in overwatch and carrying an accelerator rifle, fired along the line of the beam and killed the sniper with a single shot as the rest of the crew piled out of the elevator and into cover.

It was as the first of them began to emerge from the elevator that they saw it: a huge, hulking figure in the darkness just beyond their vision, charging towards them. It stopped and raised an arm and a moment later one of their entire teams of support marines died, cut down by a wave of thermal energy. Moments later the beast rushed into the light, and they saw what it was: an automaton constructed out of the twisted, still-bleeding and twitching bodies of Samina’s remaining soldiers. Two men in battle exos had been slaughtered and draggd into the mess of flesh, to be surrounded by the twisted bodies of 12 other men. It had misshapen, thick legs and arms wielding huge thermal rifles, with two more arms holding massive axes compiled from all the crew’s dura swords. Lights flickered inside the frame of its twisted flesh, and strange machine noises came from its joints and chest. It roared and stumbled forward.

Out of the elevator to meet it came Siladan, walking now in his own battle exo and eager to put its powers to the test. He surged forward and hit the thing in the chest, stopping it in its tracks, and the two began a monumental battle on the floor of the hangar. As they fought Adam, Clementine and Kaarlina poured rifle fire into the beast, seemingly doing nothing. Saqr could not join the battle, however, because moments after the marines in front of him were cooked to death by the beast’s weapons they reanimated as darkbound, undead humans bound by the Dark between the stars, and turned to attack him. Though they struck at him only with fists, they blocked his exit from the elevator and he was forced to deal with them before he could leave.

As the battle raged Al Hamra moved away from the elevator to the source of the sniffling, finding one of Samina’s soldiers crouched behind a crate, weapon at his side, panting heavily. Al Hamra wasted no time in conversation, going straight to mind reading using his mystic powers. The images that poured from the distressed soldier’s mind confirmed his suspicions: Samina had gathered all the soldiers in the hangar and enacted some horrific ritual that had slain them all and drawn them and their equipment together into the monster before them. Two of her soldiers, seeing the deaths begin and realizing they were betrayed by their own master, managed to break her mental control and flee, hopeless though this act was; now they crouched in the dark of the hangar, waiting to see which side would prevail in the battle and who would hunt them down and kill them.

Al Hamra saved this man the wait: he dominated his mind and sent him in to melee against the beast, in support of Siladan. The monster had been briefly stunned by Siladan’s first attack but soon recovered, unleashing some kind of mental blast that staggered Siladan and stunned him. It then smashed him once with one fist and marched past him to kill more marines. By the time Siladan could come back to melee the beast had beaten down the remaining marines and was in melee combat with Adam, smashing him with its fists as he tried to stab it with his dura knife. Fortunately Kaarlina had disabled its dura axes, so it could not cut through his armour the way it wanted. Adam had done furious damage on it with his machine gun, and in its rage it tried desperately to kill it as Siladan struck it with his dura halberd, Saqr fought off the darkbound that trapped him in the elevator, and the others poured fire into the beast’s heavily-armoured back. At the same time Samina poured healing magic into it from her remote location, somehow keeping it upright despite all the damage it endured.

Finally, however, Dr. Delekta was able to put a bullet into its back somewhere vulnerable. A battery pack from one of the absorbed battle exos exploded and the thing fell dead to the ground. They quickly killed the darkbound attacking Saqr, and the battle was done. All of Samina’s remaining soldiers lay in a rotting heap on the hangar floor, along with most of the party’s marines and almost all of their remaining sanity.

The Cadaver Clock

They rested briefly, Dr. Delekta providing medical care to the injured members and Saqr easing their wounds with his mystic powers. Al Hamra gathered the two corsairs who had escaped the ritual and gave them a choice: join their sole remaining marine in helping them clear out the base, or die. They took the better part of the choice, and once everyone had restocked and taken a breather they took the elevator down to the bottom level.

Following the marines’ instructions they passed a prison, where they found four starving victims of a past raid, who they released. They moved on to Samina’s personal quarters, at the back of which they found a tunnel leading down through the rock. They followed it, and at the bottom rushed into Samina’s lair.

Their three marines died as they entered the room, brought down by Samina’s mystic powers, but the rest of them were able to break into the room before she could act again. She stood in the centre of a terrifying construction of cogs and chains, arranged in a large rough-cut stone chamber. The cogs were ancient iron, embedded in the wall and connected with a complex network of heavy old chains. At points around the network of chains dead bodies were hung from the chains by meat hooks, slowly rotting and suppurating in the slightly stuffy air of the room. On one side of the room stood an ancient stone altar, covered in dried blood. In the middle of the room, under the dripping corpses, stood a collection of plinths of different heights. On two of these plinths stood the strange ugly statuettes of the dancer, and between them stood Samina. She was tall, impossibly skinny, obviously old but not worn or wrinkled. She wore simple silk robes, her hands empty and free, and looked at them from dark, deep-set eyes.

As they came to a halt in the room facing her, the collection of cogs and chains shuddered and the entire apparatus took a single, lurching movement according to some strange geometry. A loud tick! rang around the room as all the cogs turned over once, the bodies shuddered and jolted on their hooks, and a drop of rotting gore fell onto Samina’s cheek.

She ignored it, and said to them, “I am your only way out of this darkness.”

They ignored her, and opened fire.

The battle was short but almost deadly for them. At her waist Samina had a gravitic sink, which absorbed the first four shots from their weapons. She unleashed a dark mystical energy from her cadaver clock, which wracked their bodies with pain and, had she had a second chance to unleash it, would surely have killed them all[1]. Fortunately before she could do so her gravitic sink expired, and they slaughtered her where she stood.

Epilogue

They searched the base and found a huge stock of money and artifacts, which they stole. They should have rushed to escape before the portal out of the area degraded, but Al Hamra announced that since he had died twice and his soul was trapped inside a machine, he chose to end his time here. He would use the cadaver clock to hold the gate open until they all could flee, and then wait in the dark until his batteries powered down. He gave a stirring speech that convinced all the PCs that their captain would choose to die in this dark and lonely rock, but all the players knew that Al Hamra was going to use the cadaver clock to become the next Samina.

They left, having destroyed the corsairs that had plagued the Horizon for 30 years, and became fabulously rich and famous selling off their story and success across the Horizon. All that remained was to recapture the space station they had lost to an Efrit, and to establish their new Order, a movement committed to hunting down and killing evil mystics.

Here the Coriolis campaign ended, after 41 sessions. A challenging, bloody and sinister ending to an excellent 18 months of gaming!

 


fn1: The first wave of the attack did 7 damage I think, though I rolled very well, and it was pretty likely that the second one – due after three more actions – would finish the job. I rolled randomly for the gravitic sink’s charges and got 4. Had it held two more, things would have been dire, especially since her dancer’s talent guaranteed she could evade Siladan’s halberd. I did warn the group that I was happy to end the campaign on a TPK, but actually that was a lie: Oliver Greenstar was going to rescue them at the last if Samina prevailed.

 

 

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

In the last session the group raided a space station in Assager’s Ghost, a huge asteroid belt in the Algebar system. Here they found a mad mystic/scientist, who was conducting vivisection experiments on mystic prisoners and using them as fuel for some ancient portal builder technology that enabled him to massively boost the range and effect of his mystic powers. At the base of his twisted and decayed station he had a large lab, with dead and dying mystics on vivisection tables and a few mystics held in cages. All this was in service of a strange Firstcome machine in which he lay, held in a cocoon something like a stasis pod, and projected his powers across the system.

The PCs destroyed the machine and set about cleaning up the station, with the idea that they would take possession of it. What could go wrong? The cast for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic

They discussed hiring some people in Algebar to conduct repairs, but decided against this action and in favour of secrecy. Instead they set about repairing the damage to the docking area themselves, and cleaning up the research lab. With the Beast of Burden hanging in space very close to the station, Oliver Greenstar and Banu Delecta on alert on the ship, they set about repairing the station. Saqr and Reiko worked in the basement laboratory, cleaning out the dead bodies and slowly breaking down the ruins of the machine, while Siladan and Adam worked in the docking station area, repairing the damage they had done with their ship’s heavy accelerator cannon. While they worked the three mystics they had rescued rested in the accomodation section of the station, attempting to overcome their nightmares.

The dead attack

Siladan and Adam were working in quiet companionship on the top deck of the station when something emerged from the dark to attack Adam. Fortunately he saw it coming, and reacted in time to defend himself. It was a torn body in a heavily damaged exo suit, its fragmented body parts held together by a web of shadow and ghost-like ephemera. He recognized the uniform as belonging to one of the men they had first encountered when they raided the station, and as he fended off its attack he realized that the guards who had been blown out into space by their accelerator cannon had been reanimated by something in the Dark between the stars – and had come back to get them.

As he raised the alarm another came down the hallway, towards Siladan, who was now warned and able to open fire. They fought. The beasts attacked with claws and strange webs of darkness that threw tendrils of freezing cold over their targets and attempted to confuse and horrify them. Their touch was deadly cold and numbing, and they were fast but not strong. Adam was able to quickly defeat his but two more entered the ship and headed down into the hangar deck.

Hearing the alarm, Saqr and Reiko headed to the elevators and began to head up the station towards the hangar deck. However halfway up something turned off all the gravity in the station, and they realized that something was taking control of the station. Reiko moved up to the hangar deck to join the battle while Saqr tried to find the source of the problem. Up above Siladan jumped into the elevator shaft to follow the undead down into the hangar deck, and found strange, thick tendrils of darkness had entered the station through the damaged outer hull of the docking station. They were snaking around the hangar deck, destroying parts of the wall and moving into the elevator shafts. He attacked the tendrils, destroying one, and sent messages to the other PCs.

Up above, Adam fought the monsters. Down below, Saqr realized that the entire station was being controlled by some dark power, the leader of these beasts. He fought and regained control of the station, and then headed to the elevator. A battle in the elevator followed, as the leader of the undead attempted to take the elvator down, and Saqr found himself trapped in the elevator with it. Siladan leapt onto the elevator roof and struggled to open an access hatch, and between them they fought the leader of the beasts.

Up above, Adam finally defeated the last of the undead and followed the rest of his team down to the basement research facility. Siladan, realizing that the shadowy tendrils were growing thicker and harder to stop, called the Beast of Burden and asked them if there was something outside the station. They realized there was, and Al Hamra’s spirit in the ship used his power of solidifying beasts of darkness to force the shadowy beast to become corporeal. It emerged from the darkness, a huge squid of inky-black and suppurating flesh, its tentacles wrapped in a death grip around the station. Oliver Greenstar opened fire on the suddenly corporeal beast with the ship’s accelerator cannon, destroying it after two hits.

Their station was saved, and the creatures of the Dark had been repulsed.

Travel to Melik

They spent a little more time repairing the station, and once the docking station was intact and atmosphere had been returned to the uppermost level, they left the mystics in the station and headed to the portals. Although Algebar’s portal is unstable they navigated it successfully, and jumped without incident to Melik. They were one step closer to their goal, and ready to explore the strange, fate-bound system of Melik.

In April 2018 I was struck by Ramsay-Hunt syndrome, and half my face was paralyzed. For about two months I had to somehow struggle through a new job with my face sliding off and my entire body completely exhausted and stricken with pain. I recovered over the following year until my face was about (in my estimation) 90-95% better, and probably no long term consequences. Then two weeks ago this awful condition hit me again, though this time I felt it coming, got the treatment early, and avoided any serious trouble. After this last 18 months of face-eating hell, I feel like I’m an experienced Ramsay-Hunter, but when I was trying to understand this disease last year I found precious little information on the internet about it. So, I have decided to use this blog for what blogs are good for, and to give my experience of Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome, as well as some suppositions and general suggestions for dealing with it based on what I experienced, my own hazy research and discussions with different people. Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome (hereafter referred to as RHS) has a very wide range of effects, if the internet is to be trusted, and a lot of them are pretty subtle and unpleasant. So I’d like to outline here what I experienced, some things I think about the disease based on my experience, and some stuff I picked up around the internet. To be clear if you read on: I am not a doctor, I have no medical advice for you, and if you’re coming to me for medical advice you’re in a dire place. This is just my experience, and you should not use it as anything except supportive anecdotal knowledge. Nonetheless, I hope it will help you. If you have experienced RHS yourself and want to add your own experiences in the comments, or are experiencing it and have questions (or want reassurance) then please also comment.

What is this godawful disease?

Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome is basically shingles inside your face. It is caused by Herpes Zoster (shingles) which is a consequence of being infected with chicken pox when you were a child. Basically the chicken pox reactivates, but instead of coming back as an intensely painful rash on your skin (as happens with most people) it comes back as a vicious, cruel, and completely godless infection of your facial nerve. Once it gets its hooks in it does the following things:

  • It causes intense pain in the back of your neck/head/jaw, that is like no other pain you have experienced
  • It causes a rash in one of your ears and/or your tongue
  • It paralyzes half of your face so that nothing moves. Nothing.

This facial paralysis is the worst part of the disease, because it completely disables half of your face, which makes speaking and eating difficult, and also stops you closing your eye[1].

There is no cure for this disease, because it’s one of the herpes family, a cluster of diseases that were designed by satan to annoy human beings. It is easily treated into remission however using acyclovir, an anti-viral drug. If you’ve had cold sores or genital herpes then you’ll probably be familiar with this family of stupid little viruses and their treatments.

Chickenpox is very common, since the vaccine was only available in 1984 and isn’t on the mandatory vaccination schedule of many countries. So if you’re older than about 38 years old chances are you had it, and if you are younger than 38 but from one of the many countries that don’t (or didn’t) have the vaccine in their schedule you may well have had it. If you’re like me you carry the scars of that idiot little disease on your face, but if you don’t have the scars you may not remember if you ever had it, in which case check with your parents. You need to know what’s coming for you.

The common view seems to be that RHS is triggered by stress, just as shingles is. So if you had chickenpox as a kid there’s basically only one way to prevent it: don’t get stressed. Hrmph!

Also RHS is not the same as Bell’s Palsy. Bell’s palsy is a sudden paralysis of the facial nerve, but it doesn’t come with the rash and intense, unrelenting pain, and it doesn’t do the other dodgy shit that RHS prides itself on (see below). I had Bell’s Palsy about 20 years ago, probably as a result of stress in combination with some stupid infection. Bell’s Palsy is a walk in the park compared to RHS.

What happened to me?

So let’s describe my experience. I was just finishing an extremely stressful job where I had been bullied for years by the most vicious pig of a man you can conceive of, and had secured a new job. I was taking a few weeks off and exercising daily, doing two hour morning kickboxing sessions. One Friday in mid-March I visited my new employer to fill in some forms and was informed that my job was guaranteed and I would definitely be starting on 1st April. When I left the workplace I could feel the stress falling off of me like water, and my spirits uplifted, really uplifted, for the first time in a long time. Since I had been training all week I was tired and I had muscle pain in my left shoulder but I didn’t think much of it.

On Saturday morning I woke up relatively early to go to role-playing, and noticed in the bathroom mirror that my eye and face was a bit weird, but I again didn’t think much of it. It was a bit weird but I’d gone to bed late and I think I’d been having celebratory drinks, so I just figured whatever and headed off to role-playing. By the time role-playing started two hours later I was in great pain that intensified over the day. At first I assumed it was some strain from kickboxing, but by mid-afternoon my face was beginning to fail and my speech was noticeably slurred. The pain by then was intense so I was icing the spot and trying to keep my shit together (fortunately I was playing not GMing). My friends started suggesting the possibility that I was having a stroke (I was 45), but as my face slid off I realized what was happening, and assumed I was just having a bad bout of Bell’s Palsy, brought on by the relief of stress on the Friday[2]. Since I’d experienced Bell’s Palsy before I knew what needed to be done: I had to go to a doctor to get some eye drops, buy an eye patch, and wait a few months. A pretty depressing start to a new job but whatever. So I finished the game, went home, slept as best I could, and the next morning I went to a doctor.

So Sunday morning my face was wrecked, and I felt like an operation was being conducted on my jaw. My eye was also now open permanently so things were touch and go, but I got to a doctor by lunchtime. The doctor was a standard internal medicine specialist (in Japan this is basically what you go to when you don’t know what’s up) with a nice surgery who I trusted, and he was very sure it was not Bell’s Palsy. He made me sit in the waiting room while he booked some urgent tests at the local hospital, to rule out a stroke, but then came out after ten minutes or so to check my forehead. He made me raise my brow like a reverse frown (what do you call that?) and upon seeing that my left forehead was completely static – not moving even a millimetre – he decided it must be RHS, canceled the tests, and gave me the medicine I needed. He gave me acyclovir to kill the herpes, pain killers, steroids to help my face recover, and eye drops for my eye. I went to a local pharmacist, hit the drugs, and crashed.

Acyclovir is a miracle drug, it works on the virus fast and within maybe two days the pain was gone, but my face was done for. I had to go into my new job the next week to begin preparing classes, setting up my work space, transferring grants (which takes sooo many forms!) and so on, but I couldn’t work my face at all and also I was exhausted. I could only work perhaps 3-4 hours a day before I had to struggle home and crash. But the worst was yet to come. After 5-6 days the acyclovir finished, and the disease came back within a day – worse than before. The pain was even worse, and it was hellish. This was when the other symptoms began (see below). Fortunately my new work has a very good hospital attached, so I saw a doctor there and they told me that I had been given an older, weaker version of acyclovir, and the steroid dose I’d been given was way too low to help my face. This doctor gave me valacyclovir, which is I guess the incredible hulk of acyclovirs, and nearly doubled my steroid dose. The pain subsided pretty quickly and over the next two weeks things calmed down. By the time April finished the secondary symptoms had gone and my face was beginning to move. In May the doctor shifted me to a rehabilitation plan, and I set about the long path to recovery.

What are the secondary symptoms?

If you google around you’ll hear all sorts of horror stories about this nasty little bug. I read people saying they lost their sense of balance, that they were always dizzy, that they nearly went blind, and that their ability to think or calculate was messed up. I found this out because in that first week I noticed I was doing things that are really unusual for me, including:

  • Taking the wrong train home
  • Getting confused about where in the train platform to go to get to my work
  • Forgetting names, words and basic facts
  • Confusing chats and sending the wrong messages to the wrong people

I went to hanami at my former work near the end of March and met a PhD student who I had known for three years, who had completed a master’s degree in my department and gone on to finish her first year of her PhD: I asked her when she was starting her PhD. I sent messages for my role-playing group to non-roleplaying friends, and vice versa. Also I was getting tired very quickly, and putting on weight (which may have been the steroids I guess). I went back to kickboxing after maybe a month, and that was okay, but for the first two weeks my whole body was a mess. I also discovered, once my eye could close again, that I had become photophobic. I didn’t notice this until mid May, which is when the sun really comes out in Tokyo, and it made my eyes tear up as soon as I went outside.

I’m also sure that this disease fucked my eyesight. I am longsighted and wear reading glasses but between March and May my eyesight suddenly deteriorated so I had to get new glasses. I also thought I was seeing double, but couldn’t get anyone at the eye doctor to believe me or confirm it.

I also had small pings of pain in the back of my jaw and neck for months after the main source of horror had gone away. It was there, reminding me that I was its bitch.

In preparing this post I did some searching and discovered this review article which describes the peripheral nervous system consequences of RHS. It can do a wicked and wondrous array of nasty little things to you, many of which resolve with rehabilitation and treatment, but some of which I think are permanent.

Rehabilitation experience

Rehabilitation for RHS is primarily the task of recovering facial movement, since this is the main physical consequence of it. For this I was given facial exercises (gurning, basically) and massages to do to try and regain facial function. The recovery rates for RHS are apparently not very good – less than 70% of people get full facial recovery, and the chance declines with age of course. I did my exercises reasonably assiduously, and the facial massages, and after a year I think I got back to about 90% function. I have two remaining problems with my face:

  • If I read while I’m eating my left eye gets strained and sometimes lets a few tears out (it can hurt a bit)
  • If I purse my lips my left eye closes slightly

I can also feel a bit of plasticity in the cheek around my mouth on the left side, and I can see a little pocket of muscle above the tip of my mouth on the left side that is dead and just kind of sits there like a lump of uselessness whenever I smile. That’s not a killer – I’ve never thought much of my smile, and whatever charm I have for the ladies is built on something else I’m sure. Most people don’t notice my face is lopsided, I haven’t lost any speech or anything, so I’m mostly good.

In fact, during rehabilitation I learnt finally how to wink with my left eye, something I never used to be able to do. A career of comedy awaits …

Rehabilitation for this disease isn’t hard. I noticed that my face hurt to touch, all over the left side, which the doctors told me was because the nerves are waking up and getting aggravated, and some of the rehabilitation exercises would make my face hurt as I strained to move shit around. Just like exercising your body, the muscles were weak and underworked, and they got worn down by practice. I also noticed some parts recovered quicker than others, and sadly the fine motor control around my eyes is the slowest to recover.

The doctors also warned me against starting rehabilitation before my viral symptoms were fully gone. They told me that if you begin rehabilitation too soon you can develop bad habits, like for example closing your eye every time you bite, because the nerves learn new pathways (like how I got my new left-eye wink superpower). In fact I think I have this when I yawn – my left eye shuts involuntarily.

The doctors also told me – and I also saw through google sensei – that getting the anti viral medication in early is important. Basically, if you don’t start the miracle acyclovir within 72 hours you’re done for, and the earlier you start the better. I waited a day and then started the weaker old one, so I guess that made my experience worse than if I had scuttled straight down to the best hospital in town, begged my way in on the claim that I was having a stroke, and got myself on valacyclovir from the morning it started. I won’t make that mistake again! But it’s also possible the doctors wouldn’t have recognized the problem and would have sent me in for a series of pointless and expensive stroke checks, and started me late on the anti-virals. The anti-virals really are key.

Actually when I went to the doctor at my university hospital after the pain returned (and got the stronger acyclovir) he wanted to hospitalize me, and put me on a drip for the medicines. He confessed to me that he didn’t think I needed IV acyclovir especially, but he wanted to force me into a bed away from my work so that the stress would stop and my face would recover. He thought stress was the real problem here, driving the whole thing, and was worried the medicine wouldn’t work until I get my work under control. But the thing is I had just started a new job, and he wanted to hospitalize me on the day of my first lecture. It’s not a good look! And in truth I couldn’t stand to spend a week in bed with nothing to do, so I begged off of that. Maybe my recovery would have been better if I’d agreed to that.

So if you want a good recovery:

  • Get on the antivirals as soon as possible (and if your doctor offers bog-standard acyclovir tell him to go jump – go straight for the strong stuff)
  • Get the stress out of your life, including by hospitalization if necessary
  • Don’t start rehabilitation until the awfulness is settled down a bit
  • Do your gurning exercises ruthlessly, and keep an eye out for weird new facial behaviors

Then bingo, a year later you’ll be able to (mostly) get your face back.

And trust me: you don’t realize how important your face is until it falls off. Life without a face sucks!

The second bout and the prodrome

So this year I went on a series of business trips and had quite a bit of stress, and a week ago I could feel this bastard disease creeping in again. I could feel my face getting a bit tired, and when I took a selfie on Monday night last week I could see my smile had retrogressed. Bastards! I could also feel a twinge in the back of my jaw, and when I went to work on Wednesday I was getting confused about train doors and having strange emotions. So I went to the hospital again, explained the whole thing to an otolaryngologist and got the miracle valacyclovir into me before the disease was fully up and running. My face sagged a bit but I’m already doing rehabilitation a week later, because the virus never got started. This time I caught the stupid thing as it was sneaking in the door, and slammed it shut. This time also the doctors were worried it was something else and so put me through some tests: MRI and some blood tests. The MRI came up completely clean and pure, even confirmed I have a brain (who knew!), and after a long and exhausting conversation with the neurologist in which he refused to believe any of the symptoms I just exhaustively described here, I was free to get out and begin the rehabilitation. My next appointment to track facial progress is in two weeks.

This tells me two things about this disease. First of all, it tells me that stress is really bad once you’re at risk of this disease, and you need to keep it well under control. No one warned me that this little shit would come crawling around scratching at my door a second time, but it did. So if you have RHS, and there seems to be a good chance it was triggered by stress, then you need to get that stress out of your life. I would say this means doing whatever you have to do – change jobs, meditate, murder your boss (don’t get caught obviously), whatever it takes. My new job is relatively low stress and all the stress I experienced was from a cataclysmic series of tightly timed overseas trips, and I think I can control that easily by never again making such a series of business trips in such a short time. Compared to the stress that triggered the first bout of RHS what I’m going through now is trivial, and I didn’t even notice I was stressed until this disease hit. I guess I’m weaker than I used to be.

The second thing this tells me – and this is not medical science here – is that this disease has a prodrome. It has early symptoms that warn you it’s coming, and if you notice them you might be able to sense its presence. Looking back at my first experience of this neuropathic party, the neck pain and the slight tiredness in my face were there before the evil little bastard stuck the shank in behind my jaw, and had I known I might have been able to react more quickly[3]. Those same symptoms came this time around, so I went to the doctor early and started the valacyclovir before it could take hold. This theory makes sense to me because it is well known that other herpes viruses have a prodrome: Herpes 1 and 2 both have a kind of itchy weirdness in the area where the sores are going to arise, and if you hit the acyclovir then you may be able to prevent or lessen the resulting outbreak. So I guess chickenpox – which is a herpes virus – could have a similar course. I couldn’t find anything on this on the internet, but it’s my feeling that this is what happens.

A brief note on UHC

Japan has Universal Health Coverage. I don’t recall how much this disease set me back last year but this time the tests, drugs and bothering the hospital doctors without a referral cost me a total of about 30,000 yen, so it would have set me back 100,000 yen (about $US800) if I didn’t have insurance. I’m sure that it would cost a lot more in America’s weird-arsed system, since Japan has strict price controls, but I think it’s safe to say that 100,000 yen is tough for a lot of people to fork out, and the prospect of not being able to get treatment for this because you can’t afford it, and having to live your life with this intense, unbearable pain and the slow degradation of your face for what I can only assume would be weeks before the virus gave up and left – that’s awful. UHC is an absolutely fundamental part of a civilized society, and every political party should be 100% about getting it if you don’t have it, or protecting it if you do. Never let that wonderful part of modern social democracy slide away or be weakened by the vicious jackals who control our conservative parties. Or your face will fall off.

Preventing this disease

The best way to prevent this hairy bastard from coming and fucking your face through your ear is to get vaccinated against chickenpox. Sadly though the varicella vaccine is not in most countries’ mandatory schedules, so you won’t have received it even if you were born after 1984 unless you’re in one of the few that does cover it. Therefore, if you’re a parent in a country without this vaccine on the schedule, and you’re reading this, my advice is: pay the extra amount to get this vaccine for your kids. They will never thank you, partly because they’re ungrateful bastards but also because they’ll never know the fun they’re missing, but trust me it’s worth it. If you’re a policy-maker in a country that doesn’t have this vaccine on the schedule, hurry up and add it.

If you’re an adult who had chickenpox as a child then the first line of defense against this nasty thing is to avoid stress, make a life for yourself that has manageable stress and don’t let whatever stress you do experience last for too long. I went through years of intense stress before the first bout was triggered, but once it was there my next bout required a much lower threshold. So be careful with stress, and get control of your work as much as you can (I appreciate that this is useless advice for a lot of people, whose industry or career options are top-heavy with unpaid work, bullying superiors, and shitty conditions, but it’s the only advice that I have, sorry).

There is some evidence that the varicella vaccine, given to adults who had chickenpox, may reduce the risk of this disease. I’m thinking of getting it once this shit has died down, but it’s also possible that the same people whose low-paid high stress jobs put them at risk of RHS are also unable to afford the out-of-pocket costs for this vaccine. If you’re reading this I’m sorry, I’m out of options. Kill your boss, or find a way to move to a country with a better health system. Or vote Democrat and get that shit fixed[4].

Conclusion

The most important lesson for this is that you need to reduce the stress in your life to avoid this disease, and that as you get older the risk will increase so you need to purge that stress as you age. It might also help to get a vaccine against varicella even if you’re an adult who had chickenpox in childhood, just to get that extra bit of protection, but your doctor may not like that idea.

If you go to a doctor with the first symptoms of this and he/she offers you mere acyclovir, tell him/her you’ll pay the extra for valacyclovir. Wave this blog post at them, and explain the issue. What do they care?! Trust me you don’t want this thing hanging around, so push for it. Then take your rehabilitation seriously, and you may be able to get to a fully functional face once the shitshower passes on. Another thing I think I should have done but didn’t was demand a second course of valacyclovir, to really curbstomp this ugly fucker. Once those drugs are done though, you’re going to be looking at an unpleasant couple of months regardless, so good luck.

If you had other experiences of RHS, or want to rant about this nasty little hitchiker, or are having it now and need reassurance or have questions, put them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other people got through this virus, and I really hope that this blog post can help someone to deal with the horrors of this disease. You are going to get better and you will get your face back, I promise you!


fn1: I don’t know what kind of person designed human beings but requiring a muscle to activate to close your eye, rather than open it, is phenomenally stupid. You don’t realize how stupid that design flaw is until you can’t use that muscle, and suddenly you’re staring at everyone like a pscyhopathic cyclops.

fn2: I have this weird thing, that has existed since my teenage years, where I handle stress well but then when the stress disappears my body completely breaks. Used to happen with migraines, seems to happen with RHS. Others get sick during their stress but my response appears to be delayed.

fn3: I wouldn’t have, because I’d have thought it was Bell’s Palsy and just gone and bought an eyepatch.

fn4: I’m not American, but I’m aware that most people who read blogs like mine are, for some reason, and I have to remain aware of your society’s … shortcomings … when I write medical-related things.

On the weekend I watched the Director’s cut of the Exorcist for the second time in my life. I think I previously watched this version back in the 2000s when it was first released, and it remains impressive on a second viewing, though the special effects let it down a little. It is creepy, nasty, disturbing and ultimately also a beautiful story about one man losing his faith and purpose and finding it again at the last. Fundamentally I think it’s a very christian movie, which revels in the rituals and imagery of the Catholic church and ultimately redeems that church in the face of a deep evil that only the Catholic church is able to understand. Reading William Peter Blatty’s wikipedia, it appears he was a devout Catholic who remained committed to his religion until his death, so it seems likely that he wrote this book with the intention that it was a paean to Catholic tradition, and I think it does this job very well.

There is a lot of careful attention to detail in this movie, which I think is intended both to ground it in the ordinary life experience of people at the time, and also to enhance its creepiness, and a lot of that detail was added into the director’s cut. For example, the coffee conversation between the detective and Chris MacNeil (Regan’s mother) was added in the director’s cut, and in this conversation we see that Regan made the clay statuette that the detective found at the base of the steps. The sets are also very rich, so that for example Father Karras’s little room or his mother’s shabby apartment are full of tiny details about his life that serve to make him seem very normal and to place his class background, his history and educational achievements. This movie is very richly and carefully prepared.

This time when I watched the movie I noticed this detail at its scary best in the language lab scene. This scene was apparently added in the 2000 DVD release along with the coffee scene and the upside-down crabwalk down the stairs. In the language lab scene Karras is listening to the recording he took of Regan when he threw “holy” water on her. He sits in a booth in the language lab, and behind him at the back of the room is a doorway to an office of some kind. The only sources of light in the room are Karras’s listening booth, and the light from that office. Above the door of that office the word “Tasukete!” is written in red on white butcher paper. There are other similar banners in other parts of the room but this is the most obvious and the only one easily read during the brief moment of the scene.

“Tasukete” means “Help me!” in Japanese. It’s an imperative, a demand for help. If you look around the room in the picture above you will see that the other banners in the room are written in whatever the native script of the language is, so presumably are not readable for the vast majority of the movie’s intended audience. Only this one piece of script is transliterated into roman characters that the audience can read, and this is in the place where the reader’s eye is drawn. It seems quite clear that this writing is intended to be read by the viewer.

In the very next scene, Karras is called by Sharon, Chris MacNeil’s live-in assistant, and rushed to the house to see a new phenomenon in Regan’s degeneration. Sharon pulls back Regan’s pyjamas and we see the words “Help me” emerge from the skin on Regan’s belly. The very next scene! These are obviously linked. The director put a Japanese cry for help in a form the viewer could read, before seguing immediately to an English plea for help from Regan herself. He did this in the era before google, when no one could look it up – likely 99.9% of people who saw the movie on its release would never have understood that moment, but he put it in anyway.

But there is another Japanese banner in that language lab. I haven’t been able to find anything about it online, but on the top left of the screen there is a banner written in Swedish, which seems completely normal (the last word is the Swedish for Swedish, so I guess it’s not a special phrase). Beneath it is a short imprecation in Japanese, with two kanji and some hiragana. It’s very hard to see, and the first kanji in particular is impossible to read, but the second one appears to be 惧, a kanji for terror. Writing the first unreadable kanji as a hyphen, it appears to say -u yori osoreyo!, which could be loosely translated as “rather than doing (something), be afraid!” or, more bluntly, “terror over (something)!” I think the first kanji is either osou (襲う, to attack) or 救う (sukuu, to save). So it is either “Terror over salvation!” or “Don’t fight, be afraid!” That’s a very apt warning for Damian Karras given how this movie ends, but it is too subtle for him to understand – no one in this story can read Japanese. So why is it there?

I cannot find anything in the history of any of the people who made this movie which suggests that they had any connection to Japan, and at the time that this movie was made I don’t think Japan was very much in the conscious of Americans – fear about Japanese influence in the west started in the early 1980s, and is best reflected in later movies like Die Hard or Big Trouble in Little Tokyo, and most obviously heralded by Bladerunner (1982). This Japanese is in this movie 10 years before Japan became a common aesthetic influence on Hollywood. So why is it there? And what is the writing on the right hand side wall? It might be radicals for kanji, or perhaps it’s some other writing system I know nothing about.

If only Father Karras had heeded that warning on that banner, this movie might have ended very differently …

Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

Our heroes have dug deep into an ancient cave and recovered some artifacts, but the Teranganu Valley still holds secrets, in particular the mysterious towers that stood beyond the plateau where they found the Sentinel. Local rumour suggested that the tower was haunted with some hideous beasts from the Dark Between the Stars, but the party had two mystics, and a set of Spirit Lenses that enabled them to see the incorporeal and evil spirits they most feared. One of their number, Al Hamra, had the power to render darkmorphs solid, making them vulnerable to physical attack[1]. With such powers they believed they could hope to dig further into the secrets of the valley before their rival Dr. Wana used her unorthodox methods to uncover them; and so they decided to explore the towers.

The roster for today’s mission:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

They flew by grav bike to the towers and first circled them looking for signs of danger, but found none. There were three towers rising from a shared base, perhaps 40m high and 60m across, so not very large and barely tall enough to rise above the thick jungle. The towers were built of pale stone, covered in moss and creepers, mostly intact but with occasional breeches where parts of the walls had crumbled under the pressure of time. The tower rose just above the jungle crown, but near its base the trees appeared strangely stunted and twisted, as if some poison or foul influence corrupted the forest in the immediate vicinity of the towers. The PCs set their grav bikes down in the shadows of the towers and searched the base for an entrance.

There was none. There was no way into the towers at their base, nor was there any visible way in higher up. The towers appeared to have been designed with no entrance of any kind. They returned to the grav bikes and scouted higher up, until right at the top they found two small arches that would allow them admission to the tower. They parked their grav bikes on the roof and entered the main tower.

darkbound

They descended stairs to an empty room, lit by streaks of sunlight falling through breaks in the wall, finding nothing of any note. A set of stairs in one corner led them down into a larger room, in the centre of which they could see a body. They moved into the room to investigate the body, but before they could something pale and vicious came running out of the shadows and attacked Adam. It was a strange, shriveled wretch of a man but it moved incredibly fast and struck him with lightning speed, stabbing at him with vicious claws that were not human in any way. It grabbed him by the arm and tried to bite him with a sunken mouth lined with broken teeth, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay. The entire group felt a strange heavy feeling of dread fall over them, very much like the feeling they had experienced when they activated the cube of terror – but now there was no sunlight, and this strange non-human man trying to kill them. They attacked it, but before they could kill it it suddenly disappeared.

The room fell silent, and after a moment to collect their thoughts they returned to exploring the body. Adam, too callous to be shaken, retired to the stairs and took an overwatch position over the room as his colleagues approached the body. So it was that he was ready when three of the strange human creatures appeared from nowhere and attacked the group. They had almost complete surprise, but he was able to shoot one in the head, knocking it away from Al Hamra and sparing him from the first strike. The other two appeared behind Saqr and Dr. Delecta, tearing huge wounds in their limbs and striking them down to the ground. They lay on the ground dying as the rest of the group battled the three beasts, driving them away and then killing them after a few seconds of brutal battle. As the last one died Al Hamra used his mystic powers to dive into the strange beast’s mind, and after moments of horrific encounter with the Dark Between the Stars he was able to learn that these creatures were Darkbound: once humans, bound for two long to a djinn or some other Darkmorph, they had lost their souls and become a kind of ghoul devoted to destroying the living. He also learned that there were only three in the whole building – they had cleared the tower.

Adam rushed to Dr. Delecta and bound her wounds, and then helped Saqr to recover. The two of them lay in the slick of their own blood, stunned by the savagery of the attack. While they recovered the rest of the group searched the body, finding an ancient and beautiful thermal pistol, light armour, and a book called “Arvan’s Exomorphs”. It was a man, probably an explorer of some kind, and judging by the age of his weapons and armour he had died at least 200 years ago. He carried nothing that could tell them about the nature of the tower.

They found nothing else in the room, so proceeded down to the base of the tower, confident now that it had been cleared. The base was empty, and from inside they confirmed that there really were no entrances – it was not just that they had been blocked up from within, but there really were none. The only entrance was on the very top – why had this tower even been built?

In a small annex to the main tower they found a domed room in which the dead explorer had set up his camp. They found a tent, a computer with a library database, various weapons and tools, and some ruined food. It seemed obvious that he had camped here and explored the rest of the building from this base – but how had he entered the tower? And how had he known about it?

On the far side of the main tower they found another small secondary tower, that rose thin and empty to the same height as the main tower. They climbed it wearily, not expecting to find anything, but at the top level they found a narrow set of stairs leading into a large domed room. Adam and Al Hamra entered first, the others waiting downstairs to see if it was safe. In the room they found a horrendous structure of chains and cogs made of bone, with dessicated human bodies hanging in strange arrangements amongst the chains. There were perhaps 20 bodies, some pinned to the walls and others hanging in horrific corpse carousels in the middle of the room. Using the spirit lenses Al Hamra was able to see that there were flows of strange dark energy running through the chains of the structure, pooling in the bodies as if they were capacitors and flooding onward towards the centre. Something somehow had broken the structure, however, and the flow of energy built up near the centre and then dissipated, leaking out of the building instead of accumulating in the centre where it could form a source of evil power for some dark machine. They had discovered a Cadaver Clock, a strange source of dark energy that could fuel mystic powers. This Cadaver was long since broken, interfered with by some mortal power. Had the dead explorer broken it? And what had it powered? Perhaps its dark power had sustained the Darkbound creatures that had attacked them, starving and shriveled ancient servants of some greater power? Or perhaps whatever power had enslaved those beasts had fed on the energy from this machine, and had long since faded away after the Cadaver Clock broke?

They did not stay to investigate. Horrified by the strange silent machinery of death, they withdrew slowly down the stairs. Swallowing his disgust, Al Hamra told the rest of the party that the room was empty, and they slowly made their way back down the tower and up the main tower towards the grav bikes. No one else realized that there was a horror in the top chamber of the building, and no one noticed his pale, shaking terror. They retreated to the bikes, and if Al Hamra was a little too eager to put the planet behind them – perhaps a little too full of disgust at the shadows in the jungle – no one paid it any mind. They returned to the shuttle, none the richer for their incursion into the towers, and left Teranganu Valley behind them.

As the shuttle streaked away from the surface into orbit, Al Hamra pressed his face against the glass panes of the passenger bay, and wondered: had he left behind some great and secret route to power? Had he swung those bodies just so, could he have absorbed all that dark energy? What great secrets, what dark powers had he left behind?

What dark god could a Mystic become?


fn1: We have started to come up with new and interesting mystic powers to supplement those in the book.

One war took, led to his death.
One a bird lifted over the high sea.
One the hoary wolf broke with death.
One, bloody-cheeked, a warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.

Our heroes have made camp on the beach of the Teranganu Lake, and fought off an insidious attack by Djanna from the marshes. The following morning they left Al Hamra, Dr. Delecta and Oliver Greenstar to recover from their wounds and protect the camp, and prepared for their first full day of exploring the Teranganu area.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)

Their initial plan had been to help the Sogoi people to repel the dig site near the river that was upsetting the ancient spirits of the valley, and to this end they had given the Sogoi leaders two vulcan pistols and suggested they would return the next day with a plan. But as the day dawned bright and suffocatingly hot they decided against this course. Although they very much wanted to disrupt their nemesis Dr. Wana’s work, they did not know how powerful she was or what the consequences of a direct attack on her work might be – if she learned it was they who did it, would she unleash violent reprisals on them in Coriolis or across systems? Their main goal in coming to the surface of Kua had been to investigate the dig site where the Statuette of Zhar Bagha had been found, and they knew where that site was, so they decided that they would avoid involving themselves in local disagreements, and avoid entanglements with their nemesis. They would go straight to the abandoned dig that their contact Lavin Tamm had led them to after they rescued him on Coriolis, and look for further artifacts.

The hollow rock

They had camped on the beach on the east side of the lake. Dr. Wana’s dig site was north of them, on the far side of the river, obscured by a thick bank of jungle, and the rock lay in more dense woodland on the opposite shore of the lake. From their camp they could see its moss-covered top looming above the trees, and just beyond it the tips of two crumbling stone towers that were rumoured to be infested with spirits from the Dark Between the Stars. From their camp to the rock was just a short trip on their grav bikes, and they set off early in the day to try and make the base of the rock before the sun was too high and the entire area became impossibly hot. They packed some archaeological equipment, weapons and armour, and flew across the lake on their grav bikes, landing at the southwestern tip of the rock within a few minutes. Here they found three cave mouths, perfectly cut and obviously not natural, which had been obscured by large trees that had now been burnt away. A short distance from the cave mouths was a large camp, obviously abandoned. They had found their site.

Investigation of the camp confirmed their suspicions. They found Lavin Tamm’s locker, and the lockers of another eight people who showed no signs of having returned to the camp after their ill-fated expedition. Foodstuffs were packed and eating utensils cleaned and stacked, a computer terminal in standby mode and beds made. They had clearly left their camp for a day’s work and simply never returned. There were no tabulae in the camp and no notes, so no way to find out what progress the archaeologists had made on the dig, or if they had any forewarning of whatever had overcome them. Siladan attempted to access their communications terminal to identify whether or not they had sent an emergency signal offsite, but unfortunately all he was able to do was trigger an emergency security warning that triggered an extra-orbital response squad. Checking the manual he identified that they had four hours until that orbital response arrived. He apologized profusely to his team but it was too late: now they had four hours to find out what had happened here and recover any artifacts left behind by the dead team.

They entered the rock. Here they found a network of perfectly smooth, perfectly formed tunnels that curved and wandered through the rock with no apparent purpose, intersecting and overlapping each other in spirals and whorls until finally one tunnel entered a large cavern, perhaps 50 m long and 20 m wide, that formed the single terminus of the entire strange system. Since there was no light in here and they had no night vision systems, the PCs did not bother sneaking in. They turned on their torches, and entered the cavern.

Found footage

They found the first body just near the entrance, collapsed against the cave wall with an accelerator pistol and a tabula lying on the ground nearby. The body was dessicated and pale, wearing the same uniform that they had seen Lavim Tamm trying to hide in his hotel room on Coriolis. The uniform was crusted with dried blood around its chest, from which a third arm had erupted, tearing the cloth of the overalls and rending flesh and bone apart in its eruption. They recoiled in horror at the sight of this strange monstrosity, everyone stepping back in disgust. After a moment to try and understand what they were seeing, Adam approached and carefully inspected the arm. It was not fully human, grey-skinned and vaguely scaly, with a contorted spine of some kind sticking out of its elbow and only three clawed fingers on the end of the limb. Although it had torn the victim’s chest apart when it emerged from the body, it was also clearly connected to and part of the body.

They looked at each other with growing unease. Something very bad had happened here, and it was something they could not understand. They turned their gaze – and their weapons – to face into the cavern, and continued their exploration.

The cavern had the same smooth, perfectly-made style as the hallways, but for six columns set in two parallel rows near each side of the cave. There were no other physical features. As they advanced they saw more bodies scattered around the room, and a collapsed tent of the kind used to cover archaeological digs set at the far end of the cavern. Although the far end of the chamber was dim in the light of their exo-suits it was clear that nothing else moved or lived in here. They inched forward.

The second body was lying against the first pillar they came to. It had dropped a vulcan carbine on the floor next to its right leg – or what was once its right leg. The overalls of this leg were torn and shredded, and the leg changed near the hip into a tight bundle of tentacles, now dead and dessicated. The dead worker had obviously been shooting his own leg, because they could see bullet wounds in the tentacles and his left, human leg. The tentacles had rough suckers lined with hooks, and it looked as if he had been strangled by at least one of them at some point, because his neck was marked with contusions and tears of the same shape. It was unclear if he had died from the self-inflicted gunshot wounds or the strangling. Again, it looked as if the tentacles had extruded from his leg as if naturally part of it, but had at the same time done massive damage to him. Adam checked the carbine, finding the magazine empty, Siladan labeled the man’s tabula, and they moved further into the room towards the tent.

The rest of the dig team had died around the tent. Two more appeared to have died of strange transformations: one, lying a little distance from the tent, had had her neck elongated like a rubber band so that her head flopped on the floor, and all the fingers on her hands stretched like they were made of rubber; the other had a hugely distended belly and neck, and appeared to have died of choking. One of the dead had been shot several times in the chest, and the remaining three had been slaughtered by some horrific beast. One near the tent appeared to have been stabbed from behind by a huge impaling weapon of some kind, leaving a huge hole in his chest and causing him to drop an accelerator pistol, a mysterious cube-shaped object, and a tabula. The other two lay a little distance from the tent towards the cavern entrance, where they had been torn into pieces by some huge force. Even a cursory check assured them that there were no survivors – the only person who had escaped the carnage was Lavim Tamm, and now they understood exactly why he had been so traumatized when they found him on Coriolis.

They searched the collapsed tent. It had covered the dig site, which was a Firstcome-era frieze on one part of the rear wall of the cavern. The dig team had obviously been picking this frieze away, destroying it as they did so, and although only partially complete they had found an alcove that looked like it might have held some object. On the floor near the alcove was an artifact case, a kind of suitcase that fills with a special gel-like material that protects fragile objects from damage regardless of their shape. Just outside the tent a camera drone lay on the ground, a small red light indicating it was in power save mode. They had filmed their dig.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They collected the camera drone, all the tabulae, the artifact case and the strange cube, and headed out as quickly as they could. Once outside they rushed back to their camp, plugged in the drone, and watched the last few minutes of the archaeology team’s life.

The team had been digging as normal when suddenly the two men inside the tent had started arguing, and one of them had rushed out of the tent, yelling back at his colleague in the tent and then vomiting just outside the tent. His colleague came out and also began vomiting, while the men outside the tent began to look around uneasily and warn each other that they felt strange. One of them asked if something was coming, and they began to act terrified and confused. After perhaps a minute of this growing uneasiness one of the men drew a pistol, pointing it at another team member and yelling “You can’t stop me! I will not fail!” before he shot him three times. The other members of the team began to panic, one yelling “Sarcofagoi!” before they all began to run away from the camera. As they began to move a dark, unidentifiable shape emerged from nowhere and stabbed a massive spike through the chest of the shooter, making him jerk up into the air and throw his gun and tabula to the ground, along with a cube that fell out of his coat. Moments later a nearby woman, backing away in horror, suddenly shivered and twitched and then died as her neck stretched impossibly long and her fingers twisted and stretched. People screamed more and ran, the dark shape dropping its victim and chasing two of them. In the distance they could hear gunshots, and the dark shape disappeared from view as it pursued its victims. Moments later the team fell silent, and the scene became still, the only sound the slow gurgling chokes of someone just out of view of the camera, dying as his own neck swelled up and cut off his breathing. The dark shape did not return.

They replayed the video, but this time focusing on the man who had fired the gun. It appeared that before the horror began he was fiddling with something in his coat, probably the cube, and about 10 minutes before that he was sending and receiving messages on his tabula. He had obviously done something, summoned something or unleashed some monster from within the cube. They needed to know. With a heavy heart, they set about examining his blood-stained belongings.

Things of stone and wood

Siladan investigated the cube. It was not large, perhaps 5cm on each side, and was made of wood inlaid with strange symbols and sigils that were obviously of Portal Builder origin. Some parts of some of the faces could be depressed like switches, and it did not take Siladan long to decipher the order in which the switches needed to be touched in order to activate the device, though he could not say what it did. It was clear that the dead man had also known how to activate it, and this was what he had been doing moments before the attack began. Had he summoned the monster? And had he done so on someone’s behalf. They activated his tabula, and looked at his last messages…

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

IM: The frieze should be uncovered within a day. It is fragile in the dry air and crumbles easily

ZK: So you should have confirmation of the find by tomorrow night?

IM: Yes, the Icons willing. Work will be fast with this team.

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

IM: Yes, I will contact you as soon as I have confirmation.

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

IM: Sir, the frieze has been removed and the chamber uncovered as you expected.

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

IM: Yes sir, the dig leader is very excited!

ZK: Describe it!

IM: That I cannot, I am not allowed near the tent.

ZK: Typical! No matter. You know what to do?

IM: Activate the box. Wait for them to panic and leave.

ZK: Yes, that is right. Do it now!

IM: Sir, I am concerned. The guard at least is tough. I fear he will not leave just from the effect you promise.

ZK: No matter! I am paying you well. You know what to do if he does not leave?

IM: Yes sir, but there are many of them. I may not prevail.

ZK: Do not fear. If you fire on even one in the climate of the box they will fear Sarcofagoi. They will flee. Then you take the find and leave once the way is clear.

IM: You are sure this will work? I fear for my safety.

ZK: I am paying you to risk your safety. Do not cross me know or your uncertain economic future will be the least of your concerns.

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

IM: By my heart! I place my trust in the Icons. I will message you when the job is done!

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

So, it appeared that about a month ago – two weeks or so before they found Lavim Tamm – this man Islim had been at this dig, and had activated the box on the orders of someone called “ZK”. The box was supposed to create fear in everyone present, and if they did not leave then Islim was to attack one of them, giving the impression he had been possessed by a Sarcofagoi, and then loot the dig site before leaving himself. Unfortunately, when he activated the box he had also conjured, or drawn the attention of, something else, something horrible and very violent. The only person who had escaped the ensuing carnage was Lavim Tamm. It was also possible that Lavim had been stealing the statuette at the same time that the box was activated, and that this had triggered some kind of beast.

Siladan, reviewing the footage and doing some research, concluded that the beast that had been triggered was likely a Sentinel. Sentinels are strange pillar-like creatures from the Portal Builder era, which are triggered by unknown conditions and have the power to twist and warp human flesh, as well as being vicious and merciless combatants. Siladan’s guess was that one of the columns in that chamber had been a Sentinel, and the box had triggered it to activate, with catastrophic consequences for the whole team.

Saqr used his weak mystic powers to probe the box, and confirmed that it did exactly what Islim had been promised – it created fear and dread in everyone within a small radius. Saqr even tested it on himself, terrifying himself without summoning any beasts from the Dark Between the Stars. A useful device to be deployed in difficult situations!

They kept the box and the contents of the artifact case: a pair of Spirit Glasses and two Causality Stones. They had also looted some Sugar Globes from the chamber on their way out. Stowing these treasures away in their shuttle they sat on the beach to watch the camp, wondering what the emergency beacon would summon.

Nothing came. The desiccated corpses had been forgotten, or abandoned, betrayed and lost in the hollow hill.


Picture note: The top picture is by Matt Gaser (I think), whose work can be bought here. The other pictures are from Coriolis itself.

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