Horror


The Ur-bone

Description: A fragment of bone from an unknown creature, likely human but possibly not. Greyed and mildewy, with a rotten smell. Anyone who touches it will immediately know it is vile.

Effect: When used as a wand or focus for deep magic, increases the range and power of spells that animate or activate the dead, enabling more powerful creatures to be animated. Potentially very dangerous in the hands of a seasoned necromancer.

Age: Perhaps 100 – 200 years old. Probably originally enchanted by a deepfolk necromancer but lost in internecine conflict.

Location: Somewhere in the ruins of a battlefield in the southern spine mountains

The Dreamer

Description: Part of an elf, that was captured when he or she was dreaming under the open sky. Most accounts state that it was an eye, but some say it is a blood-soaked lock of hair, others the whole scalp, some the lower jaw bone (pried out of course). Whatever part it was must have been sufficiently easy to remove that it could be taken whole while the elf was still dreaming. A ritual probably surrounded the extraction. Some say it is preserved in a briny fluid, with extravagant rumours suggesting it is the tears from the other eye. Others say it is dried. Obviously this is irrelevant if it is just hair. The most extreme theory is that it is a head shrunk using a special technique known to a few clans of deepfolk in the far north. Regardless of the particular preservation technology, the whole thing is said to exude a powerful aura of magic and also a repulsive physical aroma.

Effect: The wielder is said to never need to sleep, and also to be immune to all forms of magical compulsion or domination. Obviously this latter effect is very valuable to a deepfolk leader (so is the former, upon reflection). When the wielder does sleep they will suffer terrible dreams, but in the hands of a capable deep magic user it is also said to enable the wielder to intercept elven dream-messages.

Age: >500 years. It is said to have been prepared using lost arts from a northern tribe that was wiped out in some underdark conflict.

Location: A tower in Asboran, where the elves guard it jealously, for obvious reasons.

The sword of the Feybane

Description: A non-descript steel sword, with a hilt of plain leather wrapped in finest spider silk. The blade, though dull and plain-looking, is well-made and sparkles under the light of the sun-shard. It is said to have been forged with threads of spider-silk from a mighty fey beast, somehow connected to a species of fey known as redcaps. How this silk was acquired and its magical properties harvested is unknown, though it is not believed to be an achievement of deepfolk.

Effect: The sword is powerful against all forms of fey, who recoil from its presence and are badly harmed by its touch. It is not said to have any special effect on deepfolk, though elves are said to be made queasy in its presence. Some say it can also harm elves, and that the deepfolk sought it for some time for this reason.

Age: At least 200 years but probably much older. A weapon as non-descript as this is extremely difficult to date, but a character engraved on the metal hilt (below the leather binding) was described by a swordsmith 200 years ago, and is said to no longer be in use.

Location: A collector of militaria in Alpon.

The First Ghost

Description: The first ever ghost of a child who died of neglect. The ghost is said to be stored in a gossamer-thin phylactery, which is likely a mirror, shroud, fine drapery, or other form of ephemeral physical material. Whatever it is, it must be of reasonable size, since it holds a ghost, but must also be very finely wrought and delicate, since it holds a ghost. The magic to imprison such a thing is said to be deep magic, but some argue it must be an older and more fundamental magic than that. Deepfolk magic is not so subtle. But given the age of the thing, who knows? It is said to be non-descript (aside from the quality of craftwork) in its normal form, that it shows a faint luminescence or special glow when illuminated only by starlight or candle light, but that its full beauty is only understood when viewed in candlelight while in a state of privation (hunger, thirst, cold or such-like).

Effect: The ghost, when unleashed (somehow) from the captivity of the phylactery, is said to enable deep magic of great power to be wielded to necromantic ends. Perhaps it enables the creation of extremely powerful undead, or armies of the things. The scholars are surprisingly mute on the value of this thing.

Age: Unknown, but it is the first ever ghost of a child, so likely very old.

Location: The reliquary in the shrine of salt in Estona (thankfully).

The Last Seal

Description: A stamp made of bone, probably carved from a human (though again it is uncertain). The stamp is in the form of a strange repeating pattern that is said to reproduce itself on ever finer scales. Scholars are rumoured to have investigated the pattern with magnifying glasses of various powers, and are always able to find the same pattern repeated inside the structure of larger patterns. The seal gives off no aura of magic or evil, possibly because of the strange enfolding nature of the magic in the stamp.

Effect: When an appropriate mixture of wax, human blood, ash and tears is composed and placed on the forehead of a dead human, and the stamp therein impressed, the human is specially marked for deep magic. Animation spells cast on this prepared corpse will be especially powerful. It will have extra strength and resilience, will not decay with time, and cannot be destroyed or damaged by salt magic. It also can be commanded by the person who holds the stamp, just by thought, no matter where it or they are.

Age: Unknown, but at least 220 years ago.

Location: Stolen by deepfolk in the sacking of Pentaro 220 years ago, now rumoured to be in the possession of a clan somewhere in the spine mountains.

Insertion

The four agents of Section M stand in the cabin of the rickety old French plane, surveying the darkened French countryside. Since they left Paris the weather has changed rapidly from gloomy May skies to a rapidly growing storm, with furious winds buffeting the plane and heavy rain covering the picturesque landscape of the Belgian border in a cloak of grey. A French airman at the doorway finished preparing and, with a grim shake of his head, turned to face the team, mouthing “three minutes” and holding up three outstretched fingers. Clustered in the foreward section of the crew area, the agents reviewed their task.

It was evening of the 21st May, 1940. They had been dispatched to the Mezieres area of northeastern France, on the border of Belgium, in response to a coded message from Aramis, a local resistance leader. Aramis was a member of a local resistance cell in the tiny village of Saint Sulac that had been activated just a month earlier, with the sudden collapse of the Phoney War into real bloodshed, and was still inexperienced and lacking equipment. His message had been cut off mi-transmission but seemed to contain a dire warning about a Black Sun master. Section M sent the agents to find out more with three simple orders:

  • Find Aramis
  • Investigate the Black Sun activity
  • Eliminate any immediate threats

If Aramis had survived he would be likely to be hiding in safe houses on the north eastern side of the village. They would use a codephrase to identify him: he would ask in English for a cigarette, and they would reply “I only have Lucky Strikes”.

Setting off from Paris in a hastily-outfitted Potez 540

As the agents recalled these events the crewman gestured them to the door as he slid the door open, letting in the howling wind and sending the plane into a sudden veering lurch as the storm gusted inside. He grabbed the nearest agent and yelled into their ear, standing close enough to be heard over the throb of the plane’s engine. “The storm is too wild, you have to go now!” Out of the open door they could see dark clouds, hear the resonating thunder and then catch the sudden flash of nearby lightning. Something about this storm felt wrong. It was too sudden, and dark clouds seemed to have coalesced rapidly directly over the village – but only the village. Before they could investigate the strange storm further though the airman signalled the first jump, and they were out of the door, parachuting into Nazi-occupied France. The team for this mission:

  • Captain James Swann, British officer, of Caribbean heritage and a veteran of the last war, the nominal leader of the ragtag group of agents falling through the storm
  • Sven Nielsen, dauntless resistance leader from Norway who evacuated with the allies in early May 1940 to continue fighting the Nazis after the capture of his own town. Sven is a runeweaver, able to wield magic from the ancestral traditions of this Viking forebears
  • Private Dan Gregg, a genius mechanic with an almost supernatural ability with machines, who claims to be fighting for the allies despite his American homeland’s neutrality because of ideology, but may actually be in British service because he is on the run from the law
  • Corporal Sarah Walker, a fearless soldier raised in the sheep farms of the Australian outback, where she learnt phenomenal shooting skills and developed a strange affinity for the wilds. Australia sided with the UK as soon as war was declared, and Sarah and her dog Crook were on the first troop transport for England, where her ferocious combat skills were soon noticed by Section M

The storm scattered the jumping agents to the winds, and as they floated down towards the quiet nightscape of occupied France, they cast their thoughts back to their final briefing just that morning in Paris.

The briefing

The four agents stood awkwardly at ease in a dreary, cramped office in the top floor of a garret in Montmartre, Paris. It was just after lunch on the 21st May, and before they had even finished tea they had been called up to a meeting with their handler, Genevieve Miller. Genvieve was the picture of 1930s professional womanhood: slim pencil skirt, bleached white blouse, immaculate water waves framing a pale, stern face. She half-leaned, half-sat on her small, neatly-arranged desk – the only part of the room free of the chaos of the current situation – and looked over her charges, the details of the briefing complete. From outside the smell of smoke drifted in through the window – three floors down in the courtyard Section M were burning documents. When asked about it she had shrugged and sneered.

“Don’t be fooled by the Old Boy’s statements – ” she always referred to Churchill this way ” – the war office has given up on this. Our days in Paris are numbered, and we aren’t going to be sitting here waiting for the Germans to find out what we’ve been up to under their noses. He may be making positive statements in the Commons but the Old Boy spoke to the Generals last week and asked where the reserves were, and he was told there simply aren’t any. The French are done in, it’s just a matter of time.”

This was news to the agents, who had flown in on the 15th May with Churchill’s squadron of planes, under the impression he had come in to stiffen resistance and figure out a plan. At that time – less than one week ago! – the Germans had still been barely out of Belgium, and everyone on the flight in was chipper, assured that something would be done in the next few days. Apparently not! Genevieve ran her finger along the line of the desk and added,

“Since then it’s just got worse. De Gaulle did his counter-attack but it failed easily, and the other generals have given up on it all. Mark my words, that de Gaulle has the charisma of a fish and little between his ears, but I fear he may be the last one standing when the dust settles – he’s just wily enough to come out of this looking like a hero. No one else is looking any better, and the only thing more barbaric than the frontlines of a modern war is a clique of generals trying to shift the blame onto someone else. So now you know how the top brass are looking at this, let me explain the reality of the situation for you.

She unrolled a map on her desk and invited them over to look at the disaster unfolding across northern France. “The Germans reached the coast this morning,” she told them. “This here – ” she waved her hand over the area of coastline around Dunkirk ” – is now a pocket of half a million men, cut off from our supply lines by the German tanks. Frenchies, Belgians, Dutch, British, and representatives of every one of our colonial holdings trapped in that little zone. We’re trying to get them out, but it’s not looking promising. By the way, we lost Daphne Rogers’ team in de Gaulle’s counter-attack.” She slammed a finger angrily down on the map somewhere near Laon. “You’re all that’s left of M Section North, I’m afraid.”

This was a shock. Daphne was their most capable agent, and she was gone, lost just days ago. Since April M Section North had been whittled down from 11 to 4. Just them! They were still taking this in when she gave them the warning that would still be fresh in their minds when they landed in Saint Sulac later that same day.

“Now listen, ladies and gentlemen. When this war started in ’39 some of the new blood in the ministry of war thought it would be a jolly jaunt, a few months of silly buggers around the maginot line and then everyone would settle terms. Same blinkered old boy attitude from the Great War. But the Nazi advance was too fast and brutal, now it’s chaos down here, but it’s worse than that: they’re up to something. They didn’t get this far this fast just on Guderian’s wily field genius, did they? We are hearing things from the East, nothing concrete you understand, it’s all locked down tight but little rumours slip out. They’re … doing things in the General Government and Czechoslovakia. You understand we aren’t official allies with the Soviets, but we’ve been hearing from our connections there that they didn’t divvy up Poland between them and Germany because Stalin likes Polish girls. Apparently it was a desperate strategy to stop the Nazis getting hold of a temple in a forest outside Brest, and there are rumours of some ancient Orthodox ritual. We thought the Black Sun was just a silly little cult, but it looks like they know things, big things. Section M was retired after the Crimean War along with other agencies across Europe – there were agreements, you understand, serious undertakings that took years of negotiation. But it looks like some holdouts in Germany didn’t follow the letter of the law, and they’re digging up more than we realized. This op is a case in point: they arrived in Mezieres a week ago and already the Black Sun have moved in there, looking for something. And it’s not just the Nazis either – the Chinese are terrified, and keep sending us messages about what the Japanese state religion is up to. There’s a madness growing out there, and we need to know what is going on. Our one advantage, if you could even call it that, is that they don’t know about Section M. It was restarted only a few years ago and it’s top secret, so we think they don’t know. And for now it has to stay that way, so, my friends, I don’t like to ask this of you, but there are some tough conditions on this mission. If you use your special powers you cannot leave witnesses, and you absolutely must not get captured alive. If it looks like you cannot escape and you are going to be caught alive, I want to be sure you understand what you have to do. Am I clear?”

She looked them over, stern and cold, and one by one they nodded. “No witnesses,” she reiterated, “and no surrender.” She took in their solemn expressions for a moment and clasped Swann’s shoulder. “Very good. Now, go and find what happened to Aramis and why the Black Sun want that village so badly. When it’s done you can head upriver to the front and slip back through to us, we’ll send an alert to the French armies there to be expecting you, but don’t dither. The Germans seem to have their focus fully on the channel and our boys trapped in Dunkirk, but if they decide to turn and take a jaunt through the French countryside Touchon will fold like a cheap camp stove and you’ll be trapped in the pocket with a lot of desperate Frenchies. So get out before the next stage of this debacle unfolds. I want you, at least, back here before we ship out. Okay?”

They nodded and, dismissed, headed for the door. Genevieve sighed and, as Sarah Walker turned to close it, she caught a glimpse of their handler’s prim, ice cold visage slipping, as she sat down behind her desk and sank her head into her hands.

The door snicked shut, and all that remained of M Section North headed off to war.

Saint Sulac

In the storm and the dark the four agents landed separately, scattered over a wide stretch of land south of Saint Sulac. Initially lost, they were drawn together by the irregular barking of Sarah’s dog Crook, the only animal raising any cry in the countryside in the dead of night. The widespread landing and forced march to regroup cost them a little time, but after an hour of effort they were able to gather safely near a small road a short distance south of Saint Sulac. They were also confused by the regrouping, and had to spend more time gaining their bearings and finding the correct path to the village. Finally, after more than an hour of slogging through wet and clinging French countryside and wrestling with maps for unfamiliar terrain in near-total darkness they had their sense of direction, and set off for the village.

As soon as they did so a chill sense of dread rolled over them. A strange vibration rattled their teeth and their skin turned cold and clammy. The rain intensified and a huge clap of thunder rolled overhead, the roar of the clashing sky followed by a disturbing, resonating rattle that sounded almost like a human laugh. The wind turned suddenly and briefly icy, and a curtain of lightning bolts fell in a line across their path, briefly turning night into day with their intense electrical discharge. Something was wrong, and they needed to find out what.

An hour later they had reached the outskirts of the village, and hid in cover on a hillside looking down on the small settlement. It was a small and compact village, with a central town hall near a large chateau, two main streets and a couple of outlying farms. The chateau, an impressive 17th or 18th century hulk on the northern side of the town, had been commandeered by the Germans and now boasted two huge Black Sun banners hanging from its ramparts. Machine gunners and perhaps a sniper’s nest had been set up in front of or in the ramparts of the chateau, and strange portable lighting had been placed at regular intervals along the main streets of the town. This made it easy for the members of M Section North to see the German patrols, but would also make moving around the town dangerous. This light also made it easy for them to see the German soldiers leading a group of scared villagers at gunpoint into the Chateau. The agents saw that just west of their position was a burned out barn and some cows, with a French civilian moving around in the fields in a slightly strange way. Seeing a chance to reconnoitre without risking the lights, they crept down the hill towards him and Captain Swann engaged him in conversation.

“Ah, a Moroccan!” the farmer exclaimed immediately, and with a little pressing revealed he was out after dark looking for his cows, which had been spooked earlier that evening by a firefight at a nearby farm. Captain Swann’s easy manners and Private Gregg’s cigarettes loosened his tongue, and he told them the events of the day.

The Germans had occupied Saint Sulac about a week earlier, passing through in a huge train of exhausted but jubilant German soldiers and rumbling armour and leaving behind a skeleton crew of a couple of soldiers to manage the town. However yesterday a large contingent of new Germans had turned up, taken control of the town and sent the previous garrison packing west towards the front. These new Germans wore different uniforms, they all were constantly covering their faces with gas masks, and they were very businesslike and brutal in their activities. A large number of trucks rolled up to the chateau and began unloading equipment inside, and they immediately began reinforcing it with machine gun posts and snipers. They also enforced a strict curfew for the villagers, and began grabbing random groups of villagers and forcing them into the Chateau.

He also told them that in the afternoon yesterday there had been a shootout at the nearby barn, after a local lad lost his cool with the Nazis and opened fire on one. In the subsequent melee the farm had been burnt down, and several of the farmers cows had been spooked. It was during this firefight that this farmer’s cows had also been scared, and he had only come out to get them now, his concerns about their wellbeing overcoming his fear of the Nazis.

The agents helped him regather his cows quickly so that he could make his way home. They told them that they were looking for Aramis and he told them of a narrow path that could take them around the village clear of the lights and into the shadows of the trees behind the houses to the north east – they might find Aramis there. They thanked him and were about to leave when another strange wave of cold and horror overwhelmed them, setting their teeth on edge, sending chills down their spines and enveloping them briefly in fear. The sky cracked, lightning arced across the whole rain-soaked world, and next to them a cow wailed, coughed blood and died on the spot. The farmer took his leave hurriedly, and they set off to find Aramis.

The first resistance

They crept successfully around the town, avoiding German patrols and sticking to their small country path, until they reached the trees on the north east side of town. There were three houses here with cellars that had entries invisible to the road, and they searched these until they found one with a bloody handprint on the banister. Brief negotiations got them through the door into a dimly-lit cellar where Aramis was hiding, injured and exhausted. He had with him the radio he had used to send his message, which sadly was broken beyond repair in the firefight at the farm to the south. He revealed that there were only three resistance people in town – himself, the farmer Jean-Paul who had directed them to him, and a young man called Francois whose rash actions had started the firefight at the farm. They had been activated only a month earlier, when instructions arrived by post from Paris, mostly in English, telling them how to build a radio from scavenged parts and giving basic information on how to be insurgents. Aramis had been activated with just these pamphlets, a revolver and 12 bullets, and his courage. It was no surprise that the tiny cell had been broken by the Germans almost immediately and that now he hid in this cellar, injured and terrified.

They did what they could to make Aramis a little more comfortable, and he told them how to get into the chateau. There was a network of tunnels under the village which dated back to Roman times, when it is rumoured that a foul cult of death had hidden shrines here. On the northwest side of the town was a small dairy farm, and in its barn a truck was parked over a trapdoor into these tunnels. The Germans almost certainly did not know of these tunnels, since they had just arrived yesterday and the tunnels were a mostly-forgotten secret used primarily by the youth of the town for acts of derring-do against the darkness, and illicit liaisons. The agents could go to the farm, move the truck, enter the tunnels, and make their way to a disused cellar beneath the chateau. From there they would easily be able to enter the chateau and confront the Black Sun Master without having to fight through his hordes of soldiers.

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all they had, and they could sense the strange energies at play in the town growing worse. By now Sven had a sense of what those waves of cold meant, and he was convinced a dread ritual was being enacted in the chateau. Was this the reason the Nazis had advanced so fast? Was the despondency and confusion in the French higher command a result of battlefield losses, or some more sinister conjuring? They needed to get into that chateau and find out what the Black Sun wanted here. They thanked Aramis, gleaned some information about back-field paths to the dairy farm, stole some of his store of cheese and sausage, and headed out to the farm.

The catacombs

They reached the farm after an hour, but as they approached Private Gregg, always an expert on sneaky and underhand activities, identified a group of Nazi soldiers at the barn. They laid their ambush and sprung their trap, and the battle was short and violent: Sven unleashed a hail of lightning on the soldiers, who fired back but were taken down by a combination of pistol fire and vicious knife work. Swann and Walker with her dog Crook did the knife work while Private Gregg and Sven offered ranged support. With the storm growing ever louder and the distance of the barn from the Chateau they doubted they had been heard but they worked quickly regardless. They dragged the bodies into the dairy, where they found a small workspace, a truck that must have been from the previous war, and various sundry supplies and equipment for a normal farmer.

The truck was broken, however, its wiring and carburetor damaged in the gunfight. There was some debate about whether it was worth the time to repair it or if they should just push it, but Sven pointed out that they needed a way to get to the front as soon as their work was done here, and if the Germans did not know about the catacombs they would never think that the agents would have access to this truck from the Chateau. With that Private Gregg set to work, dragging some wires out of his gear and salvaging copper from a nearby kettle to patch the carburetor. While he did this the rest of them investigated their dead soldiers, who wore a strange emblem on their arms and hid their faces behind gas masks. They carried machine pistols and wore heavy leather coats that acted as ballistic armour. Tearing off the gas masks revealed the unblemished faces of young Aryan men, with no evidence of any special reason why they would need the masks. Was something planned? What was this ritual?

Private Gregg fixed the truck and they moved it forward in the dairy, making enough space to reveal a trapdoor leading down. They lit lamps from a nearby store, dragged the bodies into the cellar, cleaned up as best they could, and climbed down into the tunnels. Here they found cool, dry passages carved out of the stone beneath the village, and polished to a fine smoothness by the passing of time. The catacombs were well-designed, as if they could not have been dug by the people of that ancient time, and they were strangely unsettling. Walking through the catacombs gave one a sense of being in another time and place, and impossible whispers and noises echoed through their cool dark. Perhaps it was just their imagination but the agents felt they were watched as they moved carefully through the tunnels, bereft of all sense of physical position. They marked their position with chalk on the walls, and occasionally found evidence of others coming down here – cigarette butts, discarded wine bottles, a half-eaten raw pig’s head, a pair of abandoned gumboots – but they encountered nothing and no one. The catacombs seemed extensive, and whatever death cult had built them in the Roman era must have been great indeed – though now lost to time, christianity and civilization. Nonetheless, they agreed, it would have been nice if the cult had lasted long enough to leave a map, because they were lost in the rambling burrows of this ancient religion.

Finally they found it – a barely-visible door, set carefully in the rock, its outline barely visible on the wall. They pushed it carefully open and found themselves in a cellar room, disused and full of detritus. The door, they discovered, had been disguised as shelves, which was why it was so hard to find from the other side – perhaps they had passed it several times before Private Gregg’s preternatural instincts for hiding places had given him cause to stop and search that section of wall again. In the cellar there was a set of steps leading up to a trapdoor, which they guessed must lead to wherever they were going. On the other side they could hear – and feel – something terrible was happening. They would open the door, creep in, survey the landscape, and decide what to do.

The ritual

When Sarah Walker opened the trapdoor its rusty hinges caught on something and screeched loudly, and as they piled out they found themselves under attack[1]. They emerged into a small, square room that faced onto a larger, round chamber with six pillars in which a terrible ritual was being enacted. French civilians were tied blindfolded[2] to the pillars, and at the far end of the room the Black Sun Master, Jans Stoller, stood over an ancient, blood-soaked altar, reading from a book. Four Black Sun Novices stood near him, and between the altar and the agents stood a monstrosity – a Servitor of Nyarlathotep. It rushed towards them, exuding a wave of fear before it as they tried to come to terms with what they were seeing. Though some of them knew something of the secret world, none of them had ever expect to see a giant humanoid figure, 2m tall and with a bizarre toothed tongue instead of a head. It attacked Sarah Walker as the rest of the agents set themselves up for battle.

Inside the chamber Jans Stoller continued his ritual, reading from the book in steady cadences as two of his Black Sun Novices supported him. The air above him in the chamber thickened and swirled, composed of a strange, viscous darkness that roiled and whispered in the language of ancient horrors. While he and two of his novices chanted, two others took cover behind pillars and opened fire on the agents. Private Gregg and Captain Swann ignored them, focusing their fire on the hideous servitor to try to stop it from killing Sarah. Meanwhile Sarah’s dog Crook attacked one of the novices, running into the ritual chamber and attempting to savage it so that it could not shoot her. Sven, meanwhile, realized the book was the centre of the ritual. He threw a grenade at the altar, blowing the book off the altar and injuring both the master and one of his novices. The other novice scrambled to grab the book, but Crook ran after him and grabbed his arm. Meanwhile in the antechamber the battle with the servitor continued – it ground down Sarah Walker with multiple injuries before Gregg and Swann were finally able to hurt it, and finally it went down.

In the main chamber the ritual continued, and Sven realized they might not be able to beat the master to the ritual if he did not take risks. Summoning all the power of his ancestors, and calling on dark secrets his comrades did not know he was aware of, he unleashed a wave of lightning that killed all the nazis in the room in a single, huge strike. Fell magics rippled out from him, but his fellow agents were not callow new-comers – they weathered the rage of the elder gods, ignored whispers of madness from outside of space and time, and reveled in the sudden victory his powerful magics had unleashed. Sven grabbed the book while Sarah and Captain Swan untied the civilians, and Private Gregg laid a 1.5 lb demolition charge on the altar. They fled the chamber before more Nazis could enter and tracked quickly back to the truck following the chalk marks they had left on the walls. As they emerged from the trapdoor at the dairy farm Gregg’s charge went off and the Chateau collapsed with a single, catastrophic rumble. The civilians they had freed dispersed into the night as the storm faded, and they drove out of the farm in their stolen truck, heading at full speed for the border.

Epilogue

They made it back to the frontline and crossed over as the sun rose on the 22nd May. The Black Sun force was almost completely destroyed by the collapse of the Chateau and, with no witnesses, it was assumed that an allied bomb had scored a lucky hit. M Section North traveled rapidly back to Paris and were evacuated to England, arriving in London on 24th to learn that the German generals had called a halt to the advance on Dunkirk. For a few days the entire German assault paused, and the British were able to consolidate a desperate plan to escape from France. Had the Nazis at that Chateau been planning to summon something dark and terrible that would turn the tide of war in their favour? Had the German advance been predicated on the presence of a dark god? If so, had M Section North bought the British two precious days with their actions? Or was it a coincidence, and Jans Stoller’s actions at the Chateau completely unrelated to the Blitzkrieg? The agents did not know, but they were sure their actions had mattered. A dark power had been rising in France, and they had stopped it. Whatever madness was rising among the Axis powers, from now on they would be there to fight it, as a raging war of extermination rolled over the world.


fn1: An unfortunate complication on their listening check means one of them – either Sarah or Dan – pushed the door in such a way that it would make this noise, offering them no opportunity to prepare themselves when they emerged.

fn2: This was my kindness, to ensure that the PCs wouldn’t have to kill the civilians if they used magic in the room. Aren’t I nice?

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

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 …

Next Page »