Monsters


Hugo Tuya’s guards have set off into the mountains as the month of Storm enters its last, tumultuous week. They are chasing the possible remnants of a deepfolk raiding party that they destroyed in the caves just outside of Estala, on the request of that town’s doughty Myrmidon. The roster for today’s session:

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

They decided to travel to the Observatory first, on the eastern face of the mountains, then take the high passes from the Observatory across the peaks to Cauldron Lake. The journey to the Observatory takes two days of carefully picking narrow paths through culverts and gullies, along switchbacks and sparsely-forested mountain faces, then into thickly forested sheltered canyons that are perfect ambush spots for raiding deepfolk. They traveled slowly and carefully along these usually-peaceful pathways, mindful of heavy rainclouds above and wary of the dripping stillness of the mountain pines. At the end of the day Itzel and Kyansei sought camp, but with little success: they passed a harsh night sleeping on rough stones in a windy rock outcrop, eating cold food with no fire for fear of being seen by any deepfolk scouts that might be about.

In the morning they were glad of their chilly fastness, though, when they descended the rockface to find the footprints of a large animal in the mud at its base. The creature must have been looking for them at night but failed to find the path, and after coursing the ground at their base in confusion wandered off. They were glad to have hidden, because each of its prints was easily larger than a bear’s, something like a huge cat with what looked like scales on the underside of its paws, and many wicked claws. Though they had been cold and damp, they had escaped a vicious fight they could ill afford to risk.

They ate another cold meal, decamped and continued climbing into the mountains. Around midday their path turned into a wider, heavily forested canyon, ideal for an ambush – and of course it was here that they were ambushed. A fusillade of arrows struck them from both sides of the road, striking Itzel down instantly, and as they set themselves for battle another huge Orc warrior came screaming out of the trees, barreled straight down into the path and slammed into Kyansei. Remembering their last encounter with these monsters, Kyansei, Quangbae joined Kyansei in battle immediately while Bao Tap tried to find the archers, and Calim frantically healed Itzel.

Fortunately this time they found the archers quickly, and Bao Tap was able to charge into the trees with his summoned monster to fight them. On the other side of the road Itzel, brought back to consciousness by Calm, used her magic to pick off archers, and Calim alternated between healing Kyansei and shooting archers. The archers were Grig, the small pale-skinned and large-eyed creatures they had slaughtered in the cave. They were good at hiding and shooting, but frail and easily downed. This time the numbers were in their favour, and they soon killed all the Grig and brought the Orc champion down, Bao Tap returning from killing the Grig to join the brutal butchery. Just like the last Orc, this thing had supernatural endurance, and long after even a wildling Berserker would have collapsed it kept fighting, hopelessly weak but refusing to give in. Finally Quangbae tore its arm off and it collapsed in a heap, snarling weakly as it died.

They had prevailed, but it was obvious now that the raiding party they had destroyed near Estala had been part of a manoeuvre, and there was more happening in the mountains. They turned their faces to the higher slopes of the mountains and pressed on. The observatory was up there somewhere in the high cold air, and they began to have a very bad feeling about what they would find on those stony heights …

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

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 …

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 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.

Big sister’s gonna get ya

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

The other games

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

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the escape room

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

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

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

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

About Mr. X

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

The card game options …

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


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

 

My appetite’s unchanged
Sink into dream; these enchanted depths
The realm of muted wisdom
Slowly descend; trust ignites the darkness
And bliss is this drowning moment
Believe me I am sorry
To charm with bitter eyes; mesmerizing
Careless magic turns upon itself, washed down in ritual

Our heroes return, their souls blackened, from explorations of ancient ruins on the surface of Kua. Dissent has riven their group, as Siladan knows that Adam and Al Hamra found something important but will not share their information with the rest of the group. They sell the sugar globes they found, but money is becoming pressing; in three weeks their next payment on the Beast of Burden comes due, and although they have the funds to cover it they know that a single bad experience in space will force them into debt. They need to rest, and they need to make money.

Siladan wanted to return to Kua and examine the cadaver clock. He confronted Al Hamra about it, but Al Hamra made the reasonable point that the clock had lain undisturbed for 200 years and probably was not going to be discovered again any time soon; before they examined it in more detail they needed to know more about how these things work, and find out what risks they might be taking. In any case, they needed money; so Siladan returned to the libraries on Coriolis to research a book they had found, Philonimus Guide to the Reach, which puported to hold the secret to treasures in the Rimward Reach.

The Rimward Reach is a thin and widely dispersed asteroid belt in the outer reaches of the Kua system, which is distinguished as a graveyard for Firstcome ships. No one knows how they were destroyed or how they ended up there, but it is well understood that these ships are haunted by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. Brave explorers occasionally attempt to loot these ships, but the effort is dangerous: many evil creatures hide in the wrecks of the ships, and the salvage work is grim and deadly. Philonimus’ Guide supposedly contained clues to the location of wrecks that could be looted, and to this end Siladan bent his research skills to attempting to find a safe site for exploration.

He soon discovered that Philonimus had compiled his guide by visiting asylums for the insane in various systems, and interviewing old pilots who had been committed after the pressures of the dark became too much. Mostly his stories were fever dreams, hallucinations or out-and-out lies by people who had never been pilots, and Siladan slowly lost patience with the book until he was on the verge of quitting, sure that it was just a collection of mad dreams. But in a chapter entitled the Tower he found reference to a dead ship, floating in space between the asteroid belt and the Reach, unhaunted, that could be found by careful explorers who were willing to “thread” an asteroid cluster whose particular description made it identifiable. The chapter referenced the Eye of Anuba, a collection of asteroids in a strange orbit just beyond the asteroid belt, which were constantly clashing and highly mobile, in some kind of weird gravitational distortion. This dead ship apparently lay somewhere beyond the Eye of Anuba, and if one flew a direct course from Kua to the Eye, threaded it carefully and returned to a direct line from Kua, with good sensor work one could find the ship.

The Eye of Anuba would take a week to reach on the Beast of Burden. They decided to try it.

Running Dark

They left as soon as Siladan had confirmed the details, heading on a straight line from Kua to the asteroid belt. They passed the asteroid belt uneventfully after 6 days and headed into the open space towards the Eye of Anuba, intending to cut as close as was safe to the small and deadly cluster, loop over it, and then return strictly to the line of their travel. Everyone knows that entering the Eye of Anuba is fatal, but it is relatively safe with modern ship’s computers to pass nearby, though no sane captain would ever have reason to – it was possible that a ship could float in the dark just beyond the Eye and be undetected for a thousand years. Thinking of the loot, they cut their course near the Eye, diverging slowly from a straight line through its meteoric heart and intending to bounce near it and over the other side.

It was then that Siladan detected the ship: a large vessel running dark, transponder off, heading straight towards the Eye of Anuba.

He alerted the captain. A full sensor scan revealed all the details of the ship: it was the Orun II, an ice-hauler out of Coriolis, owned by a legitimate company called Melem Gessura. The ship has a well-documented log of missions to and from the asteroid belt stretching back many years, no serious legal disputes, and all the evidence suggests it is a serious and well-respected old ice-hauler with no secrets. Yet here it was, running dark in the space beyond the asteroid belt, heading straight for the Eye of Anuba and certain destruction.

The captain hailed it, but received no response. He hailed it twice more and received no response. Strictly speaking – legally speaking – they had received no distress call and could proceed on their mission without being in the wrong. Who were they to judge if a ship’s crew had decided to ignore outsiders and head to certain death? But something about this was wrong. They decided to investigate. They changed course and headed for the ship.

As they neared the rear of the ship Al Hamra again attempted to hail it, and again received no response. However, for the briefest of moments they all saw a flash of light from the stern, a brief sequence of brilliant flashes that was obviously intended to be a distress signal. Someone without comms was trying to get their attention. They decided to dock.

Saqr took the Beast of Burden in to the stern, and they extended their docking bay to one of the stern airlocks. While they docked Reiko Ando took the fighter out of their aft hangar and ran a single circuit around the ship. She confirmed by visual inspection that the ship was undamaged, but the airlocks near the bow had been disabled and the bridge appeared to be powered down. Obviously something was going on inside, and they needed to investigate. They docked, and some of the team moved into the ship:

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

Saqr and Oliver Greenstar stayed on board to monitor the situation and protect the ship, and the rest of the team entered the ship.

Ancient Warriors

They emerged into a large chamber, clearly an access hall, with large doors sealing it off from the engineering section. Adam set up an overwatch point at the airlock while Dr. Delecta tried to get her motion sensor working. It worked briefly, points of light indicating that there was movement in the room beyond the door and somewhere above them and to their right; and also movement to their left, heading rapidly towards them. Before she could give a proper warning a beast emerged from the shadows and attacked them, striking at Adam with a mercurium sword. It was fast, large and very very dangerous, and before they could act properly it had torn deep cuts in Adam’s chest and struck Al Hamra with its claws, a strange and otherworldly cold sinking through his chest and draining his will to live. Stunned, he fell back in terror and it was left to the rest of the group to bludgeon and shoot it to death. Finally the strange creature was dead, but not before it had nearly killed both Adam and Al Hamra. It was some kind of semi-human guardian, armed with a mercurium sword and wearing strange ritual body armour that Siladan dated to at least 300 years old. Its face had been expressionless all through the battle, like they were fighting an animated doll. But it was flesh and blood – so much blood! – and its armour obviously significant. What was it?

Adam stripped its armour as Reiko Ando struggled with the motion detector and got it working, revealing again that someone was moving around in bulkheads above them. Adam sprang up into the bulkhead and managed to grab a girl hiding in the shadows, dragging her down into the light to talk.

She was happy to talk, and begged them for help. Her name was Ayda Leon and she was the deckhand on this ship. They had been on a standard mission transporting ice from the asteroid belt to Kua, but one of their crew had noticed on routine inspection that one of the ice blocks held four stasis chambers inside it. They dug out the stasis chambers and put them in the forward observatory, but their captain had opened one, and been possessed by a djinn. After the possession it freed the creatures in the other chambers, possessed them, and started killing the crew. She had fled into the maintenance ducts, and the engineer Atallah Ard had fled to the engineering rooms. Before he fled, though, he took control of the ship, turned it to the Eye of Anubar, and set it to full power. Now he had locked himself in the machine halls, shut off power to the bridge, and was waiting to die. Another member of their crew, Kolb Zir, had locked himself in the workshop ‘midships, and had jammed the elevator to the bow. She could not convince Atallah to turn off the engines and without access to the bridge they could not turn the ship around or change its course, so they were doomed unless they could kill the djinn.

She rolled up her sleeves, revealing arms covered in tattoos made to look like henna patterns, and asked the characters, “Are you gonna help me? Or am I gonna die out here in the Dark?”

They had no choice but to help. They banged on the door of the machine hall and eventually convinced the engineer Atallah to let them in. As Aydah had said, there was no way for him to turn the ship around, and even if he turned off the engines they would still fly into the Eye of Anuba eventually. Atallah did not care: he was willing to die to take the djinn to hell with him. But they were not, and they were not willing to let Kolb Zir die either.

Adam stood up, blood smeared on his stolen ancient armour, and Al Hamra, shivering and cold and terrified by his near death, stepped forward, steadying himself on a piece of warm machinery as he faced his crew. They would rescue Kolb, and find a way to turn this ship around. Here they could do good deeds, and get good rewards. It was a good day.

All they had to do was kill a djinn and its ancient bodyguards.

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

The roster for today’s mission:

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

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

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

darkbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What dark god could a Mystic become?


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

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

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

The cast for this session:

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

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

The hollow rock

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

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

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

Found footage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things of stone and wood

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

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

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

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

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

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

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

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

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

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

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

ZK: Describe it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

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

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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