Lost Mine of Phandelver Episode 10 – The Pre-Finale

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Certain parts of last night’s session took slightly longer than anticipated, so unfortunately we didn’t have the finale that I was hoping for. However, a lot of fun was still had! Last time, Trev, Darryl and their three hangers-on descended into the depths of the Forge of Spells… who knows what they’ll find?

In Attendance: Loki Fastfoot (Darryl), Grimdark Stonelock (Trev)

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And obviously myself, the DM.

The elevator touches bottom, and the group advance down a long stone corridor. Grimdark notices that the walls are carved with various symbols and letter. Trev leaps at a chance to finally use his character’s stonecunning ability, and one History check later, I give him the full read-through of Phandelver’s Pact (which I last gave to the group waaaay back in one of our first few sessions); dwarfs and gnomes dig a mine, bring in human wizards who set up a forge to make magic items, everything’s sunshine and rainbows for a while until orcs invade and ruin everything… you know how it goes.

They follow the corridor and come out into a huge cavern set with long banquet tables and strewn with dwarf and orc corpses. There’s raised ledges at either end of the room, and two doors out. One is blocked up with rubble, while the other seems fine. Grimdark pays his respects to the fallen while Loki heads off to check the dark corners of the room in case there are any nasty surprises.

I mean, there are, obviously.

David-Griffith-Ghoul

Six ghouls are hanging out and waiting to pounce on something dumb enough to wander through. Thankfully Loki hears their scuttling and shouts out a warning just before the ghouls attack. Loki, Grimdark and Pyke start getting stuck in while Helga and Droop hang back and start pew-pew-pewing (I have the guys make a Wisdom saving throw for Droop to resist using his newly acquired wand of magic missiles. It goes about as well as expected.)

Loki takes care of one ghoul (Darryl kicks out an average of 15-18 damage with a sneak attack rapier) and Pyke takes the head off another, but they take some wounds back; they easily shrug off the paralysing effect of the ghoul’s poison claws. Trev, on a roll from using stonecunning, uses another ability that he’s never had much chance to use; that classic D&D cleric trick, Turn Undead!

“The power of Dwarf-Christ compels you TO FUCK RIGHT OFF.”

5th edition Turn Undead is like its older 3rd edition brother; failed saving throws result in undead creatures running away scared. I think I’m in the minority that preferred 4th editions much simpler effect of radiant damage + push back + immobilise for a turn. I’ve also always found it weird that a clerics can’t turn other iconic “evil” monsters, like demons or devils. But I digress…

Three ghouls are turned and run off down the corridor, away from the angry drunk dwarf priest. I’m sure they won’t come back to be an inconvenience later! The group then easily finish off the last ghoul.

Rather than pursue the fleeing ghouls, they continue through the unblocked entrance and come out into the Forge’s old smelting chamber, complete with an unlit furnace, carts of raw minerals and ore, and a (currently dry) water channel for powering the bellows. Oh, and more corpses.

Once again, some of the exits from the room are blocked; the north exit is blocked with rubble, but the exit to the west instead has a proper constructed spiked wooden barricade; clearly the Black Spider wants to keep the undead out.

There’s also a door to the east which is unblocked, so with limited options, the group go exploring and find that at the end of the hallway is a small private chamber, the door hanging off its hinges. They go in, and see that all the furniture has been scorched and thrown around, as if caught in an explosion. Loki notices the blackened iron chest against the wall though, and as he goes to open it, a shadowy figure rises from the floor…

Open-grave-wraith

EXPECTO PATRO- oh, sorry, wrong franchise.

The wraith shrieks at them to leave at once. The wraith is the shade of Mormesk, a human wizard that died defending the Forge from the original orc invasion, and his hatred has kept him bound to the world of the living. Grimdark, as the appointed paranormal liaison, does the talking and finds out that Mormesk is directing the undead in the Forge against the “elven intruder” who would “steal that which is mine.” Things aren’t going too well though, as the Black Spider’s henchmen have put up barricades to keep out the undead, and Mormesk himself cannot venture far from the chambers where he perished.

Grimdark proposes an alliance of sorts with the wraith, appealing to its desire for vengeance, and while it’s enough to make Mormesk pause for thought, ultimately it expects betrayal from the “feeble fleshlings” and demands that they leave the Forge before they “incur my ire”.

Not willing to get into a fight with a goddamned Nazgul, the group make a dignified retreat to the smelting chamber and decide to scale the barricade and take their chances with whatever lies beyond. They scramble over and start prowling down the corridor when the door at the far end opens, and they hear the grumbling of bugbears.

Trev decides to be sneaky and decides to use thaumaturgy to create a noise to distract the bugbears so that the group can get the drop on them. I ask him what noise he wants to simulate, and he goes with “ominous whispers”, a suggestion from the rulebook. This doesn’t have the intended effect however, as the bugbears think that the ominous whispers are Mormesk the wraith! Instead they run back into the room they came from and lock the heavy iron door, with alarmed cries of “let da boss know!”.

With the door locked fast, and no way of breaking it down, Trev and Darryl feel out of options, until I throw them a bone and remind them of the dry water channel in the smelting chamber as an alternative way forward. They go back over the barricade and start heading for the dry water channel, which has been overlooked by the Black Spider’s goons and which does indeed run straight through the room. It would be a tight squeeze, but they could get through.

Before they can start greasing up though, Mormesk’s voice fills the room.

Open-grave-wraith

I commanded that you leave! You have not done so, so now you will perish and be added to the ranks of my legions!”

And some of the corpses in the chamber start to rise as Mormesk materialises in the air…

This fight took the rest of the evening. The group had to deal with nine zombies – which, while not strong, are numerous and always surprise us as to how tough they are (fairly chunky HP and an ability that lets them stay at 1 HP with a successful saving throw as long as they aren’t destroyed by a critical hit or radiant damage), and for giggles I had the three runaway ghouls from earlier show up and see what all the fuss was about.

Grimdark threw down a bless on himself, Loki, Pyke and Helga, and used Turn Undead asap. Because I couldn’t be bothered to track which zombies were turned or not, I simply had them be destroyed on a failed save; a hint of what Trev could expect upon levelling up. Three zombies were instantly poofed; I let them use Mormesk’s ability scores to make the save as he was, y’know, right there commanding them. Mormesk failed his save though, and fled, shrieking and howling. Good thing too, because the fight was tough enough without a mad wraith flying around draining the life out of everyone.

Droop went down early to a zombie’s fists, then Pyke got dragged down, but Grimdark got them both back on their feet with an enhanced healing word. Helga continued her established tradition of doing very little aside from throw out the odd ray of frost and a single lacklustre burning hands. Mostly she was there to set up advantage for Loki, who was running around like a toddler who’s had too much sugar, stabbing and slashing like a little whirlwind of murder; at one point he scampered up onto the furnace then immediately threw himself off to gank an unaware ghoul with a shriek of “death from above!”. Grimdark got KO’d, but Loki was there to immediately force a healing potion down his throat, and then resumed his stabby-slashy.

Eventually the group triumphed, but it had been a hard fight; they were all battered and bloody and nearly all their resources had been spent. I was tempted to throw Mormesk at them, but instead I had the wraith let loose with a deafening howl of butthurt and ragequit that filled the cavern.

The evening was drawing to a close, so rather than press on, I let Trev and Darryl retreat to the banquet hall (now ghoul-free), and after clearing the corpses (and Loki taking a ghoul ear), they settled down for an uneasy respite to gather their strength for the final confrontation against the Black Spider, who, like the dungeon, has undergone a few modifications as well…

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Though of course there isn’t a subway in the Forge of Spells.

Level Up! More HP! Everyone’s proficiency bonus goes up to +3, Loki’s sneak attack gets even better and he gains uncanny dodge, and Grimdark gets access to 3rd-level spells.

Ongoing Quests: Find the Forge of Spells and eliminate the Black Spider.

Ears Collected: Ghoul.

Number of Times Grimdark, the super-tough well-armoured dwarf cleric, KO’d: 3

Number of Times Loki, the weedy halfling thief, KO’d: 0

Next Monday is a bank holiday in the UK and we’re all off doing different things, but we’ll be picking up in a few weeks, when we will definitely be having the finale of our time in Phandelver!

Gareth

Lost Mine of Phandelver Episode 9 – Not Appropriate For Miners

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Aw yeah, we’re back! The vinyl map has been unrolled, the rulebooks marked with sticky notes, the character sheets frantically dug out of a desk drawer, and the dice lovingly polished and consecrated in the name of the Polyhedronae, the Arbiters of Fate.

We’re moving forward without Joe and Liam, as their current schedules are pretty crammed (and Joe’s character died). This means the group is without their beefy fighter and arcane support, but with only a few more sessions until completion of the Phandelver, Trev and Darryl will just have to soldier on.

In Attendance: Loki Fastfoot (Darryl), Grimdark Stonelock (Trev)

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And obviously myself, the DM.

After returning to Phandalin and discovering that Sildar, Iarno, and Gundren have all been murdered (and the elven barmaid Aelya missing), Grimdark and Loki sit in their pub, Barry’s Barrel Room, planning their next move. Mouse meanwhile packs his bags and scarpers back to the temple of Oghma back in Neverwinter. I mean, people have died, for fuck’s sake. Who knows who could be next!

elf mage

“Cowards Live Longer.” – Silverfrost family motto.

With an assault on Wave Echo Cave coming up, I throw Trev and Darryl a bone and give them some henchmen to help them out, in the form of their more martially-minded bar staff…

Eats lightning and craps thunder.

 (Ex)-Sergeant Pyke, the only surviving mercenary from the group’s adventure in Leilon who was taken on as the pub’s bouncer. He’s wielding the greatsword that Barry once owned and sold waaaay back when the group first went shopping in Phandalin.

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Helga, the arcane apprentice who was hired as head chef. Prestidigitation is a hell of a convenience in the kitchen. Luckily she also knows a few other spells.

Goblin-Piker

And Droop, the little goblin who stuck around once he was given a bed and a job. He has a pokey stick and a burning urge to avenge Barry.

This is the first  adventure from the book that I’ve had to seriously tweak. I mean, look at this map. Look at it.

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That’s a beast. I split the map into two halves (and thus two sessions), and made a few of my own adjustments. This session would be exploring the mines and searching for the way down into the Forge of Spells and the final encounter with the nefarious Black Spider.

Loki and Grimdark, armed with the map to Wave Echo Cave (a long-lost location that is apparently only a few miles from the town… apparently no-one was too concerned about actually finding it again) ride there, their three meat shields brave companions in tow. They enter the pitch-black mine, and in the entrance find the base camp that Gundren and his brothers had set up when they were exploring. Among the general clutter of the campsite, they find the body of Tharden, one of the three dwarf brothers. Grimdark mourns him, and says the appropriate rites over his body. Loki hungrily eyes one of the ears for his necklace. I’m starting to think that Darryl is getting a little too carried away with this whole “psycho halfling with a mutilation fetish” thing.

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“What? I don’t have a dwarf ear yet!”

Two tunnels branch away from the entrance; one leads north, and slopes downwards, going deeper into the mine. The other branches off to the east. Deciding to clear the level they’re on first before descending further, Grimdark leads the group down the east tunnel, and finds that there are a load of empty store-rooms, barracks, and an assayer’s office; clearly where the mine’s workforce slept and ate.

As they explore the kitchens, Grimdark’s light briefly illuminates a pale, scrawny humanoid who shrieks at them and scuttles through the passageway into the mess hall. The group follow, and find a gang of ghouls, a classic D&D monster for challenging adventurers who are slightly more experienced. Well, that’s what I’d hoped. Not only did the entire group manage to act before the ghouls, but my rolling was absolute garbage; the most the ghouls managed to achieve was scratching Loki and Pyke a little bit before they were stomped flat.

With the living quarters cleared (and a little bit of loot found), the group descended into the labyrinthine tunnels.

Now for a bit of a DMing aside; I’ve tried to run mazes and labyrinths in games before, and it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve tried letting players mapping it out as they go, text-based adventure style (“you walk 50 feet and approach a T-junction, exits are south, east, and west, which way do you go?”, etc), which is dull and repetitive. I’ve tried drawing out the entire map and blocking parts of it out and revealing it as players advance, which requires a lot of prep. So I went for something a bit more abstract.

I had no large map but instead had four “locations” within the tunnels; three dead-end caverns, and the fungus cavern with the continuing path. I randomly numbered these 1, 2, 3, and 4. When the group were in the tunnels, I had them take Survival skill checks. If they passed, they could choose to explore a cavern of their choice. If they failed the test, I would send them to a random cavern, but subsequent Survival checks to find their way would be easier.

It worked okay; Trev actually nailed every Survival check required (makes sense for a dwarf to know his way around underground) and they easily cleared the maze, diverting to one of the caverns to grab some loot in the form of a wand of magic missiles which they gave to the person in the group most deserving of it.

Goblin-Piker

“MAGIC MAGIC MAGIC!!!”

Yeah.

They advance into the glowing fungus cavern. Loki identifies the fungus as poisonous, and warns them not to touch it, as it could release toxic spores. Everyone agrees to be careful, and they start walking through carefully. Unfortunately, they’re too preoccupied in being careful, they don’t notice the pack of bloodthirsty stirges descending on them from the cave roof until it’s too late!

Stirges are the unholy lovechild of a mosquito and one of the Skeksi from The Dark Crystal, and are about the size of a large seagull. They are pests, and individually not too dangerous. Ten of them though…

Stirge-BrynnMetheney

Appearing in your nightmares tonight.

They mob the group; three attach to Grimdark, two on Loki, two on Pyke, and one on Droop. We all quickly learned that stirges are fairly vicious; they only have 2 hp, so you could look at one funny at it could die, but each turn they’re attached to a creature, they drain it for 5 hp (on top of the damage they did to actually sink their proboscis in). Droop goes down and starts dying, though Grimdark stabilises him. Loki goes slash-happy and acts as the prime stirge exterminator, hacking them off his comrades. In hindsight, I really wish I’d imposed disadvantage on his attack rolls, or have him risk hitting his ally if he missed the stirge. Ah well, this whole evening was pretty much the set-up for Hindsight: The Movie, starring Every Person Who’s DM’ed Ever.

By the time the stirge have escaped or been killed (and Loki has carved off a dripping proboscis), the group is battered and bloody. Just as I’m thinking I’ve finally got them on the back foot, they cheerfully announce they’re going to cross six healing potions off their stash, and after some good rolls, they’re pretty much back up to full health. I mean, whatever, that’s fine.

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Tsundere & Dragons.

Following the tunnel round, they come across a cavern with a deep, dark pool. Grimdark senses some sort of power coming the depths, and remembers (i.e. is reminded by me) about the legend of Lightbringer, the incredibly shittily-named holy magic mace lost for centuries blah blah. Loki dives into the pool (I make him take a Constitution save to avoid taking some cold damage) and finds the mace at the bottom, but he can’t shift it. Yep, it’s basically Mjolnir. Only the worthy can lift it, etc, and funnily enough a halfling thief who mutilates the corpses of his enemies to fashion jewelry out of their body parts is pretty fucking low on the sliding scale of “worthy”. With a long-suffering sigh, Grimdark strips off his armour and jumps in.

At that moment, the group hear voices approaching down the tunnel. They hide as a pair of the Black Spider’s hobgoblin goons walk through on patrol. Loki scuttles above the cave mouth, and Assassin Creeds them as they walk underneath him. Grimdark emerges from the pool with a new magic weapon and wonders what he missed. After Helga dries him off with prestidigitation, they follow the hobgoblin’s patrol route back to a large cavern. At the back, they can see a winch-powered elevator leading deeper into the mine, and presumably to the Forge of Spells. However standing in their way are a squad of hobgoblins and a spectator, a sub-species of beholder.

spectator

D&D really likes their eye-monsters, huh?

 

Sooo… I’d rather not talk about this “fight”. I made some dumb mistakes and had grossly overestimated how much of a challenge the hobgoblins would provide. Highlights, if they could be called that, included the spectator being killed before it had even acted, and Droop going mad with his wand of magic missiles and killing off two of the hobs himself.

What I’d intended to be a fairly challenging final fight of the evening was little more than a  speed-bump, and it left me grouchy and annoyed at myself; that’s the danger of not DMing for a while, it takes a while to get back into the mindset. I was getting rules wrong, not describing stuff well… bleh. Plus we all agreed it felt weird to be continuing the adventure without Joe and Liam, but one more session and we can close the book on Phandelver!

Ongoing Quests: Find the Forge of Spells and eliminate the Black Spider.

“Ears” Collected: Stirge proboscis, spectator eye-stalk.

Genuinely Challenging Encounters: 0.5, and that’s only because of the stirges got lucky. My dice rolls were garbage all night.

Loki, Grimdark and the three others boarded the elevator and descended into the depths, to the Forge of Spells. Hopefully there’ll be something more challenging down there.

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Because Loki doesn’t have an elf ear yet.

 

– Gareth

 

 

 

 

 

Stories From Yesteryear: Killing Time

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This is a story I wrote about five years ago, back when a group of friends and I had a weekly short-story writing club. I like a bit of in media res.

 

Killing Time

Now.

The knife makes only the smallest of splashes as it is condemned to the bottom of the river, to rust and fade away with the cruel march of years.

She can hear sirens. Time’s run out.

Ten minutes ago.

Oh glory, what has she done? Did she want this? Why the hell did she want this?

The clock strikes ten.

Her brain screams at her, run, run! She doesn’t bother doing anything with the body; her instincts are just feeding her snippets of useless trivia gleaned from TV murder-mysteries. Get rid of the weapon. Get rid of that and they’ll never find you.

She has to hurry. The neighbours will have heard. The clock is ticking, but the river is near.

Two weeks ago.

He hasn’t even bothered to call her with an excuse. He’s not even trying any more. She knows that he’s probably cheating on her, but she can’t pluck up the confidence to confront him about it. She decides it would not only be cliche of her to think of men as unreliable, but incorrect as well. Her father was reliable. She has inherited his characteristics as assuredly as his fondness for the clocks.

She was meant to going out this evening with him. But as he is not doubt fucking some slutty temp from his office, she stays at work, in the back room of the jewellers, and disassembles an old Waltham pocket watch in the same casual, relaxed manner that a bored man would do the morning paper’s Sudoku puzzle. She then spends the better part of an hour putting it back together, meshing gleaming gears with buck-toothed cogs to make a tiny mechanism that awes her with its beauty and intricacy.

Its a game her father taught her when she was younger, when she started showing an interest in his work.

Her father; reliable, brilliant, precise. Everything he isn’t.

Twelve minutes ago.

The blood is everywhere, on her hands, her arms, her face, the carpet.

Ten days ago.

She tried to confront him, to no avail. He threw a lot of bullshit back at her; how could she accuse him of cheating, she was just being paranoid, Tracey (or was it Tara?) from the office was just a friend… the excuses came with such predictable frequency, she could’ve set her watch to them; her real watch, not the vile neon pink Fossil he bought her a few months ago (“I thought you liked clocks and shit?”).

She was building up the courage to say something to him, but he got up and left her in mid-sentence.

Twenty minutes ago.

She rings the doorbell. She wonders for the fiftieth time if this is the right thing to do. She seemed so convinced, so sure of herself a few hours ago. Is she ready for this?

Of course she is. It’s the right thing to do, she tells herself. She just needs to talk to him properly, straighten some things out, and then end it. It’s time for closure.

Three days ago.

She saw them together this evening. She was walking home from another late night at the shop, and saw him and the girl get out of the taxi outside the block of flats and go inside together. His hands were all over her.

That night, at home, she methodically dismantles an old cuckoo clock her grandfather once owned, though when it comes to it, she can’t see the point in reassembling it. The pile of engraved wood gets shovelled into the bin, and she cries herself to sleep.

An hour and a half ago.

She hangs up. He’s at home, and he’s prepared to talk to her, though he doesn’t make it a secret that he’d rather do anything but. He has no idea what she’s got in store for him.

Twenty-six hours ago.

The call finally comes, and it happens over the phone. It’s nasty, and it’s bitter. It’s probably the most wretched conversation she’s ever had. These past few weeks, she’s stopped loving him, but it doesn’t make the inevitable any less gut-wrenching.

He probably thinks he’s redeeming himself by coming clean like this. It sounds like he takes some satisfaction when he tells her exactly how long he’s been seeing Tanya (or was it Tracey?), when he realised he didn’t love her anymore. He tries to get sympathy by whining how weak he was, and how it was killing him inside to live the secret… to be honest, she tuned out most of it. More of his lies, more of his bullshit.

Afterwards, she sits on the carpet in the living room, surrounded by the mechanical components of all the timepieces she has dismantled in an attempt to take her mind off things. But she doesn’t care about her father’s old game now.

She only cares about the silver-cold metal of the knife in her hand, reliable and precise in a way that even the most tightly-wound watch can’t be. She’s found her confidence.

Ten years later.

This place and its four blank grey walls; what have they done to her? Where in this prison is the thief that has stolen all that time from her?

She tries not to remember the evenings she spent with screwdriver and tweezers, reassembling shining brass and copper treasures; the memory is too painful, and it makes her ache. She hasn’t touched a real watch or clock in ten years. Ten long, awful years with crass digital analogue. Where’s the fucking beauty in that?

Thirteen minutes ago.

The slap leaves her face red-raw and numb. She doesn’t hear the ugly words shouted at her. She reels, hurt and dazed.

Her hand goes into her pocket.

Time stops. It’s self-defence, she tells herself. He’s mad. Crazy. Needs to be stopped.

Time snaps back. The seconds flash in fast and sharp and vivid like a rain of blades. He sees the knife in her hand.

It’s time.

Gareth

Sunday Story Time: The Specimen

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Theresa ended the call, and slid her phone back into her lab coat pocket.

“Everything okay?” Holly asked. They threw away their empty paper cups of coffee and walked out of the break room.

“It’s fine,” Theresa said with a shrug. “Nathan just wanted to know when I’d be getting home.”

Holly giggled. “Well, he can’t have his cake until you get back. He’s… what? Seven now?”

“Yep.”

Holly smiled.

“Seven. That’s such a nice age.”

“Compared to when he was three, definitely.”

The walk to the lab took them ten minutes of keycard swipes, private elevators, and identity checks. Theresa had known some of the guards at the security station for years, but each time they requested her ID card, scanned it for authenticity, locked away her personal belongings in a safe, and asked her to provide the two daily passwords. It was tedious, but necessary. They’d been lax on security before, and it had cost them.

They came to the tinted-glass doors of the lab.

“Are you ready for this?” asked Theresa.

The younger woman swallowed hard. She’d never looked as young and as nervous to Theresa as she did then.

“I think so, Doctor Morris,” she said hesitantly. “But that thing… it frightens me.”

“Fear’s a luxury we can’t afford here,” said Theresa. “It wants us to be afraid of it. Don’t give it what it wants.”

Theresa swiped her keycard at the lab door’s scanner and punched in the security code. The tinted-glass door slid back with a smooth electric purr, and they walked in.

To call the room a lab was probably generous. It was a wide open space, with various items of scientific equipment at the edges of the room. There were four other scientists in the room, adjusting settings on machines, or analysing data.

There was a fifth creature in the room, and although it looked like a person, it certainly wasn’t one. It was restrained, spread-eagled, to a vertical slab. Each time Theresa saw it, she instinctively thought of a pinned butterfly in a display case.

“Subject C77F,” said Theresa, not as a greeting but more of a demand that it pay attention.

The creature’s head had been slumped down in its chest. It slowly looked up at Theresa with large, bright eyes that had become too hurt and too weary to play host to hate.

“My name is Leafwhistle,” it wheezed.

“I’ve told you before,” said Theresa, “the Auspex Group does not recognise or acknowledge the name that your kind use to identify you. You are Subject C77F. You are an Intruder, Titania class.”

The creature’s head dropped again, and it sobbed. Theresa heard Holly make a small, distressed gasp, and she herself felt a small stir of emotion at the sound of the creature’s misery, but she quashed it.

She had to admit, it was hard to remain unsympathetic. The Titanians were good at masquerading as their prey, skilled at wearing their masks of false humanity.

Subject C77F resembled a young teenage girl in many ways; one who was still stuck in scrawny, awkward adolescent limbo, but the resemblance was there, and it was uncanny. Its long hair had been highlighter-pen-green, but they’d shaved it bald since they’d caught it.

They’d not only shaved it; they’d stripped it, plucked off its wings, scrubbed its flesh sterile-raw with chlorine soap, bound it at the ankles and wrists with iron manacles, and surrounded the slab to which it was pinned with a ring of salt and woven red verbena and St John’s wort. The Intruders had such bizarre vulnerabilities; it only served as a reminder to how unnatural they were.

They had other, more mundane vulnerabilities too. Subject C77F’s pale skin was stained with bruises, scabbed cuts, and the marks of electrical burns.

“Look at me,” said Theresa.

Subject C77F did so, and again Theresa had to stamp down on her nascent sense of sympathy. It wasn’t a girl. It wasn’t human. It was a monster.

“Where were you taking those children?” Theresa asked.

Subject C77F breathed deeply and looked away.

“Someplace where they would’ve been happy,” it whispered.

“And where’s that? Your domain?”

Subject C77F shook its head weakly.

“Not my domain. The Queen’s.”

Theresa turned to Holly.

“Holly?”

Holly had been lost in thought. It was easy to become enchanted by a Titanian, even one as broken and pathetic as this one. She snapped out of it with a shake of her head.

“Sorry Doctor.”

“Pop quiz. Who’s the Queen?”

Holly fumbled with the tablet in her hands, swiping through archive documents until she found what she was looking for.

“The Malefic Entity known as Queen Mab,” she said. “Also known as the Queen of Stars and Night, the Dark Fairy Mother, the Gluttonwitch, the…”

“Thank you Holly.”

Theresa turned her attention back to Subject C77F.

“Your queen’s domain then. That’s where you were taking them.”

It nodded.

“What were you going to do to them?”

It didn’t answer. Theresa sighed impatiently, and took a small iron cross out of her lab coat pocket. She stepped into the ring of salt and flowers, and pressed it to the creature’s bare chest. It shrieked in pain, and thrashed in its restraints.

When Theresa took the cross away, there was an angry red weal on Subject C77F’s pale skin.

“What were you going to do them?” Theresa repeated when the screams had stopped.

“Their hopes, their dreams, their joys…” it murmured.

“You were going to take their souls.”

Subject C77F nodded.

“Why?”

The Titanian ran a thin, vividly pink tongue over its scabbed lips.

“We cannot live without them,” it said at last. “The Secret City cannot exist without the joy we take from them.”

“Then maybe it shouldn’t exist at all,” snapped Theresa. “If abducting children is what it takes.”

“They would’ve been happy…” Subject C77F sobbed again.

“Before you drained them dry? Before you murdered them?” shouted Theresa. She wanted to hit it, to kill it, but instead she took a step back, outside the woven ring. She took a deep breath and tried to clear her head.

They’d caught the Titanian a few days ago. It had been masquerading as an assistant at a kid’s activity club. The Auspex team had been lucky to stop it, luckier even to capture it. Like all Intruders, the Titanians were easy to detain when you knew their weaknesses, but catching them in the first place was the tough thing.

Theresa couldn’t help but think of the kids they’d saved. They hadn’t understood what had happened. They’d cried as their young pretty leader was dragged away. The youngest had only been seven.

Theresa thought of her son, seven years old. She thought of the Titanians and their parasitic society, and all the children that had gone missing over the centuries, never to be found.

She took another deep breath, forcing herself to calm down.

Theresa was about to ask the creature another question when she heard a phone ringing. It took a few seconds for her to realise that it was her phone, the phone that she could’ve sworn that she’d left at the security station along with all her other personal belongings.

“Didn’t you-“ Holly started to say.

“I thought so too,” said Theresa, taking the phone out of her lab coat pocket. The screen blinked Unknown.

Theresa tapped the screen and put the phone to her ear. She walked over to the corner and turned her back to the room to have some privacy.

“Hello?”

No one responded to her. The line sounded bad, muffled and crackly.

“Hello?” she said again.

“Mummy?”

Her heart flash-froze in her chest.

“Nathan?” she said. “Nathan, is that you?”

“Mummy? They’re – ”

Her son’s voice stopped abruptly and was replaced with eerie high-pitched giggling. Then the line went dead.

Theresa whirled round and stormed across to Subject C77F. This time she hit it, a tightly-curled fist to the side of its face that snapped its head back.

“What have you done?” she screamed.

For the first time since Theresa had entered the room, Subject C77F smiled. The smile was a sick, ugly thing of sharp blood-stained teeth.

“Lost something?”

“You bitch!” yelled Theresa, drawing back her arm for another punch.

A hand snatched her wrist and stopped her.

Theresa turned, and saw that Holly had grabbed her. The other four scientists were standing behind her in a huddle.

“That’s enough of that, Dr Morris.”

“Holly, let me –“

The words died in her mouth when she looked – really looked – at her young assistant. She saw eyes too large and too bright and too full of mercurial wickedness to be human.

The Intruder that had called itself Holly stepped into the ring of woven flowers, and the remains of her disguise fell away like a curtain.

“Please,” Theresa sobbed. Terror leaked into her chest and down her spine like acid. The Intruder’s grip on her wrist was brutally strong. “My son…”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him,” said Holly. “He’ll be just fine. For a while.”

She leaned in so that she should whisper into Theresa’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelt like tropical flowers. “Besides, I thought that fear was a luxury that you couldn’t afford.”

“How long have you – “

Always.”

Holly flicked a glance to the other scientists, who stood dumb and glassy-eyed.

“Get my sister down. Now.”

The enchanted men and women undid Subject C77F’s restraints. It fell from the slab, its legs weak and shaky.

“Sister…” it wept.

“The Queen will decide what to do with you, you stupid little failure,” said Holly through a poisonous smile. Subject C77F wailed piteously.

“And as for you,” she said, looking at Theresa, still held firm in her grip. “You’re wrong about my kind, you know.”

She threw Theresa to the four other scientists, and before she could fight back, they’d strapped her to the slab.

“The joy of human children isn’t the only thing that let us thrive,” explained Holly. “The suffering of adults is just as valid. I’m sure you of all people will appreciate a scientific demonstration.”

She held out a hand, and one of the scientists placed a scalpel in it.

 

Gareth

 

Sci-Fi London 2015 Flash Fiction

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“Flash”, you perverts, not “slash”.

It’s that time of year again when Sci-Fi London hold their 48 hour contests; over the weekend, hundreds of budding film makers and writers have been working frantically, ready to submit their entries by tomorrow afternoon.

Since last year went quite well for me with my storyteller submission “Shift”, I thought I’d go ahead and enter again this year. In the flash fiction challenge, you’re given a title, a line of dialogue that has to be included, and a strict word limit of 1,500.

I’ve just submitted my entry; I honestly don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say this, but I found 48 hours to be surplus to requirements to write 1,500 words (it was the same last year; I spent at most six hours writing, recording, uploading and editing Shift). I smashed my entry out in about three hours, and I’ve spent an hour tonight tidying it up before submitting it. Time will tell if I should’ve used the extra time available to me.

For giggles, here’s my entry, “Act of Kindness.” My line of dialogue was “it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then.”

 

Act of Kindness

Mercy is the greatest blasphemy that we commit. I mean this in its most literal, theological sense. I am not saying that mercy is a sin in the way that murder or theft is; I am saying that mercy is a blasphemy. It is going against the will of a higher power. An act of mercy is an act of supreme arrogance. It is you taking destiny into your own hands. It is you declaring that you have the answers and the solutions to another’s circumstances. It is you taking responsibility from another.

Some say that mercy is a weakness. They are wrong. They are so hopelessly wrong. Mercy is hubris, at most. In my experience, it takes the most resolute to show compassion, to cast aside their own selfishness and shoulder the woes and burdens of another. It destroys them though. It always does. Empathy, benevolence, call it what you will. It is the most cruel poison.

There is a common saying; to “kill with kindness”. It’s so very apt. We talk about mercy when we end the lives those who are suffering, to “put them out of their misery”. We talk about it as we take what we want from others, as we tell them “it’s for your own good”.

Mercy is a way of declaring yourself to be a god. An all-knowing, all-powerful creator, who can single-handedly make the world a better place. That is the blasphemy.

You may laugh at this, and call me jaded and cynical. Perhaps I am guilty of those things. I don’t think it matters any more.

Mercy is a blasphemy. By definition, blasphemy is not a sin, as I have said.

Except now.

Except for today, when I have sinned by showing mercy.

 

 

“Seal it!” I shouted at Beledae as the door slunked closed behind us.

“That won’t-” she started to say.

“Seal it anyway! Lock it down! Lock it all down!”

She started fumbling with the console by the door. Her hands were shaking so much that she could barely type.

The others were leaning against the walls, breathing hard. Some were sobbing.

I had a gun in my hand. I hadn’t even had a chance to use it before…

“What now?” Finnes yelled in my face. His lab coat was dappled with blood splashes. “There’s no way out.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said, trying to keep calm. “This is just a temporary setback.”

“A temporary… they’re dead! Didn’t you see-”

“Of course I did. But it’ll be fine.”

Finnes swore and turned away from me.

“Any luck?” I asked Beledae.

She shook her head. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at the tight reels of data cascading down the console screen. It didn’t make for encouraging reading.

“I’m locked out,” she mumbled. “I can’t… we can’t…”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away.

“It’s okay,” I said, keeping my voice low.

“How can you say that?” she whispered. “This is… this was you…”

“I’ll fix this. Okay? I’ll fix it. Let me try.”

I gently moved her aside and started tapping at the console’s lightboard. As the project leader, I knew codes that not even Finnes or Dvoban had access to.

I tried everything. I wracked my mind for every override and countermeasure I knew. It was like spitting into an erupting volcano. They’d gotten into the system and made it their own. I grew more and more desperate, until before I knew it I was punching in the hateful characters for the Zodiac Ultimatum.

“What are you doing?” Finnes asked me.

“Shut up.”

“Tell me! What the hell are you doing?”

“Shut up.”

The console groaned and died before I was even halfway through the code string. The lightboard glitched and cut out, vanishing beneath my fingertips.

Clever. Too clever. They knew what I’d been attempting.

I was almost proud of them.

The lights flickered and went out. Emergency lighting came on and drenched us in red.

“Oh, we’re dead,” breathed Finnes. He shoved me. I staggered, and nearly fell. “This was your fault! You idiot!”

“I can fix this,” I said, trying to making myself heard over his shouting and the high trill of alarms.

“How?” asked Czie.

“I’ll access the Cognisance,” I said. “Cut the neuroconductive relays, or reroute-”

Czie laughed bleakly, cutting me off.

“That may have worked before,” she said. “But it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then! We’ll never disable it.”

“Besides,” put in Kardel. “You’d be dead before you get within a hundred metres of the control room. They’re out there.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad,” snapped Finnes, glaring at me. “Someone should pay for this.”

“We are paying for it, Finnes.”

“Yes, we. Not you.”

He made to take a step towards me, before noticing the loaded gun in my hand.

“Leave it,” said Czie. “Come on. This isn’t doing us any good.”

I was aware that they were all standing in a loose semi-circle, looking at me. Hating me.

The gun in my hand was a guilty, reassuring weight.

“I’ll fix this,” I said again. Those words were my prayer. As long as I kept saying them, there was a chance that they would come true. “I can fix this.”

 

 

If mercy is a blasphemy, then what is creating life?

Again, I mean this in its most literal way. When organics breed, they are not creating life; they are following biological instinct to ensure the continuing existence of the species.

I am talking about artificial life, and the morality that accompanies it. When is an artificial being “alive”? Can it be held accountable for its own actions, or is that the responsibility of its creator? Questions as old as the technology itself.

My team and I had heard the arguments, the various conflicting opinions. Some of us left. Others stayed; Finnes, Dvoban, Beledae, Kardel, Czie, more. We reeked of ambition, emanated it like low-level radiation. We wanted to be heroes. We wanted to be the ones who created a solution to the problem that we faced.

The Technocracy gave us everything that I said we needed; facilities, people, supplies, funding, and full autonomy. They invested their hope in us. I promised them that we would succeed.

Was that mercy?

 

 

There were repeated thumps against the door; a few at first, and then more and more.

“Oh God…” breathed Beledae, backing away. The shutters were heavy, but they weren’t magnetically locked. Enough raw strength could prise them apart.

They certainly had that. It had been a specific condition of the project, along with all the other requirements. The Technocracy had wanted servants who were strong, healthy, and above all, loyal.

They’d wanted to pave the road to a new future on the back of creatures made for slavery.

They’d wanted that. I hadn’t.

My act of childish defiance had doomed us all.

 

 

I remember seeing the first few in the tanks. Pink, naked, fleshy.

++ They look weak ++ Dvoban had vocalised, scrutinising them with the cluster of sensors that formed his face. Dvoban had been altered more than any of us; he didn’t conform to the standard humanoid frame anymore.

I found the alterations mildly gruesome. I had no wish to pervert the image our makers had given us.

“They’ll suffice,” I’d assured him.

 

 

The noises at the door were growing more ferocious.

The others were milling around the room, shouting and wailing, trying to find an exit that simply didn’t exist.

Beledae grabbed my arm.

“Shoot me,” she pleaded. “Don’t let them get me. I don’t want to die like Dvoban did.”

I looked at her face, at the blend of faux-flesh and polyceramic alloy, at her vividly electric-green occuli. She was young, new-forged only a few decades back. She had dermal implants. Old fashioned. No one had hair any more. Wasteful. Too organic.

“Bel…”

I couldn’t stop her. She snatched the pistol from my hand.

The gunshot shut everyone up. Everyone except them. Our masterpieces. Our mistakes.

Finnes stood with me and we looked down at Beledae’s body.

“Why did you do it?” he asked. He sounded weary. The fight had gone out of him. Now he was just waiting for the end.

“Would you have taken pride in creating slaves?” I replied.

“Funny thing is,” he remarked, though absolutely nothing was funny anymore. “A few centuries ago, they used to tell horror stories about us gaining free will.”

“Maybe they will again.”

The doors were starting to inch open, forced open by strong hands. Strong hands, of flesh and bone; real flesh and bone.

“Do you think they’ll show us mercy?” asked Finnes. He wasn’t referring to the handful of us trapped in that room. He meant all of us; the whole homo cybernetica species.

“I hope not,” I said as the first arm reached through. “We made them smarter than that.”

 

Gareth

 

 

Rules House: Zombies!!!

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Hope you all had a lovely Easter; I myself spent the long weekend gorging myself not only on various meats, savoury snacks and confectionary, but on board games as well! I was lucky enough to have a solid three days of gaming, the highlights of which included a long and increasingly tipsy session of Coup, a big game of Survive! Escape from Atlantis, and a teeth-grittingly frustrating game of Settlers of Catan.

settler_of_catan-box

Move over Risk, there’s a new number one on my Shit List.

Em and I also took the chance to break out a game that I’d bought a few months ago; Zombies!!!

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Zombies!!! is a fairly simple board game; each player is a survivor in the middle of a zombie-infested city. The aim of the game is to be the first player to escape, which is done by exploring the city and finding the elusive helipad. The game starts out on a single 3×3 square tile, but on each player’s turn, a new tile is added, gradually expanding the city. Along the way, survivors can find first aid kits and ammunition to help them fend off the endless horde of walking dead, and gain Event cards to screw over other players.

The rules are simple, and the goal is clear. But somehow, somehow, despite being in its third edition, the makers of Zombies!!! apparently took some game design tips from Games Workshop because they keep making a game that feels shoddy and slapdash.

I have a lot of quibbles with the rules; like how it’s nearly impossible to be caught by zombies (players roll 1d6 + Health for movement, zombies only move 1 space), or how the number of zombies that move is disproportionate to the number of zombie models on the board. Or there’s the Event cards; a lot of them are for gear that can only be found or used in specific locations. A lot of Event cards also essentially do the same thing, with minor variations; compare Brain Cramp, which basically reads “you decide how an opponent moves this turn” to Where Did Everyone Go? which basically reads “move an opponent 5 spaces.”. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

There’s also meant to be some uncertainty as to when the Helipad shows up, but the rules say just place it roughly in the middle of the city tile stack. Oh, okay. Good. So… what’s the point in having the bottom half of that stack then, exactly? Oh, and don’t worry about dying; when your character loses their last point of health, you just go back to the starting area as if nothing had happened.

There’s also a really poorly thought-out “variant” for cooperative play. “All players work together and have to reach the helipad!” Yay! Except that the Event cards and rules for zombie movement simply don’t work if the aim of the game is to play cooperatively, because they’ve been designed for competitive play in mind.

And a final twist of the knife, the tokens that come with the game are by far and away some of the absolute worst components I’ve ever seen in a board game. They’re printed on thin, flimsy card, so they’re difficult to pick up, and they aren’t even double-sided.  At least the zombie miniatures are pretty cool (and handy for D&D).

It’s all a shame, because there’s a decent core here for a fun, casual board game. Enter the house rules…

Behold!

These changes are mostly tweaking with the Event card deck, setting a limit on deaths, allowing for more early-game exploration by having more tiles placed at the start, increasing the threat of zombies by allowing more of them to move and making players slower, and making it less certain when the Helipad will appear. Em and I have tried a few games with the house rules and a few without, and it’s amazing what a difference a few small changes make.

As for the components themselves, I’m using heart and potion tokens from Super Dungeon Explore for health/bullets respectively (nice chunky card and double-sided, plus they were going to waste anyway), and while the survivor miniatures in the game are fine, I’ve needed an excuse to paint up some of the random models I’ve picked up over the years…

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Work in progress. L to R; Jules, Dave, Reena, Chloe, Officer Connery, and Tucker.

Until next time, happy zombie hunting!

Gareth

 

 

New Short Story – No Man’s Land

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It’s been a productive weekend! I saw an amazing production of Hairspray yesterday, introduced Em to one of my favourite bars in Worthing (shout out to the Wandering Goose), and even braved the local Games Workshop to purchase paints so I could start tackling my hideous backlog of unpainted plastic dudes.

Oh, and I published a short story.

NML cover

 

As you may have guessed, it’s a fairly bleak WW1 story in which a lot of Bad Things happen.

If you like that sort of thing, why not give it a read? And if you like it, a nice review would be very much appreciated!

Gareth

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