In the Emperor’s Service, we follow a dusty trail to the mountain hallow!
The four of us join Imperial Psyker Aristarchus and check that all of our equipment fits atop the flatbed. In the early part of a new day in Port Suffering, we have dived into the stalls of a district known as the Hole or some such, and discovered very little in the way of armor is to be had; and no bullets. However, Aristarchus has thoughtfully seen to it that we each have a vox unit and a lamp.
I shall be doing most of the driving, and settle in behind the elementary controls at the front. Guardsman Jahr readies his Lasgun; Tech-Priest Zarkov his Las-Carbine; and Arbitrator Grimm his Shotgun, as they nestle in at the edges of the tarp that covers our supplies.
Aristarchus, who is armored in a mesh vest, looks somewhat frayed by tiredness. I hope he will be able to snatch stretches of sleep, and do not pester him with questions regarding the terrain. Grimm however often raises his voice over the truck’s humming to query this or that oddity as we roll across the battle plains outside Port Suffering. He also plaintively returns to the unfortunate bruise on the back of his calf where my stray shot drove his mail links into the skin.
It is hot, and dusty. Although the journey itself is uneventful, we witness many skeletal remains lying unburied. Ghostfire flowers grow through them, as often as not. Shale Crows, a reptilian species that wings its way around without benefit of eyes, are observed in the air. Their presence reminds us of the ‘crow father’ the blanket man muttered about.
Jahr chooses to launch into reminiscence about shaman practices he has known on his home world. Although I should know better (having endured the oaf’s company in the Blazing Sky for so many weeks!) I feel the need to correct him as to the written record of actual events.
In spite of the ill feeling created by my bickering with him, Jahr does most of the work creating a thorn-bush defense for the night, once the flat-bed is parked. He and Grimm decide on watches, and Aristarchus, who has clearly not slept more than a few minutes, attempts to catch up while we stand watch.
Come the dawn, I observe a body some 20m away – and none of us recall it being there last evening! Grimm investigates, then Jahr, who has barbaric skills in tracking, quarters the area. Other than the negative information that the body is long dead, and died from violence, they learn nothing. Jahr pronounces it a warning, on the dubious basis that someone he may or may not have known may or may not have left an untidy corpse about as a warning, on his home world. It sounds quite insanitary and purge-worthy.
The flat-bed noise rises to a level that drowns out all attempts at disturbing Aristarchus – who appears not to have actually slept – or interfere with my driving, as we ascend the following afternoon.
Ahead and off to the sunward side, I catch a shape outlined on a rocky outcrop. Jahr has seen it too: he points the place out as I draw up on a reasonably safe shoulder. Aristarchus says he felt a psychic disturbance. He, Jahr and Grimm stumble their way over the jagged ravines lying between us and the outcrop to investigate. Zarkov and I prudently wait in as much cover as we can find (I, under the flat-bed!)
Returning, they report that they discovered a pictograph of a bird clutching a skull in its talons: the image is burnt into the stone – and it was still hot.
“This is indeed an age of miracles” – Aristarchus
By nightfall I can see the lights of our destination so keep pushing the flat-bed up the winding track, arriving at last at a crude stone wall, lit by flaring bale fires and guarded by militia or such like folk belonging to Stern Hope. Beyond, I can see the vast bulk of the cathedral of St. Drusus: how glorious are all the works of our brave saints! We are hailed by a tall man bearing an axe, of all things. He clears us, bowing deeply and waving us through. This is Stern Hope.
Even as I cautiously negotiate the ‘thoroughfare’ of the town, a smiling heavyset monk strides alongside. He introduces himself as Brother Lamark. He greets us all with a very firm handshake and points us towards an inn named the Crying Clota, and to where I can park.
Stern Hope is a clutter of mostly temporary dwellings arranged in a circle about the cathedral and encircled by mountain spurs and where those do not defend the place, the dark stone wall. The people are an eclectic mixture of migrant laborers and native Ashleen. Many are armed, but few have a firearm more effective than a hunting jezzail.
The Crying Clota is quite roomy (we can sleep two to a room – I swiftly ask Zarkov to bunk with me) and not at all secure. It is also quite close to the wall. Aristarchus takes himself up to a more private chamber where he hopes to catch up on much-needed sleep. We sup on gruel, save for Jahr who boastfully consumes every form of alcohol the inn serves, then Grimm goes to the wall to make enquiries; the rest of us sleep.
We await word from Abbot Skae the next dawn, but Aristarchus summons us to his room. He still hasn’t slept, and looks terrible. I fear his psyker talents are drawing him over the edge of sanity already. He checks that we have made enquiries, but reminds us to talk to the townsfolk at large, not just the guards. He tells us to respect the Abbott’s station (as though there is any doubt!) and that we need not be armed when attending the Abbott, but I glibly explain that we would all like our weapons blessed. [+25 to Mola’s xp]
We walk to the roughly circular, polished stone cathedral: it is surrounded by four mighty stone pillars. Inside, a massive mural depicts St. Drusus triumphant with insignia and aquillar. However we are led right through and out to an annex that Lamark calls ‘the Priory’ which is an ex-bunker. Down on the second level we are shown into the priory’s meeting-hall.
Abbot Skae and brother Severus (the tall and dangerous-looking axe-bearer from last night) greet us. The Abbot briefs us. First, he brags up his influence on the cathedral’s erection (making sure we know of his aristocratic connections). Then he notes his own abilities: ‘The throne helps those who plan well’ as he quotes. Then he covers what we already know: in recent times signs and portents plague the area, there have been deaths (of both livestock and people) and disappearances. A number of bodies (local bandits, supposedly) were found on a nearby peak, and lights dance on other peaks. The feast of consecration is on the morrow, and we should ensure nothing prevents this.
Grimm asks for details on the deaths, and I ask about the livestock. The human deaths involve what we already know; and the livestock deaths went uncategorized. Grimm also asks about the previous team of acolytes but, so the Abbot claims, they never arrived. Skae commends Lamark to us as a guide in our on-the-ground investigations and Aristarchus excuses himself again. He really does look ill.
While Grimm returns to his wall-guard contact again to get daylight bearings on the “dancing lights” the man saw, I attempt to strike up a conversation with a townswoman. I fail. Grimm returns with Lamark, supplies and a bearing, and we set out.
The twisting rock slopes soon cause us to lose sight of the town. As we hike, I note that we are always shadowed by at least one Shale Crow. The difficult slopes and trails also prevent us from keeping to any particular formation. At length, a falling pebble alerts us of peril!
Surprise attempt: Awareness check for Jahr who is the only character with the skill. A repeated roll-off as both sides fail, but eventually Jahr’s check beats the opposing check. No surprise. A large, fearsomely-deformed creature lands amidst the group, nearest to Mola.
Fear (Sanity) checks on WP: Grimm and Jahr fail. Grimm receives a caution (-10 all tests) result and Jahr a back-off (reeling, no advance, -10 all tests) result.
- Large critter/Mola
Round 1: Grimm snaps his shotgun into fire-readiness and hits the creature’s left front foreleg (it has several limbs) without much effect [8, less 7 for Hide and Toughness]. Pus dribbles from already scabrous hide. Zarkov’s las-carbine also scores its flank but without effect [5= no effect]. A barbed tongue lashes out from a ruined muzzle – the eyes of the creature seem to have been burned out – but catches on a piece of Mola’s equipment rather than centering on her [a 99 on natural weapon attack]. Mola hurries behind Z, drawing her stub pistol. Jahr finds a line of sight and misses with his Lasgun. Lamark swings his own Lasgun into action and fires a burst, searing nigh through one of the creature’s forelegs [all three shots of the burst hit, the third with Righteous Fury, less amr/tough become 5, 1, and 12]. The creature is in bad shape.
Round 2: Grimm misses and Z’s shot does not penetrate. The creature lunges at Lamark, striking again with its tongue and this time with effect, deeply wounding his right leg! It then evades Mola’s shot, obviously able to sense its surroundings as it has no eyes and her shot is at its hindquarters. Jahr misses, his las-blast nearly catching Lamark, who is disconcerted and fires wildly into the air.
Round 3: Grimm, forgetting his series of lectures to Mola over the past two days about firing into melee, fires into melee and wounds Lamark. Catching Grimm’s sudden change of heart, everyone else also fires into melee, missing both the critter and Lamark, though they do seem to at least put the creature off. Lamark, desperate to end the fight before his own people fry him, sends a couple of ineffectual las-blasts into the creature.
Round 4: Grimm, somewhat apologetic, opts for a full-round aim and yells for Lamark to get clear. Z’s las-carbine stripes the creatures right flank, searing into its right leg and breaking it [and stun 1 round]. Mola delays, also calling on Lamark to get clear. Lamark, seeing that he is safe from a lunge [caused if he exits melee] as the creature is stunned, steps back away from it and scorches its right fore-arm [and d5 levels of fatigue]. With her target now clear Mola coolly shoots it in the hind left leg, blowing it off! The creature expires.
Lamark, who is seriously injured but still mobile, identifies it as a Hexalid, but it is so disfigured by diseased sores and blinded that it seems clear that only some infernal Chaotic influence could have sent it against us.