Saturday, 14 July 2012

Fading Suns 3 Game Master's Guide Opening Fiction

To: Lady Yasmina Keddah, New Lahore, Grail

My Dearest Sister,

It has been so long since last I wrote to you. Many times over the past few months have I taken up my pen to write and found that I could not put my thoughts into a coherent order, but now the months threaten to become years and I must record this transcript while I have a moment of clarity and rest from the turmoil of my life. I find myself now preparing for the next leg of our travels, within a few days I expect to leave Stigmata bound for Nowhere, I hope that I will be able to make the pilgrimage to the Great Howler of Nowhere and there perhaps find some answers.

So much has changed since I left home, my eyes have been opened, and sometimes I think not always for the better. The Empire is a darker place than I had ever suspected. I have borne witness to things that I know I should not relate to you. Out of fear I have not even revealed my knowledge in confession and it burdens me, but trust is not something that I easily give any longer. I am jumping ahead again, forgive me; I should take up my tale where last I left off.

I took ship from Byzantium Secundus, in the company of Kalera ra Korr, some six months ago. Our intended destination was Leminkainen, a Hawkwood world on the rim of barbarian space. We booked passage aboard the Kalim’s Eye, a vessel little more than a tramp freighter, but with delusions of grandeur. The ship’s Captain was an obsequious weasel of a man who seemed to think that he could impress his betters with fading finery and ask an exorbitant fee for the privilege. Though my experience of space travel was still limited I found the two weeks that we were forced to endure the fool’s excuse for etiquette to be amongst the most uncomfortable I have ever spent. I did not leave our cramped cabin, except when I could no longer find excuses not to dine with the captain. I found my mood had soured and I slipped into black thoughts. Only Kalera was able to raise my spirits and without her company I might have lost the will to live altogether.

During our passage Kalera confided to me that she had obtained the treasure map from one of the men who had accosted her aboard the Leveran on our route to Byzantium Secundus. At the time I did not think to challenge her earlier denials of those men’s motives for her assault. The ancient document was stored on a tiny think machine no bigger than her hand. The casing bore an emblem that I recognized, a mark that one of her assailants had borne as a tattoo upon his forearm, three triangles set together to form a fourth with a curved tail extending from each of  its three corners. Then I did not know what that emblem stood for nor the trouble that it would bring upon us.

The Kalim’s Eye touched down in Hakkonen in the pre-dawn, a red fire touched the horizon and set the golden spires of the city to reflect a bloody hue. We debarked into the arid air that was blowing in from the Blood Desert tempered only slightly by the nearness of the Tesla Straights. The city might have been a grand sight from the air, had it not been that I had so recently left the grandness of the Imperial City. The spaceport district was on the outer edge of the city, an old quarter that had been rebuilt during the Second Republic but had since fallen back into squalor, or so the guide that we hired informed us. To my eyes the avenues were wide but poorly tended, sometimes when the great storms blow in from the desert the streets could become clogged with sand and had to be dug out. I was fortunate enough not to see such an event.

Within days of our arrival I had come to the attention of one of the local Hawkwood lords and received an invitation of hospitality that I was relieved to accept. Baron Edgur Hilary Hawkwood’s fief is actually in the far north of the Jyvaskyla continent beyond the reaches of the Blood Desert, but he maintains a residence in Hakkonen where he was presently residing. The Baron was a man of average height and build but with a face I can only characterize as hawkish. Upon our first meeting he was dressed in finery, but on subsequent occasions seemed to be more comfortable in less formal dress. We struck up a strong acquaintance for I found the man to be likeable, intelligent, and articulate.

While we prepared for our expedition, we spent two weeks in the Baron’s hospitality and were invited to attend a number of functions, where I feel certain that the Baron was showing us off like some prize. Many of the Hawkwood nobles I met had a genuine interest in my homeworld, made curious by our Emperor’s recent esteem. At one such engagement I was introduced to Sir Cedric Hawkwood, a man with whom I have little common ground. He had recently served in the army of his lord fighting the treacherous House Vasalayana, until their capitulation and recent vassalage to House Hawkwood. Though the man’s manner and superiority was sufficient to make my blood boil, I maintained a polite level of decorum, until finally he turned away to engage another in conversation. It was then that I spied a mark I recognized on the back of the man’s exposed neck, three triangles in one with the trailing curves from the corners.

I made enquires about the man and discovered that he was no common soldier as I had assumed but one of the Hawkwood’s elite warriors, as he had served in a group called the Taliesin’s Spear. Sir Cedric had a fearsome, even black, reputation and was rumored to have reversed his own family’s ailing fortunes with the spoils of war. Some even whispered that he had links with House Dextrite, a house with whom my own was allied during the dark days of our Decados patronage. I had thought that my enquiries had been sufficiently subtle but on more than one occasion I felt uneasy and spied Sir Cedric watching me through the crowd.

Slightly unnerved by the man’s attention I took the opportunity to lightly touch the minds of those close to him, and what I discovered surprised me. Most feared him, not because of his reputation alone, but because he held some secret of theirs that none would want revealed. The man whom he had turned away to converse with was Baronet Montgomery Hawkwood, a man who apparently was in Sir Cedric’s debt for quietly arranging the removal of his troublesome first wife. Another, who smiled and nodded as he passed me, had concealed his financial debts by taking loans organized by Sir Cedric. A third was not a man at all; my skin shivered as my mind touched his and his eyes immediately bore in my direction, so I feigned preoccupation with the guest to whom I was only half talking.
I was only too relieved when I was able to make excuses and withdraw to the privacy of the rooms the Baron had graciously set aside for Kalera and I.

Over the next few days we continued our preparations. Kalera had located our intended destination on a map I had borrowed from the Baron’s library.  The maps showed Leminkainen during the height of the Second Republic, when the Blood Desert had been a fertile grain basket dotted with many cities and settlements before it had been bombed into oblivion in successive wars. Kalera had contracted a guide who claimed to know the Blood Desert, “like it was the back of his hand”. We struck out in our guide’s own beaten-up land crawler, after I had taken leave of the Baron and thanked him for his good will. We did not travel alone, in addition to our guide we brought along two burly handlers who would double as laborers and guards.

It took us three days travelling steadily north before we reached the area that we needed to search for remains of the world before. We were not entirely sure what it was we were looking for in truth, some kind of bunker or underground site that might be accessible from the surface. At this point I became concerned that we had not brought sufficiently heavy digging equipment and that two handlers armed only with spades seemed to me like an impossible task.

After three days of hunting through the sand-filled ruins we discovered that we were not alone. One of our handlers returned to camp with two men, prospectors who had been conducting a mineral survey in the region and were apparently in the employ of the Duchess Catherine Hawkwood who rules all of the Jyvaskyla continent through her vassals. I was informed that the mineral–oxides in the sand represent a valuable resource to local industry if they are present in sufficient concentration and can be separated from the sand by various processes. That we had come across these men was providence for they had equipment and expertise to sound out the ground and locate the hiding place of our long lost vault. Of course their assistance did not come cheaply, the merchantmen of the league desiring a large stake in any claim we would make. We agreed to terms before sharing our data with them, and almost immediately had a breakthrough. The treasure map we had was little more than a set of coordinates relative to the magnetic pole of the planet. What we did not know is that the magnetic pole of Leminkainen is prone to wandering. Using the prospector’s corrections it was determined that we were off course by some twelve miles. We would never have found what we were seeking without them.

The weather turned the following day and a storm blew up. Though distant from the heart of the weather system, the sand was whipped up and visibility dropped to a few yards so it took two more days to crawl through the treacherous terrain without endangering the crawler or ourselves, but even this was to be fortuitous for us. Had visibility been better we might have blundered straight into the middle of an excavation site, or worse have been spotted long before we arrived. As it was the weather was our ally, permitting us to back away from the site without being seen and letting us know that we were not the only people interested in whatever was buried under the red sands of the Blood Desert.

Securely wrapped in desert cloaks that protected our faces and lungs from the coarse grains carried by the wind, Kalera and I scouted out the lay of the land to determine who had beaten us to the prize and what kind of force they might present. Three crawlers were arranged about a large pavilion that was intended to hide whatever work was being undertaken. There were no guards or obvious signs of life, as everything was secured against the storm. Then the hatch on one of the crawlers opened and a man swaddled in a cloak hurried from the pale yellow illumination of the vehicle’s interior as a second closed the aperture behind his exit. Both men then hurried across the short distance to the pavilion and ducked inside securely refastening the straps. I turned to confer with Kalera, but she had vanished from my side. I waited for her until the sand started to cover me, then I returned alone to our crawler.

I could see expectant looks on the faces of the others at my return, and surprise that I did so alone. I ignored the first comment from one of the handlers about, “no loss to lose the alien bitch.” But in a rage I turned upon the man at his second insolent comment and beat him until he lost consciousness. I shamed myself with my lack of restraint and shocked the others with my outpouring of violence. The handler was a lowborn peasant so I should not have expected high standards of tolerance from such a man. Our guide bandaged him and laid him in one of the crawler’s beds. Everyone sat in tense silence after that, no one said anything for fear of my reaction; the atmosphere was oppressive and I wished for a priest to which I could give my confession.

After what seemed like days, the crawler hatch was yanked open and Kalera shrugged the sand from her cloak. My relief at seeing her was like a great weight being lifted from my shoulders so that I could breathe again. She took in the tense air in the cabin, the bandaged handler and dried blood on my hands, but said nothing. She simply drank deeply from the canteen that had hung on a hook by the door.

She had scouted out the circle of crawlers and now knew the disposition of the enemy camp. Though there were three crawlers one was a transport for freight, empty but for a few boxes of supplies. The other two were like ours which mean that there may be as many as sixteen people in their camp. Kalera assured us that there were only three guards and the expedition leader living out of one crawler while the other was home to six laborers brought in to do the excavation and heavy lifting. The mutterings of the prospectors seemed to indicate that they believed that the prize was now beyond us. Kalera indicated that she wished to speak with me privately and we stepped back outside of the crawler into the whipping winds.

She had other plans and was not about to lose our prize, not without a fight anyway, though we still had no idea what the prize might actually be. As it transpired Kalera was quite an expert saboteur, at the appointed time when she said that there would be a diversion the excavation site was lit up by an explosion that tore apart one of the crawlers, ripped a hole in the side of the pavilion, and scattered burning hot metal shards across red dunes. We were ready, and scrambled across the loose sand during the confusion. I was first through the hole in the side of the tent and therefore the first to engage one of the guards; he was already wounded from shrapnel and I cut him down with a swift slash of my blade. The second saw us coming and tried to descend back over the lip of the pit they had excavated.

Kalera’s swift foot caught him in the temple and sent him to fall the ten yards or so to the bottom.
The inside of the pavilion was well lit by fusion lights rigging the edge of the pit and a tall spire could be seen rising from the center of the excavation. A ladder allowed for descent, but from the lip of the pit it became obvious why these men had not simply made off with the prize as we had intended to do. A great needle of rock jutted from the base of the pit, how much more of this structure existed below the ground level could only be guessed at. Had it not been for the timely warning shout from Kalera, I might have been incinerated as I stood agape at the intricate glyphs that were carved into that rising needle of stone. The blaster shot would have passed squarely through my chest from back to front. I twisted round as I dropped to one knee to reply with the automatic pistol I had taken to carrying, though my shots should have been precise my assailant was preternaturally swift, he rolled forward as his rapier came free of its scabbard and our blades locked. I was eye to eye with Sir Cedric Hawkwood, his face twisted up in a sneer as we each forced our weight forward into our blades. He was stronger, and I was forced back to edge of the pit. Then Kalera joined the fight. She struck from his flank, but he pulled his weight back and changed his footing, parrying her long knife, and then with his other hand he made a sharp movement in my direction. It was nowhere close to touching me and yet I felt the weight of his touch on my chest, just enough to send my balance off, so I stepped back so as not to stumble but there was no footing for me and I plummeted in to the pit. The edge of the excavation was steep but not sheer, though I think I hit every rock and boulder on the way down.

My momentum carried me forward as I tried to stagger to my feet, and as I did so my head struck the monolith. I do not know if the experience I had came as the result of blow to the skull or from some mystical property of the stone column itself. I felt every emotion simultaneously and a blinding white experience sent my mind into darkness where voices whispered to me and then called my name. I remembered faraway places that I have never before visited. Much of what I saw, or felt, I can now only recall as a distant memory, half remembered. I know that there was more, if only I could rekindle that moment. Except that it was not a moment; I am unclear exactly how much time I did lose, certainly several days but I cannot be exact.

I recall being awakened. I was cold and wet. My head swam and faces came and went. Sound was distorted like I was underwater. But the worst part of my awakening was that it was not the face of Kalera standing over me, trying to rouse me, but that of Sir Cedric Hawkwood. Everything lurched and the room swam past me. The only clear memories I have of those moments are those of standing outside of myself watching the scene unfold like some strange magic lantern projection. There were others present, but I could not say how many. I was bound to a chair, or perhaps it was a frame of some kind. There was a searing pain in my head and I became aware of a second man who stood with Sir Cedric; his hand was tightly clamped to my temples and pain of his grip mixed freely with the pain inside my head. I tried to focus my will, to drive it back and bring on full consciousness, but something deep inside me said not to, that I was safer where I was, in this dream-like form.

The second man was talking, “He’s in a terrible state, what did you do to him Cedric?”
“Nothing, he touched the pillar unprotected. Had he not been out cold I might have enjoyed finishing him off.”

The other man was shaking his head, “He is a pawn in this. He knows nothing of any use. It’s that Ukari witch that we want.”

Sir Cedric pulled open one of my fluttering eyelids, “He is gifted though? It would be a shame to waste his talent.”

“I doubt he would be a willing convert. His will is weak, but I’m sure our friends could use him, and we can profit from their needs,” said the second man. “He’s waking.”

I felt the blow keenly this time, not some distant sensation, and darkness fringed my vision again, the second blow landing just before I succumbed.

I recall coming and going from consciousness several times. I hurt all over and my body was as weak as a newborn. One of the few certainties that I have from that time was that I was being transported from one place to another. I cannot accurately describe the pain I felt for I am certain that I cannot recall it now with anything like the sickening intensity it was then. Perhaps I should be grateful of that.

I did not have to endure my captivity for too long, for my rescue was at hand. I remember the lurching feeling of the crate I was being transported in as it was pulled up and swung sideways. Then there was the momentary feeling of free fall before the crate struck the hard ground, smashing open one end and buckling the metal. I recall only snatches of what followed, just images really: it was dark outside, night time, but the place was lit casting long shadows upon the lines of crates on the dock side. I lay on the cold stone of the quay unable to stand despite my efforts; a great metal leviathan was tethered to the near side of the dock, its armored hull open along the dorsal line of the beast to receive many other stowage crates like the one I had just crawled from.

There were shouts and confusion, dock workers scattered as several impossibly large men crossed the gang way from the submersible craft, and several shots rang out. Someone knelt next to me and spoke, and he had to repeat himself several times before I was able to give him my name. Then I was pulled away as another explosion sounded.

Dear sister, my most sincere apologies for relating these terrible events to you in such detail. In part the reason for penning such things is so that I can place them in some context and make sense of what has happened to me. Be assured that my letter to our mother will mention none of this, but will instead talk of my boredom and a fruitless trek about the Blood Desert in search of something that never was.
Should we ever meet again in person you would be excused for not recognizing me, as the monolith left its mark upon me, both in mind and upon my body. Even after the months that have elapsed between this time and then my scars have not healed. The physick who attended me was baffled, thinking that at first I had been branded. The scars crisscross my whole body, the worst, deepest, and angry reddish welts where I touched the pillar of rock, with my hands and face. But even on the furthest extremities of my body, on my legs, chest, and feet I am marked, though they are like the spidery silver thread of old scars long healed. I am not ashamed of these marks as they have a purpose. I know that the monolith did something to me; it marked me for a purpose and wrote my destiny upon my flesh for all to see.

I owe a debt of gratitude to those who rescued me that night for had they not I would surely have suffered at the hands of House Dextrite, whose prison submarine had awaited me. My rescuers were agents of the Baron Edgur Hawkwood and had come at Kalera’s request. She had escaped Sir Cedric in the desert and organized my aid. I was, of course, now in the debt to the Baron; I had assumed that he might be content with the embarrassment caused to his political rivals but that was not to be the case. My debt would have to be repaid once I was fit enough to do so. The Baron desired that I cause problems for Sir Cedric and his cult of psychics who had taken up residence in Hakkonen, and in our brief conversation he seemed to think that I would harbor a need to restore my honor and standing by bring the man down in the eyes of the Hawkwood family.

I admit to you that I have little stomach for revenge, but Kalera was keen to settle the score and during my convalescence spent a great deal of her time and energy following Sir Cedric and his associates and tracing his business dealings. As she described, his psychic cult, the Invisible Path, were not nearly as invisible as they believed themselves to be. Several were former members of the Taliesin’s Spear, and were well known in military circles. Various authorities, out of a mixture of fear, blackmail, and bribery, simply over looked much of their operation, and much of their logistical support seemed to be coming from House Dextrite.

If we could break a number of these holds that Cedric and his group held then likely those who had served him reluctantly would be only too happy to take advantage of his weakness. My prior social engagements had brought many of Sir Cedric’s allies into one place and I already knew many of their secrets. The Dextrite were an unknown quantity and so we contrived an opportunity to meet with one of them, Sir Vuld Dextrite, a man Kalera had identified as Cedric’s principle point of contact with that House. He was known to indulge his darker side in the water front inns of the Hakkonen port district. I was able to convince his chaperone that we needed some private time to discus business, and the Dextrite nearly jumped out of his skin when I revealed my face to him. Kalera made him aware of a blade she claimed was poisoned to encourage him to hear us out.

I was able to discover more than a few secrets, as Vuld used to make people disappear and in fact knew what had become of many of them. Baron Montgomery’s first wife, for example, was yet living in Dextrite captivity, in case she should ever be needed. Knowing that the poor woman had spent a year inside a Dextrite prison cell distressed me, but I could not simply use a threat of her return against the Baron, so I would have to actually see her rescued. This would be a very public embarrassment for Montgomery and he would know that Sir Cedric had betrayed him. I plied Sir Vuld with enough drinks to knock out a Vorox and then gently helped his memories of the evening disappear into the alcoholic haze.

We departed that same evening, using a small sailing boat that was rigged so that it could be sailed by a single man. As I’m sure you remember I am an able sailor, for we having spent weeks travelling up and down the coast and throughout the small islands close to New Lahore, and I was enjoying the opportunity and the memories that our crossing to island of Kriel afforded us. Our small sailing vessel was too small to be of any notice to the other seagoing vessels in the Tesla Straights and I had no problem navigating our route to come ashore only a few miles from manse where Lady Estella Windsor Hawkwood was being held. I have been informed that Kriel is a penal colony and it may as well be for those peasants we saw during out travels were the most wretched I have ever laid eyes upon. They move about their tasks like shambling husks, no longer quite human, but not having yet passed over to the other side.

We did not approach the manse directly but came to it by way of a secret entrance Sir Vuld had revealed to us, and so we bypassed the guards and the house proper to emerge in the catacombs below. There were not many prisoners, but I was forced to kill the jailor before he could raise the alarm. I think in retrospect I did the man a service. We located the Lady Estella swiftly, but she was in poor physical condition and had suffered what looked like chemical burns; I am no physick and so I can only make inaccurate conjecture about such things. She wore a dress that was a mismatch to her predicament: finery, unfaded and relatively clean, though she was bare footed. She barely acknowledged us until we had carried her back out through the secret way and stood her up again in the open air.

Fate had smiled on us thus far, but upon our return to the small cove where I had anchored our boat I was dismayed to notice that the rocky beach was no longer deserted. Three men stood on the beach while a fourth waded out of the water, presumably having just swum back from the boat. The small inflatable raft that we had used to come ashore was still hidden where it had been left but it could only carry two people and one of those would have to be the Lady Estella. Despite what I had taught Kalera during our travels here I was not certain that she would be able to manage the return journey without me, neither could she swim. If we had used logic I should have taken the lady to the boat while Kalera distracted the men on the beach. But I was not about to shirk my responsibilities and I needed to prove myself so I sent the women to gather the raft while I went to draw off the onlookers.

I challenged them there on the beach, and I moved to keep them between myself and the boat and their attention firmly on me. I could see the little raft fighting the waves as Kalera rowed with all her strength. I killed the first man with my rapier through his chest and maimed the legs of the second one, but the third pulled an antique-looking pistol from his belt, while the fourth lumbered towards me. This last one was bigger than the others and my rapier inflicted several wounds that would have slowed a normal man. In the end I lodged the blade in his arm, I felt it strike bone, and without flinching he used his other hand to break the blade off half way to the hilt.

I resorted to burning his mind with the power of my gift and turned to face the man with the antique pistol leveled at my chest.  We were not twenty paces distant, yet his shot from the ancient black powder weapon went wide. I drew my trusty autopistol as he fumbled to reload. I closed the distance between us until the muzzle of my weapon pressed into his forehead and he dropped the pistol at my feet.

“Be sure to tell your lord what happened here today. Tell him that the scarred man is putting things to rights.”

In the days that followed we returned the Lady Estella to Hakkonen and to the care of the Baron Edgur Hawkwood. We did not tarry any longer than necessary for we had made more enemies than friends and I had a sudden desire to see the Howler of Nowhere, the feeling pulling at me like a magnet pointing towards the pole. I was able to secure us transport on the most unorthodox of vessels. The Saint John is a Brother Battle medical frigate bound for Stigmata following its resupply. Usually, I am told, such vessels do not take passengers, save perhaps those who have served the order in some way or are Imperial dignitaries. However, the master of the vessel, Adept Captain Ello Kitell, took one look at the scars on my face and said it would be his honor to bear us to Stigmata. I do not know what the man saw, but I was grateful for his assistance.

The Saint John is a modern vessel, recently commissioned from the shipyards above Holy Terra, its halls Spartan and scoured clean. Their Chief Physick offered to attend to my injuries, but I rejected his offer. The scars I bear on body are my new birthmarks and I bear mine with the same pride that Kalera bears hers.

I will write to you again my sister, my twin. I have a long road yet to travel but my feet have finally found their path.

With eternal love and devotion,

Your brother,

Sir Mathias Keddah