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HMP Anson, Mountbatten Sector, Albion
Imperial Standard Date: 23rd December 3160

Carrington sprinted through the prison hulk’s narrow corridors, marines following close behind with weapons drawn and at the ready. Behind them, the Governor strained to keep up, a handful of guards accompanying him and watching the rear as they followed the source of the explosion. Past rows and rows of cells they ran, to the jeers and angry cries of inmates, rattling their bars and filling the air with a deafening metallic clatter. Up ahead, the sounds of fighting began to cut through the background din, shouts and gunshots and the sickening thuds of metal against flesh. Whatever had caused the explosion, it seemed it had provided a number of convicts with a chance to break free from the cramped confines of their cells and wreak vengeance upon those who had kept them there. A gunshot sounded closer by. Luther’s grip on his revolvers tightened as he drew nearer.

Without warning, a convict burst out of a side passageway, a gaunt, rat-like, wild-eyed man – opium-addled, most likely – with crude tattoos and a length of rusted metal pipe clutched in his grazed fists. With a maddened scream, he leapt at Carrington, who stumbled back a split-second before steel split the air in front of his face. Firing from the hip, he loosed two shots at the attacker, one tearing through his groin and the second, driven upwards by the weapon’s recoil, hitting him in the stomach. Aided by a swift kick, he collapsed onto the hard floor, whimpering in pain as blood slowly pooled around him. Luther and his men marched on past the miserable sight without pause. His suffering was deserved. Rounding a blood-spattered corner, the scene that unfolded before them was nothing short of utter chaos. A great scorch mark spread across the entire corridor, scraps and shards of twisted metal bent into deadly spikes. Empty cells gaped open, and chunks of flesh and bone lay scattered across the ground. Guards and prisoners slashed and shot and swung at each other, locked in a brutal melee for as far as the eye could see. By the looks of it, the prisoners were winning, the guards quickly falling back into another distant passageway. Carrington waved his marines forward. “Section, form up two ranks deep! Present arms!” The soldiers hurried into position, battle lines stretching across the corridor so that nothing could pass through. The Captain raised his revolver. “Front rank, fire!” A volley of shots ripped through the closest convicts, hypersonic metal slugs punching through their bodies and throwing them back across the ground. “Rear rank, fire!” The next gang of escapees fell. Wisps of smoke rose from red-hot barrels. “Fix bayonets and advance!” Luther continued to discharge his pistols, marching alongside the marines as they pressed on, rifles held out in front of them like deadly spears, prompting the remaining convicts to flee. The privateer glanced back. Governor Larkin was nowhere to be found – clearly, he had retreated to safety rather than join the fight. Carrington sneered in disgust. He abhorred cowardice.

As the marines strode forth, stepping over the mangled corpses of criminal and guard alike, their captain sheathed one of his revolvers – it was empty now anyway – and drew his sabre, a gleaming steel blade sharpened to a razor’s edge that sang as it slid from the scabbard. The last convict disappeared out of sight, and the party quickened their pace, hoping to catch up before more of the prison was overrun. More shots sounded, and as Carrington’s men charged into the next corridor they quickly discovered their source. A couple of the convicts had managed to get hold of shotguns, plucked from the bodies of unfortunate guards. With their newfound weapons, they were making worryingly short work of blasting open the locks on their fellow inmates’ cells, bolstering their numbers with every second that went by. Buckshot whizzed through the air as they turned their attention to the rapidly approaching marines, pellets denting their armour and grazing exposed skin. Still the soldiers kept up their advance, a bristling wall of steel bayonets poised to skewer any foe in their path. As the shotgunners retreated, sustaining their steady yet ineffective fire, criminals leapt from their now-open cells with whatever weapons they had at hand, crude shivs and metal bars clashing against rifles and bayonets. It was a futile effort. Blades flashed, sliding into flesh and emerging with a dripping scarlet coat. Luther swung his sabre, its edge biting through the throat of a murderous escapee and spraying blood across the narrow hallway. Hardened and violent these prisoners may have been; they were no match for resolute and disciplined soldiers of Albion, the mortal vessels of the divine King's unassailable might.

The persistent shower of buckshot ceased as two well-placed bullets from Carrington’s remaining revolver bored their way into the skulls of the pair of gun-toting inmates, cries of despair ringing out from within the cells they were attempting to blast open. Little by little, the groans and screams of the wounded and dying waned, the sounds of raging combat now gone altogether. The marines relaxed a little, lowering their wall of bayonets. It was a shock, then, when a head, notably without any connection to its owner’s neck, bounced out into the hallway. Rifles were raised once more.

“Wouldn’t shoot if I was you, ya cunts.” A grim, heavily accented voice declared. Its owner stepped out into full view of Luther and his marines. A mountain of a man, broad and heavily scarred, with several teeth missing and a brass ring hanging from a boxer’s ear. In front of him, with a serrated knife held firmly at his throat, stood Governor Larkin – ‘stood’ in the loosest sense of the term, as his legs looked like they had given way entirely, relying on his captor to keep him upright. A thin trickle of blood ran down his neck as the blade’s teeth broke his skin.

Luther stepped forward, holstering his revolver. “One miscreant with a knife, against twenty battle-hardened marines with EM rifles. Tell me, prisoner: how do you plan to emerge from this little altercation victorious?”

The big man looked puzzled, then angry, his grip tightening on his weapon. “Olta-cayshun what? You fuckin’ try shit and I’ll cut ‘im, clear?”

The privateer sighed. “Do you not teach your prisoners English, Governor Larkin?” A chuckle emerged from the rear rank of marines, swiftly suppressed. “Let us make a deal, prisoner. Single combat. You against I.”

“You want me to fight ya?” Surprise flickered across the convict’s face. “What do I get when I smash yer fuckin’ face in?”

“Your freedom, of course,” Carrington replied. “You may leave this place a free man – after all, if you win, clearly it is a sign that the King has granted you his favour. What do you say?”

The prisoner thought for a moment – clearly a challenge for him – and nodded, a sinister grin forming and revealing a mouth half-full of blackened, chipped teeth. “Alright mister fancy cunt, I’ll fight ya. Come on then!” Tossing the Governor aside and brandishing his vicious knife, he took a long step forward. Luther gave a nod. As one, twenty rifles blazed with furious fire, metal slugs tearing into the prisoner’s body and taking chunks of bone and gore with them as they left the other side. The knife fell to the floor, a second before the smouldering, half-disintegrated corpse of its owner did.

A few marines rushed forward to secure the Governor, dragging the whimpering, blood-spattered man back to safety and hauling him to his feet. “Wh… what happened? Is he d-dead?”

Carrington gestured to the mangled body down the corridor. “Truly, His Majesty works in mysterious ways.”

Larkin managed a pained half-smile, as multiple sets of footsteps drew closer and a squad of prison guards rounded the corner. “Indeed he does.” He stood, slowly regaining his composure, and looked around. “I’d say we probably have it under control from here. Thank you, Captain, and good luck with your hunt. I hope Fort Rhodes has answers for you.”
HMP Anson, Mountbatten Sector, Albion
Imperial Standard Date: 23rd December 3160

Anson control to incoming vessel, please identify yourself immediately. Repeat, identify yourself, incoming vessel.” The tinny voice crackled through the speakers on the bridge of the HMS Bodkin. A searchlight, dazzling in the darkness of space, swept across the deck, projected from some far watchtower. All around, gunboats circled, patrolling the skies with steadfast vigilance.

Luther Carrington tapped a button on his console and spoke. “Anson control, do you read me? This is Captain Sir Carrington of the Bodkin, requesting permission to put in and drop anchor.”

“Reading you loud and clear, Sir. You have the go-ahead to moor at pier 6-B. Repeat, 6 Bravo. God save the King.”

“God save the King!” Returning to the helm, Carrington took hold of the controls and slowly guided his warship in. Pier 6-B was at the far end of the prison docks, and the crew stood at the portholes to take in the impressive, if bleak, view. The Anson was a strange beast, a prison built in two halves. Originally, it was just the old dreadnought that listed to one side slightly, its innards gutted and its starboard broadside cannons removed to make space for hundreds of cramped, freezing cells for the very worst of Albion’s miscreants. Those of them who weren’t quite vile enough to face the gallows or a firing squad, at least. On the port side, the guns remained, bristling outwards in a formidable display of firepower, ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice on attackers from outside, or any would-be escapees from within – not that there had been one of them for over twenty years. Since its establishment, the prison had had cause to grow, a considerable effort which involved hitching the lifeless hulk to a multitude of tugboats, and bringing it to rest about a hundred metres from the nearest asteroid. HMP Anson had quickly tripled in size since then, new cell blocks being painstakingly carved by the bloodied hands of hundreds of convicts, directly out of the solid rock. Watchtowers and gun emplacements jutted upwards from the surface, and a pair of cable cars linked the two halves, themselves watched with spotlights and cannons at all times. Its thrusters powering down, the Bodkin came to a gentle halt at its assigned mooring, docking tube protruding out from the pier to lock to that of the ship. A flash of green light signalled that an airtight seal had been formed, and Carrington prepared to disembark.

The atrium of the prison, repurposed from what once housed the engines of the Anson in its sailing days, was a cold, grey, cavernous space, dimly lit by fluorescent strips and with no thought given to decoration. It was fitting, then, that the governor, who shuffled impatiently as Luther emerged from the airlock, was similarly cold and grey, with grey hair, a grey overcoat, and two grey-clad guards who stood stock-still behind him. He took a step forward and stiffly extended a hand. Carrington shook it firmly, giving a polite smile in a vain attempt to lighten the mood. “Luther Carrington, at your service. I do not believe we’ve met…”

“Larkin.” The man replied bluntly. “Governor Larkin. And we have not.”

The Captain nodded. “Then it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Governor Larkin. If you wouldn’t mind, I have an enquiry to make; a lead I’m following up.”

“Then enquire and be done with it. I don’t have all day, Captain.”

“Very well,” Luther grumbled. Clearly, living in such a grim place had thoroughly stripped this Larkin fellow of any sense of hospitality or good manners he may once have had. “I am looking for a Commodore Verity Whitlock, captain of the HMS Illustrious. She and her squadron have not been heard from in some time, and this is apparently her last known location. You wouldn’t happen to have seen her, or know where she was heading, would you?”

The Governor grunted. “Whitlock… Whitlock… the redhead with a smug little grin glued to her face? Saw her, yes. Didn’t much care for her.”

Carrington barely managed to stop himself from letting out an exasperated sigh. “Smug grins and the absence of care aside, Governor, did she mention anything about where she might be going?”

“Don’t think so, Captain.” Larkin paused and scratched his chin. "No, I don't think I can remember that at all."

The sigh broke out. "Wait here." The privateer disappeared back into his ship for a minute, leaving the Governor with a thoroughly bemused look on his face. Still, he waited, eyes alternating between glancing at the airlock and checking his pocket watch. The door slid open again and Carrington re-emerged, with a large leather wallet and a bottle filled with a deep amber liquid tucked under his arm. He passed the bottle over, and peeled off a small bundle of banknotes from within the wallet. "Here. A small gift, to help you towards an early retirement and to make the nights pass a little easier until that day. Now, are you certain you don't remember anything?"

Something lit up in the Governor's eyes, and he nodded enthusiastically, snatching the bottle and cash with glee. “There was something after all! I was showing Whitlock around the place, at her insistence, and she had to take a call right while I was in the middle of a conversation with her – arrogant little tart that she was. Think she was chatting to a chap named Fleming, by the sound of it." He thought for a second. "Heard the name before, I think. He’s a Navy man, if my memory serves me correctly." He hesitated. "Don’t rightly know where you might find him though...” Luther tutted, sliding a few more notes from the wallet into his hand, and holding them out to the Governor. He grinned. "...although last I heard he was was serving at Fort Rhodes. Might be worth a look. Anyway, she hurried off right quick after that, and took her fleet with her, so that's all I know. Strange business, if you ask me."

Carrington nodded. "You've been a great help, Governor Larkin. Pleasure doing business with y-" A distant yet still deafening boom ripped through the air, the unmistakeable sound of an explosion deep within the heart of the prison. The privateer leapt into action, drawing a pair of heavy autorevolvers from within his coat and barking orders to the marines who raced off the Bodkin with their carbines raised. Whatever madness was happening now, his business here was not finished yet.
Fort Elizabeth, Bakerloo Line, Albion
Imperial Standard Date: 22nd December 3160

The thud of heavy boots echoed rhythmically along the long corridor, three pairs marching in unison past oak-panelled walls and remarkably convincing imitation leaded windows. Outside, sharp neo-gothic spires and ornamented arches rose elegantly upwards, a shining beacon of the grandeur and splendour that was Albion; a nation’s spirit given form in stone and steel. Gangways jutted out from each tower and passageway, ships constantly coming and going, their business here kept short and sweet – the forts of the Line were places few wanted to reside for long, and most civilians who ventured here had far safer and more comfortable homes to return to elsewhere. Luther Carrington cared not. His own business here would take as long as required. It was of the very highest importance. Flanked by a pair of marines from the Bodkin, clad in black armour with pith helmets perched atop their heads and rifles slung across their backs, he strode on, determined and distinctly displeased. His advance drew concerned looks from passers-by, but still they stepped hurriedly out of his path and continued, timidly, with their own affairs. The corridor opened out into a grand lobby, with spiral stairways ascending towards a great glass dome that afforded a spectacular view of the vast expanse beyond. Carrington and his men took the stairs two at a time, at a jog, without pause to admire such distractions. Their steady march began again, and this time, the end was in sight.

The upper level, a circular mezzanine from which several more wide hallways fanned out up short staircases, was smaller than the first, yet lost none of its opulence. The floors resembled marble almost perfectly – although obviously, nobody would use real marble in a deep-space fortification – and Corinthian half-columns were set at regular intervals along the walls, interspersed by tall shelves filled with leather-bound books and records; the paper backup to the station’s electronic data network. Here, tall arched doorways were set back into the walls of each corridor, and inside each one, government and military officials were hard at work. Not hard enough, Luther reflected, as he pounded with a gloved fist on the very largest door. A voice from inside bade him enter.

“Alistair Garrick,” he growled, pacing through the doorway and towards the desk beyond, behind which sat a short, stocky man clad in ill-fitting Navy uniform, with a moustache that was embarrassingly sparse. “I would say it’s a pleasure, but we both know that would be a lie. Would you care to take a guess as to why I am here?” The officer remained silent, eyes betraying a creeping hint of unease. “No? Shall I enlighten you?”

“Has there been trouble with our supply convoys again, Captain?” Garrick ventured, uncertain. “An accounting discrepancy, maybe? I can assure you, we are working very hard to ensure this station is running in sterling order in spite of Commander Atwood's... unfortunate departure.”

Carrington snorted derisively. “Nothing so petty, Garrick. You know damn well I don’t give a shit about your accounts. Yesterday I had to shoot down not one but three Zhi warships that had made it past the line. Three. Past the sector this fort is supposed to monitor and patrol. Explain yourself.”

“Perhaps there was… a fault with our scanners? A glitch? Honestly, Captain, I don’t know how this could have happened!” The officer was speaking too quickly now, abandoning his futile attempt to retain his composure. “I’ll get it seen to right away!”

The privateer took a step closer, looming over the desk. “Don’t bullshit me, you snivelling little coward. Your scanners are working fine.” He gestured out of the window that overlooked the station’s main docking facilities. “Why are there no warships here, Garrick? Where is this station’s garrison fleet?”

“It must be out on patrol this very second, I can assure you!” Alistair responded unconvincingly. “It’ll be back in a matter of hours, I’m certain!”

“I will ask you one more time, before I take this issue directly to High Command. Where. Is. Your. Garrison. Fleet?!” Luther slammed his fist on the desk, hard, to punctuate his words.

The officer looked on the verge of tears. He sighed deeply, shaking his head. “I… I don’t rightly know, Captain. We’ve had no radio contact for four days now, and no sign of them on the scanners.”

“Who was in command?” The Captain snarled. “How many have you lost?”

“It… it was Commodore Whitlock and her 615th Squadron, Sir. The Illustrious, three frigates, two destroyers, and a fighter wing.”

"Where were they last spotted?"

"Near the Anson, Sir, the prison hulk... I think."

“And you have ships looking for them as we speak? Have the Anson staff been notified?”

Garrick hesitated. “N-no, Sir.”

Fury blazed in Carrington’s eyes, his knuckles grinding into the wood of the desk to avoid lashing out at the man before him, who stumbled backwards out of his seat and raised his hands instinctively in front of him. The two marines who had accompanied their Captain took a step forward, hands edging towards their weapons. Glancing back, Luther waved them down before they could go any further. Slowly, he rounded the table, Garrick backing away from him as he advanced. “Who is your second in command?” He asked in a hushed tone that barely concealed the rage that bubbled beneath his voice. The officer said nothing, bewildered. Luther repeated his question, every word dripping with venom.

“H-Harold Linsey, Sir.”

The privateer nodded. “I suggest that you find Mr. Linsey, and that you notify him that he is acting commander of this station from this moment forth. Is that clear?”

“I beg your pardon, Sir?”

“You heard me. The enemy managed to cross the Bakerloo line without resistance from your sector. Preventing that exact occurrence was your first and foremost duty. The fact that you have so utterly failed to carry out that duty suggests that you are an incompetent buffoon not fit to command a fucking scrap barge!” Carrington screamed, as the short man before him cowered. “You are a disgrace to your uniform, and a disgrace to the King! Now find Harold Linsey, and tell him that he is in command!” Garrick opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He shuffled back, stumbling on the carpet and landing flat on the floor. The Captain towered over him. “And once that is done, if you have any shred of dignity left in you, you will take your pistol and do the greatest service to His Divine Majesty’s Navy that you possibly could.” At that, he wheeled about and marched out, disgust written across his face.

The brisk walk back to the long pier where the Bodkin lay at anchor was uneventful. Nobody said a word. Nobody needed to. The grim expressions of Luther and his marines was enough to dissuade any attempt at conversation. Arriving at their moored vessel, the trio stepped inside the airlock as it slid open with a hiss, the Captain removing his glove to place his fingerprint against the identification scanner. It bleeped, flashed green for a moment, and the doors slowly began to close. A distant, muffled gunshot sounded, a split second before the airlock was sealed from the station beyond. Carrington shook his head solmenly, and climbed on board his ship. There was work to do.
Mountbatten Sector, Battlefront Charlie, Albion
Imperial Standard Date: 21st December 3160

Space. Once a vast expanse of silent stillness, a cold, lightless sky that stretched further than any mind could truly comprehend, and played home to wonders scarcely imaginable. A quiet place. A peaceful place. Alas, such a tranquil state of being was seldom experienced any more, particularly along Albion’s frontier – it had not been for some centuries now. Instead, the fires of distant battles flashed and glared through the rent and riven steel of long-abandoned hulks, infested with scavengers, pirates, and a myriad other degenerates and miscreants. Space. An unceasing, uncaring battlefield. A place where human lives in their millions were dashed against the guns of the Zhi, and the relentless Zhi tide in their millions similarly met their end by the guns of Albion. Few survived for long out here. Fewer still returned with their sanity intact, unbroken by the horrors of endless war.

From amidst the shattered wreck of an ancient dreadnought, a small ship cautiously emerged. It was a distincly alien construct; built, in typical Zhi fashion, with scant regard for form or elegance and every accommodation given to ease of mass production. Little more than a steel pyramid, with an exposed thruster at the rear, a brace of lasers crudely riveted onto its hull nearer to its pointed tip, and a mass of pipes and radiator arrays snaking along its sloped sides, betraying the existence of more complex systems within the vessel. Corvettes like this were churned out in their thousands from Zhi industrial worlds, and they were utterly interminable in their raids on Albionic space. Cheap and largely ineffective, perhaps, but their virtue lay in their numbers - the Royal Navy could not be everywhere at once, and it only took a single ship to sneak past and wreak havoc. This ship, however, was not sneaking anywhere today. Cautious though it had been, it was not enough. As its thrusters burned and it shot out into open space, a second ship took note. It could not have been more different to the first. Sleek and streamlined, the long, dark vessel had the air of a predator about it, a bird of prey waiting to dive upon its hapless target. It turned, slowly, to point its slender bow in the direction of the Zhi corvette. In the light of a distant star, the White Ensign glinted upon its wings. An orange glow shone from its engines, accompanied with a low rumble that erupted into a roar as the HMS Bodkin leapt forth into the chase.

“We’re gaining, Cap’n!" A shout cut through the hectic noise of the warship's bridge as officers scrambled into action, manning their respective stations and making last-minute adjustments on their holographic displays, lights blinking all around them.

“Good. Keep us at full thrust and don’t let him out of our sight. Harris, can we get a torpedo lock?”

“Negative, Cap’n, the fucker’s all over the place. With all those wrecks in the way, we’d be lucky to get a laser on him.”

Luther Carrington grimaced, leaning forward at the bridge for a closer look. Hunting Zhi was never the easiest of tasks – they were slippery bastards at the best of times. Still, as a Knight of the Realm, a privateer ordained by His Majesty King Richard himself, it was his duty. He was not a man who shied away from duty. Luther stood straight. “Alright, bring us in closer and put a shot across his bow, as close as you can manage. How much time do we have before we’re into the Hengest Belt?”

“At full speed, maybe thirty seconds, Cap’n. Ready to fire on your command.”

The Captain nodded. “Do it.”

There was a thunderous crack and a blinding flash of light as one of the Bodkin’s cannons fired, sending a four-inch high-explosive shell hurtling in the direction of the enemy corvette. Passing a good distance ahead of the frantically weaving ship and slamming into the side of a rotting hulk, it detonated, the blast sending a spray of shrapnel streaking outwards in all directions. Sparks flew as the steel debris glanced off the Zhi vessel, sending it veering off course and buying its pursuer a valuable chance to gain ground. On the bridge of the Bodkin, Carrington’s grimace twitched ever so slightly towards a smile as his foe drew closer, the alien pilot struggling to stabilise his craft. Another shot rang out, but without warning the spinning corvette gained a burst of speed, rocketing towards the first of the giant asteroids that made up the Hengest Belt and leaving the second shell to explode far behind it. The hunter gave chase, always edging ever closer, but its prey slipped out of sight for a split-second behind a stony outcrop. That momentary lapse in line of sight was enough for the Zhi corvette to find a hiding place amongst the rock-strewn sea. The Albionic warship slowed as it too glided past the first asteroids, crew watching intently for a sign of their quarry. Scanners beeping furiously, it edged further in.

“Reckon we’ve passed him, Sir?” Came the voice of the ship’s Navigator, a balding, bespectacled man with beads of perspiration crawling down his glossy forehead.

“I wouldn’t count on it, Mr. Seward,” Luther replied. “He’s out there somewhere, keeping pace with us. These damned Zhi don’t give up easily.” He glared out into the black sky, twitching at every shifting shadow the cloud of rocks conjured up. A faint light flashed for a split second in the distance; the glow of a rocket. The alien pilot had put some considerable distance between himself and the Bodkin. Clearly, he thought he stood a decent chance of escaping this time. Carrington focused in on his foe like a hawk, eyes narrowed and unblinking. “Thrusters full and man the guns! We’ll sink this bastard yet!”

“Aye aye, Sir!” The response came back near-instantaneously from all corners of the bridge as the warship’s officers hurried to carry out their duties, asteroids shooting past as the vessel dodged and weaved after its foe, missing certain destruction by a hair’s breadth in its relentless pursuit. Shots rang out from the Bodkin’s smaller guns, probing for the possibility of a good hit. In return, a laser streaked past, slicing off a slab of rock that would certainly have torn a great gash through the chasing ship’s hull had it not rolled out of the way at the last millisecond. On the bridge, the single red blip on the scanner array was joined by a pair more, converging from behind. The first corvette had been bait. It was an ambush.

“Fuck!” The single, ugly word, spat from the Captain’s mouth, summed up the situation rather neatly. As the Bodkin continued to swerve wildly through the asteroid field, laser pulses from the two more Zhi corvettes that had joined the chase cut through space and bit into rock all around it, a seemingly never-ending barrage of light from the tips of their ghastly pyramid constructs. The distant ship had slowed, and now fired its own weapons backward. It would not be long before one of them scored a lucky hit, no matter how erratically Carrington’s vessel flew. The privateer swore again, glancing around with rapid urgency. “Give me the helm, now!” The flight console slid swiftly over to him on its ceiling track, and he grabbed it with both hands, furiously slamming buttons and levers. The main thrusters’ bright, fiery roar faded to a whisper as he cut power to them, diverting it instead to the smaller engines on the starboard side and throwing the ship into a wide lateral spin, muttering a frantic prayer that no obstacles lay in its path. “Harris, fire both torpedo tubes on my mark!” He yelled, straining against the controls as his vessel continued to spin. A second more, and it had come to face directly backwards, reverse thrusters now engaging to send it flying directly rearwards. “Fire!” Two blinding streaks of light burst forth from beneath the Bodkin, taking a winding path across the short distance to their target. But they did not strike the pursuing aliens. Instead, each torpedo lodged itself into the centre of the closest asteroid and erupted in an explosion of fire and stone blanketing the sky. The corvettes desperately threw their engines into reverse, hoping to avoid the wall of debris, but it was too late. Steel tore and screamed in a tortured cacophony of destruction as they were ripped apart, victims of their own momentum.

The Bodkin span deftly back around, powering up its great motors once more to resume its pursuit of the final foe. This time, the xeno wretch would not be so lucky. As the rocky labyrinth of the Hengest Belt gave way to open space, cannon and laser blazed at once, a torrential barrage of shot fired now with deadly precision. Something ignited within the Zhi ship. A spark became a fireball. A fireball became a surge of scorching energy. Victory, for now, wore the White Ensign.
Cowritten with @BlondyMcHuggles

The back door of the Treis Ippótes swung open with an audible creak, its rusted hinges straining against the weight of the oak planks they supported and the sound of laughter and song floating out from within. Gottmar von Eibenschütz peered into the darkness beyond; the sun had not long ago sunk beneath the horizon and cast the shadow of night across the city. With a cautious hand on his sword-hilt in case of an encounter with the sort of common thugs and cutpurses who frequented such gloomy back alleys as this, the witch hunter stepped outside into the cool night air and looked around. Sleep, for him, was not a necessity by any means, and as a devoted Brother-Soldier his duty was first and foremost to carry out his investigations without delay. If the foul stain of dark sorcery had infiltrated Viarosa, he had not a second to waste.

And yet, he had not a single lead. Certainly, he had hunted witches not far beyond the city walls, yet frustratingly enough not one, even when subjected to the very harshest of interrogations, had provided a single ounce of information that might serve to incriminate their fellow black magi. Still, that did not mean there was nowhere to start. On the contrary, in fact, a city such as this, containing as many drinking establishments as it did, was ripe for harvesting the kind of information Gottmar sought - after all, with their inhibitions lowered, who knows what kind of strange and mysterious tales the locals may tell, and for every ten that were pure invention, one might hold a grain of truth. He glanced back at the inn he had just left. No, he thought, not that one. Full of sailors and dockworkers; not the sort who would know of the intricacies of affairs on land. He would have to go elsewhere.

It was a long and winding walk that had brought him to this door in particular, through labyrinthine slums and past many a shifty character who gave him a glare of disgust, yet thought better of provoking a fight. The witch hunter raised his gaze to the worn, faded sign that hung above the entrance to the simple timber building that rose up before him. 'The Laughing Fiddler', it read; a tavern whose outside appearance was certainly less than impressive - although, to the owner's credit, it seemed to have been kept clean enough. Satisfied that this place would do, Gottmar pushed open the door and strode inside with the air of a conquering general, surveying the wretched array of patrons with thinly veiled suspicion. He came to the bar, slamming a fist down on its splintered surface. "Flagon of weissbier, goodman," he grunted dismissively to the barkeep, pushing a silver coin across the bar before turning his back on the man and scanning once more over the occupants of this tavern. Half a minute later, a battered tin mug of hazy golden ale appeared at his side, and he took a long swig, wiping the drops from around his mouth with his gloved hand. The conversation had dwindled noticeably when the witch hunter had entered, but now it slowly began to resume its usual volume.

As Gottmar listened, one table's conversation in particular caught his attention. Amidst the din, it was hard to piece together the exact nature of their discussion, but a few choice words had been unmistakeable to his trained ears. The swarthy one spoke most definitely of a demon, and the scholarly-looking fellow across the table from him made some less-than-favourable comment about 'men of the cloth' in response. The witch hunter stifled a vindictive smile. Truly, it was as if the hand of blessed Calidorus himself had guided him to this place tonight, that he might encounter this wicked gang of demon-worshipping blasphemers and serve holy justice unto them. He paused. They did not look like the sort to fraternise with devils. But then, the corrupting forces of the arcane could ensnare anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Slowly, he edged his way along the bar towards them, interrupting his movement to take another gulp of his ale; it would not do to alarm the blasphemers before it was too late for them to escape. Then, when only a few paces separated him from the heretics, he drew his sword from its scabbard and closed the last distance between them in a split second. "Heathens!" he bellowed, slamming the tip of his sword down upon the table, sending a crack snaking through the aged wood and turning the heads of every patron of the tavern. "I have heard your foul talk of demons and death. Did you think that your evil ways would not be discovered? That your evil deeds would go unpunished? With Calidorus as my witness, I hereby charge you with conspiracy to commune with beings of the Infernum, a grave offence for which the only sentence is death. Have you any words to say in your defence?"

Athaliah was just about to reply to Ceara when the sword plunged into their table; the man responsible for it definitely looked rough, but not the type to be such a devoted man of the gods. Well, maybe the God of War liked his followers to look like they'd lost a few fights.

Once the initial shock of the encounter passed, she shared a quick look with everyone else at the table - they looked just as confused and shocked as Athaliah did, but even after a few seconds nobody spoke up. Just as the newcomer opened his mouth to speak again, Athaliiah left her seat and stood up; she was shorter than the scarred man and she'd fought men like him off before - not that she had any desire to. Especially now.

"Look, Ser," she began, doing her best to maintain eye contact with the rough man. "I know it sounds bad, but I promise, we're not planning anything evil." she nervously glanced around the tavern, taking note of all the people still staring at her and their assailant. It wasn't likely that anyone would come to their aid if something went wrong - the common folk wouldn't so much as blink if someone accused of demon-summoning was killed, guilty or not.

Athaliah sighed quietly and continuted. "We need what's on these papers we have so we can have a chance of saving the world." She saw the skeptical look on the man's face before it even appeared. "I know, I know how it sounds. Just... at least give them a read before you do anything?" she gestured for Mortirmir to hand the man the notes, hoping that the sudden movement woudn't get her impaled.

With one hand still on his sword, Gottmar snatched the stack of papers from the scholar, spreading them out across the table and beginnning to read. After a minute of silence, the witch hunter let out a menacing growl. "I ask for your defence, and you present me with a childrens' tale? Truly, you are beyond all hope of redemption." He raised his sword, the dim lantern-light of the tavern shimmering as it met the weapon's steel blade. "The charges stand: conspiracy to commune with beings of the Infernum, and mockery of a representative of blessed Calidorus. The sentence is death by fire." He turned to address the assembled crowd. "Citizens, restrain these heretics and take them outside." Several of the burlier patrons moved forward, giving a dutiful nod to the witch hunter and a withering glare to the accused. "Barkeep, a bottle of your strongest spirit. Fear not, you will be compensated when my work is done."
Cowritten with @Luftwaffles

The Viarosa Witch Project

Heavy boots pounded on the forest floor, kicking up piles of dead leaves and splintering rotten, bug-infested logs under their thick soles. A faint trace of moonlight filtered through the dense canopy, casting eerie shadows that danced a sinister jig around the trees. A long howl echoed in the distance; a wolf, or something worse? It did not matter. Gottmar von Eibenschütz had travelled to these lands for a singular purpose, and it would take more than wild beasts and tricks of the light to deter him from his pursuit. Vaulting over a fallen tree and resuming his sprint without so much as a second's pause, he kept his eyes fixed firmly on the faint light that flitted in between the distant trees - no ordinary light, but the sickly glow of foul sorcery; a taint, a plague upon the land, a corruption that must be purged without hesitation or mercy. With every second that passed, the faint light grew stronger, edged closer as Gottmar sprinted as fast as his aching legs would allow, carried forward by willpower alone, reaching for the bulky repeating crossbow at his back as his prey came into range.

Without warning, the trees parted, giving way to a clearing that was somehow no less ominous than the darkest depths of the forest itself. The grass and shrubs that covered the floor were not their usual vibrant green, but a pallid grey that resembled the skin of a corpse. Puddles and patches of mud littered the ground - rains had fallen not long ago - but the water here was thick and crimson. Unfazed, Gottmar pressed on. He had seen worse sights than this more times than he cared to count. The sorcerous light burst out of a patch of shrubs across the clearing, heading for the relative protection of the trees once more, and Gottmar raised his crossbow, loosing a pair of bolts that whistled through the air and slammed into their target with the sickening crunch of metal shattering bone. A shrill scream echoed into the night, and the distant wolves replied with their own howls. The glow of magic began to dim. Gottmar gave a satisfied grunt.

Striding up to the fallen foe, the hunter surveyed the pitiful specimen before him. A woman, elderly and frail in appearance, if not in ability, with almost skeletal, gangly limbs and wild grey hair, her frame covered in ragged, filthy robes. She could have been simply a brain-addled old crone, were it not for her eyes. Or rather, the lack of them - the empty sockets replaced instead by the dim shimmer of magical light that Gottmar had been following since the chase began. He glanced down. The crossbow bolts had sheared almost clean through her kneecaps, splinters of bone protruding from the gaping wounds. The skin surrounding the bolts had begun to blacken and shrivel - the work of the holy oil that lubricated the weapon's intricate mechanism and thus coated its ammunition. Gottmar's gaze shifted to the woman's face. "Witch," he began, his voice cold and unforgiving. "You are accused of the practice of dark sorcery, a most unholy affront to humanity and to blessed Calidorus. Have you any words to speak in your defence?"

The witch laughed, a harsh rasping sound that brought flecks of blood spraying from her twisted mouth to land on Gottmar's boots. The light in her eyes grew brighter for a second as she chanted in an alien tongue, forming a spell to vanquish her assailant. Her chant grew louder, until she was almost roaring each syllable, and wind and leaves rushed around the pair in a twisting whirlpool. The glow grew almost blinding, and a pulse of arcane energy emanated from her battered body, enveloping the hunter and... nothing. No scream of pain, no sudden collapse, no equally broken form lying next to her. Nothing.

The witch hunter's cold glare did not falter for a second. "Very well. For thy crimes, I sentence thee to death and damnation eternal. May the holy fire of Calidorus render your black soul naught but ash." He reached down to his belt with a gloved hand and withdrew a short, brutal falchion, dropping to one knee and pinning the exhausted witch to the ground. With a swift chop, her throat was split open, and with a second her spine was shattered in two, separating her head cleanly from her body, the light in her eyes finally extinguished entirely. Gottmar's hand reached into his coat, and he began to lay out before him the tools required to finish the job. From a small leather pouch, the witch hunter took a pinch of salt, rubbing it evenly on the witch's severed neck, both the shreds still attached to the base of her head, and the bloody stump that sat atop her shoulders. From a metal flask, he shook a few drops of holy oil above her heart. Then, placing a wooden stake in the same spot, he produced a mallet from his belt and struck until the spike had been driven as far in as it could go. Lastly, gathering a good bunch of the dead shrubbery that littered the clearing to use as kindling, he withdrew a firesteel from his pocket and drove a shower of sparks down onto the witch's corpse, waiting until the blaze had fully caught hold before he rose and placed his tools back into their various pockets and pouches. As the body burned and blackened, Gottmar bent and picked up the sorceress's head, giving one final glare to its ugly, wizened features before stalking back into the forest, clutching his trophy as the fires raged behind him.

Moving at a brisk trot through the towering wooden gates of Viarosa, a dappled grey draft horse stamped and whinnied as it was confronted by a pair of halberd-wielding guards, drawn to the animal in no small part due to the menacing appearance of its rider. Bringing the beast to a halt, Gottmar dismounted in a swift movement to face the guardsmen, fixing them with his usual cold, grim expression - an expression only magnified in its intensity by the network of scars that covered his pale visage. "What is the purpose of this delay, soldier?" he enquired, his tone calm and level yet still giving the air of a rather less civil interrogation.

The closest of the two guards gulped. This new arrival was not a man he particularly wanted to find himself in confrontation with; a hulking figure with the scent of death on his clothes, who towered over him by a good foot - although how much of that was due to his tall, wide-brimmed capotain hat the guard could not tell. Nevertheless, he steeled himself, puffed out his chest, and addressed the newcomer. "It is standard practice to enquire as to the reason any heavily armed stranger such as yourself might wish to enter this fine city, sir. A precaution, nothing more."

The witch hunter grunted dismissively, reaching across to his horse and unfastening a burlap sack from its saddle. "Is it also standard practice in this 'fine' city to allow the forces of evil to run rampant less than a league from your walls?" Letting the top of the sack hang open, he gave the guards a glimpse of the shrivelled, half-rotten witch's head that sat within. "Behold. The head of a dark sorceress, executed by my own hand in the forests not far from here. You will take me to your Lord that I might receive the appropriate compensation for my work."

"For the love of Solanius, who the hell are you?!" the guardsman shouted, jumping back as his eyes met the empty sockets of the deceased witch and lowering his halberd to point towards the stranger. "You murdered this woman and now you want to wave her head in front of Lord Demetrios himself? I should kill you where you stand!"

Gottmar's hand came to rest on the hilt of his arming sword. "I would not advise it, soldier. Many have tried, but by the blessing of holy Calidorus I still stand." As if by instinct, he made the sign of Calidorus across his chest. "If you will not take me to your Lord Demetrios, you will bring him to me. You will tell him that a representative of the Altenschloss Chapter of the Order of Brother-Soldiers of the Temple of Blessed Calidorus in Asmeinland is here to collect what he is rightfully owed." The guards stood still, unsure. "NOW, SOLDIER!" bellowed the witch hunter, prompting the foremost guard to give a sharp nod to his partner, who jogged away into the city to find the Lord.

The guard returned a while later, followed closely by a rough-looking man dressed in fine clothes. Although he wore their garments, it was fairly clear that the newcomer was no lord. “Are you the witch hunter?” he asked, looking Gottmar up and down.

"Aye," said Gottmar. "But you are not the man I requested." His attention left the new arrival, and his gaze fell back upon the guard. It was not a pleasant gaze. "Did you not hear my words the first time, soldier? Or did you wilfully disobey me?" He took a step towards the guardsman, who visibly flinched in response. The witch hunter gave a disgusted scowl. "Return to your duties at the gate, soldier. I have no further need of you." Once more he regarded the newcomer, sizing him up properly now. "You are a representative of Lord Demetrios?"

“I’m a representative of Viarosa, my friend.” The man smiled. “And its grateful citizenry. Show me the head, and I shall pay you in full.”

The witch hunter nodded, taking the decaying head out of its bloodstained sack and dropping it at the man's feet. "As you wish. Now, my payment. One hundred pounds, in weight, of sufficiently pure silver, delivered to me within twenty-four hours. Think of it as a donation to the Order - a gift to blessed Calidorus himself, if you will. A gift that will help to fund my further investigations in Viarosa, that I might know how deep the taint of black magic pervades this city." He glanced down at the head, lip curling with disdain. "As a representative of Viarosa, you will deliver the head to your Lord, inform him of the presence of Brother-Captain Gottmar von Eibenschütz in the city, and tell him that the Order expects his full compliance in the investigations and potential witch-hunts to follow. Am I understood?"

“Of course you will have your silver. Our fine city values the work you do for the gods.” The man turned to the guards behind him and nodded his head, sending both of them off to complete some unknown task. “I shall convey your message to the Lord O’ the Port. Now, where shall you be staying? We will need a place to send your reward.”

"The Treis Ippótes inn down by the docks. The Order rents the east wing of the establishment as an outpost in this city. You shall find me there. If I am not present, you may leave my silver with any of the senior Brothers you may meet there; they will ensure my payment is kept safe until my return." Turning away from the man, Gottmar swiftly mounted his horse once more. "In the meantime, if you hear or see anything suspicious, I expect that you will not hesitate to inform me. For the sake of your city, and your soul." At that, the hunter gave his mount's flank a sharp slap, and the beast began to move off towards the city streets beyond.

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