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The world was a flat grey. On either side of Vrog, the rocky crag they found themselves on seemed to suddenly drop into an unknown abyss. Behind him, the finger of rock stretched beyond sight, not that he had as much, and in front of him -- the very same. He was not alone, however, and stacked impatiently close was a single file line of strange and various monstrosities. The queue was so dense that each sweaty back and achy shoulder pressed against each other, digging into Vrog as he stood in the same line.

He rubbed his head, trying to puzzle together how he had gotten there. Something in his hand clinked against his helmet, and a darting tongue verified that he was still holding the bong. Which was, as all evidence suggested, not quite loaded with tobacco. What the spit has he put in it at all? Not even drinking himself blinder than usual had ever ended with him waking up in a line. As if he would ever wait in one, and for an occasion like this!

Vrog's fingers fumbled around the cracks of his armour and produced his new pocket watch. Good thing it had not been picked yet in this mash. He snapped it open, listened to the mouth's clattering, closed it again. Scumgut, he was going to be late at this pace, and those idiots ahead did not seem to be moving at all.

With a growl of “Get outta the way, spitface” he shoved back an unnaturally contorted limb that was protruding into his armpit and began a ruthless work of claw and elbow, trying to push himself ahead among the tightly packed miscreations. 

Pushing and clawing, Vrog managed to force himself further in the line, only to find the end stil out of sight. There was a resounding ‘ding’ and all the members of the queue suddenly took a single synchronized step forward. The motion all around him pushed him forward in the middle of a precariously long step. Spitting and swearing, he stumbled forward, hooked fingers digging into someone's back as he reached for the nearest point of support. Bits of flesh seemed to easily fall from the victim’s back, letting loose a sickly smell.

His prop coming apart under his hands, Vrog found himself tumbling to the ground. A few inches from the ground, the concerted action of a dozen tongues stopped the fall of his head, though not before his much broader body hit the rock with a clang. He picked himself up with foam at a few mouths, hissing ghastly blasphemies under his breath, and gave the watch another listen. This just could not be right! It was this late, and now was the first time he remembered someone being called up ahead. There had to be somebody managing things, or else, and he did not like the thought, he really would be arriving that much over time.

Vrog spat a seed into someone's supernumerary ear, aimed a spiteful kick at the unfortunate back before him and began to shove his way forward again. No way a bunch of slaggers like this was going to keep him from making it in time, or almost. 

There was a tug on the muscles responsible for Vrog’s hearing, and just as his mind suggested a ding was coming, a terrible droning melody followed instead. It had no real ups or downs, nor real hook or impact -- it was just a repetitive pattern of bland notes. As if to compliment the grey sounds, a snotty sniffle sounded somewhere in the line followed by a single wet cough.

His fingers went to his temples, or what passed for them, and his teeth grit against each other. To his horror, they quickly turned out to settle along with the tune, if it could even be called that. He tried to make another push, but found that he was a hair away from letting loose and starting to tear his neighbours up, which, he knew almost for sure, it was better not to do right here. But if that music went on much longer-

No, cut that. He had to take his mind off it, anything would do. Not finding any better stimuli, Vrog's tongue stretched out and slipped through the crowd like an oversized earthworm, snaking its way towards the source of the sickly sounds. It went, and it went, and it went.

DING!

The line shuffled forward an abrupt step, the mossy armpit of some creature with at least eight somehow clipping the tongue into a loose grip. Another of Vrog's mouths spewed a “Gutted scrapass” as he tugged to pull his limb free. No use - the hold was not strong, but the armpit seemed to go an absurdly long way in both directions. That had to be flat arms, ridiculous. Without a warning, pointed teeth sprang out over the tongue's length, cutting into its captor. Fibrous and stringy flesh with the hue of rot shredded from the being as it dumbly shuffled away from the tongue.

There was another ‘ding’ and suddenly the line moved one massive step that seemed to disorient reality. As the greyscale world shifted and fuzzed away from Vrog’s senses, an entertained cackle filled his head -- and slowly as the world came back, he knew he was elsewhere.

Sitting on her throne, Diana was cackling madly, one arm wrapped around her stomach and a single tear on her cheek. Vrog's tongue, or what remained of it - a sizeable part was lost somewhere in the transition - whipped back into his mouth, in time for an annoyed scowl.

“Sure, it's all a laugh until somebody gets-” he stopped, at a loss for what somebody was going to get, while his cut-off tongue emerged again at the familiar smell. “Hey, it's you. Explains why nobody got a spitting moving proper fast.”

“Oh you,” Diana stifled her cackle, “Still as ugly as ever. I have to say, I’m liking what you did with your tongue, very creative.”

“No point not doing my best,” claw-tips self-satisfiedly scraped the ghastly amalgam of grime and iron that passed for a belly as the mangled tongue snapped and drooled about, “Can't say the same for you. Still the rottenest bitter around. You blasted up anyone else lately?”

“Only if you count their minds,” Diana hummed, “But that’s just as well.” She held out a hand and a teacup appeared between her fingers. Taking a hot sip, a sulfuric smell livening the room, she gasped at the taste.

“Wouldn't be much different in here either way.” Vrog's musing was interrupted by the waft of sharp stench. His tongue tipped dangerously close to the cup, then coiled back in disgust. “That's what you wanted that lake for?! You're sure as scrap wasting it, and yourself drinking this scumbroth.”

He tossed up the bong he was somehow still carrying, and it landed back in his hand as a battered metallic flask, smelling unbearably foul despite the lid. “Think you were in a run last time, but we're not late for a thing now, so-” with a deft twirl of his wrist, he tossed the flask over to Diana, “-this one's on me.”

A dark tendril caught the flask and gingerly placed it into Diana’s waiting fingers. She unscrewed the cap (her teacup floating on its own) and took a whiff under a wiggling nose. She bounced her eyebrows once and took a sip. With an appraising hum she slowly poured the contents into her sulfuric tea and handed the flask back to the tendril. 

“Thank you,” She mentioned idly before taking a renewed sip, a gentle smirk on her face (with jagged teeth poking out through her lips). Gulping once she let her eyes flicker across Vrog once more, “So what, oh what, brings you here out of all places, hm?”

Several of his tongues clicked in a mix of surprise, disappointment and approval as he drank from a second identical flask that had appeared from some unclear corner. “This,” he held up the bong, whose steam was not of the colour it probably should have been, “And whatever scrap I put in there, can't have been tobacco. But I was coming by anyway, got something from my main piece to yours.” A spat seed buried itself in the floor. “He can put it where nothing don't shine for all I care, but you know how bosses get. Your stunt with the screaming at night made a cry all right.”

“How silly,” Diana squinted with a smile, “But go on, I want to hear this.”

“Wasn't there when it went down,” Vrog took another swig, “But picture yourself this. He's got himself these slaves - gutted packs of muscle and scab, all of them. Millions. All they know is obey, work, kill, bunch of spitting killer machines, that's what he wanted. And suddenly,” he snapped his fingers with a metallic screech to illustrate just how suddenly, “he gets the lot of them wailing like a bunch'a snivelly runts! Hah!” The gurgling guffaw was drowned in another sip. “Can you imagine his face at that if he got one?”

“Ha!” Diana nearly spat out her drink, “That is too funny. I don’t know if irony is really the correct word, but having a supposed army of might turned to grovel at their first nightmare really is a pinch on the cheek.”

“Spitting right.” A few of Vrog's mouths continued to chuckle even as the central one sobered down after the flask left it. “But, whatever you're calling it, the one who's got to shovel this slagheap now's yours truly. He wants to yell at the scrapper in charge here, and I'm the only mouth he's got.” The mouth in question went through a few pensive chewing motions. “Truth, though, that really your boss who did it? Thought the whole thing stank sorta like you.”

“Oh well, who can really say?” Diana curled a bashful smile, “As for your boss, I don’t know what he is expecting to accomplish, but I suppose you can just say you did ‘accomplish’ whatever that may be.” She wiggled her nose, “Would you care for a blistering steam?”

“Know what, let's go with that. Not like the gutface can peep in here.” The central mouth twisted back upwards in a filthy grin. “Bring it on.”

“Very good!” Diana smiled. With little else a rope uncoiled from an unseen ceiling and with a hearty tug, a pillar of screaming steam blasted over Vrog.

A sound like psscha followed the watery howl, and a damper, hotter Vrog hobbled out from the cloud. He poked disappointedly at the rivulets of dirt running down his person. “You didn't say this thing'd clean me,” he grumbled, “but I'm feeling a bit lighter now. What'd you think?”

He opened his mouth, and a burbling sound like a boiling swamp burst out of it, followed by a cloud of noxious vapours that roiled over Diana and her throne. Vrog scratched his jaw in wonderment.

Diana blinked through the cloud of gas, “Terribly sorry, I hadn’t a clue it would clean you.” Her smile indicated that she was clearly lying, “So what do you intend to do now that you’re here and have finished your hard wrought quest?”

“Now? Tell you what, I'm in no rush to get back out.” Vrog scraped his finger-hooks against each other as if cleaning fingernails, though the latter were a notion as foreign to him as cleanliness. “You going to tell me you've got nothing fun to do in here? Places to live up, stuff to drink, people to hurt?” His grin became visibly hungrier with the last words.

“Oh! I know just the thing,” Diana beamed, “We could have a nice long chat about our feelings.” Her sickly eyes washed over Vrog, a wobbly stool appearing next to him, “Doesn’t that sound grand?”

He tapped the beaten seat with a finger, a mouth over his shoulder humming an annoyingly uneven tune. “You want that, you got to give me something better than tea. I'vet no scrapped near drunk enough for it yet.”

Diana cackled, “I’m surprised you even considered it. I have half a mind to call your bluff now.”

“You haven't seen me when I've had enough. Can't say I have either.” Claws pensively clinked against each other. “Be nice to find out if there's enough breakables around to last me till I hit it.”

“Hm,” Diana tapped a finger to her chin, “Would you like to find out?”

“Damn right.” Wary as he might have been of being given the exact opposite again, Vrog could not but produce a large grimy keg in expectation.

“Why don’t you lie down,” Diana suggested, and pointed a finger to where a ceiling should be. In the endless expanse above, a single rusty nozzle poked down, a drip of alcohol forming on its edge. Diana arched a brow, “And let’s just hope we get most of it into one of your many maws.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the keg was tossed away as Vrog took position under the nozzle, laboriously angling his head upwards in spite of his lack of a neck, “I can accommodate.” His largest mouth stretched even wider, far beyond what should have been possible, while the body underneath flattened itself with rubbery ease. The toothy edges seemed to span from wall to unseen wall, or such was the oppressive feeling inspired by their incredible breadth.

“Now if only some more fleshpods were beyond that nozzle,” Diana mused to herself with a wink. She sat forward in her chair, eager to watch the show and with a snap of her slender fingers, a torrent of burning alcohol flooded out from the nozzle at rapid speeds. 

“Rather have it fla-” was all Vrog could manage before the stream drowned out his voice, the mouth it came from and the throat behind it in a go. For a moment, it seemed that the fiery-smelling flood would spill over the brink of his maw, no matter how wide, and something like a fountain appeared in the center where the jet rebounded. But, unaccountably, the tide of spirits inside him abruptly began to ebb, funneling down through unknown passages into a bottomless well. His body began to bloat horizontally, and iron plates drifted apart, letting pieces of the fluid abomination underneath drip to the floor. The rush of the updraft in the middle gave way to the satisfied gargle of a whirlpool.

It kept pouring down. The mouth and everything underneath were stretched so far as to disappear into the distant corners of the surrounding space, but still the flow gave no sign of thinning. The enormous pool that still retained some broad similarities with Vrog twitched faintly around its circle, then again, more determinedly. With a monstrous effort, the ring of the mouth lifted itself up and shrank, tapering up around the stream like a rotting cone of flesh. Something creaked, churned, snapped, and the enormity twisted and folded itself in a kaleidoscope of mutilation, rust and putrescence. A chaos of organic forms reigned for a moment, and then it was over, a noticeably swollen, but otherwise not greatly changed Vrog standing where he had been before. One of his mouths was stretched out in a broad-ended tube over his head, like some grotesque proboscidal umbrella, while the rest grinned stunnedly, but contentedly. Not a single drop had gone lost.

“Thhat’ss-” he tried a few mouths, checking if any were not drawing out sounds, then pulled and stretched something inside one with a hand before continuing, “-gutsdamned amazing, never once had this good a chug- you, really-” he jabbed a finger with some hesitation, but surprising accuracy in Diana’s direction, “'re the worst- best- whatever, the most,” he gave a meaningful pause, as if about to carry on, but slipped off from the line of reasoning and continued less fragmentedly, “Guts’ luck there’s someone in a spithole of a place as this-”

He sliced off the proboscis with a neat swipe, and the severed mouth remained hovering in the air, catching the downpour into a now invisible throat. His figure continued to bloat at a slight pace notwithstanding. 

Diana clapped her hands with glee, “I’m glad to be of service, now if only you were a mortal so I could make this mindset stick to you in the waking world.” She bit a jagged fingernail, “I can only imagine the fun little scenarios you would end up in.” A wide smile formed on her face, “Do you want to do it again?” 

A spell of thoughtfulness, such as it was, came over Vrog. “Mortal, no mortal, I'm sure as guts going to feel this up here when I wake up,” he tapped the side of his helm, “The best cure for that is to have some more, so,” he concluded, once again beatifically, “sure as the slagged pit I do!”

Diana smirked and waved a hand, the floor under Vrog suddenly dropping. Vrog dropped into a dark pit, the fall seemed to last forever, until finally there was a loud splash that he knew all too well. Diana called down from the top floor, her voice a hollow echo, “There you are!”

His tongues darted into the fluid, drinking it in hungrily with leech-like maws. Beatitude became toxic fervour. “Said it - the most!” he bellowed upwards from an unclear number of mouths, “You're a real-”

He launched into such an atrocious, innominable invective that the dank walls scrunched up into simulacra of horrified faces that wept bloody streams. The most hideous words of every language between Barrier and Core, and a few that could not quite be placed, mingled with blasphemies against every divinity that came to mind. Between the euphoric voices in which they were shouted, the various speaking organs growing steadily more discordant, and the rebounding echoes, the cacophony was such as to permanently deafen any ear of less than godly strength.

When he finally ran out of breath, Vrog spat out something stuck in one of his throats. A splash was followed by a squeal, and a porcine snout joined the gurgling chorus followed by a mad cackling from above.

“By the way,” he followed his apocalyptic tirade with a familiarly matter-of-fact tone, “I got these funny little people you dropped. Want me to put them anywhere particular?”

“Oh, I can think of a few places,” Diana mused out of sight.

“Tell you what,” he briefly went under as the piggut tried to clamber over him, then shoved the creature away and bobbed up again, a fair bit more swollen, “I'll think of some too, then you tell me how close I got.”

“Oh, this ought to be a delight,” Diana cackled, “Name your first!”

Some meditative gargling, then “How 'bout - a place where they got whelps to snatch? Can't name any now, but I'll sure find at least one.”

“See, I was thinking about something a bit more... disturbing,” Diana’s voice dipped, “But if you really are serious, then how about a little tip -- if you promise to spread the misery?”

“Hey, was just one idea,” the answer from the well came with joking offense, “I'll spread you that and worse!”

“Then listen close, you ugly hunk of delight,” Diana called down, “There is a festival of new and young minds on Galbar. So fresh, so naive...” She cleared her throat, “The best part is the variety, an entire cluster of continents and islands in the northwestern hemispheres. Maybe try your luck there.”

“You cann-” the voices intoned with the cadence of a bawdy song, “count on me to-” the following part was largely indistinct, drowned as it was by cruel enthusiasm, but the bits that floated up did not presage anything good for whoever inhabited those places, “-them! Aalways count on me!”

Some more sputtering mixed with chopped-up delighted excoriations in Diana's direction, abruptly interrupted by a grunt and the sound of a fist hitting the surface.

“'Fact, so you know to remember-”

A knife whistled up the pit, thrown up with phenomenal force. Its rusty, jagged blade was adorned with a crudely scratched All my loathing - V.

“Be rude not to leave nothing back for everything,” followed the eager, if not very cohesive explanation, “Should be good for nails.”

“I do like to look presentable.” Diana called back down, “I’m nothing if not a perfectionist.”

“Can't say for looks, but you got the right track with the rest,” the garble of voices was beginning to grow fainter, receding to greater depths. “Keep at it and they'll gag on their guts soon as you're near. Tell me how it works out next time.”

The churning spiked up into the roar of a cataract, and over it rose, like a chorus of wrathful damned souls, “Catch you later!”

Then silence, darkness and the all-pervading smell of alcohol.

Command Lair Volisk
Agdemnar


“How many today?”

“Three. A quick-print Brood icon in the third hall, a couple of Harvester sign paints in the corridors on the other side, and this.”

With a flick of his ramified tongue, Thraas switched on a lateral monitor on the large mound of machinery that filled the center of the wide, squat domed room. Its even electronic glow cast bluish shadows on the smooth cemented walls as the three skirol leaned in, amid the clanking of their motor vehicles’ mechanical limbs, to get a better look at the cramped display. The jagged characters of Srynn Universal on it assembled into rather dry and formal-looking stylistic spirals, but the semantic clusters that formed them were bombastically fanciful as only propaganda pieces could be.

Fellows in superior genesis! We approach a new age of wealth. The old hand that closed around our throats is dead and we eat its remains. Its shields will not stop us, nor will the lesser scavengers that flock to it defeat us. We are born the devourers of life and carrion, and we abide no equals in our domain. Let the feeble prey-things that walk upright break themselves against our jaws of stone! Death waits for them on this world, and triumph for us. We will prevail. We will consume. We will harvest.

But the greatest threat to our supremacy is not from outside. The cowering reactionaries who call themselves your leaders refuse to see the potential of the bounty that lies before us. They would use it just as another weapon. Another tool on the field where our kind must abase themselves before scum that would not last an hour on Vesereth. The brave among us say no! Enough!

No more politics! No more crawling before weak prey-things! The brightest minds of the cycle are with us. We will take the power from the corpses of the Ashtar and no one will have strength to stop us. The universe will be remade in the image of its rightful masters. Come with us, and you will rule over suns beyond counting.

We are the Genome Harvesters. We are the one future.


Veissk folded the pale flaccid skin over his eyes, closing them away from the rambling drivel on the screen. This was the kind of thing that brazenly circulated over the lair communication network under his command. To think that everything had been so quiet at the start. Every member of the expedition had gone through extensive vetting, or at least so he had been told, and he had been assured by the ranks on Vesereth that his officially rogue force did not have anything to fear from the flocks of rumours that surrounded it long before launch. And yet here he was, staring at something out of an espionage pherofilm.

The distant, regular rhythm of the artillery batteries aboveground pushed him out of his moment of lethargy.

His lateral eyes glanced over Thraas, the head of surveillance attached to the expedition to contain just this sort of trouble, who was twisting more buttons on the hub, and Cyret, his lead technician, who nervously ran her tongue back and forth over the edge of her cockpit. As if things were not bad enough, that was it. Those two were the whole of his command anrak. Good people, for sure, but so very few, enough for neither a good command or a good trezklin. This was a sensitive mission, they had said on Vesereth, they had taken precautions, but it was better to limit risks. Taking his trezklin was out of the question, and they could not make the anrak too big. He understood that, but three?

“What do you make of it?” Thraas was asking, evidently done with the hub. Veissk’s left mandible twitched with mild annoyance. Who was supposed to be the expert here, he or them?

Cyret seemingly felt the same way, as her tone had a small edge to it when she replied “What do you think? Some radical fasthead’s ranting. You don’t have to tell us we’ve got a clutch here.”

“That’s the thing.” Thraas leaned back in his cabin. “How many times have you two dealt with the Harvesters?”

Bundles of Veissk’s nerves pulsed under his skin as he remembered. “Once when I was on border duty and they’d been harassing Jalaryias again. Never actually saw one of them, but they made a ragged mess that time.”

“Haven’t seen them either,” Cyret assented, “Just ran through some hardware that got taken from them in a raid. Dangerous stuff, I told you that other time.”

“Right.” Thraas’ head bobbed downward. “And how often have you seen them send out stuff like this?”

“I haven’t, they weren’t recruiting-” Veissk began, but his anrak-brother cut him off.

“Even if they’d been, you wouldn’t have known. The Harvesters don’t work like that. They’re professionals, much as you and me. They don’t need this kind of trash to tell them what to do, when they’re on an op, they already know everything. Running their jaws would just risk blowing their cover, and they know what it’s worth.” He lashed his tongue at the writing on the screen. “This doesn’t look like them a bit. Maybe the Brood or Omniphage or some other religious crackcoil, or our friends in the Pure Circuit, but Harvesters sure as teeth don’t sign their messages.”

There was a brief silence, punctuated by the dull thumping of artillery.

“And what does this mean?” Veissk finally spoke up.

“Either this and the signs are a plant and it’s really the Brood that’s at work here,” Thraas replied, “but you know that can’t be it. Or else the Harvesters are so confident they’ve brought in preachers.”

“So confident…” Cyret repeated half-silently as if distracted by a calculation in her mind, “How many are there around us?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. I’ll run a deeper background scan than what I’ve got now for everyone, but I need Veissk here to give me clearance for that. I can also try to trace this present they’ve left us, but I can’t guarantee anything there.”

“You’ve got it. Do what you can.” Alarming as it was, Veissk was just eager to get this business out of the way for the moment. “Cyret, you’d said you had something about that transmission?”

“Cracked it.” Cyret bit the air with a satisfied expression. “The code was a basic one, the message a standard hail. Whoever sent it was taking no chances with misunderstandings.”

“So we still don’t know who it is.”

A tongue-whipping of denial. “Completely new signature. Haven’t got any matches with wartime records. I got them a first contact data pack - had to update some pieces there. Nobody I know has sent one of those for a long time now.”

She tapped something inside her cockpit, and one of the screens before them flickered to a looping string of ”welcome - welcome - welcome - welcome - welcome - welcome”, while the one next to it began coursing through columns of encoded language.

Veissk snapped his jaws impatiently. He was no specialist. “You’re clear to send it. If it comes to the worst, we’ll let orbital handle it.”

“Speaking of orbital…” Thraas pointed at a steadily burning red light near the top of the hub. “I think communications’s been waiting on our line for a while now.”

With an irritated gnash, Veissk flicked the comm channel on. What did they want now? The next push against enemy positions was due in four lesser cycles, he still had no idea of what troop readiness was like, and the Harvester markings were not a good sign. “What?”

“Fold Warleader One, we have an oddity.” The comm overseer’s voice was indistinct without the pheromone signals backing it. Downsides of remote technology. “Unscheduled drop from orbit. They must’ve taken advantage of the skirmish up there to get close enough. Looks like a tactical transport unit, but we can’t be sure.”

Just what they needed. More complications. “What do you mean, can’t be sure?”

“They’re not responding to hails. Their trajectory’s too far for visual contact.”

Now as grim as the dull metallic chassis of his vehicle, Veissk pulled a small lever near the hub’s top. A loosely set projector crackled, and a rough holographic schema of the surface in a wide radius around the command lair sprang into being over the mound of machinery. Key locations gently pulsed as purple sphericles caught in the bright blue mesh; the inbound transport’s projected path cut a broad red arc overhead, burying itself in one of the lightly breathing purple points.

Veissk gaped. “That’s where the Asrians set up camp,” he hissed to one in particular, “we’re not supposed to hit that until we know for sure what they’ve got there.”

He looked at both his anrak-siblings in turn with consternation, and was met with equally lost stares. The only thing they were almost sure about was that the blame for something or the other was going to eventually fall on their heads.

Administrative Hub 409
Traysk Centre, Isvest
Vesereth


...said actions on the parts of major powers like the aforementioned present a clear threat to the integrity of the Treaty of Madrigasa and the terms thereof. The implications of this for the preservation and balance of galactic peace are evident. It is therefore the duty of any sincere adherent of the Treaty, and more so any sincere proponent of peace and stability, to formulate a reaction to the aforedescribed infractions, irrespective of whether they are legally sanctioned by their respective governing bodies. The preservation of peace and balance takes precedence over recognition for a nation’s ability to follow its laws, as well as, regrettably, the original unaltered word of the Treaty proper.

The Joint Commissions of the Harmonic Conflux of the Innumerate Suns, with the approbation and support of their constituent authorities, have thus reached an agreement regarding the emendation of the Exegetic Corpus of the Treaty’s terms. In accordance with this motion, several points of the disarmament conditions will be subject to revision in the near future. A committee is being formed with the task of ensuring that these revisions are conducive to the further preservation of a stable and balanced state of forces within the galaxy. The most salient excerpts eligible for emendation include…


Skenyrr slumped back in her walker, letting her eyes drift away from the tightly regimented letters on the workstation display. The text was obviously written as a declaration to the international arena - the awkward, stilted language and rigid stylistic lines were designed for easy translation - but circumstances dictated that it be framed as a news article, and thus written in Srynn, however bad, for authenticity’s sake. Nobody in the Suns was going to learn anything new from that, of course. The local media had already come up with thousands of clearer ways to say the Commissions were rewriting the Treaty so that they, and only they, could have dreadnoughts and new warships to supposedly counter threats to galactic peace.

Politics, however, called for a show. Skenyrr never did understand, as many skirol did with her, how other polities managed to have one person or small group representing them who could make announcements to the whole galaxy. Something like that might have been possible for pre-space primitives with countries of a few hundred million at best, but when a government stretched over suns on suns, it was absurd. No single thousand beings could possibly be a reliable mouth for the whole system, let alone the one making a speech at a single moment.

And so it was that the Conflux had no real face to show to the galactic community, only an enormous, shapeless mass. Communications were never signed with a name, and proclamations were done this way, as if through incidental news pieces. It really did make much more sense that way.

The skirol glanced over the wide white-plastered hall, brightly lit by several large windows high above anyone’s head. Before her, the brightly chromed bodywork and softly curving pale backs of her family sat before their own stations, checking the day’s news or already tapping away at some diplomatic dispatch. The work was not as glamorous as that of the people making the actual decisions some floors higher, but someone had to organise their disjointed notes into something presentable for foreign governments, and she had never minded the living it afforded them.

Wincing a couple of eyes, she was able to see Inoksh, her second-mate, waving at her with his tongue from across the chamber. She waved back and sank down to the level of her display, flicking the monotonous flow of the declaration away from it. Her neighbour, her clutch-aunt Vnissrin, was already at work, and tossed her some document over the connector fibre with a light tap.

“Message from Rolvius,” she nodded at the notification symbol lighting up on Skenyrr’s monitor, “Already cleared to answer. They had to split it up between Trade and Distribution and the emigration people. Check the first part, it’s better than yesterday’s comedy.”

Skenyrr opened the letter with a tap, and her jaws gaped wider and wider open ash she read.



“...They want the Maw closed?” she was finding it more difficult by the moment to hold back a spray of hilarity pheromones strong enough to cover the whole room. “Because they saw something on the news? Srin, is this a joke? Tell me you wrote it.”

Vnissrin whipped her tongue. “Wish I did, but it’s real. You’re our expert in letting prey-things down, go and bite them hard.”

“You got it.” Try as she might, she could not suppress a chuckle of a spurt. “So, what’s the verdict? I’m guessing telling Lisrak to deal with it isn’t the solution?”

“Not that easy. They’re already antsy about Theniax muscling them out on the Maw’s profits, so we at least try to throw them a bone or they’ll give us all the headache of the rotation. I tagged the administrators’ orders with the thing.”

There were indeed a couple of laconic notes attached to different sections of the letter - “denied, seek alternative; admin. 7” for the first and “not authorized, prepare inspection; admin. 31” for the second. With an exhilarated breath, Skenyrr began to tap out a response.



She let her tongue rest for a moment and glanced at Vnissrin. “I’m not sure about these smaller dealers they’re writing about. You think we should get Lisrak a backup supplier in case it doesn’t work out with them? Maybe send a suggestion upwards?”

“Already thought of. There’s a message to the Lokoid queued after yours, this one by courier. They had me prepare the ground a bit, have a look.”

Another notification flashed to life on the display.



Skenyyr clicked her jaws in amazement. “That’s as good as offering a military pact. You think things really are bad enough to start thinking that way?”

Her clutch-aunt wobbled indecisively. “You’ve seen the news, they’re bringing out the guns again. Maybe it’s still going to be nothing, but don’t quote me on that.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got enough quoting for the morning.” She let the gelatinous sides of her bulk lightly slide down the flanks of her cabin, in a half-studied way by reflex. Vnissrin did not really care about her showing off her girth, but she had gotten into the habit since meeting Inoksh. Speaking of which. “Few of us are going out for comm-feeding this noon, there’s a new place past the river we haven’t been yet. You coming too?”

“Count me in as long as it’s not Lokoid. I wouldn’t want to starve the poor hatchlings on Giaxil.”

The gentle wafts of their laughter drifted over the rows of clerks. A few joined in on the missed joke with a cautious puff. Srynokk shone brightly overhead.


Alpha.

&

Vrog the Accursed


The jungle-lantern that had elected to lead Vrog through the rain was an old being, weathered and mossy, the pits on its stone surface inhabited by all manner of black specks that would probably have been insects if they were crafted by a more capable hand. The trail it led him on was natural, for a certain value of the term. No axe had beaten it through the shrubbery, certainly, but no ordinary forest was this full of malign will, either.

The tōrō-lantern strode on, dipping its hat-like cover only occasionally to indicate to the Avatar that he was still on the correct path, and drawing near.

Vrog’s tongues swiped about, sampling every trail of smell like sticks running along a xylophone. The constant reminder of meals wafting from distant shrines was a slight annoyance, but the thick, dusky air crushed under the treetops smothered most of it. More often, he felt breaths of death and some sinister omen that could not be fully natural, and his mouths broke into pleased grins.

As his luminous guide nodded once again, he bit down with one pair of jaws, as though just having remembered something important, and ran the ridge of a finger along his side. New stains of scum and rust blossomed over his armour, the air around him growing faintly dark with an unplaceable, but malodorous presence. When he lifted a foot for his next step, he bared a footprint of muck and squirming maggots. He brushed against a low-hanging branch that resembled, not all that vaguely, a grasping withered arm, and a green slimy blight crawled up its bark. Checking himself with a rapid sweep of a tongue, he cracked a satisfied snarl and hurried up his half-loping, half-shambling steps. The lantern had already gone a few paces further ahead.

A gust died just long enough for the sound of music to be audible from the gazebo ahead of the avatar.



Chopstick Eyes had just enough joints in her limbs to stretch out luxuriously under the rain-shaded roof, arms rolling out over the hammocks and around the ovens and braziers, laying easy on a bed of pillows. A pair of limbs strummed her guitar with lazy energy, while another set handled a marimba and a loose strand of hair worked the maraccas. When her sticks focused on the coming stranger, she put down her flute long enough to pick up an already-chomped limb of some large bird and raise it in merry welcome before chomping once more.

“Ey, sup,” she announced, her mouth full. “You Narshak’sh friend?”

The avatar raised two long segmented fingers and cocked them forward in what must have been some form of greeting. As if to punctuate the gesture, a chewed seed snapped against a supporting plank as close as it could get to Chopstick’s head. She tilted her head back with a lengthy stretch and admired the seed embedded in the timber, then turned back and nodded in sage appreciation.

“Something like that,” he hopped across the last steps dividing him from the gazebo, trailing rotting soil all the way, and perched in a crouch on the wooden floor’s edge. The boards under and around him immediately became covered with an ugly-looking greenish mold. “He didn’t figure why you’d been on the low ‘til now, so I got to do the checking.” He fumbled for something near his hip, then snapped his fingers and pointed back at his host. “You got a smoke?”

The sticks creaked for a moment, but Chopstick shrugged, rolling over on her pillows to reach for her backpack. “Sure. Pipe, cigar, or bong?” She reached up from her laze just long enough to put a tin on the table, followed by the other two options and a ground bud in a paper bag. “Personally, I’m just gonna eat. I’ve actually been working…” Yawn, accompanied by an enormous stretch. “Really… hard lately. Join me, the pulled pork is amazing.”

The hooked fingers hovered over the familiar shape of the cigar, but moved sideways to snatch up the bong at the last moment, staining it with rust where they touched. A tongue probed the vapour rising from the mouth, then wrapped itself over it, topping the opening with a narrow coil. Minuscule jaws opened along its length to breathe up the smoke and let it slip through fine openings. The tip clicked appreciatively.

“Love to, but-” another tongue stretched out way longer than it had any business to, snatched off a whole leg from a roasting camel and pulled it back into its maw. Said maw almost immediately spat out a mouthful of fine grey dust. “-someone thought this’d be funny. Could go for a drink, though.” Vrog picked up the bottle closest to him and poured its contents into a cup formed by a third tongue. “Strange how some spit teaches you to appreciate stuff. So, figure I’d ask,” he tapped his belly with one hand and filled a second makeshift cup with another, “What’s up with working? Spit sounds boring as anything.”

“I work so I don’t sleep,” said Chopstick Eyes, right corner of her mouth twitching. She discarded a bone. “I eat so I don’t sleep. Sleeping is terrible. That’s vinegar, by the way. Finest balsamic.” The cloud of dust finally descended low enough to interrupt her chewing and she wheezed. “Geez, dude. Who did that to you?”

“Slagface that really liked dust. Made of it too, far as I could tell. Orvis or something.” Chopsticks had started smiling in a curious way. Vrog raised the bottle to his middle mouth, for lack of anything better to hold it up to. “So that’s why. Thought it was just old. Gotta say, I like the sour a lot better even if it’s got no punch. Mind if I take it?” Without waiting more than a perfunctory instant, he twirled the container in his hand, and it was gone. “But yeah, it’s annoying as it looks. Hit it just when I was getting down from indigestion, too. Sleep’s the spit from what I’ve been hearing, but you gotta be trying to even go wrong with eating. You keep at it long as you can.”

“Mm, I will,” said the goddess, knuckling her mouth with her burnt hand and an unfocused sticky gaze. She was still smiling. “I’ve got more vinegar lying around here somewhere, if you want it, but I have other stuff that has... More of a punch, I guess.” She threw her bone into the air like a juggler’s club and rose with a spin- “Kum-ba-YA!” The fragments of the bone scattered, scorched by desolate magic. Chopstick left the fist with the burning ring in the air for a moment then withdrew it. She stretched again, but in an entirely different way.

“Well! I think it’s time I got back to work on something! Go grab that bottle of tabasco, mm, and that, uh, garum over there, and honestly, anything else that looks liquid. I’ve got some tests I want to run. And I’m gonna show you my lil project! Talk as we walk! Hey, do you like little guys?” Chopstick twirled on a wooden column and made vaguely human-shaped motions.

“Remember I said indigestion?” Vrog hopped and rummaged about the pavilion, leaving a tangled trail of rotting footprints on the floor and traces of infectious growths and grime wherever he touched, which fit remarkably well into the accursed forest. Better than the picnic spread, certainly. Bottles, pitchers and anything that could have contained a fluid were swept up with hand or tongue, generously sampled, and carried along or put back - out of place - seemingly at random. “That was little guys all right. Got enough of 'em then to last me long as I've something to bite with.”

He reached into a fissure in his metallic skin with a free finger and pulled out a small pod-like thing with mournful eyes. With a disgusted grunt, he pinned it on the tip of his claw. “Try putting them in someone's food, though. It'll be hilarious.” A flick, and the podling was sent flying into an open pot. A tongue followed it to check it had landed where supposed to, then abruptly twisted around and pointed questioningly at the goddess. “Less you've got another kind there.”

“Another kind of what, little people? I mean… I guess. In a way.” A frond of Chopstick’s hair competed with Vrog’s tongue for general stretchiness and scooped up the pot before retracting back into the jungle trail on which Chopstick was rapidly disappearing. She shook it, remarked a rattle, shook the pod onto her palm and threw it down her gullet. She chewed. “Tastes like... a bad pill. I’m Skraghnaphgh, by the way. You?”

“Vrog.” The mass of metal and roiling sludge hobbled after her, balancing an armful of drinks and sauces under one hand and the bong in the other. With a spectacle of fingers contorting in ways they perhaps should not have, he managed to pour a few drops of something into the tube, then breathed up again and nodded, mostly to himself. “I like being open. You smell me, you know me.” A hooked digit scraped for another fleshpod, but failed to find any. “Except for the dust and these gutted things, that’s someone else. People can’t go without sticking stuff in here.” The loose finger scratched over his stomach. “That some kind of calling card thing, you think?”

“Probably. I dunno,” said Chopstick Eyes, who was feeling at her throat with odd consternation. “It was somebody else’s name, but they’re not around, so I’m trying it on. Liv calls me Chopstick Eyes... Geez. You sure that thing is meant to be eaten?” She plucked a cigarette holder from behind her ear as the two breached into a scorched wound in the jungle much too large to be called a clearing. “Oh, hey, Liv. This is Vrog.”

The gardener crooned.



@Nate1008 Let's be clear on this from the start, I'm not trying to be confrontational here. I'm not aiming to offend or insult anyone. However, I feel this subject is degenerating in a way that isn't healthy for this RP's environment, and I'd like this to be resolved before it gets any worse. From your sheets and replies, I'm getting a sense of some attitudes that don't mesh with the spirit of what we've got going here, and I'll try to explain why I think they are a problem.

First off is the fact that, despite acknowledging people's advice and criticism, you aren't consistently acting on it. Yes, the bio-FTL has been fixed, but that's the least of the problems here. Sierra has pointed out, long ago, that "infesting" and taking over people's things is lazy writing, and I'd add that it's borderline powergaming unless there's an agreement between the players; you've added more original elements and units, which is good, but all the infested stuff is still there and listed as if it's a regular thing for your nation to field. Multiple people have pointed out that a nation that's not capable of interaction other than mindless fighting is not interesting or desirable in a collaborative setting; you had added hints of it being possible to communicate and form agreements with it in earlier versions, but have removed them again. Those were actually improvements. If you're going to get rid of anything, it'd be much better if it was the overaggressive part.

Next up is your approach to the RP on the whole. Your faction is built to be blindly murderous, being formed by hive-minded animals and zombies. The issue here is that this is an advanced, character-driven RP, as you would see from reading the IC posts, or, for that matter, even the OP. This is not a thread where every post is supposed to read like an AAR from a tabletop wargame. Players portray their nation through characters who go through their own plots and stories, move through the shared world we build, face their own struggles reflecting those of the nation they live in, maybe even grow and develop, and, most importantly, interact with each other. Sure, it can be as straightforward as soldiers shooting each other on a battlefield (and even then it doesn't have to be simple - war isn't easy on people), but beyond that there's whole realms of diplomacy, subtle power struggles and political intrigue, which you're completely cutting yourself away from. Heck, these characters don't have to be just regular people - hive-minded beings with a hundred bodies or incorporeal AI can be just as interesting to write as, but that takes dedication and effort to do in an engaging way. Without real personalities to work with, and a singular hive mind isn't going to cut it, you will eventually find yourself with nothing to write besides dreary exposition, and that's not going to be fun for anyone.

You said you like playing as destructive factions who are everyone's enemy. I don't want to sound condescending here, but how many times have you done that before now? Speaking as someone who has created and used that kind of thing a few times, being a common foe is something that takes a lot of work collaborating with other players and, if necessary, the GMs to make sure that things stay fair and interesting for everyone. A faction like this needs to be plausible (i.e. "what's stopping everyone from wiping it out as soon as they can if it's such a threat?"), balanced (i.e. the answer to the above is not "because it's just that strong and could stomp any other single nation"), and, above all, interesting. That, I find, is the Scar's main failing. Your sheet is extremely threadbare in everything outside the military section; your nation has no depth to it beyond its ability for mindless violence. A hivemind is a difficult thing to write as, sure, but if you can make it work it can have a great deal of mystery, terror and unnatural mystique to it in every detail, to be explored, puzzled out, contended with on its own terms, and maybe understood. Instead, all you can offer to other players willing to interact with you is "shoot the gnashing monsters", and that's not interesting or appealing for anyone looking for a deeper story, which people in advanced RPs generally do.

This ties into another thing I've noticed about your sheets. You mention things like "tech research requirements", precise numbers of weapons per ship and earlier on things like "less hull integrity and less shield", which look like they're out of a video game. The process for infestation you described is also very gamey, with people having to complete some objective within a set time or else they lose their ships and have no more say in that. That's not how RPs like this work. This is not a video game, this is a story collaboratively written by people who add their contributions to a shared plot and setting. When there are conflicts like battles, the participants agree on an outcome based on plot and circumstances before writing it out. Saying things like "I do this, and you can't do anything about it besides trying to meet some arbitrary conditions that I decide, and that's that" is extremely bad form, if not outright godmodding. That's how things might work in a video game with rigid rules where the computer regulates everything, but we're not playing one here.

Finally, there's your take on the sci-fi genre. Of course, it's a genre built on impossibilities, more so in a space opera like this one where things like FTL and forcefields are common. However, as Archetype pointed out, this isn't just fiction, it's science fiction. This means that technologies, no matter how wild, need to be grounded on a minimally plausible explanation. It can be pseudoscience, or something that only works in the RP's setting, or even just some vaguely technical-sounding words, but if you present something that would normally be impossible, you need to establish a principle holding it up, which you haven't done. The rhino monster is the most obvious example (and on a sidenote, I really don't think you realise what kind of numbers you're talking there; 24 km is 4 Mounts Everest on top of each other - nobody has cruisers that big, the organs you described for it are microscopic in comparison, and reasonably it would need centuries, if not millennia to grow to that size, not 60 years). But there's also things like winged monsters flying and making sounds in space, or organs somehow merging with a ship to control it and make it become alive, which make no physical sense on their own and are never explained in any way. Going more in depth about things like these would help flesh out your faction and actually make it more interesting to work with, but you've ignored them entirely.

So, before you start another rewrite, I recommend you give these issues some thought and reconsider your approach to the RP.
Where dead things are


The woods were quiet. This was nothing unusual - it was rare for anything to make much of a racket when someone was around - and, indeed, that was what was good about it. Nothing unusual meant everything was going smooth.

And still, there was an unease in that silence that not even years of familiarity could dispel. Perhaps they even made it worse, as one who knew this quiet was well aware of how often it was just waiting to be suddenly broken. No matter how long one spent in it, it never got really predictable. Sometimes you would expect a shuffling to roll out of the undergrowth all of a sudden, only to go for the entire day without hearing a sound of anything alive, while on other days you could think you were having a break and could well make it to sunset without being noticed, and be sent running by a shambling just by your elbow. You never could be sure of anything anywhere, yes, but out in the woods it was at the worst. And the further you went, the worse it got.

Of course, most of the time the silence was not really all that. As long as you kept walking, whether you wanted it or not, you would keep hearing yourself. Birds still sang, somewhere overhead well out of sight, and sometimes forest streams gurgled loud enough to tell which way they were. It was only when you came close to an old place that these sounds would start fading, little by little. There were no streams in sight of the collapsed walls or toppled towers, and the birds never seemed to come very close. The old places were dead, and only a grave-worm would stir them up now. But then, if you got to live by being a grave-worm, it was a pretty good trade. Or so Red found, at least.

The squat, hirsute man edged his way past a low-hanging branch, weighed down by a mass of yellow leaves, and vaulted over a shallow burrow in the ground without taking his eyes away from the snippets of grey that peered out from between the overgrown limbs of a fallen tree some way ahead. A glance with the bottom of an eye now and then was enough for the forest floor, but the ruins, those were what was worth watching from as soon as possible. Not just because it was best to get an eyeful of what they were like early on so he did not have to mill about them longer than needed. No, he just liked the feeling of taking them in, grim and slightly unsettling as it was. A small cold jolt to the stomach at the sight of those enormous carcasses, almost like seeing an ugly corpse and thinking that something like that had been alive earlier, and maybe still was somewhere. Not quite like that - there was nothing ugly about an old place, really - but thinking of what was dead and what was not, it turned out, was almost always alike. It was good for taking his mind off of sore feet, too.

The hollow bulk he was looking at now was almost as imposing as he had ever seen them. It had to have been a castle or something like that once, with huge walls of thick stacked blocks, still marked by the jagged remains of collapsed turrets. As he wound through the last stretch of forest around it, he turned his head down more and more often, running his eyes over sparse large stones and pieces of ground-corners that still held together in spite of age. The massive had obviously not stood alone in its prime, but that had been so long ago that the wood had all but reclaimed the last traces of its hangers-on.

The place itself, though, was too big for that. Weeds had spread over its wall like rot on a proper corpse, but it would be a long time yet before they pushed anything loose. The trees near the crumbling mouth of the gateway were still thin, and the dead leaves under them mostly came from the older, taller ones he was still not quite out of. Just as much as one could not tell how long it had already stood there, it looked as though it would keep standing like that for a time that was lost far beyond the day-to-day future that everyone knew these days.

Something rustled in the distance behind his back, and Red tore his eyes away from the colossal ruin. From where he was, he could not see what had made that noise, nor the next one when it came, or the one after that. It could have been the wind, though the leaves around him looked still. He spat on a finger and held it up, feeling the air. Not even a breath. Something rustled again, closer, heavy. He strained his eyes in the direction he thought it came from, hard to tell as it was. The brush and fallen branches moved a few throws of a stone away, and bleak, swampy shapes pushed their way past the yellowing growth. The air was too still to really feel much, but even so his trained nose picked up the stench of Filth. A lot of them.

As quietly as he could, putting his feet down heel-first, Red backed behind the cover of a thick old tree. He knew well enough by then that this did not help any, since the fuckers, he was sure, did not see or maybe even hear, but felt things in some terrible way they had. Nevertheless, the gesture itself made him at least feel safer, a show less for them than for himself.

It was by far not the first time he had run across Filth like this, by day or night. He had always hidden when there was room to, though he knew that what saved him was not that, but the thing that he knew - that he was too small and too poor, that he walked too lightly over the earth to be worth their while getting. Some things you learned to remember very early when you were sure that someone knew you did. And now, like always, he less hoped than knew that they would not even nod his way and keep going whatever way they were going. Flies were not afraid when a dog went by, long as they knew for sure they were flies.

The rustling did not fade somewhere to the side. It got louder. Red frowned and peered out from the edge of the trunk. The lead grunt was not stopping or going sideways. It kept coming towards him, right towards him, gathering speed to break into a run. The rest were close behind. No mistaking that. They could not even be going for the ruin; the tree was a little off the way to it.

The grunts pushed off the ground with a foot, like a single body, and rushed ahead, arms grasping forward.

With a “Shit” over an inhaled breath, Red shoved himself away from the tree and burst into a sprint. He grabbed the axe from his belt, but did not stop or turn. To get caught in the open by that many of them would be a wish to be dead soon. The best, and, really, only hope now was the old place itself. While he had never quite seen how well the Filth found their way through something they could not so easily smash down, he had never met any very far into a standing ruin, either. Maybe they, too, lost their way as easily as green scrappers who got in too far, because they could not feel a dead place. No point thinking about that now. He would find out soon enough anyway.

It was lucky he had already been close when they caught up to him. He was still into the first rush when he crossed past the old threshold. He slowed down the faintest bit, quickly taking in the space beyond. There was a small doorway to the right into what must have been a watchman’s place and the rooms behind it, but some large stones had crumbled down to clog it on the other side. That left only the end of the passage ahead, and, pushing his feet to their full strength again, he ran for it. Behind his back, he could hear splattering footsteps and gurgling groans catching up to him. He swore again on another intake of breath.

The light at the further exit from the corridor under the walls came from a large courtyard, overgrown and littered with the broken remains of what might have once been statues or pillars. Between its size and the flash from emerging into the daylight after the short dive through the passageway’s shadows, Red’s eyes were dazzled for a moment, unable to find the closest way out. There was sure to be one in a place this large, but that certainty alone was not much help. All he could do was keep putting as much distance as he could between himself and the Filth, without tripping over the debris lying all about. Easier said than done.

Veering sideways on one foot, he sped along the wall, whose corners had been worn out by time to a soft almost-roundedness. It was a roundabout way, but mostly sure to keep him away from dangerous terrain. When a few blinks focused his sight again, he saw that perhaps it would have been better to take the risk. The grunts had emerged into the courtyard, and the first ones were moving straight ahead to cut him off in the middle of the curve he was turning. The way behind was barred by the rest, and, as if to make things even harder on purpose, the only clear doorway he could see was almost at the other end of the place.

Red could think fast if he had to, but in this case there was nothing to really think about. In a sharp turn, he broke his wall-hugging path and made directly for the doorway, avoiding the largest lumps of worn stone he could see with a corner of the eye. The head grunt, which had been aiming to catch him further away, stumbled to skid to a halt, swinging its abnormally long arms about. He had been ready for that. The head of his axe swept before him and caught the creature in the shoulder, slowing his run but pushing its already unstable footing into a stagger. A rough pull wrenched the weapon from the cloying mass, and he darted again before the grunt regained its balance and the rest caught up.

The last dash to the doorway was a narrow run, but still lax enough for him to make it. Fortunately, it was small enough for only one to pass at a time, or at least had gotten that way with age. Once a few steps inside, he let his dully aching legs and grasping lungs rest, the slightest moment, then turned about, axe at the ready. Just about in time; one of the grunts was shouldering its way behind him, one arm reaching. Another step back - the bulky limb smashed into the stone wall, knocking dust and broken pieces loose - then a lunge, and the axe came down between the beast’s headless shoulders. He pulled it back as soon as he felt the putrid flesh under the blade soften into yielding ooze, and sprang further into the building as the rapidly melting hulk he had left behind was trampled by its fellows in pursuit.

Inside, the ruin had held much better, though only insomuch as fewer doors and rooms were buried in collapsed ceilings. Red did not take the time to check them as he passed, but from quick glances they were mostly barren, except for mounds of dust and mouldering wood that could once have been furniture. Any of them would have been worth rustling over to see if something good was left underneath, but this time he did not have the leisure. What he needed was a place that would do for hiding. He did not go into how that would or would not help shake off the Filth - first he found it, and then he could figure out the rest.

The corridor turned, sometimes split at sharp angles - he always took the right, no point mucking things up now - climbed up steep stairs, slick with wear. It hit him he had not realised how big the place really was from out there, or maybe he had just not expected so much of it to be intact. Rooms, corridors, more rooms, a few huge hallways. The edges of his sight were starting to go dark. He could no longer hear how close the Filth were over his ragged breathing and the thumping of his heart. He was getting exhausted, and the clear spaces showed no sign of giving way to complete ruin. A thought flashed through his dimming mind - he had better make use of that before he was caught in an actual dead end.

A room that looked bigger than the rest flashed ahead along the corridor, and he dove into it when it came into reach. Panting, he glanced around. A big window, he had never broken from the wallside. Dust everywhere, dust and cobwebs. This place had been well-stocked once. His tired head ran through with amazement when he saw in the wall to the right, behind a large grey mound scattered with the rotted remains of ancient planks, another, smaller dark doorway. A long time ago, something had apparently stood covering it, though now only thick webs hung across its frame. So, Red thought. If it had been a hiding place of some kind back then, maybe, it could just as well be one now. The cobwebs meant there could not be an ambush inside. Brushing the dusty threads aside, he edged into the dark space.

By then, he had recovered enough to hear the sounds hounding him again. The heavy, damp-sounding steps were closer than he had hoped, though there were thankfully few of them. Only one. He breathed with relief - they had split up. While that still left him with at least this one on his back, it meant they could not find him all together. Even now, the odds would have been stacked against him. The rooms might have been narrow, but he was run out, and they never got tired.

One was a lot better, but, if he was not careful, still enough to do him in. As the steps approached, he hoped, this time for real, that they would go past the room, further down the corridor. But, as soon as the thought had taken shape in his head, a squat, thickset bulk with long grasping arms trampled through the doorway. They felt, of course. They did not need to see. The grunt moved, with its blind confidence, straight towards the once-hidden opening. That was bad. If he was going to make the best of the obstacle, he had to back away. One step, two, the creature came closer, three -

His back hit something large and heavy. With his attention fully on the grunt, the start was so strong he jumped with a loud “Godsfuck!”, almost losing his grip on the axe. The grunt, either having its senses confirmed or seeing an opening to strike, lunged. It was still too far to land a proper blow, but a club-like hand caught him under the shoulder, sending him careening back. The creature sprang forward to press its advantage, but its broad frame was caught in the doorway - just long enough for Red to regain his feet. A step ahead, then to the side, avoiding another blow, and the axe cut through the pustulent surface the thing had instead of a head.

Breathing heavily, he stumbled out into the light, shoving the liquefying carcass to the side with a foot. He smiled to himself as he noticed a faint grimy, misshapen footprint between the doorway and the corridor. It would have been too much to hope that stepping into that one puddle at the entrance would have been enough for the grunts to leave a complete path up to there, but if something was still visible, it meant that a few hints would be left here and there for getting out or avoiding the others. That would save him a good deal of head-scratching later.

The others, right. He listened, rubbing the dull pain where the grunt’s blow had glanced across his arm, and struggled to pick up the faintest sound over the distant noises of the forest that came through the window. Nothing coming closer. The creatures were sure to still be somewhere inside, and would be for a while, but it looked like he was safe for now. For everything they could be, he had rarely come across Filth being quiet. If another got there, he would know it ahead of time.

Leaning against the dusty wall gave him a moment to think about the whole thing. They had come after him, on his own, for the first time, and a lot of them too. Why was that? He had always been careful not to take anything they would want - his axe and knife were good, but old, and he had been wearing these clothes for years. He had not changed anything about those lately, and everything he picked up he made sure to sell straight away. Right, except-

His hand went to the large bag hanging behind his shoulder. A firm, sharp circle shape poked into his fingers through the leather. Course, it had to be that. Biggest prize in a long while, so big that none of the regulars had the pocket for it. It was not as though he had not suspected that taking the crown back into the wilds would not bring him any trouble, but he had nowhere safe to leave it otherwise - important rule for someone who went around, no such thing as a safeplace - and he for sure had not expected that kind of mob. He had thought of the idea behind crowns, of course, that the ones who used to wear them were just the kind the Filth were after now, but really? A rusty old hoop suddenly mattered more than the kind of folk he had been his whole life?

He chuckled. Did he expect the Filth to see through anything? He was not sure they were dumb, but they sure had never cared for that kind of stuff.

Shaking his head, he turned back to the smaller doorway. The crown had landed him in this shit, but there would be better time to deal with it when he had gotten out of there. For now, he was in a fresh old place, with a hiding spot of some kind right in front of him. If he had ever seen something like a perfect place for finding things, it had to be this one. Besides, he should check what he had bumped into.

Red reached into a smaller pouch at his side and produced a thick tallow candle, already burned out a third of the way through but missing the lines of old molten rivulets, followed by a rag and a small bundle. The rag was wrapped around the candle’s base, old traces of caked tallow bared as he unfolded it, and, as he held it between three spare fingers, the firesteel from the bundle threw a few sparks from between his thumb and free hand. One of them caught the wick, and he held the wavering light into the dim chamber.

Unlike most dark places he had been in, being open to the window in the next room had left the air barely stale at all, and the candle burned well. The thing he had stepped into was a tall mass of wrinkled stone and shadows. He moved closer, holding the flame higher.

An etched face met his eyes with its own stern, unmoving stare. A statue. The edges of its figure were dull and nondescriptly smooth with years, but, inside its little hiding place, it had held much better than most of its kind he had seen before. He could even still see some of the cleverly carved finer lines of a different, fleshier kind of age around its wilful-looking features. Whoever this had been, she had sure gone on looking pretty fine into her older times. Unless, he thought with a smirk, the one who had made this had just been buttering her up this way for some extra coin. Or some special noble kind of favour, he silently added, noticing a crown on the sculpted woman’s brow. It was a simple, almost plain sort of circlet, but a crown was a crown, as even the Filth had proved to him. Besides, with all the work that had to have gone into the face, maybe the artist just could not be arsed to spend a lot of time on a fancier thing.

Impressive as it was, a statue that big was not something he could take, and he lowered his eyes to the floor, sweeping the candle’s glow around the room. Like he had expected, there was not much that jumped out at first sight. What might once have been chairs in a far corner - he smeared the dust under them flat to see if anything was there, but did not touch the wooden heaps themselves; that was sure to be bad luck. A small mound in the other corner did not have anything, either. Strange, he had missed one just by the statue’s base. Not that it was any more likely - no, see. Something dully glistened in the candlelight at his feet.

Bending down with a huff, Red picked up the small piece of metal, fingers sliding carefully around rough stains of rust. A ring, looked too small to fit on his finger, though maybe if he tried… Not with all that rust on it, anyway. It had to be iron. Nothing too precious-looking in that, but the shape was a strange one. It had some pieces that poked out in a spot, like one of those, how were they, signets fancy ones sometimes had. He had never seen any on something as dull as an iron ring, though. It was nothing too fine-looking, either, just a few tall squares. They looked a bit like what houses would be if they would just turn out the way they were meant to. The fact they were not even in size just made them look even more like a row on a street, if a street only got a little taller than the space between a nail and a finger.

With a hum, he slipped the ring into a pouch and cast about in a last attempt to find something around the room. No luck, of course, but he felt he had already found more than enough. It was strange enough for just an iron jewel to have signs on it like that, and he sure as damn did not remember seeing any of that kind before. Maybe something very long ago - nah, unlikely. Either way, he had already been thinking of going to see the folks in Jornoston about the crown. He would keep this other odd thing aside for them, too. They might know what was up with it, and if not, well, they sure would find something better to do with it.

His thoughts went ahead as he stepped out of the room and blew out the candle, frowning. This place was the other side of Kendles, which meant he would have to stop there at least for the night, and he had nothing else to sell. Red leaned against the dusty wall near the window as he wrapped up and pocketed both candle and rag. He would have to go through at least some other rooms and look for smaller things to trade on the way, that was for sure. But not right now. Better wait until the rest of the Filth might have left, or at least a couple more came by there so he could take them out for sure.

He sure could use a bit of rest, anyway.
Reposting finished sheet so it doesn't get lost in old pages.


<Snipped quote by Oraculum>

I'm eager to see what sort of character you cook up this time, especially since unnameable horror is off the table.


Oh, I doubt that. The only thing is that they'd be on the receiving end this time.
We're on.
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