The last of the puttering on Sanctuary gets finished up. Sophia finishes the number crunching for the ``varied damage, varied healers'' Kaufman experiment. Maury and Sharra finish installing a brig, which uses a retina scanner for security (the inside just has an intercom). Anyone who gives them a retina scan can open the brig doors. Eva will be compiling lists of secrets with disclaimers about how secret they are (i.e. many of the things she learns are secret because she gets them from Gabriel and spreading them around will get him in trouble), and lists of popular speculations. If there's to be a list of facts too, she'd like help; there are an awful lot of facts.
There is some brief running around the inworlds dropping people off for their summer reruns, after which the group proceeds to Sparta. People with summer reruns on Crux stop there; everyone else is in the tubes. Entering the Sparta system, Hippocrates sends out his standard Hegemonic ping, and receives an answer from a Skyguard base; Max scans and narrows it down to a particular mountain. The Hippocrates is contacted by Sparta ground control, which says that if the group is staying for long, they are obliged to go on patrol runs in the dust nebula. A long while of argument is elided over, and the party splits: Kye, Sook, Mirris, Sharra, Janzur, Sophia, Katya, Jim, and Xanthippe will explore the mountain and the base (the Dancer is left with them in case they need a ship). Hippocrates, Anya, Ace, Eva, Maury, Kith, Jayla, and Max will go on patrol. The Tinoori explain, somewhat embarrassedly, that it is that time in First Frost of Autumn's life when he needs to be taught certain things, and are going on a camping trip. Wilson is going with them, because he's terribly curious about what's going on. Ruehan, Cassandra, and Martan are in the tubes.
On the Planet
After stocking up on a few essential supplies (like heal patches, etc.), the planet group lands at Blackwinter Starport. The starport is the usual outworld starport, with a nice layer of Hegemacadam and a couple of offices, but not much in the way of assisted landing instruments.
Upon their arrival, the group is handed a set of coupons for the Blackwinter Tavern, where if they buy a drink, they will get a second drink free. Seeing as how they've spent weeks traveling the dusty spacelanes, this seems like a fine first stop. the tavern itself seems to be easy to find, as just as they arrive in the town of Blackwinter itself, there is a sign.
``Welcome to Blackwinter. Perhaps you could begin your stay with a visit to the Blackwinter Tavern!''
Following the helpful sign, they arrive at the tavern. Not wanting to cause a scene just as they arrive, the group has Padira and Xanthippe wait outside. Inside they find a hearty buxom lass behind the bar. She offers them all various of the local beverages, but when Jim orders some Sparky Cola, she gets a pained look on her face and says she'll have to go down to the basement for that, indicating that it might take a while as there's a bit of a rat problem in the basement. The party hears several screeches coming from below the floor and some pushed over boxes, but eventually the bartender returns with a dusty old case of Sparky Cola, ``in the original old-style plastic bottles''.
Hitting her up for further information, they reveal that they are archaeologists. She hazards that they must be here to see the haunted mine then. Haunted mine? The bartender's heard of it, but if you really want the scoop on haunted mines, you should go talk to old Coot over in the corner.
Talking to old Coot is just a bit less difficult than having teeth pulled, as he doesn't really like inworlders, and there isn't an outworlder in the bunch. But he does tell of his days up on the mountain. ``There's this haunted mine. If you step in, you hear the howls of the dead. If you go deep inside, you never return. I had a brother once who went deep in the mine.'' ``What happened to him?'' ``He never returned.''
Nowadays though, people don't go near the mine much as there are too many bandits up there. ``Bandits?'' Well, it seems that if they really want to know about bandits, they should head over and talk to Joe the Trader, who's nursing his drink on the other side of the tavern.
Heading across the tavern, they strike up a conversation with Joe. He is indeed a Trader, and will be leading a large caravan to the capital city early tomorrow morning. He's heard all about bandits. Apparently, they come down Blackwinter mountain to strike at caravans on their way to the capital a lot, so Joe's always looking for some good people to hire on as caravan guards.
Setting that aside for the moment, the party decide to chat up the bartender some more in an attempt to get more information about the mountain. The bartenders explains that it is called ``Blackwinter Mountain'' because every winter, late in the winter, but earlier if it is particularly cold, the town will wake up one morning to discover the entire mountain is black. If you head up there, you find that the trees and ground and everything is covered by a thin layer of what looks like soot, which spends the remainder of the winter blowing away. The Skalds' guild have looked at it any number of times, and are sure it's not a volcano, so there's nothing much to worry about. Except the haunted mine of course. But if the group wants to know about the haunted mine, they should go talk to old Coot in the corner...
Breaking out of the endless cycle, the party asks the bartender if they could just walk to the mountain and go up it themselves. It turns out that the bartender has a map of the mountain, which she might be willing to part with if only someone could figure out a way to deal with the rat problem in the basement. There is some consternation about the rat problem until Sook remembers that the group has a really big cat outside. The bartender seems dubious, as the last cat they tried got its tail whooped, but all fears are allayed by the dramatic entrance of Xanthippe and Padira.
Padira and Xanthippe head down stairs where great roaring and smashing of crates seems to take place on a regular basis as Padira gets into the swing of things. The group asks if Padira needs any help, but Xanthippe assures them that she and Padira can handle it, though it will take all night.
The rest of the group head over, at the bartender's recommendation, to the Blackwinter Inn, where they get a pair of rooms. The Inn is bustling nicely as there seem to be a lot of out of town merchants here preparing for the big caravan. The talk of the Inn is how poor Joe, the caravan leader hasn't found any good caravan guards so there might be some trouble as the caravan heads right past Blackwinter mountain.
Finally relenting, the party heads back to the Tavern, where the sounds of roaring and smashing crates can still be heard from below and asks Joe if he'd like to hire them on as caravan guards. He seems thrilled, but is a fierce negotiator and acquires the services of the party for the sum of 0.5 asters each. (Since they only plan to go with him as far as the mountain.)
The party then heads back to the Inn one last time, leaving Padira and Xanthippe behind.
A long discussion about the need for watches in Inns later, watches are indeed set, and even augmented with laser tripwires, but all of this preparation seems not to be particularly required, as nothing occurs in the evening.
The next morning, the group get up bright and early and go to collect Xanthippe and Padira. They have defeated the many giant rats and indeed have a map of the mountain in hand. Jim examines the map and determines all of the likely ambush sites for a caravan passing through. Padira and Xanthippe, who have gotten no sleep, decide to spend the day sleeping in the back of one of the caravan trucks.
The caravan sets off. A short ways into the trip, Jim comments that the main ambush location would be much much easier to set up an ambush in if there were someone about an hour earlier to provide exact arrival times. Sure enough, about an hour before arriving at the ambush site, the caravan comes across an overturned cart with an old prospector (Gramps) trying to free his poor son (Sonny), who is caught under the cart. Seeing the caravan, Gramps call for help in freeing poor Sonny. Seeing immediately how things are, the party walks up, captures both Gramps and Sonny and ties them to boards. Joe tepidly asks if that is really the way things are done in the Inworlds, but the group assures him that Gramps and Sonny are probably bandits. (Katya seems convinced and that's good enough for our heroes.)
An hour later, the caravan arrives at a completely abandoned ambush site. Jim's tactical analysis seems to indicate that if the bandits didn't receive their timing information, they would probably give up and head to the back up ambush site near the edge of the provided map, and wait there for the caravan to come past. Some discussion is had over waiting for the bandits to come to them, but Jim is convinced they have no reason to come to the caravan, so they might as well press on.
At the ambush site, the group presses up to the head of the caravan. All looks quite, but in the bushes the party spots a couple of lurking figures. Seeing immediately how things are, the party walks up and open fire on the poor fools. This causes 10 bandits to jump out of hiding and attack. The situation looks grim, for about five seconds and then our heroes reveal that ten foolish bandits are no match for their prowess. Seeing the carnage before him, the bandit leader flees up the mountain.
Joe the trader is overjoyed, for the group has successfully delivered his caravan past Blackwinter Mountain. He pays them each half an aster as agreed, which goes nicely with the two asters each the group received while looting the fallen bandits. At this point, Padira and Xanthippe wake up and the entire group watches the caravan (and all of its tied up prisoners) head off to the capital and they begin their journey up Blackwinter mountain.
The map proves invaluable, as it has pretty much everything labeled right on it. The haunted mine, the bandit signal towers, and even a big question mark where the bandit camp itself should lie. The group checks out one of the bandit signal towers on the way up the mountain, but it appears unmanned at present. About two thirds of the way to the haunted mine, an arrow zings out of the woods and strikes a tree right in front of Janzur. Tied to the arrow is a big white handkerchief. Assuming this means truce, the party waits patiently as they hear the sound of horses approaching.
Up rides three men. A tall dark blond haired giant of a man is in the lead, and flanking him are two lieutenants, one of which was leader of the bandit party! Warily, the group greets the newcomers.
Leader: ``Are you the men who defeated Seamus and his band of hearties?''
Sensing no deception, the group heads over to the big question mark on the map where indeed they find a raucous camp filled with loud revelers. Cormac's band appear to be quite fond of rowdy games including one that seems to involve hitting each other on the head with a small mallet.
They are wined and dined and generally treated as kings and queens, although Seamus spends the entire meal brooding. After eating they finally get a chance to chat a bit with Cormac himself, and Dr. Kye asks him about the haunted mine.
Dr. Kye: ``What can you tell us about the haunted mine?''
Cormac allows that indeed they are great men, for they so easily defeated foolish Seamus when he had the advantage of both numbers and cover. This finally sets Seamus off and he declares, ``Enough!'' demanding satisfaction for his tarnished honor. He challenges the group to mortal combat if they have a champion worthy enough to face him. Janzur sizes Seamus up and down and mostly decides to let Jim deal with him, but the group has difficulty getting actual rules out of anyone, so Janzur decides he'd better handle it himself, just to be on the safe side. Jim contains his disappointment and people head over to the combat ring.
At the ring, the group is informed that it is a melee combat inside a ring and the only rule appears to be ``Two men enter, one man leaves.'' Janzur asks about allowed weapons and armor and whatever, and is told that as long as it doesn't leave his hand, it's allowable, and as for armor, whatever he was wearing when the challenge was made will do fine.
Seeing immediately how things are, Sook walks up to Cormac and offers to wager 5 asters on Janzur. Cormac responds with his usual hearty laugh and the games begin...
Just before the fight, one of the women in the tribe offer Seamus the ``battle drink'' and he take a deep draught. She then moves to offer Janzur the battle drink, but he politely declines. Cormac laughs heartily at Janzur's bravery, and declares the battle joined.
Pumped up on the battle drink, Seamus proves a worthy foe. Unfortunately for him, however, Janzur's vast superiority in weapons and armor prove to be the deciding factor. After dodging and blocking numerous serious blows, Janzur finally cuts loose with his plasma brand, and Seamus goes down. Predictably, Cormac shouts, ``Finish Him!'' Janzur raises his plasma brand over his head for the killing stroke, and then turns it off and bows to Cormac. Flannigan laughs and praises Janzur as man of both bravery and mercy. He also tosses Sook a pouch full of silver to cover their bet.
After more feasting, the party retires to a number of tents erected for them. Late in the evening, Cormac honors Sharra with a visit to her tent, but she manages to demur without actually causing any insult. Janzur finds that it is the custom of the women of the tribe to let the men be the night after a battle. Oh well.
In the morning, Cormac embraces Dr. Kye proclaiming him worthy indeed to have the services of such fierce comrades, and though his trip to the haunted mine guarantees he will be dead by sunfall, he is welcome to return to Cormac's camp anytime.
On that cheery note, the party heads off to the haunted mine. Arriving at the entrance, Dr. Kye searches for deathtraps and finds none. The moment he steps into the mine however, the silence of the morning is broken by a terrible howling sound, as if a thousand of the dead were calling out in pain. There is speculation as to whether or not this is an ancient SkyGuard alarm, but both Janzur and Sophia assure the group that no, the SkyGuard did not make their intruder alarms sound like the howling of the tortured dead.
Further in the mine, the party finds a long vertical shaft. Dr. Kye recognizes it as the remains of an elevator shaft. At the edge are a couple of ropes secured with pitons, one quite rotted away, the other looking vaguely fresh, hanging over the side.
Dr. Kye: ``Hmm, grave robbers, I hate those guys.''
Not trusting the ropes of grave robbers, the party secures their own lines and descend into the shaft. It goes quite a ways down and there appear to be no other exits until the bottom. At the bottom there are a couple of pried open doors. Right in front of the doors are a pair of corpses, one of which appears to have stabbed himself in the heart. Mirris appropriates the knife. Scanning the mountain as best she can, Katya finds a great diffuse ``intelligence?'' present everywhere, but not really any particular minds anywhere. Very creepy.
To the group's delight, Sook find the remains of an underpowered but working wireless network and using Sophia's access codes (``Hey, are you in the ACL: SkyGuard Research Staff?'') manages to get a decent map of SkyGuard Command Base Omega.
There are numerous rooms throughout the complex, but only the following seem to be of interest:
In SpaceThe Hippocrates sets off on its patrol route. About two days out, proceeding carefully through the nebular dust, Max detects an energy field of some sort a little ways forward. Eva and Anya launch in fighters, and the group rounds the corner of dust to see four turbs; three are explosive turbs, and are chasing what looks like a ship wrapped in an electric turb. The explosive turbs are destroyed before they can get close enough to explode, and precision shooting knocks most of the electric turb off of the derelict ship. It does a bit of damage to Anya's fighter and the Hippocrates before being destroyed. Meanwhile, the ship has disappeared into the dust nebula again - the dust appears to part for it (in a static-repulsion sort of way, not a magic parting the Red Sea sort of way). The Hippocrates circles around through the dust lanes and manages to catch up to the ship again; the turb has grown back to full strength, but Ace manages to knock the whole thing off; in the ensuing fight, it splits briefly but is finally dispatched (Kith outshoots Ace, in a surprising brief shining moment.) The derelict ship plows into the dust wall again, but this time it doesn't part.
An away team in space suits boards the ship, which proves to be named the Splendid Variance - sounds like a Lendt ship. In fact, it appears to be an armed merchantman out of Lendt, but it has no cargo. There are four bodies on board; Kith determines that they died before the ship decompressed, but can't easily tell much more from inside a space suit floating about in zero-g. The ship is brought into the Hippocrates' hold, and the bodies are examined again - they appear to have all suicided. One guy has bitten off his tongue, another has stabbed himself in the side. Those with familiarity with outworld stories recall that this is said be what happens when you're eaten by the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm. Alternately, this is the sort of thing pirates fake to make people think that their targets have been eaten by the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm.
Max sits in the pilot's chair and tries to think about what happened; Kith sets up nearby with tea and empathy, to make sure he doesn't panic too badly. His precog is better than his strength of mind roll, though, and he screams and passes out; Kith, also affected, shrieks and has to be given tea as well. When he wakes up in his room, he's sure that the crew of the Splendid Variance was eaten by a giant creature. Eva points out that Spartan Skalds are entirely capable of illusionary giant creatures - it could still be pirates.
Ace finds a small smuggler's hold, but it doesn't have anything other than a couple of blasters in it. The computers and any other electronics are all completely toast from the electrical storm they've been in. The paper cargo logs are recovered, however; they seem to have unloaded a lot of Lendtian trade goods on Sparta. It seems likely that this is a ship on the obligatory patrol while trading factors on the ground arrange for return cargo. The Hippocrates heads back close enough to Sparta to radio that they've found the ship, but doesn't actually return planetside. Instead, they head back out in the direction that the derelict was coming from, with some help from Max's ``where do I find the thing that destroyed this ship?'' There doesn't seem to be any known landmark in that direction a week out (forensics on the ship and bodies indicate that it was drifting in the turb for about a week), but clearly there was something suspicious out there.
Farther on, the Hippocrates encounters another pair of ships, the Iron Dragon and the Windlord; the pair are arguing in thick Spartan dialect over who is patrolling in whose area, and as the Hippocrates shows up, the Iron Dragon opens fire on the Windlord. Eva shouts at them a bit and nobody shoots any further; the ships seem to be from neighboring and feuding Dominions (Ironwater and Greymountain), which have been at Skald-enforced truce ever since the Tarn arrived. The crews are convinced to come for lunch and to advise the Hippocrates on the matter of the Splendid Variance; Jayla, Eva, and Kith work pretty hard to convince them to play nicely together in the face of bigger enemies, but this is difficult. In the end, they are convinced to stop fighting, and Eva is put in charge of the spin of getting the Iron Dragon to take on the far more important task of covering everyone's original patrol areas, while the Windlord takes on the far more important task of coming with the Hippocrates to investigate whatever attacked the Splendid Variance.
Yet another few days towards where the Variance might have started drifting, Max spots (through the dust, again) a ship approaching. Just as Max identifies it as a redliner, he notes that it has also spotted them and is fleeing. Kith hails it and tells it to stop, moments before Anya shoots it; it doesn't answer the hail and keeps fleeing. Despite a good head start, the Hippocrates and Anya's fighter do catch up enough to take it down; the Windlord shoots it again for good measure (probably a good thing, as it would have been up again in a moment). Maury (who spends all space battles in a space suit) teleports to the outside of the ship before the others get there (`` `Maury! You idiot!' probably isn't very inspiring, is it?'' - Jayla), and then lets a boarding party in. The two Tarn on board are captured by the boarders, though not before one has done some amount of computer-wiping.
The two Tarn are dosed with narcotic teas by Kith, and put in the brig; there's some amount of haste involved, as Jayla thinks that there isn't much time left. There's some consideration of putting the Tarn in the Kaufman tubes, but Jayla thinks it doesn't matter. Well, that's ominous. An intuition suggests that they're going to die soon either way. One is woken up again, and interrogated in minimal Standard by Eva. There is some initial confusion as to who the actual Tarn are; the captive seems to think that the Hippocrates crew are ``Tarn''. Eva insists that they're not; the captive seems disinclined to argue. The brief and rudimentary interrogation reveals that this particular Decider (as he agrees that his race is called) is acting under orders from his generals (``Generals like us? Generals like you?'' Eva asks; he seems to think that the idea of like-Eva generals is a bit mad, and that the generals are also like-him). He doesn't explain what the Deciders' grand plan is, but does confirm that (humans/Pierogi/something?) are ``noisy.''
The interrogation is, however, cut short by the appearance of the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm!
At this moment, Ruehan comes out of the tubes, but doesn't really get to say much beyond, ``Aaaa!'' as the Hippocrates, the Elite shuttle (which is flying along outside, having made room for the redliner), and the Windlord all try and flee, but the Wyrm is faster, and gobbles up all three ships. Darkness falls.
The DreamscapeJayla and Katya wake up, severally, in a sort of fuzzy featureless dreamspace. Around them are crystal spheres, some near enough to make out, in which people are trapped in nightmares.
Finally, after the last of the crystal spheres is broken, the party is all together in a misty dreamspace. Jim comments that it's time for a picnic, at which point the mists clear and there is a field with a picnic laid out on a checkered tablecloth; an elderly gentleman who looks like Leonard Nimoy is seated in a wicker chair. He notes Jayla and Katya, and says "ah, two of you. That would explain things."
Sook asks him who he is and what's going on. He answers and says that that's her one question. It quickly becomes apparent that everyone gets one question each, and side questions may well be answered; Anya asks the other group where they were, and is answered by the mysterious figure. He claims to have encountered the party, later in the future. Occasionally during the questioning, Katya or Jayla try to approach, but he retreats, saying he "cannot withstand" them. Anya attempts to assess the danger of the situation, and he says that the only dangerous thing here is him.
One in the middleExperimenting, Katya makes a door for Hippocrates; it's a sort of strange data looking thing. Hippocrates tries to make a door for someone, but it doesn't work. Hippocrates goes through the Katya-made door, and the door vanishes. Katya can't make another door, though. Ahah. There's discussion over who has to stay behind; there are several volunteers, but Xanthippe insists that it be her, because she's not leaving without Padira, and Padira can't make a door for anyone else. The chain continues, Maury making a door for Katya, then Sook, Sharra, Sophia, Kith, Mirris, Max, Kye, Ace... and then it stalls a bit, as it starts to seem like abandoning. Eventually, Eva starts directing, and the chain starts up again. Jim, Anya, Janzur, Jayla - Jayla wishes Xanthippe well, and Xanthippe says they'll meet again, Jayla has her troth. Then Eva says goodbye, Xanthippe opens a door for her, and the last of the crew is gone but Xanthippe and Padira.
The party awakes - everyone is on the Hippocrates, including those who had been in the mountain. The Deciders are both dead by auto-meltdown; the crew of the Windlord has also suicided. Off in the distance, the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm can be seen, undulating off, marked with tiger stripes.