Monday, August 22, 2016

Chapter 42 - Answers

Just after midday, we set out again, just myself and my pets. The dungeon entrance was a few hours hike from the village, and we should be there just before nightfall. Between the soldiers’ trackers and the guild’s rangers, the forests were being combed for traces of the undead, while the rest saw to clearing the rubble of the fire, starting with the buildings known to have basements, or that hadn’t completely burned to the ground.

We were on foot now, since out of all of us, only I had a summonable mount, and that just wouldn’t do for the whole group of us. Along the way, we saw signs of the Drow raiding party, and it was clear that they had come from the Underdark entrance the caverns guarded. None of us were trackers by trade, so we couldn’t tell about numbers, and it was dumb luck finding the trail to begin with. We literally came upon the formerly undead corpse of a villager, missing its head, and a trail leading from that obvious point, in the direction we were already headed.

That settled the question of whether any of the undead had left the village. Some, at least, had followed the drow, at least this far. A single body and no great trampling of feet told me that there wasn’t a group of undead that came here, so probably they had spread out aimlessly alone or in small groups. That is what I hoped, at least. I did not wish to think about what would happen if a small horde of the things were acting in concert with each other.

Anyways, we continued on towards the caverns, on alert now that we knew at least some of the undead had come this way. Because our caution made us slow our pace, what should have taken us only until midday became a trek that found us only just reaching the caverns in the late afternoon.

The Scheming Caverns, as they were creatively (*coughcough*) called, started with an old outpost that had been built into some caves. The caves extended deep into what some would call the ‘Underdark’, the subterranean world that few surface dwellers ever ventured to (and fewer still willingly), but there was some debate as to whether that had always been so. There were scattered records of the caves being smaller at one time, and having been expanded or linked together to form that path to the underdark in times long gone by, before this age of the world, even. They got their name from the old fortress that used to occupy the topmost ‘floors’ of the caverns, a place that had been overrun by a cabal of crazed sorcerers who at one point tried to conquer the nation.

It was almost dark by the time we reached the fortress, and we had seen no sign of the undead, or the drow. That didn’t put us at ease, since none of us were trackers. We needed to find someplace secure to rest, since there was no way I was camping in front of the enemy’s gates. That’s just asking for trouble. Of course, you could say the same about going to dungeons, but still…

Anyways, as we passed through the ruined gates of the former outpost, we found that the area inside was in complete darkness. None of us had true darkvision. Yukiko and Nithroel’s races both had low-light vision, but the rest of us were limited to normal vision. Fortunately, Della had been practicing with her Dancing Lights spell, and the spell now lasted for 24 hours, meaning we would have light in the depths.

The first floor of the dungeon appeared to be deserted, which wasn’t that much of a surprise, since there weren’t any rooms left fit for habitation, and if Drow were anything like other elves, I suspected that they were glad of comforts when they could get them, which meant anywhere they set up a long-term post would have been altered to fit their aesthetics. That we didn’t see any signs of that made me wonder what it was that the reports about Drow were based on. There weren’t even any sentry posts set up near the exit of the first cave!

But that was something we’d have to figure out later. For now, we found a building that wasn’t as dilapidated as the rest and began setting up our camp for the night. Well, that was the plan, anyways. If only the bugs weren’t biting. I slapped my neck where one got me, and came away with a small crossbow bolt. As things began to get hazy, all I could think was, “Well, fuck.”

You know those times where you get really drunk, pass out, and then wake up someplace different, and wondering how you got there and where your pants are? Yeah, this was like that.

When I came to, the first thing I noticed was that I had a headache. Then a bit of a breeze told me that I was naked. I tried to move, and that’s when I realized that not only was I in a room without any light, but I was chained to a table made out of stone. At least, I hoped it was just a table. I wasn’t into the whole ‘getting sacrificed on the altar’ thing.

I was understandably peeved at the situation. “At least buy me dinner before you roofie me, geez!” All right, enough whining. I checked my status, and other than the stat drop from my items being gone, it looked like I was fine. Well, fine for the fact that I’d been out for almost four hours. Same with the girls, they were all still alive, but it looked like their items had been taken, too. So we were in bad shape, but not completely screwed. Yet.

To pass the time while I waited for the others to wake up from our lovely ambush, I decided to open up guild chat.

Zayn: Soooo, funny thing happened when we went to find the drow.

Raunaeneril: What did you do this time?

Zayn: Nothing, honest!

Cookie: You got captured again, didn’t you?

Zayn: Um. Maybe?

Lexichan: DAMMIT, ZAYN! What did I tell you about letting drow have their way with you?

Zayn: ‘Only if it was you’? :P

Lexichan: Nope! Nope nope nope! Not after what happened to Ruva.

Ruva: Not that I was complaining…

Lexichan: It took you three days before you could walk straight! You’re still complaining about your ass hurting!

Yukiko: Worth it though, right?

Bercilac: Yuki! What the hell happened to you guys?

Yukiko: Drow. Never saw them until they’d peppered us with poisoned crossbow bolts.

Zayn: I feel like a co-ed at a frat party. Woke up naked, chained to a table.

Yukiko: At least you got a table! The girls and I are in a cell of some kind, chained to the wall!

Lexichan: Zayn, I thought you said you weren’t going to go and get captured by drow princesses again?

Zayn: To be fair, I don’t know if there’s a princess involved.

Lexichan: That makes it SOOOO much better.

Cookie: Oh, boss! I’ve got some news you’d love to hear. Apparently miss Z.Void has been causing trouble in one of the human capitols. And then a dragon goddess swooped in and cursed the whole town!

Zayn: Mirelth has started to move, huh?

Bercilac: What did you do?

Lexichan: Zaaaaayn! What did you do?

Ruva: Boss?

Zayn: Well, I may or may not have released her from the artifact-level slave collar she’d been in. She’s probably settling scores.

Raunaeril: Of course you did.

Zayn: Well, these things happen when you have a luck score of 86.

Johnist: Hax! Lol!

Zayn: Yeah, so anyways, I let her go, and that’s how I got the Dragonfriend title. Oh, and I think when I get higher level, she’s going to make a play for me, since she marked me as her Consort.

Lexichan: Damnit Zayn!

Johnist: Only you, boss…

Zayn: Gotta cut this short. Someone’s coming. I can hear footsteps.

Lexichan: Anything you want us to do?

Zayn: Finish hunting the zombies. When that’s done, start looking up the names of the people who sealed Mirelth initially. She’s settling scores, so you can probably win big bonus points with her if you deliver her targets to her instead of making her track them down to individual cities.

Ruva: Will do!

Zayn: OK, I’m off to deal with the guards.

As I brought my attention away from the guild chat, I heard a door open on metal hinges. It sounded like a metal door, scraping against the stone floor. Simple, but effective. There still wasn’t any light, though. I figured that they knew I was awake, and were trying to spook me. Frankly, it was pretty effective, but I figured they needed me for something, otherwise why was I still alive. I heard the footsteps enter the room, but didn’t acknowledge them. What was I going to do, play into the scared victim routine by going “Is anyone there?” No. That gives the other side even more leverage. Let them get frustrated trying to make me sweat.

Finally, a voice broke the silence. It was a female’s voice. “So, what do you have to say for yourself, hmm?”

That brought a cocky grin to my face. “Oh, I can say a lot of things. But I doubt you want to hear any of them. After all, you’re hiding in the dark. So I’m just going to lay here, until you tell me what’s going on. Or give me some light so I can see who I’m talking to.” Never give the enemy an advantage, even if you’re in a massively inferior position. Make them fight for everything.

The voice came from beside me, whispering in my ear this time, “And why would you want to see me, incubus?”

Turning my head towards the sound of the voice, I said, “To see how fuckable you are. I hear good things about drowesses. But I’m not into fatties or ugly bitches. So I gotta rate you and see how you’ll do.”

That caused the voice to start sputtering in shock and no small amount of rage, if I hit my guess. “Impudent fool! Do you not know your position?”

“Obviously not, since you’re not bringing any light for me to see by, and haven’t even introduced yourself. But hey, I understand you might be shy, and using the kinky games to keep from being exposed, ugly girls usually are like that.”

“Why you little! I’m going to enjoy ripping that oversized dick off you and beating your whores with it for your viewers!”

I chuckled, despite the rather nasty threat she just gave me. “Ah, so we’re the prisoners of another player. Very interesting. So, am I speaking to Kali, or just another nutcase? I’d really like to finish this up so I can get back to what I was doing.”

“H-how did you know that? You shouldn’t be able to see my name in the dark!”

“Well, for starters, you’re about as intelligent as ogre dung, since you just confirmed my guess. Good going with that, by the way. And as for your name, not everyone died when you used that spell. You were seen, and your name was reported. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bounty on your head already.”

I heard her click her tongue at that. “Tch. Damnit, they weren’t supposed to know my name until after the villages had been overrun! Now I’m going to have to move up the schedule!”

“Oh, you mean letting the nearby villages get overrun with the undead that escaped from Ullelone? Yeah, they’re already being hunted down and destroyed by the royal guards and players.”

“WHAT? How the fuck did someone get a group to start hunting that fast? It should have taken days for reports to get back!”

“You’re really quite stupid, aren’t you? Travelers have many ways of spreading news, especially those in a guild. Don’t worry, you’re doing wonders for my guild’s reputation. Just like a good stepping stone should be.”

That brought a scream from Kali. Nice to see she was so easily manipulated into a rage. I could use that, once I figured out a way to get free. Or got some light. Angry people made mistakes. And I was apparently pretty good at trolling people.

Of course, angry people also lash out, which is why I felt a blow from a club of some kind come down on my head, and stars filled the blackness for a moment, before everything went out.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Chapter 14 - Wally's Wonderful World of Weapons

“Welcome, welcome! It is so good to see you again, Captain! You’re not going to be causing trouble, right? They just now finished cleaning up the mess you people left last time you were here.”

Looking over to the voice that greeted me as we entered the store, I grinned as I saw Wally Fallon, owner of Wally’s Wonderful World of Weapons. He was human, from Earth, and could best be described as the kind of guy you’d expect to be selling used vehicles in a place like Las Vegas. Kindof sleazy, willing to overlook certain things (like missing serial numbers), but all in all a good guy, so long as you don’t mind the fact that he isn’t ‘clean’.

The Irish-American had moved out into the black just after the War, and found that there was an open niche for a trader on Ikthal VII who could deal with the new power in the neighborhood on their terms. He opened a ‘consulting’ firm, offering his services as a negotiator, either to merchants from the Empire when dealing with Humans, or for passing Humans dealing with Imperial citizens. He got a rep, and enough money, to go into business for himself, opening a weapons shop. Since then, it had grown to be the primary ‘grey-black’ weapons shop on the planet. Wally would sell to anyone and buy from anyone, and he had a crew of trained hands who made sure anything he sold not only worked, but was free of any nasty surprises, like tracking chips. If you needed cheap guns, you went elsewhere. If you wanted something that you could rely on when it mattered, you went to Wally’s.

“Wally, you slimy, two-faced son of a devil’s spawn, I told you, that wasn’t my fault! Grigna should have known better than to keep his fertilizer next to rotary air circulator!” We laughed, and shook hands, to the surprise of the nonhumans who witnessed the exchange. Casual insults as a greeting were unusual in most nonhuman cultures. Either they didn’t approve of insults in general, or there was a ritualized system of insults to establish respect (especially in warrior cultures). But humans were still a ‘melting pot’ race, rather than one of the ones that had refined itself into a single central culture. It was part of what made us ‘unpredictable’.

“How ya been? Anything new in stock?”

“Well, I have a couple gizmos the local tech-types are playing with. Party favors for when you want to make an impression, but don’t want to bring the house down with you. On the other hand, if you’re looking to tenderize a mountain, I got goodies for that, too. Plus all the standard ways to tell someone exactly how you feel about them.”

“Aw, Wally, you know just what to say to a girl. If you were just a bit younger, I’d definitely take you for a thrill.”

“And if your old man didn’t scare the everloving crap out of me, I’d let you, age difference or no. So, what’ll it be?”

I grinned as we settled into ‘business mode’. “New gunhand, need to get a kit tailored for her, so I can get my FUBAR kit back. Weapons and armor. The Sanctuary Special on the armor, if you got it. Weapons I’ll leave to her, but we’ll be needing long, short, and melee. For the rest, well, some grenades are always fun to have, and I’ll check out those party favors and mountain tenderizers while you get Misza here suited up.”

That was all just jargon and babble to pretty much anyone who wasn’t familiar with the terms, but at least amongst humans, those who ran in circles where weapons were considered a part of the job, the terms weren’t that hard to figure out. The ‘Sanctuary Special’ was actually based on my dad’s old costume, and was one of the pieces of our tech that we actually did allow to get sold off-planet. It used super-science materials to be light but still provide good protection from most any attack, and had full HAZMAT and EVA capabilities, as well. The production models were bulkier than my dad’s costume, but looked less ‘supervillain’ and more like someone wearing a sci-fi version of medieval armor. Not quite the ’power armor’ look, but definitely noticeable. Those were actually extra pieces that simply provided even further protection, as well as room for sensors, while the underlining could be worn under a ship’s jumpsuit for unobtrusive protection.

As far as the weapons went, you broke it down by range. Long range, in this case, didn’t mean things like sniper rifles or OTH (Over the Horizon) weapon systems. It meant things like assault rifles or heavy weapons. You didn’t need a great deal of range when talking about the kind of things we got into, so ‘long’ range for us generally meant 50 to 100 meters. Likewise, ‘short’ range for us generally meant no more than 20 meters, and covered both a variety of handguns, as well as throwing weapons. Melee was for up close and personal, and had all your basic cutting, stabbing, and bashing toys.

I made sure everyone on the crew was checked out on at least one ranged and one melee weapon, even the whores, and those of us with powers. The reason for it was simple, really. Daddy was never the most powerful villain on Earth, back before the war, but he was able to take down some of the heaviest hitters, people who, by rights, ought to have squished him like a bug. One of the reasons he was so good is because he wasn’t limited to a single means of attack or defense. He had his powers, combat training, weapons training, magic weapons, mundane weapons, explosives, and more. He never relied on a single attack, because it was always easier to switch weapons instead of trying to overpower a counter. If someone was shielded against magic weapons, he stabbed them with ice, or shot them with energy, or pulled out a shotgun and blasted them. Daddy was never a Boy Scout, but he still taught us to be prepared for things to go FUBAR.

We let Misza have some alone time with Wally as they worked on getting her kitted out. I was interested to see what she would pick out without the peanut gallery chiming in every two seconds. She was former military, so I didn’t think I had to worry about her making stupid mistakes like some did their first time kitting out, and going immediately for the biggest and baddest weapons they could find, only to realize that even if they could carry around a minigun with all that ammo, there was no way I’d ever let them have it on the ship. And that crazy fucker wanted to try and dual-wield the things, like some kind of damn movie character!

Wally’s ‘party favors’ were nonlethal grenades. Nonlethal, though, didn’t mean they wouldn’t fuck you up. Flash-bangs and smoke grenades were the best known of this type, and like a classic muscle car, you just couldn’t go wrong with them. But Wally also had gas grenades, and while his had tear gas, they also had instructions on how to replace the gas with something more lethal if you like. Another perennial favorite were the EMP grenades, which pretty much killed anything electrical in their radius. Sure, military gear was hardened against such things, so it wouldn’t be fried, but it would still have to get rebooted, which was almost as good. And civi gear would be toast. But we already had plenty of these toys in the ship’s armory

The new and shiny this time around was something Wally was calling ‘slick grenades’. Basically, some genius got the idea to take paint grenades, like you’d use to play paintball or in military training, and fill them with a high tech lubricant that basically made everything it touched frictionless. Not impressive on the face of it, sure. But when you considered what would happen if you set one of those off behind you when you were being chased, causing an enemy to slip and fall down the stairs, or for a vehicle to go sliding into a wall, you quickly began to see the potential mayhem. I placed an order for three dozen, immediately.

I was almost scared to look at the ‘mountain tenderizer’ section. On the one hand, I loved things that made big booms, mainly because they were good for both getting into (or out of) places I wasn’t supposed to be, and making anyone who might be on the other side think twice about engaging in a way that other things just didn’t do. Sure, you could make a flashy display of powers, and hope people got the message, but EVERYONE understood explosions.

But on the other hand, carrying a bunch of explosives on board what was essentially a giant pressure vessel keeping nice, breathable air in and horribly deadly vacuum out was a recipe for disaster unless you took very good precautions. Unfortunately, the best of the ‘mountain tenderizer’ type toys were inherently unstable, and I didn’t want any unstable explosives ripping holes in my ship if we had to do high speed maneuvers while under fire.

Still, a few kilos of explosives could be used in any number of ways if you wanted to ruin someone’s day, so it paid to have some. I didn’t go with the uber-explosives. No way in hell would I be allowing a matter-energy converter bomb onto my ship. But a few kilos of Q23, the Imperial equivalent of C4, with some remote detonators? Yes, please! I got ten kilos, with detonators, to add to my ‘just in case’ stash. You could hit it, burn it, soak it, cut it, shoot it, hell, even build a house with the stuff and nothing would set it off until the right electrical impulse hit it.

The star of the show, as far as the ‘mountain tenderizers’ went, was something Wally was calling a ‘Quantum Eraser’. Honestly, no one knew how the thing worked, not even the creator. Somehow, he stumbled on a way to just remove matter from existence. No explosions, no annihilation reactions, no energy release, just set the thing off, and all matter in a twenty-meter radius simply no longer existed. No one knew where it went, or if it could be recovered, or anything else about it. Frankly, that scared the hell out of me, and I quickly left that section, before I started freaking out.

Which brought me to the nice, calming wall of exotic weapons. Daddy made sure we were all at least proficient in a variety of weapons, so that if need be we could pick up a dead guy’s weapon and use it ourselves, without worry. I favored my twin blaster pistols, of course, but I usually kept a knife in my boot, for ‘just in case’. Still, I could use most anything, if I had to, which is why Boris, Doc, and I spent the next half hour going over the various weapons, looking for things that would fit our fancy. (I got a neuro-whip for Stephen, since his birthday was coming up.)

By this point, Miszo was coming out of the changing area, wearing her new kit. I nodded as I saw that she had the Sanctuary Special armor properly adjusted for her tail, and then looked over her gear. I saw a new knife in each boot, though I couldn’t tell the exact make, and a Strexian Beamsaber at her side. That was an interesting choice. Didn’t require much strength to wield, since the blade was composed of pure energy, but it could prove very deadly, and could cut through almost any material in the known universe, given time, and enough charge on the battery.

For short range, I saw that she went with a Gort Arms Catrix blaster. The weapon reminded me of the old MAC-10 in its form, and the function wasn’t much different, except it used energy packs and fired compressed energy blasts rather than bullets. A good choice for mid-range combat, especially when you were looking to break away rather than conquer, as ‘spray and pray’ was always good for keeping people’s heads down.

But the long range weapon surprised me. An X-246 Nightwatch sniper rifle, made by Boxan Industries. The X-246 was rated for shots up to 3000 meters, but with the right optics and a skilled shooter, you could get it up to 5000. Unlike sniper rifles from Earth, this one was basically a man-portable rail gun, and would put holes in, well, pretty much anything.

Miszo must have caught my expression at the rifle, and said, “Well, sometimes you want to reach out and touch someone, no?”

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Chapter 41 - Forebodings of War

Lexichan: Zayn, I managed to convince the people in the palace that the threat was real. They need a safe place to set up a portal so they can send through reinforcements. What’s the situation?

Zayn: I think we killed all the zombies. But we don’t know whether any escaped town. They all have to be destroyed. They’re the ‘if the zombie kills you, you’re a zombie’ type. So let them know that reinforcements should include rangers for hunting down stragglers.

Lexichan: Will do. Have you found any survivors?

Zayn: We recovered some survivors in the Temple. Twenty-five total: 20 civilians (women and children), 2 priests of the temple, 3 adventurers. It is possible that others survived in the other buildings, but I doubt it. Tell whoever is leading the reinforcements that one of the survivors is a Drow that went renegade to help save as many villagers as he could. He is not a prisoner, but a defector.

Lexichan: Understood. Do you have a site for the portal?

Zayn: Yes. We’ve cleared out the square in front of the temple. You can use that as the target area. Passing coordinates now.

Lexichan: Expect reinforcements in 30.

Zayn: Roger.

Looking up at the survivors, I said, “I have passed word about what happened here to Mylenoris, and we should have reinforcements within the hour. They know that there are survivors.” I paused, and looked to Tolthe, and said, “And I told them that there was a drow defector amongst the survivors. I can’t promise that anyone will be happy to see you, but they won’t kill you on sight. If you can provide information, especially about this Traveler that unleashed the Black Mist, then you would do much to prove yourself in their eyes.”

Tolthe sighed, and said, “Well, that was better than I hoped for.” Switching sides was always risky, especially when horrible crap was raining down. Made people jumpy. So really, I could understand why he wouldn’t be expecting the hero’s welcome.

A couple minutes before the expected reinforcements were due to arrive, I had my group together standing in front of the temple, with the trio waiting at the temple doors, while the priests and the survivors waited inside. It wasn’t like I was expecting an attack, but I didn’t feel good letting defenseless civilians out roaming about until we knew more. And especially not when there may be undead still in town, trapped by debris.

At the promised time, a portal opened up in the square, and out marched two platoons of soldiers, and a squad of rangers. Following them were several Aria members, led by Lexichan. I nodded to her, but went to address the leader of the soldiers.

Ayluin Tralar
Elf Male
Level 40 Sentinel (Fighter) / Marshall
Rank: Lieutenant
Titles: Defender, Ambitious, Righteous

Seeing me approach, the man turned to look at me, sizing me up. “Are you Sir Darkmore?” When I nodded to him, he said, “Good, then you can tell me what we’re dealing with, yes? We were given an emergency callout, with less than an hour to prepare. What happened here?”

“It seems a drow raiding party decided to attack the village in the night. What would have been a massacre turned into something far worse when one of the drow spellcasters apparently decided to test out a new spell. From the descriptions we have, the spell conjured a black mist that killed those who breathed it, and turned any bodies it touched into undead. And some sort of curse must have been left upon them, as those slain by the undead rose as well.”

“You saw this?”

“No, we arrived about an hour ago. Once we saw the undead at the village gate, I sent the alert. But there were survivors, including two adventurers and a renegade drow who helped save as many of the villagers as they could.”

“That would be the drow standing in the shade of the temple?”

“Indeed. He is a follower of Elistraee, and the adventurers and priests confirm that he helped rescue the civilians. We were able to clear out the undead at the gate and in front of the temple. We killed one hundred and fifty-seven zombies, some of them drow who fell in the initial attack. There were another twenty or so survivors.”

That brought a curse from one of the soldiers behind Tralar. When we both looked at him, he said, “I’m from this village, and there should have been about two hundred people here, this time of year.”

I winced, and said, “And that is why I called for your rangers, Lieutenant. We came in a straight line along the road, so we will need your trackers to try and find any undead that may have escaped. The loss of the village is bad enough, but this cannot be allowed to spread. As for the men, the buildings need to be searched, both for more undead, and for any survivors that managed to make it through the fire.”

The lieutenant nodded. “It will be done. And the survivors?”

I offered a shrug, and said, “See to your men, Lieutenant, and begin the search. I’ll check in with my guildsmen, and then we’ll see what we can do for them.”

Lieutenant Tralar nodded, and turned to begin ordering his troops. I walked over to Lexichan and the other members of Aria, and said, “Well, when you said reinforcements were coming, I wasn’t expecting to see you lot come too.”

Lexichan laughed, and said, “You thought we’d let you have all the fun, did you? Sounds like you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest, boss.”

I shook my head. “Not me, this time. Looks like this was the work of a player who started as a drow in drow territory, not on the surface like you did. She’s doing the full evil mage thing, though. Witnesses say she unleashed a spell that turned the whole village into movie zombies. And not all are accounted for.”

The laughter died in the group’s eyes as they heard that. One of the other guildmembers said, “So what’s the play?” Zombie apocalypse games were fun, for a while, but after a while you wanted to be elsewhere. Those of us who reincarnated here were in trouble if this whole world went to hell. No one wanted to play that kind of game for long.

“The soldiers are going to send rangers out to track any zombies that escaped, so those of you with tracking and stealth skills may offer to go with them. We also need to search all the buildings for survivors. The spell reanimated all corpses it touched as zombies, so there are probably zombies buried in the basements or under debris. Those of you with combat ability help the soldiers. Priests, this is a great time to learn about what holy magic can do against undead. There are two priests in the temple who survived the attack. Get with them and see what they can teach you.”

Lexichan looked at me, and said, “And what will you and your pets be doing?”

“We came her for a dungeon involving Drow, and Drow were involved in the attack. We’ll be going in, of course. But Athtar and the horses will remain with you in the village. Take him back to Mylenoris when you go. Let him pick out a subclass, since he hit 20. You can use the guild funds, and I’ll reimburse the guild from my pocket. Horses are no use in the dungeon, and I have a spell that will take us back to Mylenoris.”

Lexichan nodded, with a grin, and said, “Have fun, Leader. And try not to die ‘taming’ a drowess.” Of course that got laughs from all the players, including myself.

Duskhaven was abuzz with activity. The capitol city of the kingdom of Ograin had been alight these past few weeks with a new religious group, calling themselves the ‘Scions of Torgan’. They had begun preaching to the people, and attempting to ‘cleanse’ the city of ‘evil’. Honestly, the preaching wasn’t an issue. Crackpot religious cults came and went like the tides, and the people who got suckered into them were generally not worth speaking of, anyways. But with Travelers in their ranks, their efforts at ‘cleansing’ had actually caused some damage to the local Thieves’ Guild, and their attacks on the Slavers’ Guild had been relentless.

But today, they had pledged to lead a march of their followers to sack the Slavers’ Guild, and free all the slaves. The leader of the Slavers’ Guild, Stanway Lashlord had heard this, and asked for help from the City Guard, while also alerting the Thieves’ Guild so that they could help disrupt the march. His family had been head of the Slavers’ Guild in Duskhaven since the Scourge, and none had ever challenged his family’s rule. The closest to a challenge they had ever com was a year ago when his eldest son, Stethyr, disappeared between Fathon and Vozhall, where he was setting up a new branch of the guild, but no one had come forward with a ransom demand, and the boy’s Guardian hadn’t been heard from, so no one knew what had happened.

Now, however, these religious nuts were threatening to try and shut down his entire operation! Sure, he had to deal with the occasional zealots, but even the higher-ups in the different churches knew that slavery allowed the society to deal with problems in a ‘civilized’ manner. One didn’t have to starve, if they could sell themselves as a slave, after all. And a slave collar was a good way of keeping criminals from misbehaving a second time.

At midday, these ‘Scions’ appeared, marching towards the guild as they had promised. There were over a hundred of them, led by a woman with red hair, and the look of madness in her eyes. The City Guard closed ranks to prevent their passing. The Scions readied weapons they had concealed beneath their clothes. The Guardsmen fell into a defensive formation, ready to blunt the attack. The thieves of the guild began slipping stealthily into the ranks of the Scions, picking pockets and readying to slaughter the fools. It was like the calm before the storm. The woman at the lead of the column raised a staff, and opened her mouth to speak…


Woe upon Duskhaven, for the wrath of a dragon goddess has fallen upon you! This city shelters those with the blood of the ones who bound the dragon Mirelth in ages past. Now that she has been freed from her bondage, all shall suffer her terrible wrath!

A screen popped up in front of every player and NPC in Duskhaven, just as a dome of magic covered the city. Upon the walls of the king’s castle, the dragon herself landed, and the roar she unleashed, infused with her magic, shook the ground, and caused terror in all who beheld her. Mirelth, the ancient calamity, had come seeking her revenge.

Light_Makes_Right, Clarion, Ocarina, Breckley, Anonymous, DarkSoul, Magpie, Knobpolish, Anonymous2, Anonymous5, Cookie, Destiny in chat.

Light_Makes_Right: Oh shit! So glad I’m not in Duskhaven right now!

Breckley: WTF? I just logged in and the dome dropped in front of me right before I could get in. I want that event XP!

Scholar: Ooh! I know this one! Mirelth is an ancient dragon goddess from before the Scourge. She was sealed or bound somehow with an artifact after she destroyed a country!

Destiny: Did you see how that dragon nuked the temple district? Straight up wasted the temples!

Ocarina: And with it, the best chance of getting rezzed in the city if you die during the event.

Clarion: WHEN you die during the event.

Magpie: What? Surely they balanced the event, right?

DarkSoul: Only if the Company was behind the event. But the Company is running this game ‘hands off’, right? Living world and all that drek.

Magpie: Then, that means?

Clarion: That anyone in Duskhaven will be fighting a pissed off dragon goddess, probably at full power, and definitely ready to do nasty things to anyone in her way.

Scholar: But where did she come from? I haven’t heard of any dungeons being found where a dragon boss got released.

l33tPally has entered the chat.
Z.Void has entered the chat.
Doomhammer has entered the chat.
Lightspeaker has entered the chat.
Shifty has entered the chat.
Anonymous6 has entered the chat.

l33tPally: Da fuk! I just got instakilled in Duskhaven as soon as I logged on!

Lightspeaker: There’s an event going on, but the power level is over 9000!


Ocarina: Check the scouter again!

Shifty: Damnit. I had just leveled up my Pick Pocket skill to Advanced!

Doomhammer: Did anyone see that announce just before everyone died?

Shifty: Yeah, it was weird.

Anonymous6: Yeah. “Curse of Living Death.” Lose points of Con each hour until you die. Then you become Undead, and trapped within Duskhaven. Of course, the people who got blasted will already be undead by now.


Destiny: Harsh. How do you remove it?

Doomhammer: Only way is to gain favor with Mirelth (she’s a faction now, it seems). Problem is, there’s not much room for rep grinding if you’re stuck in town.

Anonymous6: Or you have to get someone who is friendly with her to convince her to release the city.

Cookie: Hehe. I know just the person to do that!

Ocarina: You don’t mean…

Cookie: Well, you need someone to be friendly to a dragon, right? Zayn has have the ‘Dragonfriend’ title!


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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Chapter 13 - Swap Meet

Since we had a captured ship and crew to deal with, I decided we’d take a small detour on our way to Rithena Prime. Oh, it wasn’t that far out of our way, since it just added three jumps to our trip, but the location was important for getting rid of the ship and crew with minimal hassle. After all, Ikthal VII was one of the best slave markets in this arm of the galaxy.

There were also a wide array of useful things one could find on the planet, if you knew where to look, and had the deep pockets required. Or you could always enter into one of several competitions that would help cover the costs of the new toys you could find. Once again, I let Eri handle the sale of the slaves and the ship. Her powers made her a natural negotiator, if you didn’t mind cheating susceptible males. (For the record, I had no such problems.) I took Doc Cluebba, Boris, and Miszo, and we went searching for the fun shit.

I looked at Boris out of the corner of my eye. Since we’d brought the ‘comfort officers’ on board, he’d shaped up a lot. Being able to have a regular release with a willing woman was good for the men. He was more relaxed now, and was only ‘interested’ in the brothels we passed, instead of panting out longingly, so there was a big improvement there.

Miszo, on the other hand, was wide-eyed. Despite her time in the Marines, it seems she’d never been to someplace quite like Ikthal. But that was understandable. Ikthal made sure to keep trouble far away from it, since any ‘official’ notice of the planet would cause a lot of ‘concern’ over the thriving illegal and semi-legal ventures going there, and no one wanted to increase the amount of bribe money they paid out.

Cluebba, though, was something else. She looked at the scenery with a clinical detachment. She had been born on Silex IV, and met Daddy when he came to rescue her family from what was about to happen to the planet, all because Daddy promised a soldier who earned his respect that he would spare them. Cluebba had gone on to study several sciences, and was the closest thing to an expert in cross-species medical treatment Sanctuary had. Hell, one of the reasons she even signed on to the Traveler was so she could fly around and examine lots of different types of aliens.

Looking over to reptilian woman, I said, “Doc, we’ll start with your stuff. I know you’ve got the Infirmary stocked up better than anything short of an operating room in a capitol world trauma center, so what were you hoping to find here?”

Cluebba sighed, and said, “Our facilities aren’t anywhere near that impressive, Captain. And we have only the bare minimums of many pharmaceuticals and supplies one would need to repair flesh and bone. I’m hoping to find a dermal regenerator. It could be powered by the ship’s systems, and would repair damage to skin and muscle tissue, without requiring extensive work and use of consumable supplies.”

“Self-sufficient and reliable. Like the sound of that. You sing out when you see one, and we’ll grab it if it doesn’t cost one of Boris’s limbs.”

Boris grunted at my comment, but only said, in that Russian accent of his, “Gee, thanks Keptain. I vas vorried vhen you told me to come vith you on this trip.”

I giggled, and said, “Well, don’t worry, if I was going to get rid of you, it wouldn’t be someplace like this. Not unless you did something stupid again and endangered my ship.”

Boris sighed, “I’m never going to live down talking to the dancer girl, am I?”

I smiled at him, and said, “Nope.”

Misza cleared her throat. “Dancing girl?”

Looking over my shoulder at her, I said, “Oh, on our way through Argetha the last time, Boris stopped in at the local brothel for a good time with one of the dancers. And he got talkative while she was riding him, and gave up our itinerary, and even which gate we were docked at. So later, we catch the dancer and two friends trying to stow away on board. Slaves trying to escape their master. So we worked out a deal. They get to ride to Brektha, and we ride them the whole way.”

“And it turned out to be such a good thing that you decided to recruit whores on a permanent basis?”

I looked at her bemused face. “Sure did. Fights dropped, arguments got more peaceful, and everyone was happier. Hell, you were a Marine, right? Then you should know what happens to people cooped up for too long without any release.”

Misza nodded. “I see your point. So, our first stop is checking out black market medical shops, then? Why would one of these ‘dermal regenerators’ be there?”

Cluebba answered for me, “Because the technology is Abraxian. Their race has some kind of genetic leprosy thing going on, which means they have a lot of medical research happening. However, they keep their people alive by stealing organs from anyone they come across, so no one really trades with them.”

I grimaced at that image. Yeah, everyone had heard the reports of the Abraxians. Fucking organ harvesters. But they were medical geniuses, even if they couldn’t cure their own condition. The fact that they could make organs from any species work for them said enough about that. “Doc, I’ll want Destiny to check over the device before it goes on the ship. I don’t want any surprises that will lead those assholes to my ship.”

“Already planned on it, Captain.” I nodded. Doc wasn’t an idiot. Hell, I made a point of not keeping idiots on my ship. Sure, people could have stupid moments (like Boris), but so long as they didn’t make a habit of it, and didn’t endanger the ship, I was willing to let it go with just some punishment and endless laughs at their expense. The real idiots, the ones who were too stupid for their own good, I made sure to shove out the airlock, whether it was connected or not.

Eventually, we found a shop that was selling medical supplies. And sure enough, there was a dermal regenerator there, but the problem was that because it was a piece from a group not known for selling their tech, it was rare, and illegal in a lot of places simply for being Abraxian. That meant that it was expensive as hell, at a quarter million GC. Needless to say, that was NOT in the budget. Even if we started haggling, that wouldn’t drop the price to where we could afford it.

Fortunately, places like this always have something they need, whether it is some commodity, or perhaps a task to be done. When Cluebba looked at me, I stepped forward, and introduced myself (but more importantly, my ship, to the Rithenalese shopkeeper. With that, his eyes narrowed, and the hint of a smile touched the corner of his lips. “An independent trader, hmm? You wouldn’t happen to be headed to Rithena III, would you?”

“We’re scheduled to head to Rithena Prime as our next port. But we can stop at Rithena III along the way, if there’s a job that needs doing.”

The merchant grinned. “Oh yes. You see, I have a client who has special needs. Unfortunately, my last courier got waylaid by unfortunate happenstance, and will be unavailable for some time.”

“And you still need the cargo to get to the proper location, yes?”

“Indeed. And in return, I could take the payment for the job off the cost of the regenerator.”

I frowned, pretending to consider the offer. “What kind of cargo is it?”

The merchant’s eyes narrowed, and he said, “And why would you be needing to know that?” Of course he knew why I needed to know, but it was the game we played, trying to get the best deal.

I sighed, and continued the dance. “Because I need to know what to prepare for. Is it hazardous? Radioactive? Alive? Is there specialized care involved? Will things suffer if we have to engage in aggressive maneuvers? These are things we need to know, if you want your cargo to actually arrive at Rithena III.”

The merchant sighed, and said, “The cargo is four sealed stasis pods, to be delivered to the Yutani Corporation’s headquarters in Weyland City. The cargo could be considered a biohazard, and should be kept sealed at all times.”

I couldn’t keep my eye from twitching at that name. Oh sure, it wasn’t like the old movie. But that didn’t mean I looked for an umbrella anywhere near a place called Raccoon City, either. “That’s a big risk on a little ship.”

“And it comes with big rewards. I’ll drop the price of the regenerator to 200K.”

“25K. The regenerator won’t do any good against a bioweapon.”

We haggled back and forth for a bit, discussing the relative merits of the job, the regenerator, and me underselling the capabilities of my ship to make it seem more dangerous than it was. In the end, we paid out 70K GC from the ship’s account, and got the regenerator. The cargo would be delivered to the ship before we left. I just hoped Eri did well with her sales. Sure, in the long term this device would pay for itself, but I didn’t have to like shelling out money for it.

That done, it was time for the fun stuff.

Because it was a major hub for slave traders (and other illicit vendors) from all over the Empire, Ikthal VII had a thriving mercenary community as well. Some of those mercenaries were individuals or small companies. Some were slaves suitable to combat to be used as disposable bodyguards or assassins. But they were all fighters. And when you had fighters, you had weapons and armor, and the people that sold them.

Even better, in a place like this you would often find the half-crazy tinkerers who designed new or custom pieces. Short of the super-science or magical gear you could find on Sanctuary or Earth, this was where you’d find some of the deadliest weapons in this arm of the galaxy, and the only reason Sanctuary had people beat is that few races in the Orion arm could use magic, or had super-science that seemed to defy the laws of physics. The number of races that had both, and could combine the two, was limited to a couple dozen in the whole galaxy.

Even on Earth, magic weapons were extremely rare, so I didn’t have any hope of finding those gems here. But I always stopped by the weapon stores, because you never knew when you’d find something truly awesome. And I was always looking for new tricks I could use to make life utterly unfair for anyone who picked a fight with me or my crew.

Oh sure, anyone could find the weapons that would do the most outright damage. But that was a rookie move. Anyone who actually knew fighting would tell you that raw damage is nice, but types of damage and being able to disable a foe or control the environment were far more important. Sink everything into the BFG 9000 if you want, but when you’re out of ammo, or fighting something that is more resistant to what that gun puts out, you’re going to want to have other toys. When the enemy is moving around like crazy, you’re going to want to be able to lock them down. When you need to take someone alive, the big gun doesn’t help.

And that’s why I came to these places. Because sometimes you can find all manner of badassery here. And a girl can never have too many accessories, you know!

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Chapter 40 - Ullelone Village

As night fell on the third day of our journey, we made camp at the top of a small hill. We weren’t far from Ullelone Village, but traveling through the countryside at night was perilous, even when one didn’t have to worry about things like monster attacks.

It felt like I had just gone to bed after ‘relaxing’ with Severa for a bit in the tent when Bella started yelling for everyone’s attention. She was on the third watch tonight, so it was a little past midnight, probably. Grabbing my weapons, I ran out of the tent, and started looking for the enemy.

“Master, to the west!” I turned to where Della was pointing, and raised my eyes towards the horizon. I’d been looking for monsters ambushing us at our rest, and hadn’t noticed the red glow in the sky. A fire was burning, and it was coming from the direction of Ullelone Village.

Everyone was awake now, and looking at the red glow. I shook my head. “Break everything down and pack up. We’ll leave at first light. Continue with the watches, but sleep in your armor, with your weapons near to hand. Della, it is almost time for my watch, so you go ahead and get some rest.” It was just fortunate that it was spring, and we hadn’t needed to keep a fire going the whole night through for warmth.

As the others broke down the camp and then found a patch of grass to lie against their pack, or something similar, I held my bow and entered stealth. I did not trust the darkness to hide us from whoever was moving about in the dark.

When dawn came, none of us had slept much, taking what rest we could on the open ground. As soon as it was light enough to see, we had a cold breakfast, and then set off. We needed to get to the village, and see what had happened here. But we could see smoke in the distance.

We advanced cautiously, and it was near midday by the time we crested the final hill, looking down upon the remains of the village. The village had clearly been put to the torch, and what passed for a wall (simply a wooden palisade to keep wild monsters at bay) had been broken in at least one place that we could see. But there was movement below, centered on the one building that remained intact, what looked like a temple made of stone.

Spurring our horses onward, we quickly arrived at the edge of the palisade, but brought the horses up short of entering the gate, as we finally saw what was moving. It wasn’t the elves we were hoping for. Instead, we found scores of shambling undead! They were all still fairly ‘fresh’, from the looks of things, so it probably meant that these were the villagers until the attack last night.

“Dismount! Yukiko, Nithroel, we will try and hold them in the gate, where we can at least have the advantage of restricting their numbers! Severa, you and Athtar hang back with the horses. Use your bows to help how you can, and check to make sure they don’t flank us. Della, focus on healing us, but use your holy magic to take them on if there’s need. This is a long march, not a sprint. Conserve your strength everyone.”

As we arranged our formation, I opened up the guild chat. Fortunately, Lexichan was online.

Zayn: Lexichan! Emergency!

Lexichan: *yawn* I just woke up. What’s the emergency? Yukiko want to try pegging?

Zayn: No. More the ‘possible undead apocalypse’ kind of emergency.

Lexichan: WHAT?!?

Zayn: Here is what I need you to do. Go to the palace, and tell the guards that Sir Darkmore sends an urgent message. Tell them that Ullelone Village was put to the torch last night, and the villagers have risen as feral undead. We will do what we can to contain this, but we have no idea who, or what, caused this, or whether any of the undead escaped. Go now, and warn them!

Lexichan: On my way! What about you guys? Will you be all right?

Zayn: We are using the village palisade to our benefit, but who knows how long that will work. Closing chat. They’re on us!

I closed out the brief chat just in time to catch the first zombie’s attack with my blade, and respond in kind. There was nothing fancy about what we were doing here. It was a simple, brutal battle plan, to kill and keep killing until nothing else remained. At least we had the gate to keep the things from swarming us all at once. If we had to defend on all sides, eventually we would be overrun. Fortunately, the zombies were mindless beings, and funneled themselves into the killing zone.

Even with that, we soon found ourselves being driven back, as our sword arms began to tire, and our strikes prove less true. I’d lost count of the numbers we’d killed as the tide weighed down upon us, our ability to resist aided only by the work of the three behind us taking the pressure off where they could.

“Athtar, on your horse, and see if you can see the end of this! This village wasn’t that large!”

The boy got on his horse, and stood in the saddle to see over our heads, and the news he gave us was quite welcome indeed. “We’re nearing the end! Only a score more and then we’ll be done with this lot!”

I breathed a sigh, and said, “Della! Light them up!” Now that we knew we were coming to an end, we could afford to show less restraint. Della followed my command, and unleashed the strongest area heal she could, not only healing all of our wounds, but doing critical damage to all the undead as a pillar of light burst into being, centered on the horde. After that, it was simply a matter of mopping up the few with a couple HP left.

Breathing heavily, I said, “Everyone take a knee. Severa, Athtar, recover your arrows. We’ll rest for five minutes, and then continue on into the village. We have to find out what happened here.” No one talked during our break. There was nothing to say. The silence of the ruined village hung over us all like a shadow. Checking the combat logs, I saw that, not only had we killed almost one hundred and twenty zombies, but Athtar had grown to level 20. When we got back to Mylenoris, I’d have to see about getting him a subclass.

Athtar Keystina
Elf Male
Level 20 Ranger
Titles: Slave, Broken One, Undead Bane

We had all received the ‘Undead Bane’ title after the battle was over. Honestly, it was pretty awesome, for what it did.

Undead Bane
There are those who fight the undead at need, but then there are those who seek them out, to eradicate them. You are one of those brave, or foolhardy, souls.

+10% to all damage against Undead.
-10% damage received from Undead.
+10% resistance to spells and abilities of Undead
+100 Fame
+10 WIS

Five minutes wasn’t much, after the fight we’d just been through, but I felt uneasy just sitting there before the gates of the town without knowing what was going on. We needed answers before we could rest peacefully. So, weapons in hand, we advanced, leading the horses as we went.

Ullelone Village had been comprised mostly of wooden buildings, so when the fire raged through the town, everything burned. The palisade only held together as it did because someone was smart enough to build it well out from the nearest buildings, so the fire did not spread to the walls.

There would be no survivors in the wooden buildings. The last month had been hot and dry, and with the undead about, the fires would have spread unchecked. Still, we would check them, before long. But the best chance for survivors would be the temple.

As we neared the temple, we once more heard the sounds of undead. Carefully, we rounded the corner, and saw that another twenty undead were battering at the wooden doors of the temple. Though they looked as though they had been sturdy at one point, I doubted they would hold much longer. We had to act now, if we wanted answers out of those who lived. Oddly enough, I noticed that there were drow zombies amongst this group.

“Della, light them up. I want this to be over.” Once more, the pillar of light descended, and most of the undead perished in that instant, and the few who remained were crushed as I summoned the dark tentacles to bash them to pieces. I dismissed the tentacles, and moved to check the bodies of the drow. From them, I gained a store of coin, several wicked looking weapons, and eight shirts of mithral rings that I would identify later, as well as some letters that I would read through when I had a chance. Each of them bore the livery of the Spider Queen, Lolth.

Still, it was time to see who lived in the middle of this mess. I walked up to the door, and banged loudly upon it, before shouting in the elven tongue, “Open the doors! The way is clear, for the time being!”

There was a moment of silence, likely the result of the people inside having a brief debate, and then the doors were pushed open. What remained of the villagers (twenty of them, all women and children) had taken shelter here with a pair of priests. But it was not the priests that kept the undead at bay. That ‘honor’ had apparently fallen to the trio in front of me.

Inialos Arasatra
Elf Male
Level 25 Bard / Fighter
Titles: Curious One, Tempter, Defender, Valiant

Ilsevel Yllaric
Elf Female
Level 25 Paladin / Priestess
Titles: Righteous, Disciple, Defender, Valiant

Tolthe Torrona
Dark Elf Male
Level 30 Shadow Sorcerer / Rogue
Titles: Exceptional, Renegade, Exile, Defender, Valiant

Looking the trio over, I said, “I am Zayn Darkmore, a Traveler, and Knight of the Wyrmwood. My companions and I have cleared out the undead outside, though we do not know if any escaped the village before we came.”

Ilsevel sagged in relief. “Wonderful news! We have been under siege since the assault began during the night!”

I nodded. “We saw the light of the flames from our camp, but rushing into a night battle without knowing who or what we would be facing seemed like suicide, so we set off at first light.”

Tolthe spoke up for the first time. “It was well that you delayed. Sunlight drove the remaining drow back underground, leaving you only the undead to deal with. At night, you would have been slaughtered before you even knew they were there.”

I turned to look at him, and aid, “Then it was a raid by the drow that started this whole mess, I take it? Where did they come from? And how did a raid upon a village turn into a horde of undead? We saw drow amongst the zombies outside the doors.”

Tolthe cursed in the language of the Underdark, and said, “Yes, it was the drow. And yes, as you might expect, I was part of the raid, but not by choice. I follow Elistraee, the Dancing Maiden, though that admission would see me killed in the lands of my kin. I had hoped to limit the damage on this raid, but when I found out what was going on, I had to help save as many as I could, even if it meant making myself an open exile.”

“So what changed this from a normal raid?”

“A Traveler that rose to power amongst my people recently. Drunk on her own power, I fear she is not far from madness. Her name is Kali Philen, and she is a necromancer and priestess of Lolth. It was she who discovered a lost tome that gave her the power to conjure the Black Mist.”

Inialos shuddered. “I witnessed the Black Mist. Those who breathed it gagged, as though choking, and fell down, dead. Any corpses touched by the mist rose as undead, and if the undead managed to slay someone, they, too, rose as the undead.”

My eyes narrowed at that nasty bit of news. “What area did the mist cover? And how does this village tend to their dead?”

One of the priests spoke up, since he’d been listening in, and said, “Like many small villages, we dare not risk having many corpses about, so most of the people are cremated, their ashes spread amongst the crops in the next year’s sowing, so that they might always be a part of our village. Those few we keep preserved are interred in catacombs beneath this building, and are protected by sacred wards.”

I sagged in relief. That was one potential nightmare over. “Good. The recent dead were bad enough. I shudder to think what would happen if this mist fell on a cemetery full of generations of villagers.”

I was about to say more, when the guild chat buzzed at me. I held up a hand, to signal that I was conversing with someone, and answered the chat.

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Chapter 12 - Someone Made a BIG Mistake

“Captain! Ships on an intercept course!”

So that’s never exactly the thing you want to hear over the ship’s comms. But right now I was busy getting bent over a chair by Adam, who was showing me just how good those muscles of his were.

“Oh, fuck me, FUCK ME! No, don’t stop, man, keep going!” I panted as he plowed into me, before turning to look at the offending communicator. I hit the speaker button so I could call the bridge. “What the hell is going – oooh! – on?” I couldn’t help from moaning. So sue me, Sukonmih was good, but it had been a long time since I’d gotten properly fucked.

Stephen’s voice came over the comm. “Sorry to interrupt playtime, sis, but we’ve got four ships that just dropped out of hyperspace and are on an intercept course. Three corvettes and what looks like a bulk freighter.”

Three corvettes and a freighter? Piss poor matchup if you’re trying to take the Traveler down, unless there’s cheating involved. “Aah! Oh, shit, harder!” I shook my head, and said, “Alter course and speed, draw it out while you try and hail them, figure out what they want. I’ll be up in fifteen.”

“Aye, Captain!”

I looked back at Adam, and said, breathlessly, “Now you got five minutes. Make the most of them.” I liked the way he grinned.

Fifteen minutes later, I was stepping onto the bridge, dressed in my costume, with my guns at my side. If they were trying to intercept us because we were a Sanctuary ship, then they were going to get a Sanctuary response. “Status report.”

Stephen chuckled at my getup, but said, “Situation’s the same. Three corvettes and the one freighter. They are still in pursuit, and are not responding to hails. However, we’ve managed to get an ID on the freighter. It is the Moneymaker, a Sanctuary ship belonging to one of the ‘official’ shipping lines. The corvettes are not Sanctuary designs, though. I put them as coming from the Core.”

I frowned, and said, “So, we’re thinking Aprico, again? Or pirates under their employ?”

“Unknown. We might get more info if they’d talk to us, but so far, they’ve done nothing but continue adjusting course and speed to try and intercept us.”

I sat down in the captain’s chair, and said, “Turn us about. Shields up. Weapons hot. Open a frequency.” I waited until Kyle motioned that I was live, and said, “Unknown vessels, this vessel is under Sanctuary protection, you will identify yourselves, or be destroyed.”

THAT got a response! Seems whoever was in charge over there didn’t like getting called out. Their shields went up, and weapons went hot as well. But we got a response. On the screen was a Thoalian, the ugly, ratlike bastards that were apparently the end result of science experiments done on Earth creatures before the Asguard started looking over us. Basically, they transplanted a bunch of earth creatures to another planet that they’d terraformed as a lab, and rats evolved to be the dominant form of life. Their home planet was located near the Core.

“I am Nestleader Griva. You will cut your engines and surrender your craft to the glory of the Thaolian Empire! Do so, and your crew will be spared the ritual tortures before your execution.” Oh yeah, Thaolians HATED humans, ever since evidence of their being transplants and not true children of whatever god they believed in was presented to them. So they said we should all be ‘purified’ and then destroyed. Frankly, I was inclined to disbelieve any claims they made.

Still, we were a LONG way from Thaolian space. If they’d come this far, it was because someone had sent them. And that probably would track back to Aprico. The rats were intelligent, even cunning in their way, but bold planners they were not. At any rate, there wasn’t going to be a ‘diplomatic’ solution to this one.

“I am known as Frosty, daughter of Iceblade, Prime Consul of Sanctuary, and you are currently in possession of Sanctuary property. Believe me when I say, you will surrender your ships, or we shall bring the fires of vengeance to your nests, and crush your young under our feet. You have until I’m finished killing you to decide.” I motioned for Kyle to cut the transmission.

The screen went blank, and I said, “Eri, those corvettes are dirtying up my sky. Remove them. Nariko, don’t let them scratch the paint. Lily, scan for human life signs. Any of our people are still alive, I want them back. Kyle, get Miszo and a couple other off-duty crewmen, and suit up. You’re going over to that freighter when we’re in range. If there are rats over there, kill them, but try to take one of the officers alive.”

Interrupting my sexy time, and thinking you could take my ship? Someone just made a big damn mistake! I grinned like a madwoman as Eri used two torpedoes to reduce the corvette on the right to its component atoms. Then we were in ‘knife range’, where beam weapons could be used. “Focus beams on the freighter. When the shields are down, transport the boarding party!”

Beams hit the shields, but they held. Eri called back, “Shields at 80%, Captain!”

I grimaced, but nodded. There wasn’t anything we could do about that right now. We had to cut down the freighter’s shields, so that we could send Kyle’s team on board and try to capture it. And hope that the rats didn’t have time to make a self-destruct. The bastards were known for nastiness like that.

Anyways, our beams were on target, and quickly stripped the freighter’s shields as we did our high-speed pass, and Kyle’s team was on board the freighter. Moments later, the aft torpedoes fired, and took out the second corvette. Our shields had just gotten below 50% from the sustained fire. Those beams had to be twice as powerful as ours!

“Nariko, bring us about! Eri, please concentrate beam fire on the lead rat’s ship.”

Stephen called from the Comms station where he was filling in for Kyle, “Captain, the rat is calling. Sounds like he wishes to talk now.”

“Typical rats. Don’t know how to take a stand up fight if you don’t respond like a freighter captain. Open channel. Destiny, how long to take over their ship?” The disgusting vermin were behaving just like I thought they would. Their whole race had no stomach for a fair fight, much less one where they were clearly on the losing side, and I never fought fair.

“This is Nestleader Giva! Cease your attack, and surrender, or we will kill the human hostages!”

“Captain, I’m detecting several humans on board, probably the freighter crew. Don’t know why they’re still alive.” Lilyanna was full of good news. This was definitely planned by someone other than the Thaolians, someone who wanted the crews alive (probably to get someone who knew how to maintain our systems).

Destiny, however, had even better news for me. “Their firewalls are crap, Cap’n. I own their systems.”

With a smile, I looked at the screen, and said, “Your threats are meaningless. As of now, your engines, weapons, and shields will go offline. If you have not surrendered in thirty seconds, your gravity goes. And after that, I come over to start rat catching. And you don’t want me to start rat catching.”

In the end, I had to go rat catching. There really wasn’t a choice. The rats were smart enough to know they were outmatched, but their ‘fight or flight’ responses were so firmly hardwired that there weren’t any of them brave enough to surrender, rather than cower and try to flee. Where the leader thought he would be going when he got in that escape pod, I have no idea. He may not have had any plan, other than ‘must flee!’ That wouldn’t surprise me.

First, though, I met with the captain of the Moneymaker. The freighter was, apparently, a family-run ship. There were six crewmen: the Captain, his wife (and Engineer), the Captain’s daughter (his pilot), and three deckhands, one of whom was married to the daughter. It was a small crew, but for these bulk freighters, you didn’t need much. The official lines were all about efficiency, not being prepared for trouble. Which is why the freighter had been easily taken, while the Traveler kicked ass. We split the money more ways, but we didn’t get caught like these guys did.

Captain Abraham Jones was in his sixties, but the new longevity treatments meant that he still had several decades before he needed to consider retiring. I shook his hand as he came out of the holding cell where the Thaolians had kept him and his crew after taking the ship. “Thank God you came along when you did. I don’t know what they were planning for us, but I don’t think we would have liked it. And you are?” I liked this guy. Even after being clearly tortured for information, he had spunk.

Smiling behind the mask of my costume, I said, “You can call me Captain Mollen, or Frosty, if you prefer. Depends on if you want to talk to the Captain of the Void Traveler, or the daughter of Prime Consul Iceblade.” The man’s stunned reaction was nice to see, honestly.

“Well, I’ll be. Guess the rats are dumber than I thought, if they picked a fight with you. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

I shrugged, and said, “From what we’ve gathered, weapons corp from the Core is trying to play hardball to get our tech. Probably who sent the rats out here, and why they kept you alive. Word’s already back to Sanctuary and Earth about this, now, so I expect there will be a response. The fact that the rats are joining in means this is going to be a bigger response than I first thought.”

“HA! Can’t say it happened to a nicer species.”

I chuckled. “Right you are. My doc will look you and your crew over, and then we’ll get you back to your ship. We’ll get the rats off it, and then you’ll be free to continue on course. You work for Hammerfly, right? We’ll send the standard aid invoice to them.” Sanctuary shipping lines were notoriously pragmatic about some things. The ‘standard aid invoice’ was actually an incentive program to help out ships in distress, either from pirates or navigational hazards. Reimbursing captains for taking the risk in helping out one of their ships meant that they paid a certain sum to the rescuers, rather than having to pay for the lost cargo, insurance policies on the crew, and so on. It was one of the big perks of working for the big companies. You knew if you needed help, someone would stop to lend a hand, if they could.

With the crew of the Moneymaker being sorted out, I turned my attention to the head rat. On my orders, Nestleader Giva was restrained in his own torture chamber. “Ah, Giva. Remember when I said you wouldn’t like it if I went rat catching? Now, if I remember correctly, your tails are a point of pride for Thaolians. A long tail shows a long life, and that you’ve not been caught in a trap, yes? Well, we are going to play a game. I am going to ask questions. You are going to answer them. Answer me truthfully, and you keep your tail. Lie, and I start cutting pieces off.”

The Nestleader did not look too pleased at my game, and said nothing. Oh well, he would answer, eventually, or his second (who was watching the feed) would. I didn’t care either way. But I had to prove my intentions. So I grabbed the rat’s four foot tail, and pulled out a plasma blade. With a grin at the Nestleader, I sliced off about three inches. Because I used the plasma blade, the wound cauterized automatically. That didn’t stop the rat from screaming and thrashing about, though. That kind of thing no longer bothered me. Daddy taught me everything he knew, after all.

“Now that we understand eachother, let us begin.”

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