Thursday, March 30, 2017

Epilogue - New Horizons

(Daddy’s Place, Kora Sila Station, in orbit above Kinad III, Kinad System)

The station had only just been completed, mostly thanks to the automated construction bots the industrial ships had churned out while they harvested the resources of the local asteroid belt. Like most stations on the fringes of ‘civilized’ space, there was a frontier town feel to it, which partly explained why everyone was armed, even the kid entertaining the crowd with his blues harmonica skills up on the stage. Law and order was what you could secure for yourself, so long as you didn’t break one of the rules. This was a frontier town, but it was a Sanctuary frontier town.

Less than a year after the end of the Aprico War, Sanctuary, flush from the spoils of destroying a galactic megacorporation, began pushing outwards, sending scouts through the warpgates leading away from Earth. The Kinad System was a single jump from Sanctuary, and had been one of the first systems scanned by the scouts.

On its own, Kinad III was in the ‘barely habitable’ range for humans. Sure, the gravity was about right, and the temperature and oxygen levels were within acceptable limits, but there were pretty high concentrations of chlorine in the atmosphere, which was a bad thing for humans, and most metal, at that. But set up as an altar in the middle of the primary settlement on the planet below was an engraved obsidian plinth, with a sword stuck in it up to the hilt. The sword, one of a set of forty-eight, pulsed power into the atmosphere, creating a slowly expanding dome that detoxified the air in a two-mile radius. That was enough for a settlement to form, but that radius had expanded over time, as the secondary effects of the enchantment became clear.

The dome transfigured toxic materials and turned them into a series of elements that humans needed for a comfortable life. As the constant winds moved through Kidana City, the toxic materials fed the change, and helped slowly convert the atmosphere to something more Earth-like. It was calculated that, so long as someone helped monitor the situation and the settlers bound themselves to the artifact to help replenish the mana it used, Kinad III would be fully terraformed in less than a decade.

None of that mattered much up here on Kora Sila, of course, and especially not at Daddy’s Place, the equivalent of a frontier saloon here on this station. What mattered here was that the air was clean, people had jobs, and there were booze and companionship available for those who had the coin (or could talk someone into providing coin for them).

Chester Thomas was a recent immigrant to the system, following the first wave of colonists and looking to strike it rich prospecting for certain rare elements that were supposed to be present in increased concentrations on Kinad III (their presence is what caused the chlorine buildup, apparently). He had struck a particularly nice vein today, and came back with high-quality ore, and had already started his celebration with a few drinks.

As he walked back to the bar to get another round, he noticed a woman standing at the bar. Her back was to him, which was just fine in his mind, as she had an ass to die for. Sauntering up to the bar, he placed one hand on the woman’s rear, and leaned in to whisper sweet nothings in her ear. “You’re the hottest piece of tail I’ve seen in weeks, darlin’.” OK, so he wasn’t exactly a ladies’ man, but he wasn’t bad looking, and he had ready cash.

He also had a staggering pain in his nethers as a column of ice rose up between his legs with enough force to send him a foot into the air, before he crumpled to the ground. Fighting back tears in his eyes, he looked up at the woman, who now had a blaster pistol pointed at his forehead. “You’re the third person who’s grabbed my ass tonight, but at least they had the sense to buy me a drink first.”

“Fucking bitch!”

The bartender, who was also the owner of the bar, sighed as he came over to look down at the man. “Chester, you idiot. Get your ass out of here, and I don’t want to see you back again for a week.” He looked over to the woman, and said, “Let him up, Mel. Chester’s an idiot when he’s drunk, but he’s not all bad.”

The woman sighed, and slipped the pistol back in its holster. “Damnit, Stephen, why do you have to go and ruin my fun?”

“Because you made me name the bar Daddy’s Place, and keep it like that for at least two years.”

“Well you shouldn’t have made that bet.”

Chester blinked, and looked at the two of them. “What, ye’re related?”

The woman looked down at him, and smirked. “Slow on the uptake, aren’t you Chester? Yeah, my brother Stephen here used to be my first mate until he decided to settle down and become a legitimate businessman. Me, I like traveling. Name’s Captain Mollen, or Frosty. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”

To Be Continued?

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Chapter 40 - The Agony of Defeat

(War Council, Chief Executive Building, Aprica City, Capital of Aprica IV, Headquarters of Aprico Corporation)

The mood in the War Council room was dismal. The Komt and the Illyians had been thrown into disarray, their leaderships shattered. The Gothans had pulled their fleets back, defending their own worlds, and refusing to acknowledge the pleas of the Apricans. All three races would likely withdraw from Aprico Corporation.

And now, the last fleet of ships capable of stopping the humans had been destroyed. Worse, they could not even count on reinforcements from the damned Drvaki, thanks to the unprecedented mental attack on the ruling council of the Drvaki. Somehow, the humans had managed to underlay some sort of mental attack into their transmission to Aprica III that only activated when viewed on screens belonging to one of the seven houses targeted by the humans, affecting everyone present. The individual houses were already in shambles, with the footage of guards gangraping the matrons of the seven houses flying around the planet like lightning.

There would be no help for the Apricans.

Chief Executive Officer Eldaernth Naervyre looked at the general in charge of the defense of the planet, and said, “What are our options, General?”

The General shook his head. “My soldiers will fight to the last, but against a foe who controls the orbitals, and is willing to turn entire cities into sacrificial offerings to circumvent the orbital defense shields, I do not see a way to win this. This Iceblade would happily destroy our world just to prove a point.”

“But what profit is there in such an action? It is madness, sheer madness!”

The chief of the intelligence service spoke up. “With respect, sir, you are treating Iceblade as a businessman, as you might an Aprican. Iceblade is not a businessman, and Sanctuary is not a corporation. He is not waging this war for profit, although he has certainly made quite a deal of profit off us by this point. He is waging this war to make sure that all those groups in the Core that may wish to have his technology understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’, and that one attacks his people at their peril.”

The spymaster paused, and then continued. “Iceblade has already destabilized large portions of the galaxy with this war. Our profilers agree that he would gladly see the entire galaxy go up in flames simply to make sure that no one dares attack his people. We attacked his people attempting to get their technology, and he answered the attack with unrelenting devastation. No matter what happens now, it will be decades before anyone even thinks of attacking Sanctuary. Sanctuary ships would most likely be able to fly through active war zones, and people would actively avoid targeting in their general direction.”

The CEO sighed. “You made your point. So what will it take to buy him off, and make this all stop?”

“It seems I haven’t made my point yet. Iceblade has already given us his demands. I doubt he will accept anything less.”

“Demands? That absurd communication demanding unconditional surrender? Preposterous! That was merely the opening gambit of the negotiations. Everyone has a price.”

“Not everyone.”

A chill went through the room that wasn’t just caused by the fact that the speaker shouldn’t (COULDN’T!!) be here. Icy mist spread along the floor as the space behind the CEO was now occupied by Iceblade himself. Before the CEO could even turn his head, that blade slashed through the air, leaving a frozen statue sitting in the CEO’s chair.

The General, acting on reflex, pressing the button that called for the guards as he reached for his weapon. The door to the hall outside opened, and shots rang out. The General blinked in confusion, looking down to where the energy bullets had passed through his chest, and then to the door, where Frosty, Sanguine, and Wildcat stood, their weapons covering the room. Two guards were bleeding out on the ground just outside the soundproofed doors.

Thinking quicker than the others, the spymaster said, “Wait, we surrender!” But any hope he had of Iceblade showing mercy quickly vanished as that blade buried itself in his chest.

“The time for surrender has passed. Now is the time of lamentation. The Kalthas race will be broken this day. Because of the arrogance of your leaders, your entire race shall be made example of.” As he spoke, the rest of the people in the Council room were swiftly executed by Frosty and her companions.

Stepping up to her father, Frosty said, “The building is secure. Web Mistress has sent the orders for all Kalthas to surrender, or face the same fate as Cathad. We expect some resistance in rural areas, but nothing we can’t handle.”

“Forget the rural areas for now. Have the hunting teams begin their work. Every Sanctuary citizen or those employed on the civilian ships will receive one slave of their choice, taken from the Kalthas in the cities. Any Kalthas male over the age of maturity not chosen will be killed. Any female over the age of maturity not chosen will be sold in the slave markets. Any who resist will be forced to watch their family impaled, before they ride the stake themselves.”

“When they are finished with the Kalthas cities, the fleet will use kinetic weapons to wipe them off the face of the planet. If the other races of Apricans object to the impending ice age, tell them that the alternative is using our pulse torpedoes on the cities, which would result in the same thing, but with radiation. Then sell the messenger as a slave.”

Iceblade paused, and then said, “Any Drvaki from the Do’Urden, Chaesatra, or Ulazana will be given safe passage to Aprica III, or may remain on the planet. All financial accounts on the planet are to be drained. And have the mages summon demons in each of the cities after the impacts, and allow them to run free. As many as they can safely manage.”

“Any military units who try to stop this are to be fired upon with pulse torpedoes. Make sure the planet knows that. That will be their only warning.”

Frosty nodded, and said, “As you command.”

And so the grim task began. Before the war, Aprica IV was a planet of 13 Billion souls. 6 billion of them were Kalthas, the vast majority of whom lived in the cities. The city shields prevented orbital bombardment, but they also made it so the only means of escape was through one of four tunnels. This left the cities easily blockaded by the Sanctuary troops, while the hunters began processing the people.

As Iceblade commanded, every Kalthas over the age of maturity found in the cities was either slain outright, or made a slave. The remaining population, barely over 1.62 billion people, were left to their own devices, any financial accounts they had access to drained, their parents and caregivers dead or in chains, and the food in the cities quickly running short. By the end of the first winter after the Cataclysm, as the end of the war was called, the population of Kalthas on Aprica IV had fallen to less than two hundred thousand, most living either as servants of other races, or forming bands of feral children led by the strongest, doing whatever it took to survive.

The market price for slaves in the Core decreased dramatically after the fall of Aprico Corporation. With billions of slaves being added all at once, it caused a glut the likes of which had never been seen before, at least not within living memory of any who followed such matters. It was not just Apricans, either. The fall of Aprico Corporation set off a series of wars throughout the Core.

It began with the Gothans. They had pulled their fleets back, and thus avoided Iceblade’s advance through Aprico space, leaving them best suited out of any of the former species comprising Aprico to pick up the pieces. They did so as a warrior race might be expected to, conquering former Aprican planets and enslaving their people.

On Aprica III, the seven major Houses of the Drvaki that had stood against Iceblade crumbled even before the two-year grace period was over. The new Council of Ten, led by House Do’Urden, declared a State of Emergency, and opened the seven houses up to war by the rest of the (new) Major and minor Houses. The males were slaughtered before their ideas could spread to the rest of the population, and the females were sold in off-planet slave markets, to ensure that the legacy of Iceblade would not taint the Drvaki.

Other species that had stood in Iceblade’s path also felt the bite of Aprico’s misfortune, but none so keenly as the Thaolians. Refusing to surrender, they signed their own death warrants. Iceblade exterminated the entire race, bombarding them from orbit with pulse torpedoes and asteroids sped into collision courses. Every inhabited world in Thaolian space was reduced to radioactive wastelands, incapable of supporting humanoid life. Even with Sanctuary-grade protections, walking the surface of the Thaolian worlds was a death sentence.

This chaos gave rise to a new breed of pirates and raiders, as worlds that had formerly been affluent were ripe for the picking as their empires crumbled, and people from poorer worlds needed supplies to keep their people fed. Shipping in the Core became a dangerous proposition, something that only the foolhardy would consider without the benefit of a convoy, or at least a mercenary ship to escort them.

Of course, the number of people who turned to smuggling, either to avoid pirates or governments (and they were sometimes the same thing), expanded greatly, as did interdiction efforts to stop them. Unless, of course, the ship carried a Sanctuary registry. Only the most desperate would attack a Sanctuary freighter, let alone a Sanctuary smuggler, but there were still some fools who had more courage than sense. They tended to end up dead, as the Sanctuary ships began a policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ when dealing with threats.

In the Orion arm of the galaxy, the empires and other polities around Sanctuary continued on as they had before, though with a greater respect for the true nature of humans. The Rithenalese Empire, in particular, when they heard of the fate of Aprico Corporation, was immensely glad that Iceblade had shown such ‘restraint’ when he was fighting them, twenty years before.

Now with the wealth of empires focused on a single planet, much of it in the hands of a single man, Sanctuary began their own plans of empire. Great colony and industrial ships were purchased from the Brekthals, and other spacefaring civilizations. The great ships would be filled with a mixture of races, but all would swear loyalty to Sanctuary, and to Iceblade. They would follow the Scouts, men and women rushing out into the unknown with the promise of adventure and rights to claim territory on fertile worlds they found.

In the years that would follow, the legend of Sanctuary would grow, as would the tales of the Venatori, and their terrible wrath when they were unleashed on the hunt. The complete extermination of two spacefaring species, and the utter ruination of a race of a third species, to say nothing of the devastation of several planets, had left its mark on the people of the Core. The fall of Aprico Corporation had shattered power structures that had stood for thousands of years. And yet, it was the situation with the Drvaki that drew the most attention. The message was clear. If Sanctuary was on the warpath, you could either side with them, or get out of their way. Anything else would result in your doom.

Just as Iceblade had intended from the beginning.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Chapter 68 - The Vault

A (very) rough map of the vault. Dark grey is cave-ins, brown is barricades, and so on.

“And then an idiot Traveler went and ruined everything.”

I sighed, hiding my face with my palm. “Of course they did. Let me guess, they ignored the warnings, spouting some crap about ‘cleansing evil’ or the like? Or were they just trying to loot whatever gear remained after all this time?”

“Have a lot of overzealous idiots amongst your lot, huh?”

“Traveling to other worlds means we don’t always have to live with the consequences of our actions in the worlds we visit. Makes it easier for people to be stupid. Same idea with coming back from the dead.”

“Well, if you’re going to go down there anyway, you might as well keep an eye out for the dwarves. Group of five went down there, trying to cleanse the place. Don’t know what they did to deserve it, but they were all cursed by Moradin himself.”

I nodded. “We’ll do what we can to find them. But before we head in, do you have any advice on how to end the Terror?”

“Ah, I knew I liked you. You’re the first to bother asking about that, thinking that we’d been anything other than idle in death all these years. Well, lucky you, there is a way to destroy the Terror. My brother and I forged two items to help you in your quest, if you are able to find them. The first is the Soul Trap. It will prevent ethereal creatures from passing its boundary. The second is the Ghost Chain, which can snare any ghostly creature, making them solid again.”

“To destroy the Terror, you must destroy the host within the Soul Trap, so that it does not have a chance to escape and possess another. Then, bind it with the Ghost Chain, and it will not be able to possess you, while your blows will damage it directly.”

I blinked. “Really? I would have thought it would be more complicated than that. If you had such knowledge, why not use it before, while you lived?”

The ghost laughed. “Because I didn’t know it then, you whelp! Do you know how many years my brother and I had to train in order to forge ethereal items? Not those enchanted items that a ghost can pick up, mind you, but true ethereal items? I never had the time for such studies before I was dead!”

Yeah, I should have expected that. As we went down the stairs into the vault, I said, “So, find the Trap, find the Chain, kill the host, kill the Terror. Sounds like we have ourselves a plan!” And indeed, when I checked the quest log, we did have a plan.

Blighted Monastery

A monastery formerly belonging to disciples of Moradin has been defiled by the Blight. You have learned that the Blight is caused by the taint of a Terror that has been trapped in the Vault of the monastery for decades.
Bring news of the Blight’s cause to one of the Holy orders.
(Optional) End the Blight by slaying the Terror.
Die, or give up the quest.
Increased Reputation with followers of Moradin
Decreased Reputation with followers of Moradin

Some enemies or objects in this dungeon may have the ability to cause permadeath. NPCs who die to a permadeath effect cannot be resurrected. Players who die to a permadeath effect have their characters deleted, and must start Character Generation at level 1. (Legacy bonuses from World of Destiny will be replaced with bonuses based on your current character’s progress.)

Note: This dungeon is not instanced. Clearing the dungeon will permanently remove it.

And there was the downside. No doubt anything involving something called a Soul Trap or a Terror was going to be something that could cause the permadeath effect. Yukiko, Hrozne, Katrina, and I shared a nervous look, before I sighed, and said, “Well, we’ll just have to not die, right? Let’s get moving.”

From the map data we had, the Vault was originally laid out as a long hallway, with a series of rooms along either side of it, most likely for storing materials and crafted goods, as well as any treasures that might be found. Unfortunately, things weren’t going to be a simple jaunt to the end. Centuries of abuse by weather, undead, and time, not to mention active fighting, had caused several collapses, and there were a couple barricades as well. We would have to snake our way through the Vault to clear this mini-dungeon.

I’d heard on the forums that there were two kinds of dungeons. Instanced dungeons were like the ones you found in all other games. You ran it with your group, and you would be the only ones to be able to enter that instance. Moreover, you would be locked to that instance until you cleared the dungeon, meaning any time you entered the dungeon you would be in the same instance until you fought the boss, which prevented people from farming first floor mobs and chests for easy loot. Instanced dungeons had a two-week (in game) cooldown once you cleared them.

Non-instanced (or ‘event’) dungeons were often mini-dungeons or lairs, like the bandit lair, or the mine we cleared out. The Event in Duskhaven could be considered an event dungeon. Apparently, dungeons could change from instanced to non-instanced, if you did something extraordinary. In the case of the two main dungeons I’d played through, they had both been temporarily turned into Event dungeons, the Depraved Pits because I captured a floor guardian and removed them from the dungeon (and then been given title over the keep and the dungeon), and the Scheming Caverns because Kali had started her zombie invasion there, upsetting the natural order of the dungeon. If I went back to the Caverns, I could fight through the dungeon properly, and would get normal challenges (and normal rewards).

That this dungeon wasn’t instanced meant that we could stumble upon other groups here, and that our actions would affect groups that came after us should we fail. If we were forced to retreat, the monsters may change their locations and tactics. Or they might even try to follow us from the dungeon! On the other hand, other players could come and join us in the assault, if they were nearby. But that seemed unlikely.

Ahead, there was a rough barricade combined with a cave-in, making the hallway impassible without a lot of work. I flipped a coin, and we headed into the room on the right. Two mummies awaited us, evidently risen from some nearby crypt. Unfortunately for them, we brought three holy casters, a necromancer, and a shit-ton of damage dealing with us. Also, they were both level 40 or so, which meant we all had at least ten levels on them. On the other hand, the loot was pitiful, and the XP was barely worth mentioning. But hey, we got to grind our skills some, right?
In the following room were several forges, attended by a ghostly dwarf and several human skeletons. Since they didn’t immediately try to attack us, I called out, “Hail, master dwarf. Are you the kinsman of that Grim Warden outside?”

Folgrun Hammerhold
Dwarf Ghost Male
Level 40 Wraith (Spirit) / Fighter
Titles: Forgemaster, Deathsworn, Ethereal Blacksmith

“Aye, that be me. If that idiot is still calling himself by that pretentious title, instead of Bruenor, like an honest dwarf, then I’m guessing you’re another pack of fools to try and challenge the Terror? And ye’ll be wanting the Trap and Chain? Well tough luck to ye. Those damn fool dwarves took the trap, but they were all under Moradin’s Curse, so they’re weak as kittens.”

I sighed. “I see. In that case, what can you tell me of the dungeon’s denizens? Are there more like you, who retain the sense of who they were?”

“Meaning are there others that won’t attack ye on sight? No, me brother and I are the only ones. We have some limited power over the weaker undead here, but that is all.”

Well, that was good to know, at least. “So if the Dwarves have the Soul Trap, where is the Ghost Chain? I know we’ll need both to finish this.”

“In the halls ahead. There’s a spring that has healing powers. It was the best place to keep the chain safe, so I tossed it in. Of course, you’ll have to get past the guardians, but I’m sure you’ll be fine. But hey, if you bring me some Essence of Undeath, I can make something that’ll help you out for that final battle.”

Right. Of course we’d have to get past the guardians. Still, if this was a non-instanced dungeon, then there was hope that any monsters the dwarves had cleared out wouldn’t have all been respawned yet. Since we’d come to a dead end here, we decided to check out the other room. And along the way we’d need to find sixty units of this ‘Essence of Undeath’. Not sure what it was, or what it would do for us, but I bet that the fight against the Terror would be a helluvalot easier if we had it.

Whatever storerooms and treasuries were down here, they’d clearly not fared well. There were some stores of raw materials, mostly metals, but they were all basic grade materials like iron. Any cloth or leather had rotted away over the years. Any that remained had been hopelessly corrupted by the Blight, meaning only Undead could use any materials coming from this dungeon unless we found a way to purify them.

Collecting the Essence of Undeath was difficult. It dropped at a rate of about one unit per three or four undead in the dungeon. The undead we faced were mostly weaklings in the 30 to 40 range, but there were a couple more mummies and a few ghouls. But clearly the ranks had been thinned. We would have to catch up to the dwarves if we wanted a chance of getting all that Essence for the upgrades.

The dungeon, which had originally been a long, straight hall, forced us to take a serpentine path through the storerooms, passing through rough tunnels dug into the earth, and at one point we had a tough fight where a pair of barricades had been set up in a long room, with archers behind the far one, with melee types by the first. All skeletons, but mindlessly ruthless in their methods of attack. That room would have sucked if it weren’t geared for undead. As it was, it was basically a speedbump.

When we crossed the main hall again, and found ourselves in another room with five dwarves, all looking severely worse for the wear. Apparently, being cursed by a god would do that to you.

Korir Shadowthane
Duregar Dwarf Male
Level 200 (40) Weaponmaster (Fighter) / War-leader (Marshall)
Titles: Cursed of Moradin, Thrall

Braznas Coalmaul
Iron Dwarf Male
Level 200 (40) Assassin (Rogue) / Shadowdancer (Rogue)
Titles: Cursed of Moradin, Thrall

Rafrig Alecloak
Half-Dragon Dwarf Male
Level 200 (40) Hellfire Mage (Flame Sorcerer) / Glacial Master (Ice Sorcerer)
Titles: Cursed of Moradin, Thrall

Hanwuna Battleforge
Stonetouched Dwarf Female
Level 200 (40) Fallen Servant (Priestess) / Shieldmaiden (Fighter)
Titles: Cursed of Moradin, Thrall, Masochist, Broken One

Kindag Chainhelm
Mountain Dwarf Male
Level 200 (40) Rage Lord (Barbarian) / Battle Raper (Dominator)
Titles: Cursed of Moradin, Sexecutioner, Corrupter, Sadist, Traitor

And it would seem we had found the members of Moradin’s Hammer. I was able to get some details on their curse, which amused me.

Curse of Moradin
The bearer of this curse has committed great sins against the Father of Dwarves or his chosen. The bearer suffers an 80% reduction in effective level, as well as an 80% penalty on all attributes, resistances, skills, damage done, and healing received. MP costs of all spells cast increased by 80%. Some titles may be lost, while others are suppressed. Gain no experience for fighting creatures beneath true level. Cannot be removed without the assistance of a priest in good standing with Moradin whose level exceeds that of the character’s true level, or by completing a trial of penance set by Moradin himself.

Note to self: Never, EVER piss off gods in this game.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chapter 39 - The Last Fleet

The fleet remained at Cathad for two months, refitting and rearming. Oh, and wiping every bank account on Cathad Prime, as I had done on Prukyb. While they were doing that, Wraith Group and the Assault Group moved to ‘pacify’ the rest of the system’s planets and stations. Which brought us to the attention of the remnant of the fleet guarding the gate.

Honestly, it was only about twenty ships. Enough to make a solid last stand and bleed the Sanctuary fleet before we hit the systems behind them, but only if we went to them. A phalanx is ill-suited to intercepting cavalry units raiding behind the lines, and that was the basic situation they found themselves in now. And yet, they could not just sit back and watch us sack the system, especially with the communications coming from Cathad Prime, talking about how the twelve cities were drained of all life.

The cat and mouse was fun, but predictable. The Assault group attacked a major installation, a group of ten ships warped in to interdict them, and Wraith group used stealth to attack them from behind, wiping most of them out before they knew what was happening. After that, the commander didn’t bother the pretense of defending the gate, and fled.

Honestly, the biggest news during this time was that, using tech captured during the raids on the R&D outposts while we had been playing merchant raiders, Sanctuary now had a new small assault craft to add to its arsenal. The TB-01 Blunderbuss would be Sanctuary’s first class of Torpedo Bombers. They were slower than our F-02 Stiletto Fighters, but could take more abuse, being essentially scaled down shuttles. They had only a single blaster for CQB, unlike the six the Stiletto had, but the Blunderbuss had advanced magnetics that allowed it to ‘hold’ two pulse torpedoes, even in hyperspace, for up to twelve minutes. The tactical prospects actually had Daddy laughing at the possibilities.

Fortunately, we had the pilots to spare. In addition to the shuttle pilots, who could be spared for this task, there were more than a few fighter pilots who had lost their birds due to attrition during the long fighting, but survived to tell the tale because their safety capsules deployed in time. All that meant that we were able to field a couple squadrons of the new Blunderbusses immediately.

Now, fully two years after the call to war was sounded, we were preparing to assault the Aprica system itself. As usual, Wraith Group was in the lead, checking the gateway for any unwelcome surprises before the main fleet came through. The ‘Quickdraw’ tactics we’d used at Tsket and other places hadn’t reached the Apricans yet, partly because the ones who saw it were either dead or captured, but they’d figured out that keeping ships loitering on the warpgate was a bad play.

But we were entering their final defensive lines now. Everyone expected them to do something desperate, which is why Wraith Group was playing the scout again. Desperate times make for desperate decisions, which means someone’s going to do something stupid, that’ll either work, or get a lot of people killed.

As we jumped through, Nariko immediately led the seven ships of Wraith Group in clearing the gate, once again moving ten thousand kilometers down relative to the ecliptic. Which was fortunate, as it was less than five minutes before the last Aprican fleet, comprised of over one hundred warships, dropped out of hyperspace to surround the gate at a distance of one light-second, and unleashed their beam weapons, hitting empty space with enough energy to instantly wipe out any of our little ships that got in the way.

I sighed. “Guess they’re going to do things the hard way, then. Technica, use the Sparrow and tap into their communication network. We’ll use the virus Web Mistress provided us. Let me know when it is distributed throughout their fleet.”

“Scorch, let the rest of the Group know the play. We’re doing a modified Quickdraw. Dragonflame and the Blunderbusses will target their command ship with everything they have. Void Traveler, Vengeance, Assassin, and Chimera will attack lighter escorts. We time the jump so that we arrive just as the fleet comes through the gate, and then jump out fast. Black Sparrow and Fool’s Gambit will change position and maintain stealth, meeting us at point Charlie to plan a second attack run.”

We had to change position, dropping further below the ecliptic as the enemy fleet, knowing that SOMETHING had come through the gate, but not knowing what, began filling the area around the gate with high energy sensor beams. The kind that would probably show us up, even while cloaked. But the problem with those beams is that they are incredibly focused, meaning that if you don’t get tagged, they won’t spot you.

Finally, Technica’s work was done, and everyone had their targets locked. I set a minute on the timer, so the Fleet could coordinate with us. When it hit zero, we went briefly into hyperspace, closing the gap between us and the Aprican fleet in half a second. As we dropped out of hyperspace, and fired our weapons, a computer virus activated on all Aprican ships, forcing all their weapons to reboot. For the next sixty seconds, the fleet (should) be helpless to fire back at us. At the same time, the Fleet came through the gate, doing the normal Quickdraw attack, weapons firing at the ships we hadn’t targeted.

As at Tsket, it was a slaughter. Of the one hundred and twenty-five ships arrayed against us, forty-five exploded as their shields were overwhelmed by antimatter explosions. Thanks to Wraith Group, the enemy flagship, which had been hiding well back from the front, joined them, along with four frigate escorts. Ten seconds had passed since the start of battle.

As we entered hyperspace again, the fleet began hammering at the forward ships with their beam weapons, and the Blunderbusses from the fleet carriers unleashed their payloads, causing more death. The Fleet targeted the little ships first, overwhelming the corvettes and frigates (and even a few cruisers) with their massed firepower, while the pulse torpedoes recharged. What had been numbers of three to one against us were now approaching even numbers.

One minute after we began the attack, the Aprican ships regained their weapons. But they were out of position, their formations scattered by evasive maneuvers and destroyed ships. Even as they started to fire haphazardly back, the fleet’s pulse torpedoes were recharged, and the last fleet swearing loyalty to Aprico Corporation were consumed in the fires of annihilation.

(Nightshadow Station – In orbit of Aprica III, Aprican System)
“By the infinite abyss!”

Matron Baenre didn’t know who uttered the curse, and didn’t care. It wasn’t like anyone sitting at the Council table wasn’t thinking the same thing, as they watched the long-distance sensor records of the battle the humans had fought with the Kalthas at the edge of the system. The information was hours old, but that couldn’t be helped. Even a Matron couldn’t command the laws of nature to bend to her will. At least, not to that extent.

Yvonnel had called a council meeting the instant the faster-than-light sensors detected the first gate activation. That had been a little more than four hours ago. Looking around the council chamber, the Matron of House Baenre found herself ill at ease. It wasn’t just Matron Inmaris, looking subdued after the humiliations her House had suffered. Her spies had made it clear that something was going very wrong inside Inmaris. Since the broadcast of her daughter’s rape, the males of Inmaris had become unusually bold, while the females began deferring to them! If it wasn’t for the edict against attacking other Houses, Inmaris would have been publicly eliminated to keep this… whatever it was from spreading.

No, what worried her was that there were people missing from their seats around the Council table. Matrons Do’Urden, Chaesatra, and Ulazana were not here. The timing was suspicious. Chaesatra’s shipwrights and Ulazana’s artisans were known throughout the Core, and they’d been publicly neutral in the conflict between Sanctuary and the Kalthas. But Do’Urden had been witnessed helping the humans with a grand sacrifice ritual that wiped out the twelve major cities of Cathad Prime. That they weren’t here now was a troubling sign.

Suddenly, the screens changed, and the villain Iceblade appeared before them. But something about the image was wrong. Her head was aching for some reason…

“I am First Consul Iceblade of Sanctuary. Of the ten ruling clans of the Drvaki, seven have chosen to support my enemies, or to try and play both sides. Inmaris has been humbled already, but I am not through with them, yet. By now, every member of Houses Grecyne, Valee, Virrie, Dathrya, Magsandoral, and Baenre on Aprica III or within its orbit will have noticed a dull ache growing in their head. The more intelligent of you, those of you who have gotten spies within Inmaris, will recognize the symptoms as what happened to them as I broadcast the Inmaris brat’s submission to me.”

Matron Baenre’s eyes went wide, and she turned, to try and rush for the door, and away from the voice that held a promise worse than death. But her body wouldn’t move! In terror, she listened on. “Every person watching this message from a screen owned by one of these seven houses will find themselves unable to move, unable to turn away as this message plays.”

“Now, because I’m a civilized supervillain, I will apologize now to the 1.2% of targeted individuals who will have adverse reactions due to this message. These unintended side-effects may include extreme permanent emotional states, such as rage, as well as loss of cognitive function, madness or death. Your different physiology makes my associate’s ability a little more dangerous than it is on humans, I’m afraid.”

The Council watched the message with growing horror, unable to move, unable to look away, not even able to scream in terror or curse the man who was doing this to them.

“At any rate, I’m sure you want to know what is happening to you, yes? Your mental pathways are being rewritten. The primary effect will be to increase the libido of all male subjects by three hundred percent. In addition, you will find that all males will possess increased dominant traits. You will find that mental blocks are being inserted into the minds of female subjects with a specific set of triggers. Affected females will be unable to use magic or any other ability to reverse this change on themselves or others. Affected females will be unable to resist the commands of any male, and indeed they will receive great pleasure from following orders. Affected females will become naturally submissive towards Drvaki males, and all humans, and will be unable to use offensive magic against them unless a male commands it. Affected females will be unwilling to take any form of birth control, or use any methods to prevent or terminate a pregnancy unless a male allows it. Affected females will be compelled to show a recording of this message, unaltered in any way, to their children immediately after birth.”

“Additionally, all members of House Inmaris, male or female, will find that their magical abilities have been permanently sealed, and any skills related to weaponry have been forgotten. So much for their vaunted assassins.”

“As I’m sure you’re aware, this will likely cause a great deal of chaos within the ten ruling clans. Fortunately, per the terms of your own council, the seven named Houses will have two years to prepare before they get torn apart by the remaining three or the lesser houses. I look forward to hearing how this ‘affirmative action’ works out for you.”

“Have a pleasant day!”

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chapter 67 - Hunting the Dead

Escaping instant death in a VR game like AAO is just as harrowing as it is in real life. Once the adrenaline wears off, you crash. Fortunately, I was able to keep moving, though my hands were shaking. That was really too close for comfort.

As we went, we gathered everyone together, and made a final tally. All the slavers were dead. The final tally, as far as slaves taken, went as follows:
Combat Slaves
Noncombat Slaves
Total Payout
220 GP

90 GP
220 GP
100 GP
80 GP

Since Yukiko and Severa tied, I was generous, and gave both of them an extra hundred gold. It was important to give rewards as well as punishments. I was only slightly surprised at the number of noncombat slaves I’d captured, since I had gone in figuring that most of the group’s sale stock would be in the ‘care’ of the guild master until sale. And I was right.

Now I had a problem. There were simply too many people in this group for me to take them all with me. Even with raiding the slavers’ stores, bringing eighty-three people with me while I was hunting undead was just not a smart idea. Especially when most of them were under level 10. I considered for a moment, and then opened a chat to Iqnora.

Zayn: Iqnora, if you’re not busy, head down to the dark shrine for a moment.
Iqnora: Of course, my Lord. Any particular reason?
Zayn: Busted up a group of slavers acting outside the Guild. Their stock now belongs to me, and I have undead to hunt.
Iqnora: And you’d rather them not all die drawing a horde of the things to you, I take it?
Zayn: Exactly. They are all enslaved under my authority, and I will order them to obey you, and any member of the guild. Some have combat skills that can be put to use bolstering the guards. Others are noncombatants, but they might have skills you can use, or at least could be used as staff around the castle. Let me know if any problems arise.
Iqnora: Of course, my Lord.

With that, I cut the chat, issued my orders to the slaves, and sent them through the dark portal to the shrine under Lithaes Castle. I’ll admit, I breathed easier once I had that lot out from under my foot. There was no way that group could have done anything but cause trouble for me while going about my second quest.

As expected, the loot, other than slaves, was fairly light. The gear the slavers used was… well, it was better than starting gear, certainly, and it was enough to intimidate merchants and the like, but there’s a reason why they were a group of rogue slavers, and not front-line adventurers.

At any rate, once the gear of the dead was sorted, I opened the portal, and ordered all the newcomers through. As Iqnora had said, I couldn’t have this lot with me as I was traipsing through the countryside hunting a horde of undead. That would be stupid, and while I may be an idiot at times, I try to limit my daily intake of stupid to reading comments on my stream.

That left nine of us once again, to hunt down an ancient crypt and see what happened to a company of dwarven adventurers. Of course, when one is hunting undead, one likes to have holy magic around, because that fucks them up like nothing else. Really, that was the main reason I kept Gadriel with me so far. I didn’t like having people who were much-higher level than me around, because they removed some of the challenge. There was a difference between the cheating I normally did, which was me figuring out how to use my abilities in ways people didn’t immediately think of, and putting the game in ‘easy’ mode.

 But a horde of undead was a horde of undead. The two times I’d faced a horde of undead, back at Ullelone and during the tutorial, I was in a desperate fight, and came close to getting my ticket punched. I had no idea of the size of the horde, or their levels, or what kind of undead we were facing. There might even be a lich, or some other nastiness. But I figured that between having three holy casters and a Necromancer around, along with my natural mayhem abilities, we’d be good.

At least we wouldn’t be wandering around aimlessly looking for the ruin that the undead were guarding. The slavers had already found it for us. Oh sure, they didn’t tell us as much, being dead, but the map in their common room that showed the local area had a hint. The ruin with a big ‘X’ on it, with a skull drawn next to it, over a written “NO!” underlined several times was probably the place. Or a Taco Bell.

On the off chance it wasn’t the home of gas-inducing faux-Mexican food, we headed towards what used to be a monastery of some sort. As we approached it, it was clear that we were in the right place. The smell of death and decay were heavy in the air as we sighted the ruined building from the road, and while that could still mean that it was a Taco Bell, I wasn’t sure even burritos could cause the grass and trees to be dying in what looked to be a perfect circle around the building. No, this was Blight.

Blight happens when corruption and other nastiness are allowed to linger too long in an area. It is basically taking unholy, despoiled land, and putting it on crack and steroids at the same time. Living creatures who aren’t protected from the Blight take a constant damage over time just from standing there, while Undead are healed by the Blight, and even those undead creatures who are vulnerable to sunlight are able to walk under the noonday sun within Blighted lands. Something was terribly wrong here.

New Quest Alert!

Blighted Monastery

A monastery formerly belonging to disciples of Moradin has been defiled by the Blight. What caused the Blight to come here? Why is it centered upon this monastery without spreading?
Discover the cause of the Blight.
(Optional) End the Blight.
Die, or give up the quest.
Increased Reputation with followers of Moradin
Decreased Reputation with followers of Moradin

Oh-ho! Seems that coming here activated a quest! Well, even if we weren’t going to be going there anyways, now we had to go get to the bottom of this. I turned to look at Hrozne, and asked, “How will the Blight affect you?”

Hrozne got that faraway look one had when looking up information on their status screens, before saying, “I’m good. Since I’m neither living nor undead, it washes out. Same with the protection spells the holy magic users have. It won’t hurt me, but it won’t help me much, either.” He nodded to Katrina. “You’ll want to leave Kat out of the holy protections, though.”

The vampiress grimaced. “Yeah, I’m a daywalker, but holy magic still hurts like hell. The Blight will up my damage and regen, though.”

I nodded. “All right, here’s the play. Kylana, stay here with the horses and the cart. If anyone causes trouble, blast them. Gadriel, you’re our most powerful holy caster, so lay your best long-term protection on the living members of the group, and renew it when it goes out. If your MP gets below half, let us know, and we’ll take a break. You’re going to be the key to this whole thing.”

Everyone agreed, so Gadriel put a blessing on us, which would protect us from the Blight for an hour. Unfortunately, it also made us glow with holy light like torches, so stealth was out completely. But it was better than trying to heal constant DOT and other nasty debuffs from the Blight while trying to fight our way through.

And fight we would have to, as the moment we stepped into the Blight, the undead began to approach us. For the most part, they were merely skeletons, though there were Skeleton Mages and Skeleton Knights in the mix, as well. They were all level 40 or so, which meant that we weren’t having any real trouble with them. We had to make sure to manage MP well, as this was going to be a gauntlet-style dungeon crawl, from the look of it, but we could do it. The only real problem was that what loot was available was too tainted by Blight for us to take. High level purifications could remove the Blight, but those would probably weaken or change the magic of any enchanted items, and none of what we found was more than dealer trash, anyways.

Finally, we arrived at the entrance to the ruined monastery. The symbol of Moradin was above the doorway, but the iron doors that formerly stood there were lying on the ground. Standing guard was a spectral figure.

The Grim Warden
Dwarf Ghost Male
Level 40 Wraith (Spirit) / Fighter
Titles: Deathsworn, Ethereal Blacksmith

The ghost looked at us and said in a low voice, “Halt, travelers! This ground is cursed, and no place for the living. Turn back if ye value your lives!”

I took a breath, and then said, “Noble spirit, we know that the ground we stand upon is cursed, and that is part of the reason we have come. If possible, we would lift the curse from this land. Is that not the reason the dead are restless, and do not lie quiet in their graves?”

“Hah! More fools walking to their doom, then, like the last group. If I am not mistaken, your group is no stranger to the dark and evil deeds man may do to another, and yet perhaps it takes one used to the shadow to bring light where it is needed.”

“Indeed. Though one may walk in darkness, why can they not have the same goal as one who clings to the light? The only difference is the methods one might be willing to entertain, and the reason for taking up the task. For myself, and my group, we are adventurers, and took up a job to seek out another party that has been lost in this area for some time, and to clear a lost vault of the undead. As we approached, we were granted another quest, to find the cause of the Blight, and end it, for which we were promised a reward. But should we succeed in cleansing the Blight, would that make it any less a boon to the lands around us?”

“Hah! You speak like one of those snake-tounged nobles back in the Dwarven lands! But ye be right in this. The Blight needs to be stopped, and ye no doubt guessed that the vault below this monastery is where the Blight is spreading from. Only the wardstones keep the Blight from expanding over the entire countryside, but they have been weakening of late.”

“How did this Blight come to be? What caused a place defended by proud disciples of Moradin to fall so low? This building, though it is in ruins, is far too intact to have been lost in the Scourge. So this must be something more recent, yes?”

“Indeed. One hundred years ago, when the Scourge was ending, relations between the humans and dwarves were not what they are now. This monastery was set up as a beacon of friendship, and as a place to train smiths in the dwarven style.”

“But humans are greedy creatures, always seeking more than what is good for them, and looking for shortcuts to power they haven’t earned. An apprentice Runesmith by the name of Felix, frustrated by the slow progress of his path, summoned a demon in a foolish attempt to bind it into a weapon. Not nearly ready for such a task, the Runesmith managed to summon not a demon, but a Terror that had been sleeping. The result was… distasteful to talk about, to say the least.”

“Many died fighting the Terror, but they could not kill it, for it had no true form of its own, but possessed the bodies of others. When its shell was killed, it would pass into another, often the one that killed it. Still, the elite of the monks and the disciples were able to trap the fiend in the Vault below the monastery, at the sacrifice of their own lives. Unable to find a new host, and unable to escape, the Terror was trapped.”

“And then an idiot Traveler went and ruined everything.”

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