Three By Shadow

Act IV: Tyranid - Scene 2
The Swarm

Player:

Ling’s voice buzzes in Crusher’s cybernetic ear, registering urgency and fear. “Guys, we got fast movers coming in from the east—registering bio signatures, dog sized—like twenty or more! What do we do?”

“Fuck,” Crusher curses. “Open fire! Better to wake these idiots up sooner than later.” The mercenary points to his right, making his voice rough and impatient to show the trolls he doesn’t have time for their guard duty bullshit. “Bad guys coming from the east, and fast! Get your crew to look alive!”

Ling Fei pulls out of her circling pattern, putting her nose directly in line with the oncoming swarm. She releases the safety on her weapon and squeezes off two bursts at the lead creature.

Gamemaster:

Ling-Fei’s meat hands twitch a little as she sends the ASIST signal to her drone to engage the targets. Friend or foe, she doesn’t have time to know for sure—the targeting reticle on the Guardian’s HUD highlights the front runner and turns green as the drone locks on. She double taps the FN-HAR and the pavement kicks up little spits of dust around and behind the creature. It stumbles and falls, rolling over itself and skittering to a stop.

The rest of the pack peels away from the body, but keeps running flat-out towards Cermak plaza. They are growing close, within 200m according to Sparrow-2, and Ling-Fei can pick out details now: the lifeforms are indeed dog-like, running on all fours, but their skin is shiny and hard, and where they pass under the streetlights she can see brilliant patches of purple, pink and red on the mottled carapaces. Their quick movements make other details hard to pick out at this distance.

Back at the ‘Spike, the trolls don’t know who Crusher is exactly, but they do know there were some mercs hired for additional security. They take his words and the distant machine gun fire at face value and turn to relay the message to Bakcha’s group at the palanquin.

Player:

Ling Fei starts to lose her cool as she gets her first real glimpse of the creatures. “What. . . what the hell? Crusher, they’re monsters! A whole swarm of them—we’re not prepared for this. We need to get out of here!”

The hardened mercenary growls. “No, no more running away. This time we stand and fight. There are hundreds of gangers out here, we can hold.”

Crusher fires two shots in the air from his rifle, bellowing at the top of his lungs to be heard by the assembled thugs. “Incoming from the west! Everyone look alive, god damn it!”

Without a word, Moonclaw climbs onto the Roadmaster’s hood, securing a better vantage point and putting some sort of barrier between herself and the oncoming swarm. Keeping well clear of the transport’s remote turret, the shaman shoulders her SMG and keeps her city spirit at bay with a controlling thought.

Gamemaster:

The Combat Gun’s loud report turns everyone’s heads around. Crusher spies Bakcha making his way over to him from the inner circle, “What the drek is it, chummer? This better be worth my time.” Crusher repeats his intel and Bakcha begins to look worried. “Shit, didn’t count on xeno’s showing up… Probably just a rogue group out of bug city, but I’m not taking any chances with the GS. The meet is scrapped, your orders now are to protect us while we get the Spinner’s box back on the halftrack.”

The soldierly ork turns around and begins barking orders, directing the other Spiders to action with the air of a seasoned general. The two vanguard trolls lumber off to help with the palanquin, and Crusher is left to his own devices. He takes a moment to absorb the situation around him.

The ECM and Ancients have stopped their bickering, and their attention is now focused westward, towards the gunfire from Sparrow-2. They look like spectators at a Blood Bowl match, with the same air of uneasy anticipation surrounding them. Clubs and knives are being brandished, pistols readied and furtive glances cast.

As he walks back towards Boxcar, Crusher senses the other gang leaders have gotten wind that something is amiss. The grey-blue Yak chopper above changes facing and swings around to the west, and its armored counterparts below tighten their grouping slightly. The dark-green 88’s leader looks around, a nasty look on his face from being interrupted mid-speech. His troops seem to grow angry and restless as he begins to lose his temper.

Meanwhile, Ling Fei pauses a moment to issue provisional overwatch orders to the Doberman drones by Boxcar, then continues her barrage from the eyes of Sparrow-2. The targeting reticle dances wildly around her HUD, trying to get a lock on the small bioforms. The drone takes several seconds to acquire the next target, and the reticle flashes green again. Ling-Fei pulls the trigger and her drone downs another of the running beasts. They are closer now, darting in and out amongst the parked cars. She tracks the next in the swarm and locks, blasting it apart as the lead runner makes it to the street separating them from Cermak Plaza.

She has a clearer view of them, now: evil faces glare up at her drone with beady red eyes. Thick, strong tails balance armored bodies built for speed as they move quickly on four legs; two arms are left free at the front, tipped in wicked talons. The purple and pink chitin looks positively toxic this close. She can almost appreciate their revolting beauty, but now they are bounding across the street, in distant view of the gangers by the ’Spike.

Her head rings with the sudden proximity alarms from both Sparrow-2 and Condor-1. The drones report additional targets from the west, closing behind the main group.

Player:

“Get the transport ready to peel out after that track. Orders are to protect the Spider boss at all costs. Don’t stop firing ’till I give the word.” Crusher takes a knee in the cover of the Roadmaster’s rear corner and throws his Ares Alpha into launcher mode, running the projected arc of the munition to its maximum distance. He holds her steady where his smartlink reads 300 meters and prepares to fire.

Ling Fei pulls her nose up and mentally retreats to a partial command-chair mode, re-arranging Boxcar and the Dobermans so that they were ready to roll out with the ganger’s lead truck. The rigger then leaps back into the Guardian, banking left to take a better look at the new bogeys lighting up her scopes.

Moonclaw holds onto the back of the van’s auto-turret as it moves, then settles back into a prone firing position on the beast’s front windshield. The shaman bows her head and mutters to her spirit of man. “Great spirit, Mitawa ki, your streets run rampant with insect vermin. Come now, to the plane of things, to cleanse our domain of the swarm! Hold here beside me, and lay waste to all those who oppose us!”

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw feels a rumbling beside her, and loose bits of concrete and debris begin to move and dance in the parking lot. Like a loose leaf, a red brick blows past her on an astral wind, skittering and fluttering as if weightless. It is joined by several others, and then a whole flock of bricks is making its way to her from all corners of the parking lot, multicolored in hues of baleful crimson, black and burgundy.

A tiny, self-motivated construction project takes place beside Boxcar; the bricks begin to stack themselves dutifully one on top of the other, forming a sphere. Their workmanship is quite impressive and the project grows rapidly in size, first one meter high, then two, until finally the top is capped and a three meter tall sphere of brick stands beside the shaman. Sharp studs of steel rebar are woven into the intersections of the bricks, giving it the appearance of an old sea mine or anemone. Moonclaw’s astral sight shows the brick spirit itself: it chooses to remain invisible to mundanes, but appears on the astral as a hulking, shadowy figure. It has the look of a steelworker tired after a day’s work, shoulders massive but slumped, resting its weight heavily on the brick sphere. It lifts massive appendages and rolls the ball forward a few feet, testing it. On the physical plane, the giant spiked ball seems to move a bit of its own will, marring the pavement with its spikes. The spirit sits back to wait, breathing laboriously despite not needing oxygen.

As the initial group of animals crosses S. Harlem, Ling-Fei’s Condor picks them up, flagging them as unidentified bioforms. Sparrow-2 banks left over the swarm, and one of the creatures below makes a leap at it, getting several meters off the ground but not quite reaching the drone. The drone’s sensors go to work and Ling-Fei is fed a report of another group of two dozen moving objects at 300 meters, slightly larger and faster than the ones beneath her.

Crusher doesn’t have direct LOS to the targets, but his cyberears can hear something approaching from the west. He grits his teeth and prepares for combat.

Gamemaster:

The parking lot is full of cars almost to the road. The animals intelligently split up and run between the parked vehicles, making it hard to draw a clean line of sight as they approach. The gangers can hear something coming closer, and start to get spooked. The sporadic gunfire from Sparrow-2 ceases as the drone gains altitude and banks away to investigate the new targets, leaving a silence filled with the skittering of chitin on concrete.

The swarm breaks cover about 50 meters from the crowd, and begins the final sprint over open terrain. Crusher hears the pop-pop of light arms fire, and sees that the ECM and Ancients have turned to open fire, brandishing weapons and yelling warcries at the tops of their lungs. Rather than break and panic, they appear to be spoiling for a fight, happy now to vent their bloodlust on something other than each other. A few of the creatures drop from the incoming light arms fire, but not enough to stop the onslaught. The close combat will be met in the next few seconds.

The 88’s and Yakuza are taking another route entirely, splitting off from the ‘Spike, the meeting abandoned. The green-clad elves start to head south en masse, looking to skirt around the combat and leave the scene via the empty expanse of parking lot to the south and west. The Yakuza look more ready for a confrontation. The holo-image of their leader disappears and the presumptive leader gives a nod to his cadre of heavily-armored soldiers, who fan out in smaller squads and face the oncoming horde. Their chopper above suddenly banks south, towards the massive building where the two lone Yak operatives are stationed. A spotlight illuminates the roof and sweeps side to side; the runners can’t immediately tell what, if anything, it is searching for.

Ling-Fei’s electric eyes and ears perk up as Sparrow-2 registers a group of new targets, following close behind the first wave. The readings are all over the place, but her expert skill with the drone enables her to sift out at least two distinct classes of target: another fast-moving group of animals similar in size to the monsters attacking the gang, and a smaller group of large targets. The readings of these bioforms are akin to that of a small car in size, and at least one of them—or something in their immediate vicinity—is giving off some kind of electromagnetic interference. She can’t pin them down and they aren’t in visual range, yet.

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Act IV: Tyranid - Scene 1
The 'Spike

Moonclaw plants her feet and stretches her body to its full length, working out the tension in her muscles from the harrowing astral quest. Nothing in her life had ever challenged her in so many ways, had ever pushed her so close to the edge of defeat. Her battle with herself had literally come down to a game of chance, so evenly was she matched with her doppelganger. She shudders to think how easily it could have been her lying dead on the top of that mountain, run through with a wooden spike or knocked dead by a blast of mana. Would the other Moonclaw be standing in her apartment right now had she lost?

Her brief existence as Wophe, the White Buffalo Calf Goddess herself, had filled some void within her which she could not have pointed out before the vision quest. Where once she was adrift in a sea of nihilism, seeking only wealth and power, now she had a people, a sense of belonging and purpose which transcended the material world. The change was almost frightening in its breadth and depth, yet it also almost made her smile, thinking back on the glowing faces of the chiefs at counsel and the dance of the spirits as her people learned the Ghost Dance for the first time. Almost.

On a whim, she calls out to Wophe, invoking her name with a Lakota prayer as she forms a chaos field in her upturned palm. The resulting mass of obfuscating energy is more potent than anything she could have ensorcelled a mere two days ago, its force somehow amplified by Moonclaw’s newfound connection with her ancestral homeland. [Moonclaw learns the centering metamagic, using Lakota prayer as her chosen skill. Her mass confusion spell has increased to force 5.]

She lets the spell disperse, satisfied that the taxing trial was worthwhile in the end, and sets about preparing for tomorrow’s run. Surely it could not be as difficult or dangerous as what she had just experienced in the confines of her own mind. Moonclaw does a once-over through her gear, lingering over her Smartgun, suddenly more appreciative of the comfort the mundane implement brings her. She lays out Mesay’s foci, the cat bone ring, manacle pendant and silver die now more hers than his, along with her pistol, grapple gun, folding bow and quiver of arrows, taking special care not to nick herself on the barbs laced with the Krieger virus. Finally, she smooths out her camo suit, doing her best to rub the bits of zombie flesh from its dappled surface of blues, grays and blacks.

The cat shaman prepares a meal of vacuum-sealed salmon and rice, devours it with unexpected vigor, then turns in for the night, thankful to have returned once more to the confines of reality.

~

Ling Fei does her best to keep her mind occupied over the two days leading up to the next run, lest she run herself down with worry and fear. She had alot to worry about—her parents had not bothered to return any of her calls in the past week, and this had brought on a fresh wave of anxiety as she contemplated the ways in which Wuxing might be tapping her calls, or even worse, tracing them back to her family. But matrix coverage in Taiwan was spotty at best, she reassured herself, and this wasn’t the first time her absent-minded parents had forgotten about their daughter in the States. Compounding this was, of course, fear for her own safety, and the safety of her partners in crime, as well as all of the new friends they had made. Ling Fei even found herself worrying about the two dwarves from time to time. And was that so bad, in the end? Riggers had to look out for each other on the mean streets of Chicago.

Beside the obligatory hours in her garage, tuning, rebuilding, and oiling, Ling Fei keeps herself busy through idleness, watching ‘trid soaps about high elven fantasy or the Trojan war, playing tactical sims and working on her drone designs. One night, she even builds up the courage to go out with an old friend from Harbin University, scoring bubble tea and synth-noodles in Chinatown’s quieter Southern quadrant after a round of mani’s and a fresh bleach and perm. It was nice enough to see old friends and reminisce about college, but Ling Fei found she had less and less in common with the non-runners of her past life. How could she pretend to be interested in the ordeals of wageslavery when she compared it to her own line of employment?

When Ling Fei sleeps the night before their meetup with the orks, her dreams are filled with robot dogs, fast cars, and flashing steel.

~

Crusher is too old to do things like fret about that which he does not know. For him, a bit of ‘yen in his account and the prospect of future work are enough to distinguish good days from the bad. He cleans his apartment, sharpens the knives implanted in his hands, and does a load of laundry. He even manages to get through three Sherlock Holmes novels over the course of two afternoons. His favorite is The Sign of the Four, a tale about a group of men who go off to an island in search of treasure and adventure. Crusher is satisfied that he could, as usual, deduce the solution to the mystery before the end of the book, though he scoffs at the sidearms Holmes and his companion are packing. II’ll take a smartlinked Max-Power over some dinky revolver any day, he thinks to himself as he puts the worn novel back on the bookshelf.

The mercenary fits in a visit to Harriett Matthews and a round of drinks at HAUS before the day is done, then preps his kit before turning in. He clips three of his new incendiary grenades and two HE’s to the inside of his longcoat, stuffs plenty of ammo into his belt and pants pockets, including his explosive rounds and both APDS clips, along with some mini-grenades. The rest of his ordinance—the C4, his Valiant and its bulky gyro-harness, and more grenades and ammo than he can count—he stuffs into the massive army duffel to leave in the van.

When Crusher’s face hits his pillow, he sleeps like a rock, or a man that’s dead.

Gamemaster:

The night of April 7th rolls around like a tumbleweed in a ghost town, quietly and with no fanfare. Crusher’s comms unit buzzes across his table just as the sun sinks below the horizon, and he checks it to see a simple SMS from Blitz:

Meet @ the Spike, 7101 Cermak Road in Berwyn in one hour. Bring the ruckus, chummer.

The missive seems normal enough. Crusher stops just long enough to wonder if gang meetings are usually arranged, last-minute, via text message, but figures it must be a security measure. His gear already packed in its duffel, he has only to gather his team and get to the meet.

Player:

Crusher commits the Berwyn address to memory, deletes the text, then dials his rigger. Ling Fei picks up by the second ring.

“It’s time,” Crusher deadpans. “Get Moonclaw first, and meet me at my apartment.”

“Ten-four, big dog. Be there in thirty.” Crusher grunts. “Step on it. The meet is on the West end, in the badder ’burbs. And we only have an hour.”

Ling Fei laughs on the other end before hanging up. “Step on it? Don’t I always?”

The old mercenary calls the shaman next, giving her the news. She humphs impassively before closing the connection without another word.

Crusher steps outside as Boxcar Rebellion rolls down his block a half-hour later, her throaty diesel engine reverberating through the night air. He stamps his boot once on the pavement as the van door slides open, heaving his munitions duffel in before settling into the rear bench seat. The smell of bleach does a poor job of covering the trace odors of blood and feces which have long since ingrained themselves into the armored transport’s cabin.

Ling Fei angles Boxcar West, cutting straight across the ork slums of Crusher’s turf to hit local 50, which will take them North to Berwyn.

Gamemaster:

Boxcar Rebellion’s throaty engine fills the slums of Ford City and Sleepy Hollow with its reverberating roar as Ling Fei makes her way North with her two companions. The van’s ASIST thrums in the back of her skull like a second heartbeat, and she snuggles down into her VCR like a safety blanket.

Crusher’s bulging duffel shifts a little as the foam-filled tires eat another pothole, and he checks his gear again, just to be sure. The ammo-feed for the Valiant scrapes against the gyro harness, so he rearranges them and then checks the mags for his Combat Gun. Satisfied everything is in order, he sits back and waits for their arrival. His wound has mostly healed, but it still pains him when he shifts his weight. He growls under his breath; in another few days his tough old body will have completely recovered, but the swordsman cut him deep.

Moonclaw looks out the armored vision slits at the passing landscape: row after row of dilapidated housing, mostly stripped of all salvageable material and now home to gypsies, squatters and paranimals. The scene reminds her of her walk down 87th street a few days ago, seeing the identical houses and occasional colorful playset. Somehow, the run-down uniformity of these neighborhoods is more comforting: they, at least, have embraced their lot in life and given up the ghost. The swingsets blowing in the cold wind were too much a reminder of what this place had once meant to so many, before the Awakening, the VITAS plagues, Dunkelzahn, Deus, goblinization… the world used to be such a different place, and the parts of it that have not moved on are a haunting reminder that life had been good, once.

They turn West onto Cermak road, putting the stacked neon hives of Chicago behind them. It is not long before they reach their destination, but they hear it long before they see it.

Thespike

The “Spike” is well named: a stack of old fossil-burning cars adorns a 50’ metal spike in the middle of a shopping center parking lot. The once-colorful cars have all but gone the blood-red color of rust, and a few have fallen off and collect at the base of the monument like dead animals. An apt meeting place for the heads of the five lesser gangs of Chi-town. About a hundred figures are gathered around the base of the spike, of varying sizes, shapes and colors.

Crusher moves to the front of the van to get a better look at the gangers which swarm the scene. He can make out five distinct groups, including the Spiders in their signature red and black. Fifteen orks, male and female, mill around a large, armored palanquin. This strange contraption must be for show, or transport of some unwieldy equipment, because a large rigged military-style halftrack idles beside it, its bed fitted with a mechanical servo-arm which can attach to the top of the palanquin to move it. Another armored Ares Roadmaster idles beside that, a reflection of Boxcar Rebellion done up in red dagz and black webbing patterns. The bladesmen and women are all cybered, like Blitz, Bakcha and Charlie, and look as hard as they come. Katanas curve wickedly from their hips and SMG’s hang from shoulder holsters and chest bands; grenades and other military accoutrements rattle and glint under the orange streetlights.

Crusher’s attention shifts to the next group, a smaller band of thirteen thin elven warriors in spiky, dark-green plated armor with a bold, purple ‘88’ emblazoned across the chest. Each are adorned differently: a barb here, a scythe there, grisly tokens of war strewn about their persons in the form of ear talismans and shrunken heads. One thing unites them, a cybered left arm ending with a three-fingered cyberhand, done up in the same green as their armor. The long faces of the elves bear a sinister look under black hair worn in high piles on top of their heads. One among them stands apart, taller than the others, with a large array of blades fanning upwards from his back like a sunset, framing his figure. His eyes beam out from behind a tall, scorpion-like mask, and both of his arms are cybered, bearing the three-fingered hand of their order.

A spotlight sweeps through Boxcar’s armored windscreen, triggering the flare compensation in Crusher’s cybereyes. He looks up at the source to see a grey-blue Aztechnology Aguilar-EX assault chopper hovering 100 feet above their position, Japanese characters stamped in yellow on the underside: 宇宙狼. The meaning escapes Crusher for the moment, but he looks out over the assembled gangs for the group that belongs to this Japanese gang, probably one of the Yakuza splinter sects of Chicago. He spots them easily, eight suits of hulking, military-grade powered exosuits done up in the same blue-grey as the chopper. Thick boots stamp heavily on the ground and servos whine in the joints of each soldier as they sweep the area with rifles the size of small rocket launchers. Closed helmets bristle with an advanced sensor suite and rebreather gear, giant shoulder pads with various kanji in block letters move organically under their own power; every inch of the men inside is armored from head to toe in the latest tech. Though few in number, Crusher thinks that they are the most heavily armed of all the assembled, even without the air support. He can’t see their leader, but so little of each individual can be distinguished from the others that he could be any one of them.

The other two groups are more familiar to the ork, one especially so: furthest from their approach of the Spike are what remains of ECM, in their signature black and yellow. Theirs is a mixed lot, with all races, creeds and colors represented, and looking worn and weary. Though poorly armed, they must number thirty head at least, each armed with a motley array of weapons, some clearly scavenged, others fairly new and advanced. Some members brandish nothing but clubs and chains, and wear ripped leather jackets with metal spikes and ripped jeans. The Ancients are also here, with many of their various factions represented, including the Englewood branch. The black-skinned elves look like they have just come from a party; several are visibly drunk or actively drinking, and a ring has formed in their midst, with two dark-skinned elves fighting each other, to the jeers and roars of the crowd. Like ECM, the Ancients vastly outnumber the other three well-armed factions, numbering about forty.

Boxcar Rebellion rumbles down Cermak road, which forms the northern border of the rectangular parking lot which the Spike calls home. To the south, the large, blasted-out shell of Cermak Plaza stands alone in this area of the neighborhood, clearly not attended any more by the corporate inhabitants which owned it last. The west side of the lot is S. Harlem Ave, and to the east, Home Ave. There is nothing but a few rusted-out old cars in the lot, leaving the entire area exposed, which, Crusher supposes, is part of the point: nowhere for any one of the gangs to mount an ambush, no hidden entrances or exits. No man’s land.

The meeting hasn’t started yet; none of the gang activity is focused enough to indicate any amount of common activity. In fact, some of the fringe members of ECM and the Ancients have begun to quarrel; Crusher remembers what Bakcha and Charlie told him about the gangs having bad blood with each other. Time remains to gather tactical intel and take a thorough survey of the area; there may be portions of this meeting-spot which remain as yet undiscovered. Crusher sets his face in stone and remembers that these men are the soldiers of the Chicago streets, no different than his brothers in the Corps during his deployment. They know only one thing, violence, and have the blinding loyalty and brutality to use it.

Player:

Crusher points to the group of gangers in black and red. “There are the Spiders, Ling. Pull up by them.”

“Aye aye, cap,” Ling Fei responds cheerily, the excitement of the massive gathering filling her with a nervous giddiness. She pulls Boxcar into the lot, circling around the perimeter of the gathered masses to reach their allies. As they move, she ejects her Condor from the opening in the van’s roof, ordering the trusty micro-blimp drone to a holding position above the central spike while staying clear of the Yak’s attack chopper. She wanted to be certain her team had as much intel as possible in case things got hairy.

Surprisingly, for once Moonclaw and Ling Fei have similar instincts. The shaman buckles her seatbelt and projects her astral form, passing out of the vehicle to drift above the assembled throng and sniff about for signs of magical activity.

Crusher steps from the Roadmaster as they pull up alongside the Spider’s halftrack, scanning the assembled orks for the familiar faces of Bakcha, Blitz and Charlie. He’ll want to see what they can tell him about the situation, at the least. At best, he would like to clang fists with the Grand Spinner himself, whom he suspects may be the occupant of the fancy palanquin the Spiders have brought with them. Crusher wasn’t sure if the Spider’s boss would meet with him yet—gangs run on reputation and street cred alone, and Crusher didn’t have much in the way of this currency yet. All in good time, my dear Watson, he thinks to himself as he flexes his steel fist. All in good time.

Gamemaster:

Ling Fei waits for the Condor to gain altitude, letting it drift on its tiny blimp until she gets the feed in her peripheral “vision” via the remote VCR link. The picture is grainy at first, but quickly resolves itself thanks to the Condor’s advanced sensor package; the machine even analyzes the available tactical feed coming from Boxcar, sifting out salient details until it gets enough metadata to highlight the factions and link her current position. The spiders show as red blips on her HUD, 88’s as green, Yakuza as grey-blue, EMC as yellow and Ancients as black. Boxcar Rebellion shows up as larger green dot and the ‘Spike is marked with an orange reticle. It’s no BattleTac© system, but it will do for her small group.

Car spike map small1

The view is a top-down view of the parking lot, overlaid by a grid of 5×5 meter green squares. Ling Fei notices a few things immediately: first, the southwestern side of the lot is much more full of cars than it appeared on their approach down Cermak road. The lines of parked vehicles effectively hide each other, but the Condor can see that the parking lot is almost full to S. Harlem. The east is relatively clear; a clean LOS extends from Boxcar’s position to an old mall building fronting on Home Ave. Second, there are two lifeforms which the drone has flagged as Yak snipers sitting on top of the Cermak Plaza building, effectively obscured from the parking lot by the dusk light. The blue-grey Japanese helicopter slowly circles the entire scene.

Moonclaw’s astral form floats up with the drone, her back to the stars as she takes in the scene beneath her. The glowing forms of life around the ‘Spike pulse gently against the muted luminescence of Gaia beneath the pavement. Only a few of the assembled are Awakened: one of the Yaks, one of the 88’s, and a handful amongst the Ancients and ECM; all of the Spiders are sleepers. There are no wards or astral barriers in the parking lot that she can see, so she looks around herself in astral space and is surprised to see two astral forms in the sky with her. Their auras match those of the Yak and 88 magi, but they keep a good distance between her and each other. A cautious truce, perhaps.

Crusher exits the Roadmaster, and two of the Spiders break off to greet him; it is Bakcha and Charlie. The old ork’s metal arm greets theirs with a clamorous ring, and he finds himself amongst the Spiders, the hard faces of orks and trolls peering down at him from above cybered chests and heavy armor. The red-and-black spiderwebs are everywhere, and each man or woman’s hand rests easily on the butt of a katana. The swords are decorated as wildly as their bearers, with heavy steel tsuba in many forms, and spiders and eight-legged charms hanging from battered kashiri.

Bakcha speaks first, “‘Domo, chummer. We got here a few minutes ago, it looks like the others have been waitin’. The GS is about to start the meeting in a few minutes, but we gotta stop you here. Nobody within sight of the Big Boss unless he says so.”

“And he ain’t said shit ’bout you, so back it up.” Charlie’s attitude has not brightened, it seems.

Bakcha continues, ignoring her, “We just need you to hang here, keep our northern flank covered from the road. Keep an eye out on the other gangs, make sure nobody starts any funny business; especially those Jap bastards, they’ve been untrustworthy in the past. And don’t worry, the GS knows you’re here. I recommended you myself. The other gangs probably have mercs hiding in the wings too, so stay sharp. Do good and we’ll see about getting you invited to another one of our parties. Any questions?”

Player:

Crusher presses a finger to his earbud. “Copy that, Ling Fei? We’re in charge of the northern approach. Deploy your armor and keep overwatch.” The rigger’s synthesized voice buzzes affirmatively in his ear, “overwatch, aye aye,” and the mercenary watches as Boxcar about-faces to overlook the north, her pop-up turret deploying with a pneumatic hiss as both ground-crawlers roll down the beast’s rear ramp to take up holding positions alongside their master.

Satisfied, the old ork turns back to Bakcha and Charlie, his greatcoat flapping in the wind. “We’ll be ready. Tell me ‘bout your standing with the other crews—will they really fall in under the black and red? I know the ECM ain’t shit,” he pats his Ares Alpha with a sly grin, “But the 88’s and Yaks don’t look like they’re drekking around. And where’s Blitz? Ain’t he done leakin’ yet?” Crusher’s own sword wound begins to ache once more at the thought. He growls low. “Let’s get this started; I’m gonna crush that daisy eater’s head like a fucking melon.” The sections of his steel hand grind together as he clenches his fist.

Several feet and one world away, Moonclaw circles slowly above the assembled throng of gangers, the tides of human emotion buffeting her on the astral wind. Bloodlust, machismo and pride strike her tongue in equal measure, each more distasteful than the last. The cat shaman’s eyes settle on their supposed allies’ palanquin, and once more she finds no reason to fight her own curiosity. Moonclaw swoops low and cautiously penetrates the gray immateriality of the veiled litter.

Gamemaster:

Bakcha speaks for his gang, “We’re not trying to assemble an army, here—nobody in this group’d follow one man anyway would rather kill each other ‘fore that. Nah, GS is just trying to mobilize some of the groundwork, get ready for a kind of, I dunno, unified uprising. You know, hit Wuxing in all it’s Chi-town ops, all at once. Suspend the cease-fire on suits, maybe kidnap some execs and torture the fuck out of them, to let ‘em know we mean business. It’s gotta be fast but hard enough that they don’t keep up their bullshit.”

He spits a gob of something black on the pavement. “See, normally the corps get along just fine with the black markets, gangs, runners—they know it’s useless to try to stop us so they let us alone. But recently they been breaking that little pact—kidnapping gangers, leading us on bad runs that turn into ambushes, bombing our safehouses. We don’t know why yet. This business with the assassinations—we think they’re pegging it on us, but we got nothing to gain from that. Idiot wageslaves. So it’s time they got as good as they give. Payback for Blitz, he’s not doing so hot. Knife wound got infected somehow.”

Charlie interrupts with a hand on Bakcha’s metal shoulder. “Brother. Meeting’s about to start.” The other Spiders in their squad are waving them over. Bakcha nods to Crusher and leaves with his blade sister.

~

Moonclaw’s cat-like qualities having gotten the best of her, she pokes her head through the Spiders’ palanquin. The front of the thing is a closed set of metal shutters, like the wings of an insect, and she notices that much of its bulk is not devoted to passenger space, but machinery. She drifts into the darkness of the enclosed space, losing Gaia’s light entirely, and finds the only illumination inside is herself and the scrap of aura she finds clinging to the body of an ancient human. It is impossible to tell from this plane where his meat ends and the palanquin begins, but his haggard, twisted face—what is left of it—turns her stomach.

This is a creature well past what should have been the bounds of its time on this earth; even his arms and legs are gone, his internal organs replaced by a Frankenstein’s monster of biological vats, humming nanohives and suspensor webbing. His mouth croaks and his one good eye flits around to a sensor panel on the side of the litter, which lights up at his attention. A metal voice grates out from a speaker on the outside, “Let’s begin.”

The palanquin lurches forward, and Moonclaw drifts through it as it is carried by two trolls away from her. It seems the meeting is about to commence.

Player:

The Grand Spinner’s appearance gives Moonclaw a visceral, gut-churning reaction, her astral presence flickering as her concentration wavers. Content with her brief interplanar furlough, and eager to return her senses to a state in which she can only see the outside of the palanquin, the shaman releases the exertion of projection, letting her essence slip back into her mortal coil.

Moonclaw opens her meat eyes and takes in a gulp of air, quickly re-orienting herself in the physical world. She throws off her seatbelt and steps out of the van, jogging to join Crusher as the gangster’s summit begins.

The old merc follows the orkish pair toward the center of the meeting grounds, leaning in to mutter in Bakcha’s ear. “If you’re interested in hitting Wuxing where it hurts, I have a line on their HQ in the city, south of the river. My team has some unfinished business there—wouldn’t mind tying up loose ends while we’re causing chaos in the Spiders’ name. Two birds and all, you natch?”

Gamemaster:

The ork grunts noncommittally and heads off with his group. He doesn’t seem interested in anything other his gang and the meeting at the moment. Swords rattling in their scabbards, he and his companions move off towards their leader while the last rays of sun set, blessing the proceedings with nighttime.

Crusher looks on, watches the palanquin picked up by two of the black-and-red trolls, who move it away from the halftrack and towards the base of the ‘Spike. Seeing this initial movement, the green-armored leader of the 88’s calls his clan together with a feral whoop, and the grey-blue Yaks move as one, each keeping their facing in the squad, professional and deadly. The ECM and Ancients have started squabbling together, a fight has broken out between two of them but the self-appointed lead groups of both make themselves known. The Ancients’ man is a huge, black elf, tall but thick and athletic, wearing black leather armor under what looks like football pads. Chains and spikes adorn his figure, and a heavy pistol is worn at his hip. He approaches the base of the spike with a pair of attendants, high-up officers of the gang, by their bearing. One has a green and black ‘A’ flag draped across his shoulders. The ECM sends forth their motley group, a half-dozen humans with no clear leader amongst them. They do not have the bearing of Big Jack, or the impressive charisma of Big Boss—well, from what Crusher can remember of his corpse, it was a very charismatic one.

The leaders meet each other under the monument and regard each other coolly for a moment. The ‘Yaks deploy a portable ’trid display on the ground, and a picture-perfect projection of an old Japanese man blinks into life beside his armored honor guard. The grating metal voice of the palanquin sounds out, but from this distance, Crusher has a hard time making out specific words. Minutes pass, arms are waved and the talking becomes louder at one point, but it still seems like a normal pow-wow. Beside him, Moonclaw yawns: it looks like she hasn’t slept in days, but maybe that’s just his head playing tricks on him. His military training perks up and he looks around him, taking in the scene, painting a tactical picture of his surroundings and looking out for the other mercenary units the Spiders hinted at.

The ‘Spike is to his immediate South, and Cermak road runs close by him—no traffic, but that’s not so strange in this kind of place, at this time. Ling-Fei’s metal dogs have taken up positions beside Boxcar, but are still for now. He can’t quite see past the throng of people and cars to the Southwest, and his view directly West is blocked by a large white semi about 50 meters out, propped up on cinderblocks and clearly not going anywhere. Above that he can barely see the orange awnings of one of those horrible synth-meat burger shacks, peddling inedible swill at all hours of the night. He turns around to face East—there is some movement among the cars at that end of the lot, but it is distant, and the light is bad. He flicks on his thermals and image magnification, just for shits, but he can’t tell at this distance what the few people milling around over there are doing. They aren’t openly carrying, that’s for sure. Come to think of it, he and his team are the only ones packing outright other than the gangers. He just has time to register that as mildly strange when a new sound pricks the hearing amps in his metal ears.

A scream is heard through the night, set apart from the background noise by its sudden… urgency. Is that the right word? It’s primal, for sure—an animal scream, not a sound you can make on your own. It comes from the Southwest, the corner of the Cermak plaza building. He looks around—Moonclaw didn’t hear it, her attention is elsewhere. Ling-Fei hasn’t moved, but she’s jacked, and the gangers that he can see don’t seem to be reacting, either. Maybe it’s nothing.

Player:

Crusher frowns, taking a moment to consider the evidence proffered by the senses of his cyber-enhanced form. Enemy activity, his instincts warn on some basic, predatory level. Find cover, shoulder your rifle.

The mercenary takes up a firing post on Boxcar’s back right corner, his side flush against the solid armor plate. He whispers into his mic, “Ling, deploy an attack drone on our southwest vector, possible hostiles. Moonclaw—ready up.”

The Lakota shaman ducks into the ork’s shadow, crouching low and holding up her first two fingers to the night sky. “Ate Wakantanka, wahinajin ki. Allspirit, accept me in thy sight.” The cat-bone ring on her middle finger begins to shimmer.

Ling Fei sends Sparrow Two its boot command and deploys it on her van’s custom drone rack. She watches from the top-down HUD as the lone combat drone speeds along a southwestern arc. The rigger grabs both ground crawlers and re-positions them along Crusher’s line with their LMGs trained downrange, but keeps the transport facing north. Boxcar’s engine roars anxiously, like a horse that smells lions in the tall grass.

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw whispers into her hand besides Crusher; he checks downrange and makes sure his ammo count is up, then turns around and… she is gone. He blinks once, then dismisses it; the cat shaman is always sneaking away somewhere—she’s probably just on the other side of the van. Moonclaw’s body heat and signature still appear on Boxcar’s thermal and millimeter-wave, however; Ling-Fei is not even aware that anything has changed. Instead, she focuses on the feed coming form Condor-1 and Sparrow-2. Her Ares Guardian detaches itself from its armored perch and gains altitude, soaring over the heads of the assembled gangs. It makes its way quickly southwest across the parking lot, vectored thrust engines angled directly forward to make the best time.

The drone pulls up as it spots something out-of-the-ordinary, but the little pilot brain was just tricked by some blowing trash and the heat of a parked car; it processes these things for a second and then scoots forward again, wiggling the FN-HAR under its nose. The Guardian moves another hundred feet and stops again, focusing on another heat signature. Chirruping to itself, it decides this is worth reporting and sends Ling-Fei a low-urgency ping.

She pulls its visual data into her primary view and sees from the drone’s eyes. The thermographic lens is on, overlaying orange heat signatures on the washed-out low-light imagery. Sparrow-2 is focusing on a human body laying on the sidewalk at the corner of Cermak plaza, a human female with a pool of rapidly cooling blood spreading out around her. There are no other people in sight.

Player:

Ling Fei’s voice crackles through their private radio channel. “Crusher, I’ve got one casualty over here. Civilian. I think we should probably go check it out.”

“Negative,” the mercenary replies. “Spiders want us to cover their rear, we’re going to cover it, not go chasing after shadows. Check it out the best you can with the remote unit. Moonclaw, if you’re out there somewhere, hold position.”

The cat shaman activates her subvocal mic and mouths a response. “I will stay for now.” Moonclaw deploys the folding stock of her Ingram Smartgun and leans around Crusher, checking the astral plane for signs of foul play. There were too many casters involved in this job for her liking, too many variables beyond their control.

Ling Fei jumps into Sparrow-2, letting the sensations of the VTOL drone become her own. She hovers close to the corpse, checking it over with her visual sensors for signs of physical trauma, gunshot wounds, or other clues as to the woman’s death.

Gamemaster:

The advanced sensor package on the nose of the Guardian is much more sensitive than that of the Condor high above, and it picks out the body in fine detail as the drone circles it slowly. The victim lies on her face, one arm slumped unnaturally across her back and blood seeping into her clothing. No exit wounds in the back or limbs can be seen to suggest what kind of weapon killed her. The body is normal otherwise.

Back at Boxcar Rebellion, Moonclaw’s vision swims crazily in the accustomed manner, and then she is seeing the spirit world. The two astral forms of the patrolling magicians above have moved off somewhere and are no longer in sight. Other than that, the auras of everyone she can see in the crowd seem as they did at the meeting’s onset: angry, sad, confused, afraid, but not dangerous or near panic. Even the scuffle between the Ancients and ECM doesn’t seem like it carries genuine, murderous intent. These are just animals trying to stake their claim.

The noises of the negotiations between the gang leaders is growing louder, and each of the three runners hears it in their own way. Ling-Fei’s auditory cortex, rewired through her VCR, tunes out the hum of the humanoids and focuses on the sounds of machinery, listening constantly for armored threats warming up. Moonclaw hears the mundane sounds of conversation, yelling and shouting mixed in with the whup-whup-whup of the Aguilar-EX hovering above.

Again, it is Crusher’s cyberears which hear the noise that doesn’t belong. He pricks them up as he eavesdrops on the meeting—it seems that the Yakuza are pledging some kind of aerial raid on a Wuxing-controlled warehouse nearby. Remembering his duty, he tunes them out and casts his attention across the lot again, in the direction of the body on the sidewalk. He hears Sparrow-2’s engines, traffic on the street, an electric transmission whining, and a strange scuffling sound, almost so soft as to be white noise. It sounds like bricks being dragged quickly along the ground, accompanied by a staccato click-clack-click-clack. The cadence of the noise is unmistakably biological, most likely something running or limping on all fours, but he hasn’t heard anything exactly like it before.

Player:

Drek this, Crusher thinks to himself, something is wrong and I’m not going to wait around just to get caught with my pants down. The mercenary breaks cover and begins striding across the parking lot to the where the gangers have gathered around The Spike, intent on speaking to his contacts with the Spiders. He presses one finger to his ear, “Everyone hold position, I’m going to tell Bakcha that I smell a rat.”

Ling Fei throttles up to gain a few more meters of altitude then begins to fly a tight circle around the body, trying to conserve fuel while still maintaining visual on the scene. She puts the Guardian’s sensor package to work, sweeping the area around the body with every module the combat drone has equipped.

Moonclaw kneels on the pavement and pulls a satchel of concrete powder from her belt. She pours the coarse material in a small circle at her feet then bisects it with crossed iron rebars before pressing her palm to the ground. “Wakantanka,” she intones, “even the cities heed your cry—hear mine now, and send to me a child of brick and mortar. Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.”

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw speaks to herself in English, but what Crusher hears muttered beside him is the ancient language of the Lakota in rhythmic harmony. The chanting helps the shaman concentrate deeply, and Chicago grants her two services as its end of the bargain. One of the city’s agents appears in the ether to perform her work, and astral sight reveals the spirit’s shape: a swirling, baleful cloud of loose brick, cinder blocks, rebar and crumbled concrete.

Ling-Fei knows something is wrong the moment she gains acceleration; she swears the drone’s many eyes are picking up movement across the street. The failing light is not enough to pick out just what, so she enhances digital mag and increases the thermal feed… before she realizes what she’s looking at, the proximity siren for Sparrow-2 sounds in the back of her brain, and the Guardian pilot is highlighting the incoming objects in bright red triangles on her display. The signatures are so faint they must be biological, and they are making their way across the empty lot on the other end of S. Harlem at a very fast rate. The drone counts a few dozen separate lifeforms moving; to Ling-Fei, the way they move makes them look more like a pack of dogs than anything else.

Crusher runs up to the Spiders and is blocked by two trolls watching the rear of the group. Their blade brethren stand beside in a loose trio, watching him out of the corners of their eyes. None of them is familiar to Crusher, but he can spot Bakcha’s war-painted cyber below the Spike, near the Grand Spinner’s palanquin.

“What do you want?” One of the trolls sneers. The other drips ugly, black machine oil at him menacingly. Their metal hands move to the hilts of their gigantic katana.

View
Act III.X: Initiation - Scene 4
The Place of Destiny

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw stands in the middle of a small stone circle, 20 meters across and dotted with patches of grass and dirt. The sun is high and stolid trees rise behind her, rising up a steep hill slashed here and there with the decayed remains of old erosion blockers. The discarded skin of an ancient snake blows by her ankles. She watches as the hand at the edge of the bluff grips at a shot of grass and a naked form lifts itself from the drop. Tan muscles bunched at the shoulder lift the rest of the newcomer over and then she looks up, notices the Cat shaman’s presence, and freezes.

Both women stand stock-still, coolly regarding each other across the space between them. Moonclaw looks this one up and down, notices her nakedness, the high, browned cheekbones and tumbling, braided black hair. A triangular rock is gripped in one white-knuckled hand. Moonclaw herself stands similarly unclad, hair loose and free to tumble in the wind, legs apart and arms at her hips. She has been waiting, it seems. Waiting for the mirror image across from her to arrive. Waiting for them both to dance the black spiral dance which the wheel of fate has decreed is theirs alone.

In the air between them, an electricity builds, and Magic returns to this place, building slowly in otherworldly crescendo. They both feel it, and know that only one may grasp the true power which has brought them hence. Moonclaw waits patiently. Cat is on her side. She will not fail.

[ Moonclaw’s Magic rating increases to 1. ]

[ My Magic rating increases to 1. ]

Player:

I cannot help but stare at the naked woman standing before me. Surely this cannot be the final challenge, to defeat this false self in some sort of animalistic bloodbath. Doubt begins to creep into my mind. Perhaps she is thinking the same thing about me.

I push the errant thoughts from my mind, knowing already that war is struck with this second Moonclaw. I hear the voice of my totem and heed it willingly, eager to test myself and prove worthy of initiation. If escape is impossible, go for the throat.

My instinct is to shadow-walk, to hide myself in the folds of the nascent manafield building up all around us, but I quickly discard the idea, knowing this other is surely dual-natured as well. With Gaia’s presence so stymied here, a stunbolt would tap the caster and wound the victim in equal measure; likewise nothing more than a lowly Watcher or minor Fey would heed her call with the spirit planes so distant.

This is it then? A simple toss of the coin, a short, brutal test of the human form as an instrument of naked death? No, there must be an advantage to be had somewhere, some edge to be eked out against what may be my final foe.

I saw the weakness then. Not in her, not in Moonclaw—it was the woman behind her, hiding somewhere in the background of her mind and past. Awele the street rat. I toss the shard of rock aside, freeing my hands, then take two slow steps forward as I speak, mindful to place a full body-length between myself and the ledge. “You dare stand against me, girl? You who are nothing? Friendless, and entirely ignorant of the world? You who has never been in the Sioux Nation Special Forces; who is not even Lakota. You are an unwanted mongrel playing at soldier with some discarded relic. You make enemies wherever you step. No one has ever loved you, Awele the street rat, and no one ever will.”

I shift my weight to the balls of my feet, expecting the false Moonclaw to charge me.

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw stops to listen to the version of herself newly-risen from the pit, already attacking her mind. She pauses to remember her life: growing up in Chicago as an alley cat, training at the hands of the Sioux Nation drill sergeants and first runs in the shadows. She thinks back to the first Place, her meeting with the Lakota, and the spirit dance. Even the slate stone, now tossed aside, is familiar to her. She finds no gaps in her memory. ‘I am Moonclaw.’ she thinks to herself. ‘This impostor is my last obstacle to overcome.’

Mouth set in a line, she speaks back evenly and strongly, “Liar. I have done all these things and more, and it is you who are the untrue thing here. I have lived a full and memorable life, and you, sad one, have only been granted a glimpse of my existence. Be you spirit or illusion, I will banish you here and complete my quest!”

Moonclaw charges forward with lithe grace, and I brace myself for the impact. She fakes left and then step-punches with the right, colliding with my upheld guard; I grunt as my arms are driven against me and deflect her charge by twisting my body. Her momentum carries her past me and my sweeping right kick sails low across the ground, catching her trailing foot and setting her off balance. Seeing my moment, I step towards her and push with all my might toward the cliff’s edge.

She stumbles backwards, eyes wide and arms pinwheeling, but hops to a stop a mere foot from the lip. She spits on the ground and sets herself, but I am already in motion.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 2. My Magic rating is 2. ]

Player:

I maintain my forward momentum, pivoting on my left heel to deliver a spinning kick to her gut with my right foot, eager to send this false witch over the ledge and finish our brawl.

Gamemaster:

I rush forward before she has a chance to set her feet, twisting my hips into a whipping right roundhouse. Moonclaw checks by raising the crook of her knee to catch the below, deflecting its energy.

I reset my stance and she tries to counter with a hooking left, but I duck my head at the last second and drive my right elbow up into her solar plexus.

Moonclaw gasps, and I hit her body with a left hook of my own as I dance back out of her reach.

Moonclaw knows she has lost the upper hand, perhaps fatally, and I see the wild look in her eyes as a hint of desperation. ‘No time!’ my inner voice shrieks. ‘No time! Finish her now!

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 3. My Magic rating is 3. ]

Player:

I press my advantage, any notion of strategy or finesse gone from my mind as I dedicate myself to the grim task of beating this other to death with my bare hands, swinging at her center mass with my aching fists again and again until I am the only one standing.

Gamemaster:

I hammer home blow after blow as Moonclaw is driven back against the cliff’s edge, now dangerously close. My obliques burn as I twist my body into each strike, but she keeps her chin down and elbows up, and eats every shot like a pro. Breathing heavily, she slips out from my barrage and dances away to the right, that look of desperation turning into one of sly cunning.

I feel the magic gathering around her before I have a chance to act against it, building to powerful levels, taxing her body to the limit. Moonclaw holds her breath for a second and then her hands flash up, palms out, and the stunbolt rockets across astral space toward me. I concentrate, quickly willing my aura into a hard shield around my body, and the missile crashes against it, shattering like glass on the astral plane.

While Moonclaw recovers, I shoulder roll back to where I had tossed the ‘Off’ rock, clutching the weapon in my hands greedily. The rock clearing stands once again between the two combatants, separating them by about 5 meters.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 4. My Magic rating is 4. ]

Player:

I raise my free left hand up and clutch at a parcel of the raw mana building in the clearing, shaping it with my will before sending the energy forth in an angry stream of destructive energy.

Gamemaster:

The mana fills my heart and I direct it into my hands, weaving a destructive force, the most inelegant application of magic. My nails elongate ever so slightly into claws, and my vision bleeds the world of color; I center myself quickly before blasting the powerful stunbolt at Moonclaw, who grimaces and faces it head-on. Her aura hardens and she wrestles with the force of my blow; I concentrate harder and harder, and can see the strain on her face as well. In the end, I cannot penetrate her defenses and she shrugs my missile off as I did hers.

Caster’s drain fills my world and makes my vision swim crazily; blood runs from both nostrils as the taxing feedback from the mana burns my nerves. Moonclaw sees this split second of weakness and pounces forward—both fists rain down hammer blows at my head but I manage to raise my arms to block. A moment later my vision clears and I duck out of arm’s reach again.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 5. My Magic rating is 5. ]

Moonclaw dances back as well, squatting down on her haunches, cat’s predatory eyes locked on me, tracking my movements. Her mouth works, whispering to herself, ‘Oh spirits of the wild wood—hear me in my time of need…’ She closes her eyes for a split second and I can see the concentration on her face, her cheeks sprout short whiskers and dark bruises form around her eyes; one nostril trickles blood. The magic she works is not shot across at me, but rises into the astral and calls down a great forest spirit. It emerges from the forest behind her, invisible to the eye but felt as a power resonating with us in the metaplanes, and I quickly reach out with my mind to steal her new ally for myself.

For a moment, the fighting stops, and there is apparent peace. Both shamans stare daggers at each other across the stone clearing: they are engaged in a mental war, vying for the spirit’s favor in a contest of charisma. Moonclaw presses her advantage as the original summoner, and edges me out; the spirit turns and pledges its three services to her favor. The strain of the contest snaps back in my face like a broken bungee cord, lashing my aura with the weight of the spirit’s force. Broken blood vessels stand out on my face and chest, and the blood from my nose flows more freely.

[ The magic in the area continues to build. Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 6. My Magic rating is 6. ]

I wipe my hand across my face, drawing a red streak of war paint across my cheek. Heedless of my body’s taxed state, I draw magic around me again—it is becoming easier to harness in this place, but the strain is beginning to slow me down. I push these thoughts out of my mind and focus the swirling mana into my palm to blast forth another invisible bolt. Moonclaw steels herself and swats the missile away once more; I was always more resistant to illusions and manipulations than my comrades in the SNSF, and now I can appreciate the power of a strong magical defense.

Moonclaw grins evilly, and speaks out loud, “Old-man-in-the-woods, materialize and attack the impostor!” Immediately, tree roots and branches begin to coalesce behind her, forming great feet with lichen-encrusted toes and creeper-vine tendons. The flora grows upward, stretching to obey the beckoning of the spirit, making ironroot calves, knobbed knees and strong oaken thighs. The humanoid form remains half-complete, but already its waist is level with my chest; the completed structure will tower over me.

I feel a strange twinge in the back of my mind. My hands tingle and my spine run a chill up and down my body. I pause in my battle-lust to examine the new feelings of power coursing through me. ‘Of course’, I think, ‘the power that I came here to find… it is in this place. It is this place. It is mine to take, and there is only one thing standing in my way.’ My eyes narrow and I turn my attention back to my foe.

[ The magic in the area reaches its height! Moonclaw’s Magic rating is 7. My Magic rating is 7. ]

Player:

I stagger slightly on my feet, head swimming with exhaustion from my all-out duel with this other. We are too evenly matched, my every thrust met with equal parry. And now, with the forest spirit firmly in her control, I am outnumbered and outclassed.

Only a fool fights a spirit in its own domain, I think to myself. I need to regroup, take control of the battle and put things on my terms. I slink back to the edge of the cliff and crouch low, baring my teeth. I snarl angrily at my enemy before kicking off the ledge, sending myself falling backwards into the void I had just spent untold hours scaling.

I block out the stomach-churning sensation of free fall, attuning my voice of the astral plane before making my desperate plea. “Wamniomni, get of Ite, save me in my hour of need. I would know your presence, both to smite my foes and to keep my flesh from the stones below.”

[ Summoning a force 4 storm spirit, all conjuring dice to the test. ]

Gamemaster:

I send my own call for help to the astral plane, up and up into the free air, which begins to darken, as if in response to my karma. Now it is my turn to receive help, and a prominent storm spirit answers my call, rising from the fog below, ready to blacken the skies and crash with booming thunder. It’s two services are pledged to my aura, and the nature spirit’s power glows inside me like an astral lamp. I continue my freefall and feel the wind begin to pick up beneath me; my animal mind is panicking, in full-throttle adrenaline mode, but I force it down with my will and trust in the spirit.

Moonclaw dashes forward at the same instant I leap, ready to counter a leaping jab. Her eyes widen as she sees herself leap over the edge of the cliff. ‘Suicide? A trick—no!’ She looks around, expecting to feel an invisible hand on her throat at any second. But it is not a ploy, and she does not have time to puzzle through why she would throw herself to certain, pitch-black doom in the space between worlds. She reaches out and banishes the spirit from the astral realm with all her might, sending it back to the no-where whence it came. The spirit resists her with all its might, like a wild animal scrabbling at the edge of a cliff face, and succeeds in staving off Moonclaw’s attempts. She curses inwardly and concentrates through her caster-weary battle haze. Her chest throbs from the solid hit she took earlier, and blood from her nose drips down onto her mouth, like lipstick. Mascara-bruises have started to pool behind her eyes, completing the illusion of beauty.

She glances back to check on the progress of her own spirit. The powerful body is grown from armored maple, and arms are made with woven weeping willows; together they bunch and flex like the muscles of a great beast. A tangled mat of brown and black leaves hangs from the face to form a wizened elder’s beard, and beady berry-eyes look down the bridge of an oaken nose reproachfully. The old-man-in-the-woods grips a stout staff of hard ash in one hand, gnarled at one end to form a club.

My weightless body drops toward the fog below like a stone. My mind reels from the drain of conjuration and my body aches from mana-burn, but there is no time for that now. I reach out to the astral plane for help—

Player:

I reach out to the presence of the spirit rushing up to meet me, struggling just to breath as the wind rushes past my face. “Give form to your being, storm-caller, and catch me before I fall to my death!”

Gamemaster:

Swirling air surrounds my body like a lover’s close breaths. It buffets me and pulls my long jet hair and then begins to lift me from my plummet. The mad panic of freefall fades away gradually, and my feet just kiss the swirling gray fog before I begin to rise. To fly.

The spirit underneath my feet takes the form of a thunderbird, ferocious wings crackling with electric energy. It coalesces beneath me slowly, first only the muscled back and fierce head. I straddle its neck and it begins to carry me up towards the ledge, and back to my opponent.

Moonclaw looks down the chasm with a mixture of awe, resent and disdain. ‘A fortunate gamble. She almost didn’t make it, and she knows it.’ She turns to her newly summoned forest spirit to appraise its final form. The old-man-in-the-forest stands a stooped seven feet tall, his elderly weight leaning on his hardwood walking staff. His leafy beard sheds a fall-toned leaf every now and then, and he looks out at his summoner with tired eyes. Nevertheless, a strong, sturdy oaken body pulses underneath his bark plates with unnatural life. He shambles to the edge of the cliff to peer down at me with her.

I am rising steadily, but my spirit has yet to materialize enough to engage in physical combat. In the next few seconds, I will rise the final ten meters and be drawn level with my doppelganger.

Player:

I bury my fingers into the feathers of the spirit’s neck, literally clinging to her for dear life. I narrow my eyes on my target, delivering my final command to the goddess of storm. “Take wing now, above the peak and clear of Old Man Forest’s reach, then strike down the human below with the purity of Gaia’s light!”

Gamemaster:

Crying with energy, my spirit assumes its full physical shape as a furious storm front, a hunting bird of bleak shadow pulling me upwards on its back. Soaring in the air above my enemy, I look down at her in the weird perpetual sunlight of the place. I see my own panting face, and see what she must see in me: an animal in panic, on each of our bodies the trails of blood and marks of strain.

Cracking purple lightning erupts from the body of the bird beneath me and streaks towards Moonclaw. It strikes her square in the chest and she cries out in pain, as her flesh scorches and crackles with electricity. In reply, her spirit draws back its arm and throws its hardwood staff at me with all its immense oaken strength.

It spins upwards and I dodge sideways on my thunderous mount; the staff flies wide. When I stumble, the storm spirit surges up to catch me, soaking my skin where the dark clouds touch it. A new weapon is already growing in the old man’s hand, sprouting from a sapling and aging rapidly into a hardwood stave.

Moonclaw tastes copper in her mouth from the lightning, and knows she can’t afford to be hit by any more bolts. Muttering to herself, she reaches out with an anti-conjuration hex and banishes the storm spirit from the physical plane. It shudders with the force of magical combat as Moonclaw’s magic tears at its aura. The bonds holding it to this world weaken some, but Moonclaw knows she is an open target in the open and breaks off the contest, preparing to flee into the woods.

Soaring above her, out of the reach of her spirit, the thunderbird and I rain down magic on Moonclaw like a storm. She runs for the cover of the forest behind her and I gasp in frustration as I lose concentration and a stunbolt fizzles in my hand.

The great storm beneath me flaps its wings and another purple arc screams from Heaven to Earth. It pins Moonclaw to the rock she is standing upon, piercing her through-and-through like an insect in a collector’s case. She gives a final moan and crumples mid-run, bouncing off the ground with a glowing red hole through her heart. She skids to a halt at the end of a crimson exclamation point, and her forest spirit dissolves into its constituent parts, raining branches, bark and leaves over the edge of the bluff.
I look down with battle-weary shock, not really registering my victory. My spirit gives a thunderous rumble; its services complete, it places me on the warm stone amidst the ruins of the old-man-in-the-woods, and then is gone with the wind, leaving only sunlight and clear skies in its place.

My own body lies broken and bleeding at my feet. I look down on my face and am disturbed to see the last painful moments are frozen there, in the stiffening scream and wide eyes. ‘This was me,’ I think to myself. ‘No matter the magic of this place, this… thing… believed it was me. Believed it was alive.’ I nudge her foot with my own, unsure if this phantasm was ever really there. The corpse’s foot certainly feels real enough. I shudder, and am grateful when the mists rise over the edge of the bluff and consume me for the last time.

~

Moonclaw wakes with a start, back in her own apartment. She tries to move herself from the meditative position and finds her limbs have all become painfully stiff and sore. She looks to her skylight; the sky is in mid-light, either just breaking dawn or just falling evening.

Cat is here with her, the totem’s presence back in her mind at last. She breathes a sigh of relief; being disconnected from Cat was an extremely disconcerting feeling. A new power is here with her as well: her own connection with the forces of mana around her are strong, stronger than they have ever been, and she feels also the beginnings of some new ability growing within. It is true, her astral quest has wrought a new understanding of magic for her, and she knows that many doors have now been opened for her which to this day had been hidden or remained shut.

Still, she feels a sense of disquiet. The look on her own face, lying on the stone, lingers in her mind. The look of death. Her death. She wonders how many humans can claim to have seen the same look on their face. And another, even more disturbing thought: what if she had failed? Would it be her sitting here, now, or would it be something… other? She does not think death is so simple a punishment in a warped place like the metaplane of destiny. Perhaps another Moonclaw would have taken her place. Perhaps she is that Moonclaw now, and the being she killed was the real Cat shaman, Awele Claws-the-Moon, of the SNSF, of the Sioux, of the streets of Chicago. She will never know for sure.

LEVEL UP!

Moonclaw: +9 (5/5), +1 Karma Pool
80 (28/52) Cumulative

+1 Sioux Language Skill

The astral quest is a success! Moonclaw is Initiated at a cost of 15 karma and gains the following:

  • +1 MAG
  • +1 Force to any known spell
  • +1 Astral Reaction
  • +1 Astral Dice Pool
  • +1 Free Metamagic technique
  • Access to metaplanes
View
Act III.X: Initiation - Scene 3
The Place of Knowledge

Gamemaster:

I wake in the forest, alone and naked, lying on a rock by a talkative stream. The heady magical power of the last Place has run from me, and in my mundane stupor I wonder now where I am. With no particular direction to my actions, I stand and dust off, and take a look at my surroundings. The stream flows by to either side of my rock; I am actually in the middle of a small river bed, with a rising face of wooded rock behind and a great forest before me. Someone has stacked stones to make a little bridge across the stream; or maybe the stones were always this way, as I can see no other sign of humans ever treading here.

I look up at the hot sun: it is noon. I wonder what to do with myself. Nobody is here to impart wisdom, there are not even spirits or animals to talk to. The wind is still in the trees and the other elements keep their secrets just as well. It is as if the magic has run from this place; the eery stillness of the physical realm makes me uneasy, without its attendant vibrant energies and hidden fonts of life.

Stymied, I sit down and try to remember the thoughts of two lifetimes ago, when I was a different person, in a place between time and out of space. The cold, dark feeling comes back to me and I remember the place of the Dweller, and what the White Bison told me before swallowing me whole: Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf. It’s all the clue I have in this place.

Player:

I squat naked on a rock by the creek’s edge, resting my weight on the heels of my feet, thinking back on my life as I do what little I can to clean the dirt from my skin with handfuls of water. There were days, weeks even, of my life as a child spent naked like this, shivering uncontrollably, wedged between two mounds of trash in some futile effort to escape the tiger gales of Chicago.

Had I made any progress since then? Yes, I had moved forward, had become a better woman. Since those dark days I had found magic, the mask, and some small modicum of wealth. I am a predator now, not like then. I won’t just survive this land—I will rule it.

I scoop some more water over my head and run it through my long black hair, pulling loose strands free and ringing out the rest before looping it into two long braids to keep it out of the way. I get down onto all fours and shift my vision to the astral plane, casting about to get some feel of this place, wary for anything out of the ordinary. It was all I could do to remember that this forest was, in some distant, difficult to recall way, not really real at all.

Gamemaster:

I concentrate, closing my eyes, and open them again to perceive on the astr… No, I must be weakened from the journey here. I close my eyes again and focus inward, remembering the astral plane and the way it felt in my mind, like the handle of a familiar door or the fit of a tailored shirt. I open my eyes and the same mundane scene sits before me: the rock beneath, the stream in front and behind, the forest before me and rocks to my back. I shake my head and blink once, twice, thrice. Nothing changes.

Panicking, I try to project my spirit outwards, but I am trapped in my own shell, without even the knowledge of my astral form at hand to assure me that I was ever Awakened. I look down at my hands and my body, and know that this place is beyond the reach of even magic, if it can be said that this is a place at all. The only things that move are the water and the steady heaving of my chest as I try to maintain my composure. To be reduced to a sleeping form, burned out without hope of return to the sublime state of oneness with Gaia… The memory of the previous place, of my powers there and the mana fog comes back to me. Was I changed by the Ghost Dance? Did the fog itself burn me out, or was it my contact with the pre-Awakened peoples that robbed me of my powers?

I fight back tears. For me, this is as a scholar losing his sight, a bard losing his tongue, a runner losing his legs. I am mundane, like I was back in Chicago, before Cat. My spirit totem… I choke back the memory, as if recalling that lost piece of myself would be too much to bear. I steel my resolve and look down at my own reflection in the water. ‘It is you, now,’ I say silently. ‘You, and only you. You can survive here. You can pass this test.’

[My Magic rating is reduced to 0.]

Player:

I grip my temple, trying to center myself, to remember Cat’s teaching, even if she is lost to me in this strange, dark world. I will need food, and shelter, water and maybe a fire to keep me warm.

But out here there are no dumpsters to trawl, no mattresses to crawl beneath, no untended spigots to sip from, no trash to burn. How does anything survive in the forest? I take stock of what I have. This stream seems clear enough, if I stay near it I will have water. There is wood aplenty if I could only find some way to make a flame. The same may also serve as a shelter, if were to lean them together. I scan the terrain behind me, realizing I might also find a cave if I skirted the crags to my back far enough in one direction.

Still planted on all fours, I arch my back and look up, marking the path of the sun to gauge how many hours I still have in the day. I let what senses I have left linger on my naked skin, trying to feel if the air threatens to chill as it does on a fall night in Chicago, my home.

Gamemaster:

The sun is at high noon, and the air sits heavy on my shoulders like a shroud, promising a warm night to come. What little breeze there is floats by lightly, and the rock underneath gathers and radiates heat like a living thing. It will be a warm and easy night, by Nature’s standards, but the growling of my stomach reminds me of the pressing, incessant needs with which She has also burdened me.

A nagging, whining question slips itself unbidden into my consciousness. The lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf… What did the vision of the Sioux chief mean? What did he want me to accomplish, where had Wophe’s path placed my feet—and what would Cat have to say? The thought of the totem’s eyes gazing at me makes me look down at my reflection again in shame. What I see is a marked, disheveled form, and I turn my eyes.

A motion catches my attention: there are fish underneath the surface of the water. Only minnows, large baitfish in truth, but enough to set my mind to the thought of food. I take another look around, searching for something to make into a tool. A pile of skree and large rocks sits at the base of the cliffs behind me. A clutter of kindling-sized sticks and debris is scattered to either side, and the rock rises above in a steep, but not unclimbable, ascent—some 20 feet. Ahead, there are trees aplenty, but they are stout and young, not to be felled easily, even by bending. The greater oaks and old hard woods will not come down with anything short of motors and steel, but perhaps there is a sapling somewhere in there thin enough for me to twist apart. Old, dry leaves litter the forest floor, creating a brown woven mat, and the yellow sunlight turns golden green as it runs like honey through the boughs.

Player:

I crouch by the water’s edge, watching the tiny minnows dart neurotically back and forth. Surely a cat shaman can catch a fish. . . .

But no, I think to myself as I turn from the small creek. I am not so weak yet that I have to resort to splashing about for stupid little fish, even without Gaia’s touch. I am a hunter still.

I make for the skree field, keeping my eyes open for straight sticks and sharp rocks, taking careful steps to avoid opening my foot on a stray stone or twig.

Gamemaster:

I hop down from my granite lillypad, landing on stone shelves made from the fallen faces of the cliff above me. The sun warms the rocks here, making it an ideal place for sunning snakes; I watch my step as I approach the base of the large boulder before me. I poke around in the twigs and loose rocks here, finding nothing. The sticks look to be oak, and acorns are found in the dirt alongside gravel, leaves and lichens.

I take one of the larger rocks in hand, raising it to examine the ground underneath. Dissatisfied, I place the rock back on the ground, and stand to leave. As I rise, something catches my eye and I pause, examining the surface of the stone more carefully.

Stay. There it is, plain as day. I hadn’t noticed before, but the lines and veins on the underside of the rock align and come together to form this one simple word. Stay. I pause in my search to wonder at its meaning.

Player:

I cannot help but laugh quietly to myself as I run my fingers across the word. I had not expected Wakantanka to be so literal in its delivery of my prayer. Something like relief tempers my worry as I realize there must still be magic in this place for the stones to carry the Great Mystery’s teaching so plainly.

Curious now, I pick among the rocks and fallen leaves, inspecting every surface for more words. My mind begins to turn the word over, stay, wondering at its meaning. Stay by this creek? Stay in whatever metaplane I had found myself? Or was it part of a longer message?

Gamemaster:

The rocks around my feet are really no larger than pebbles, but I pick some up and inspect them carefully, just to be sure. They seem to be stones of the natural, non-message-bearing variety. I continue my search around the base of the cliff for larger rocks.

After rummaging through some dirt, bones and debris at the base of a shrub, I pick up a triangular piece of slate and turn it over in my hands, minding the sharp edges which crumble away at my touch. Sure enough, on the back is the White Buffalo’s second clue: white veins of quartz penetrate the rock, marking clear letters in the smooth gray slate. Off. ‘Stay off’? Now definitely on to something, I pick up the pace of my search, eager to unravel the whole message.

My hand falls next on a large boulder, part of the broken bridgeway of stone which juts out into the shady stream. I plant my shoulder on its moss-eaten edge and I lift with my legs; the strong muscles in my back tense as I flip the plate-shaped rock onto its end.

The oblong stone tumbles in the air and falls amongst its brethren, shattering into a dozen pieces. I stare at each in turn, but see nothing; it is only as I leave, turning my head to look back, that the outline of the broken pieces is clearly visible.

Bluff.

It is a strange sentence. Stay Off Bluff. But it has familiarity to it, like the opening to a favorite story, or the voices of family drifting out of the past. The sensation of deja vu hits my brain in a primordial way. ‘I have been in this place before…’

Player:

I crouch by the water’s edge, mulling over the message and the distinct sensation that I am hearing voices of my family from some far off place. I have always been an orphan, I think to myself—whoever, or whatever, was trying to influence me has gotten something about me wrong, adding more weight to the notion that I should defy the message. Or had I been here before? Perhaps in another life, as another being, a being with someone to call family. . . . No. It was too preposterous, too improbable, even after all I had recently experienced. Reincarnation was not something the Sioux believed.

In reality, my choice has already been made by the circumstances of my existence. A prohibition to a Cat shaman is the strongest form of seduction. I grip the sharp piece of slate in one hand and leap gracefully across the rocks which lay in the shallow stream, intent on summitting the forbidden bluff.

Gamemaster:

The sun-baked rocks are hot under my feet as I make my way up the old familiar stream. Crawfish dart out of the way of my shadow as I hop across the rocks and rivulets, and the dappled light licks my bare shoulders as I splash through the shallows of a small pool, careful of my footing on the slick rocks beneath the surface. Only a few hundred meters of travel and I realize I have already reached my destination: a sheer bluff, some forty feet tall, rises from the riverbank on my left. I look at it as though staring at myself in a mirror, and make my way to the base to begin the ascent.

Gripping the nearest good handhold, I bite down on the triangular ‘Off’ slate and start climbing upwards. The going is slow and the rocks sharp, hazardous, and prone to giving way beneath my hands and feet, sending pebbles and skree tumbling downward like acrobats. I steel myself and continue the journey, sweat standing out on my shoulders to slide down my spine and around my naked hips.

I am making good pace, but still the rock stretches before me, high as it ever was. I look down to confirm that I have left the ground behind and am surprised to see only a blanket of gray fog beneath me, where once was a babbling brook teeming with tiny fishes and green with algae. I understand now that the way back is barred to me and to fall at this point in my journey would be my doom. The sense of the Threshold and the Dweller creeps around me like a cloak again, and I shudder inwardly at the thought of the brain-spider and its hideous, hairy, black legs swarming over my flesh. Grimacing around the slate in my mouth, I press on.

Hours pass as I climb, never noticing the summit drawing nearer, never making noticeable progress from the fog below. I start to wonder if this is another test, whether I should simply fall and be done with it, that maybe this is an ordeal I was destined to fail. It seems that this place strains the resolve of mine own spirit, plucking the threads binding the fabric of my being together. My hope of success recedes with tidal inevitability, and the gloaming of my life seems nigh. I prepare to make peace with myself, my ancestors—what little I have—Wophe, and Cat. Cat most of all.

All of a sudden, my fingers brush grass and dirt, and I am hauling myself upwards, over the lip of my destiny, to see sweet freedom and stand on solid ground. I scramble upwards, breathless, and look up.

I stop dead in my tracks.

View
Act III.X: Initiation - Scene 2
The Place of Charisma

Gamemaster:

The first thing I notice is the rushing sound, like a dozen jetplanes using my ears as a runway, and the wind whips at my temples, threatening to take off my head. Heat and light surround me, and I look down, past my feet at the blue-green orb of Gaia rushing up to meet me.

I plummet through space in a shimmering field of white fire, the atmosphere parts to admit me and catches aflame as I rush past. North America grows to fill my vision, and I fall North towards the NAN states, the ancestral Lakota lands and current home to the Sioux nations.

I hit the ground with the force of a bomb, a crater blasts out around me and a great cloud of dust fills the air. I stand, unharmed and clad in a fine doeskin dress, and look out across a wide open plain dotted with roving herds of buffalo, spooked by my violent arrival. The sun is setting behind me, and a line of trees in the distance appears to be moving; squinting my eyes, I can make out a large group of people making their way out from the cover of the forest towards me. They are running, and as the first draws closer I can see his braided, black hair framing broad, bronze features. Feathers are woven into his braids and a tomahawk hangs at his belt; his strong chest is bare but horse-leather leggings cover his legs to the knees.

I wonder what to say to these people when they arrive. The whispers of an old legend appear to me, and I know what I have to do.

Player:

I stand on the smoldering earth, unsure of what to do with myself. I have never been in such a place, never been further from Chicago than the suburbs which surround it. As I descended in flames, I saw the Sioux nation rise up to meet me. Could I truly be here, the land of my ancestors, the home of the parents I have never known? Cat had told me to go West—I had thought she meant Tir Tairngire, or maybe some other opportunity yet unknown. Did She mean this West, to the Dakota prairie? Or perhaps She even meant West here, relative to the Sioux nation, as in the Lakota, westernmost of the three Sioux tribes, fiercest in battle, most cunning on the hunt.

As I gaze across the fertile fields, the abundant herds of buffalo, and the braves coming nearer, armed with tomahawks and bows, a more pertinent question surfaces in my thoughts. When am I? Cat granted me visions of the Lakota lands, of her life before she came to me. But the prairie she had known was more barren, the buffalo nearly extinct, the gaiasphere maintained through ritual enchantment, not the natural bounty of Nature herself. Her people had fought with composite bows and night-vision goggles. So who are these people, rushing with stone and sinew weapons to meet the arrival of a woman come down on a comet?

It dawns on me then, so obvious when I see it for myself. I am Wophe, delivered in fire to bring the teachings to her people. She had shown them how to pass the pipe, to create peace with the Dakota and the other First Nations. She had shown them how to speak to Wakantanka, the Great Mystery, to commune with the spirit world. She had shown them the Ghost Dance, to invoke Gaia’s wrath and bring wind and fire down upon the pale of skin when they threatened the Sioux.

As I watch the Lakota people come closer, stress rises in my chest, my cheeks flush with anxiety. I am not Wophe. I cannot be Wophe. She is everything righteous about my people, careful in diplomacy, replete with knowledge of the astral plane, patient and caring, all-powerful and invulnerable in war. And what am I? Reclusive, selfish, unrepentant, savage and thieving. I cannot do this.

As if on cue, the admonitions of the great White Buffalo which had swallowed me on the beginning of my quest rings out in my mind, reminding me of the pledge I had made to Wophe, to Cat, the Great White Buffalo and Wakantanka. To learn the teachings of my people, to overcome what is deficient in myself. These memories remind me that I am on an astral journey, that the earth beneath my feet is not real, although it feels more present than anything I have ever felt before.

Determined, if nothing else, to make my totem proud, I recall the fire-circle myths of Wophe, the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She had waited at her place of impact for Running Water, the Lakota shaman who had seen her coming in a vision. What had happened then? He had said the first words to her, as she stood above them to deliver her teachings.

I step back onto the raised mound behind me, square my shoulders, smooth my doeskin dress, lift my chin, and wait for the shaman to address me.

GameMaster:

Sunlight bursts from between the clouds behind me and I am shielded in radiant light. The last rays of evening paint the clouds with gold leaf and rust, and then dye the entire firmament with the autumnal palette of dusk. I stand underneath the awesome majesty of Nature and feel the center of the world pulse beneath my feet as if standing on the head of Gaia herself. Mana flows in this place, runs free as the birds, more wild than the stallions and more violent than bison, bear or bull. I reach out to grasp this power; no sooner do I touch it but it fills me, its strength writhes in my hands like a serpent, and I feel as if I could call down thunder from the heavens, or stop the world from turning. I feel like a god.

The children of the comet pelt their brown legs and arrive at my feet, panting and out of breath, perhaps 50 or 60 in all. They stand, awestruck and silent at the lip of my crater, looking up at me with eyes the color of the earth. One of them, the first to arrive, drops his rough-hewn axe and speaks with somnolent tongue, sloughing off syllables and vowels with alien lethargy: “Taŋyáŋ yahí, wakȟáŋ tȟáŋka. Tukténitaŋhaŋ he? Tókhel Lakȟótiya ehápi? [ Welcome, divine one. Are you from my dreams? What have you to teach the Lakota people? ]” By my own magic, the meanings of the words are wrought in my mind, and I am able to reply in turn.

Player:

The man’s speech strikes my ear strangely, his Lakota accent foreign, thick, almost primitive to my ear. Perhaps the language has changed in the great expanse of time between my world and his, shifting in tone and meaning as the white man’s nations rise and and fall around the Sioux nations.

I hesitate at his question, still unsure of myself. Wophe would respond with kindness and benevolence, gently guiding her fledgling people to civilization and harmony. My totem, too, could respond easily, Her role as healer translating naturally to the task before me. But I cannot feel her influence here, without my mask fetish to channel her spirit. I feel the acute absence of it on my forehead, as if I were missing an organ or limb. I am alone here, standing atop this mound, the eyes of my people weighing upon me as they wait for me to act.

Yet I am powerful. Gaia’s breath flows through me, imbuing me with the strength I always knew I deserved. I do not need to be Wophe or Cat. I am Awele Claws-the-Moon, huntress of the Sioux people. Although I lack the nurturing sentiment necessary to lead as Wophe would lead, I can fill this void with my fierce pride of the Lakota, with my zealous faith in Gaia’s supremacy and the divine imperative delivered unto her people. I will not stand by and let my ancestors succumb to the will of the white man.

I respond in Lakota, my voice backed by a force which could only be the energies of the White Buffalo Calf. “People of the Lakota, I am Wophe, sent to you by the Great Mystery to teach you the ways of the Sioux. I am divinity; I am providence. I bring teachings—the way of alliance and the language of the spirit world. I bring prophecy—of prosperity and nation-building, followed by doom and invasion from a race beyond the great salt sea, a man white and godless, who will take our lands and kill our herds. But there will be redemption, for the Earth Mother does not abandon her children. Magic will return to our world, and the Sioux will dance the Ghost Dance and drive the paleskin from our home with burning mountain and twisting gyre. I will teach you to dance with the Great Mystery, so we will know it, and teach it to our sons and daughters, and be ready to take what is ours when Gaia awakens once more. And when the Sioux nation is strong again, and magic runs through the world, and fire lizards rule the lands of men, I will come again on a comet to lead our people once more to greatness.”

I step down and place my hand on the man’s shoulder. “Running Water, you alone among the Lakota have been blessed with visions of my coming. You will gather six tribes to us—the Bdewákaŋthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpékhute, Sisíthuŋwaŋ, Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, and Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna—and together we will pass the pipe and form Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Seven Council Fires. Gather them to our great hearth, and I will teach you to become the Sioux.”

Gamemaster:

I finish speaking and I feel my tenuous hold on the reality of this place slip. Like waking from a pleasant dream, I try to remain asleep, but the realization is already upon me that this is not real and the knowledge pulls me away. A great wind blows from the West and brings with it a fog, which covers the eyes of the assembled and dissolves my real body. When it clears, my presence on the material plane has been swept away like so much dust, but my spirit remains to watch over my ancestors’ ancestors.

Running Water, truly named, turns to his fellow Lakota and speaks, relaying my words and issuing his orders. He commands a group of young riders to journey to the far tribes—Bdewákaŋthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ, Waȟpékhute, Sisíthuŋwaŋ, Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, and Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna—and they leave immediately. He sends runners to the rest of the Sioux people, and their quick bare feet carry word of her coming across the plains.

Four nights pass. Time has no dominion over my presence here, so I linger on in the plains for the duration, watching the foreign tribes trickle in. The trickles eventually become a flood, and by the end of the third day, the village has swelled to over 5000 strong, where once was not even 500. Teepees go up amongst the trees and overflow into the plains, and the smell of cookfires and tanning leather drift downwind for miles.

On one of these days, I become the Eastern Wind, and from its soaring heights I watch a party of my braves stalk and trap a pair of does in the woods. They kill with yew bows and bone knives and consecrate their kills to the Earth, according to sacred custom. I notice something strange in the hearts of my warriors during the moment of the kill: there is no anger or bloodlust in them, nor joy in the act of taking the animal’s life. When they close the deers’ brown eyes and haul the carcasses away, there is no disturbance in the ether or sign that any killing had ever taken place there.

I begin to see this harmony with Nature in pronounced fashion, as the numbers of my people increase and the land becomes more inhabited. In the Awakened world of my time, the presence of humans is inimical to the flow of Gaia’s energy. She is stifled and subdued by the cities of modern man, and her power is naught where their pavement and godlessness have scoured her from the earth. But this is a different place, these a different kind of people. Where the tribes draw close to make their camps, Gaia is strengthened and the flow of mana increases, and when they dance in their hearth circles at night, they are joined by spirits on the other plane: unseen nymphs and dryads of the forest twist and gyrate in pantomime of the human auras, and field spirits flit about like moths to the flame.

Even with the enormity of my power in this place, I can’t help but be impressed, and feel proud that I have descended from a people so in tune with magic. From the beginning of the epoch known as the Sixth World, Native American tribes had always displayed a natural predilection for sorcery, and intuitive understanding of magic. This must be the reason.

On the night of the fourth day, after the whole of the Sioux host had joined the outriders from the far tribes, Running Water gathers them in the middle of the greatest clearing in the woods. Man, woman and child, they all sit in a huge circle, so wide around that a man sitting could not see the person opposite him. The forest stretches its canopy far overhead, the great arms of oaks and elms, and ash trees as stout as staves. A medicine woman, bent and haggard, stokes a bonfire in the middle of the circle. She adds certain herbs and grasses to the blaze and a great cloud of smoke emerges; rich with mana energy it is, and the smell of it lingers even on the astral.

The leaves all around rustle, I feel the warm East Wind at my back and know my test has begun.

Player:

Wind tugs at me, capricious as ever, drawing me along towards the central fire, to my ka and the next trial. Yet I hold back, leaning against the elemental force’s buffeting indifference. I struggle to reconcile my understanding of nature with what is playing out before me. Only now do I realize how narrow my conception of the human spirit had been, how limited the ways of man had become in the absence of such an embryonic relationship with the Earth Mother. Although I am supposedly here to teach them, I can feel the limits of my own mind stretching as I work to integrate this new understanding with my own.

I appear from the shadows to approach the great hearth. The highest chiefs push to the front of their respective families, adjusting their fine feather headdresses and waiting quietly for me to act. A silence descends as news of my presence ripples outwards through the assembled thousands, and my people gather upon the nearby hills as murmurs of “wakȟáŋ tȟáŋka” flit about like ghosts.

I sit at the place of honor, a stone seat at the apex of the fire circle, piled with buffalo pelts and talismans from the Seven Peoples. I don a headdress of onyx falcon feathers and gesture to Running Water, who has prepared the Sioux’s first pipe to my specifications. Its stem is wrought from buffalo horn, its graceful curves carved with images of the great mentor spirits. At my request, a black panther’s tail traded up from the trappers of Apalachee dangles from the bend. The pipe’s wide bowl is piled high with the medicine woman’s trade—peyotes, mescals, devil-grass and psilocybins. The stuff of visions, the soil of knowledge.

I snap my fingers, and there is light. I take a heady draw from the pipe, the tangy burn searing my throat, then pass the relic to my right. I sit, stroking a pelt as the smoke ruminates within me. Then I begin. "My people, I come to you tonight with teachings. Yet in the beginning I learned from you. You share a bond with Nature which does not exist in my time, a closeness I had not thought possible. You exist in man’s nature state—this is good.

“But it cannot last. A new danger is coming to your land, greater than the hoarfrost of the West wind or the horn of a charging bull. The white man comes, with fire and steel, and to meet him we must become more. Like the wolf or deer, you know the voice of Gaia. This is good, but not enough, for in Man’s nature there is more than simple harmony. In us is the capacity to build, not just with pole and pelt, but with words and thoughts, for as man we carry the gift of language. We must be also like the noble ant, working together to build something greater than the individual. We must be fastidious, selfless, and organized. In this way we will form the great Sioux nation and light the seven council fires. In this way we will find the strength to stand against the paleskin.

“For a time, they will win, for while we hear the voice of Gaia, they know only of taking and hoarding, of iron and slaves. While the Earth Mother’s energy wanes, they will drive us back. But when Her influence returns, as the tide upon the shore, we will know victory, for the paleskin has forgotten the face of his Mother.

“Rise now, great chiefs of the seven fires, and pass the pipe in turn. Let it always remind you of the peace you have forged between each other. Then take each the ceremonial knife, score your palm, and clasp arms so you may never forget that we are one blood, one people, united as Sioux.”

Gamemaster:

The chiefs solemnly pass the pipe from one until the other, until it returns to me. Not a one coughs or flinches, and I watch the haze of the wakȟáŋ herbs take their minds one by one. I pass an obsidian dagger to my right and they each score themselves, then link palm-to-forearm, solidifying the Sioux identity as one people. A ragged cheer rises from the gathered families and they leave my presence with diagonal crimson lines on their arms to signify their oath.

Our dance lasts long into the night. The pipe leaves my hand and travels the circle twice, taking many hours, during which time I call the spirits to attention as well as the minds of man. I gather the spirits together at the edge of the clearing: great spirits and small ones, spirits of the forest, air and hearth. A great stag stands at the edge of the circle, a pair of ash trees in place of its antlers. As the pipe passes, it leaps gracefully through the mescal smoke, becoming as real as the men around and trees above and Earth underneath. The eyes of many grow with wonder, but I fill the air with a sorcery which soothes their hearts until the devil-grass and peyotl can take them. More and more spirits leap into the center and gather around the fire: dryads, nymphs, spirits of the animals, great ghostly bison and stallions black as coal. Although remaining out of the sight of men, I spy the greater spirits lingering at the edge of my vision: dark shapes big as houses drifting in and out amongst the huge trees, some ghastly and horrible, others airy and beneficent, but each powerful enough to destroy any of the lesser spirits in the circle with a single spell.

When they are all gathered, the spirits begin to dance the first Ghost Dance. The steps are meditative and practiced at first, each taking its place in the circle as if at rehearsal. They begin by swaying, and the wind in the trees sways with them and the fire roars its approval. Then, all semblance of organization breaks and the spirits run wild, some leaping amongst the assembled mortals, others twisting and gyrating in lockstep with each other, still others change shape and slash the air with great claws and gnash terrible teeth. One man goes mad with fear, but those the peyotl has seized begin to dance among the spirit host, and then it is a madness, as man and spirit intertwine and lose themselves to the flow of a music which is drummed into the air by the forest itself.

The mana! I look down and it swirls and gathers at the feet of the dancers like a low tide, rising steadily as fog. It pours in from the plains and swamps, through forests, over mountains and islands, rushing in from the leylines to fill this place. It lifts the spirits from the ground and they are consumed by it, and some give in and vanish forever, but others drink deep of the power therein and grow in size and energy. The stag grows and the ash trees on its head split and twist into great old trees which brush the sky with their leaves.

By now the rising mana tide has reached the top of my seat atop the pelts, and I cannot stop it as it picks me up as well, so that I soar over the assembled mortals. Fingers point and eyes are raised to see me, and for a moment I can see myself in these people, my once-and-future ancestors, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. I wave sadly, knowing that it is not my place to stay, and they wave back, the knowledge of the Awakening bright in their minds, for now at least. I look up and the winds swirl around me, dissolving my physical self once again. The moonlight and the stars above pierce my eyes and I see nothing.

View
Act III.X: Initiation - Scene 1
The Dweller on the Threshold

Player:

Moonclaw drops through the skylight of her apartment and pulls the latch closed, pausing to listen for the lock to click into place before relaxing in the safe haven of her apartment. She hangs up her equipment and changes into a traditional Sioux dress, a light fabric woven with geometric patterns and streaming with tassels from the sleeves and waist. She curls up in a large leather chair and reflects on recent events. The shaman’s chest swells with pride as she remembers her triumphs in combat—the mighty glasswalker tossing about Wuxing thugs like they were playthings, the mangled corpse of the ghoul she had struck down with spell and bullet. She could not remember the last time she had faced her opponent in open combat, let alone a creature as fearsome as the ghoul, especially with the pack of zombies closing quickly behind it. Yet she had faced them all, and emerged victorious, unscathed even. The ork and the elf had been shot at, stabbed, their mechanical bodies riddled with enemy fire, yet where Moonclaw tread there was only death without reproach.

She felt as if she had passed some threshold, crossed the line between a mere Awakened thief and something more, a force in her own right, a shaman to be feared. Something within moved her to get up from the chair and enter the meditation room, a voice telling her it was time for the next step. The cat shaman listens, and obeys.

Moonclaw places her shamanic mask on the ebony statue in the corner of the room. The wooden fetish’s emerald eyes seem to make the feline figure come to life. She kneels opposite her deity, makes offerings of meat and incense to the White Buffalo, Wophe, and Cat in turn, then takes a pull of her ceremonial pipe before offering it as well to her idols, the embers still burning brightly.

She shifts onto the astral plane and bows until her forehead brushes the floor, then begins to pray.

O’ Tunkasila Wakantanka,
Ho naho tuwa mis tate el kin, naho mis!
Wophe, comet-rider, who taught us the tongue of spirits and the way of man!
Cat, deep are your secrets, quieter your steps!
Gaia, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world,
Hear me, naho mis!
I am small and weak—I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands supple to send the arrow true, my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my sister, but to fight my greatest enemy—myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and eyes unclouded,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

Gamemaster:

Her prayer is said, and cannot be undone.

For an hour, or two, or six, there is darkness, and quiet. Moonclaw sits in meditative silence, and time and space drop away from her. Slowly, she feels herself pulled, and her astral form takes on shape and weight alien to this realm; consumed by the presence of a great eye watching over her, she raises her head from the floor.

An enormous cloud consumes her vision, clear and stormy and gentle and billowing all at once, it swirls and swells and coalesces into the head of a great white bison. The broad mouth and wide forehead fold and change and become the face of a Sioux chief, now shifting between the two, never forming a complete picture of either. Cat sits below the face, seemingly calm and reassuring. It looks at her, the very picture of feline ambiguity, and cocks its head as if to say, what is next, shaman?

With her totem standing apart, separated from her by the power of the deity, she is afraid; the bison’s voice is deep and fearsome. It speaks into her mind.

Hau kola, igmu’ wathogla.
You have tread a long path, beset on all sides by enemy, and war.
Your heart, cante, and head, nata, know the truth of these things. Better than you know.
You seek strength! You are weak.
You seek wisdom! You know folly.
These things are not mine to bestow, but yours to earn by walking.
You have asked for a gift. It is given. Attend carefully your own words, and know the path you must tread!
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my sister, but to fight my greatest enemy—

Myself.

The word booms out and tears the very fabric of space around her. The bison/man’s mouth yawns wide, Moonclaw plummets toward its maw, and is crushed and gnashed in the great teeth. With a giant gulp, the avatar of Wophe swallows her whole, and she is utterly destroyed.

~ ~ ~

I awaken.

Cold and damp greet my skin and I pull my arms closer, shivering at the harshness of it. I look down and I am naked, hanging in endless darkness like a newborn in the womb; I pull my knees to my chest and wrap my long black hair around my neck for warmth. Reaching out into space, I long to touch something—anything—to feel the assurance of reality, of matter and gravity. I find nothing.

The only light comes from my skin, beating with the steady glow of a candle in time to my heart. I still my thoughts and wait. Is this life or Heaven or Nirvana or Araboth? Is this death or Hell or Naraka or Gehenna? It doesn’t matter. I am here, and that is the only truth in this place.

Years pass all in darkness. I drift in and out of sleep more times than I dare to count, yet I can somehow sense the ebb of time as Gaia cycles herself through the seasons of Death, Birth, Youth, and Age. Old gods are consumed by new and the world turns, one atom at a time.

A presence awakens beside me.

I turn to it, and it turns to me. It has not form nor essence nor soul. But those on the planes of my old life knew it, as do I now. This is the Dweller on the Threshold.

It waits for me to act, I know. It wants to use my weakness against me, but I must not show it weakness. I must overcome its challenge, lest I be trapped here. Forever.

[ Expose an Attribute to the Dweller. ]

Player:

I lock my gaze on the presence of the Dweller, unwilling to show my own fear, even here, naked, floating in the emptiness of the metaplanes. I already know what my response to its unspoken challenge must be. I close my eyes, confronting the dizzying kaleidoscope which comes with introspection during astral projection. I calm the madness through force of will alone, smoothing the cacophony of sensation until it is clear I am in control. I tap into my intellect, unlocking the tiny box which holds all of my cunning, my intuition, my understanding. It blossoms out from my skull in oscillating patterns of violet and crimson, first a blooming rose, then a spider’s web, splitting and intertwining with purpose until it resembles a knitter’s crochet dyed with wine.

I open my eyes back onto whatever world I have entered, fixing the Dweller on the Threshold with my attention, my chosen aspect billowing about to cloak me with its knowing, like the shawl of a spinster on a windy day.

[ Moonclaw exposes her Intelligence to the Dweller. ]

Gamemaster:

The Dweller sighs, Aaaahhhhh, as if being immersed in a cleansing bath. It wriggles and struggles and pops into being beside me, a single mote of white light next to the looming, colorful nexus of my inner mind. It hesitates, vibrating in the air for a second before growing in size, until it is a ball the size of my fist. There are smaller lights within, swimming just under the surface like a school of fish, pushing at the shape from the inside. A darker line grows down the middle of the Dweller, and it elongates into the size of a football before growing tiny crevasses and striations along its surface. Next it resolves into a brain, and a shortened brainstem and cerebellum emerge from the underside of it, squirming with their own power.
I am drawn in by the wonder and natural beauty of this otherworldly being, until eight evil black eyes open along the frontal lobe, staring back at me with alien malice. Eight glistening black spider’s legs sprout from the underside of it, and fangs glow with red venom in a mouth lined with tearing, horrible teeth. The grotesque legs grab at the web of my mind and it begins climbing rapidly down the delicate strands, each turning black and rotting away where the Dweller touches them.
I can feel my thoughts unraveling, and I instinctively take flight, now able to flee on unseen wings from the terror behind me. My intelligence flaps behind me like a cape, surrounding us both, but the vile thing holds on, inching closer with each moment. The pain of it is immense, and I pause in my flight, some part of me realizing that I must face this challenge head-on; I turn and there it is, looming before me, so close I can see the ichor pumping in the knuckled limbs and taste the hunger with which it pursues me.
Gathering my mind in my hands, I cast it as a net around the monstrous brain, and draw it tight, retching at the thought of enveloping such a thing in so intimate an embrace. I squeeze, and squeeze, and the awful legs writhe and claw at my breasts and stomach, gouging me, and I squeeze harder still…
With a sickening crunch, the brain collapses and the legs cease their scrabbling, and the blackness which surrounds me collapses in on itself. Where it was, it pulls into shape the reality I had so longed for in my time here, bringing with it air, gravity, light and warmth.
[ I gain 2 dice to my karma pool for use during this astral quest. ]

View
Act III: Gevurah - Scene VII
The Next Step

Gamemaster:

Assembled once again after that morning’s botched run, the trio of mercenaries wends their way South by Southwest, back toward Crusher’s hideout in Cook County. Boxcar sings to them along the way, gentle beeps and hums issuing forth from the dashboard every now and then. Each of them is absorbed with the thoughts of their day, how narrowly they escaped death and how many men they had sent to their graves. Moonclaw in particular is absorbed in thought; now that they have returned to the quest at hand, she muses at the origins of the powers of the black-clad swordsman, and tries to keep the thought of zombies’ grasping arms at bay.

Crusher’s wound has scabbed and crusted over, but it still hurts him powerfully, and he knows it will take weeks to completely heal. With luck, they can keep their heads down long enough for that to happen; in the meantime he should get some rest or see a doctor. He fingers the spoon on one of his new incendiary grenades, beige pineapples marked with bright orange tips, and tries not to think about it. The last rays of setting sun peek through his armored passenger window, around the corners of his sunglasses, and he pulls down the brim of his hat to keep them out. Nighttime will fall shortly.

Ling Fei glides her much-loved Boxcar slowly down an exit ramp and onto the Tri-State Tollway. Her beauty has taken quite a beating; there are 9mm bullet marks everywhere on the armor and chips at the glass, and the finger-sized hole from the street samurai’s APDS round still hovers in the middle of the windshield. Funny, she thinks, it seems as if years have passed since that first run with her new partners. She knows she has grown into her role in the team, and reflects proudly on her daring escape from the tunnel system. The life of a shadowrunner… she didn’t think it would suit her at first, but she is becoming more comfortable with the thought.

The hideout crawls slowly towards them on its corner of the neighborhood, and they can see that the other teams have not showed yet. That’s to be expected; the meeting was set for midnight, so they park Boxcar as close to the building as possible, jimmy open the heavy steel door to Crusher’s hideout, and wait for the first arrivals.

They aren’t waiting long; a gentle knock sounds a few hours after sundown, and Moonclaw opens the door a crack, pistol in hand. A sharp goatee and a pair of rounded, black lenses stare back at her, and she steps aside to admit Aleister Crowley and Grendel. The magician discards his armored black trenchcoat on a chair and goes to the sink in the corner to drink a glass of water. Grendel stoops under the door frame and thunders down on the hard floor, easing his massive weight around a set of fresh white bandages running up the vertical slash wound on his left side. He grunts through his tusks and his primitive yellow eyes take in the room as if for the first time.

Aleister wipes beads of water out of his moustache hairs and looks around at all of them. “Well, everyone, we’ve found Mr. Johnson. But we don’t like where he is.”

He sits on his coat and tells the tale of their day: after leaving the safehouse that morning, he and Grendel journeyed to Cook county hospital, to have the troll’s wounds examined. As they were arriving in the emergency room, the remnants of their morning’s handiwork came pouring in: black-clad Wuxing hired guns were being shipped en masse from the site of the ambush, and they stopped for a moment to listen in to their comm-chatter and conversation. As it happened, they learned very little until managing to isolate one man in a stairwell, where he quickly was compelled to speak the truth.

He told them that Wuxing corporation has been identifying any and everyone who has had contact with a project codenamed ‘Culexus’, Aleister explains. This led Wuxing to their mutual employer, Mr. Johnson, and from there to he and Grendel. The Wuxing soldier also said that the plan was always to leak knowledge of the project, in an attempt to bait groups of mercenaries eager to steal it. Why the company would want to do that, the man didn’t know; furthermore, he had only offhand knowledge of the adept in black. They had only been briefed on the target that morning, but they were told it was of the utmost importance to bring him in alive, and that he was dangerous.

After disposing of the man in the stairs, they got Grendel stitched and bandaged, and then discretely followed the last of the Wuxing corporate cars through the city, to the corporate headquarters in what was once the Old Republic Building on N. Michigan avenue. He and Grendel staked out a bar nearby, and Aleister projected his astral form into the Wuxing HQ, which turned out to be surprisingly lightly defended against astral intrusion. Other than the ground floor and the C-level exec’s floors near the top of the building, the building was devoid of astral barriers and warding, so he simply floated throughout the rooms, investigating each floor systematically. He had almost given up hope of finding anything of use when he simply stumbled upon Mr. Johnson, in a locked holding room high above street level, but below the warded executive offices. He was alone, but there were cameras watching, so Aleister manifested himself, instructing his boss not to move or speak, lest the electric eyes suspect something amiss. He told him that they would try to rescue him or negotiate his release, and told him of Crusher’s team’s involvement, too. He seemed pleased at that, and that is how Aleister left him.

The torturer finishes recounting his tale and sips again at his water. “Well, companions, what say you? Will you help us free Mr. Johnson? It may be that there is valuable information stored inside that place, information which may lead us to the origin of the Culexus power, or to the assassin the corporation hunts.”
____________________________________________________________________________________

The world spins, and the three runners LEVEL UP!

Crusher: +31 (12/19), +2 Karma Pool
64 (26/38) Cumulative

Bitter Enmity – 5 Black
Gained a Nemesis.

Botched the Job – 1 Black
Didn’t save the decoy prime minister.

More Than a Stat Sheet – 3 White
Made a successful Knowledge Skill test.

Etiquette Apprentice – 1 White
Made a successful Etiquette(4) test

Now See Here, Mr. Oswald- 4 Black
For engaging an assassin in close combat

Ghostride The Whip – 4 Black
Stop a vehicle by shooting the driver.

Lead Role – 3 White
Awarded to the character the GM thought had the largest role in the story.

The Long Haul – 5 White, 5 Black
Characters had their second birthdays – 8/24/2011
This karmic achievment causes your Karma pool to refresh. You may also immediately spend karma to raise one attribute by one point, without undergoing training.

Ling Fei: +30 (19/11), +1 Karma Pool
52 (41/11) Cumulative

Bitter Enmity – 5 Black
Gained a Nemesis.

Botched the Job – 1 Black
Didn’t save the decoy prime minister.

When In Doubt, Know Your Way Out – 5 White
For escaping from the ambush at East Randolph.

Charisma is More Than a Pretty Face – 2 White
Made a successful negotiations(5) test.

Doctor’s In – 5 White
Successfully used biotech(first aid) specialization to stabilize a person suffering a Deadly wound.

Networking – 2 White
Gained a new contact.

The Long Haul – 5 White, 5 Black
Characters had their second birthdays – 8/24/2011
This karmic achievment causes your Karma pool to refresh. You may also immediately spend karma to raise one attribute by one point, without undergoing training.

Moonclaw: +40 (15/25), +3 Karma Pool
70 (23/47) Cumulative

Bitter Enmity – 5 Black
Gained a Nemesis.

Botched the Job – 1 Black
Didn’t save the decoy prime minister.

Glass Walker – 4 White
Made contact with the Glass Walker spirit cabal. Astral quests can now be undertaken to gain their favor.
This karmic achievement gives +1 to conjuring urban domain spirits while near large quantities of glass.

With Friends Like These – 7 Black
Stole valuables from a contact.

Paying Off St. Paul – 4 White
Paid for a friend’s convalescence.

Astral Activist – 2 White
For releasing a fettered spirit from bondage.

Keep Your Contacts Close – 2 White
Visited two contacts.

Turn Undead – 3 White
Send the dead back to their graves.

Daddy’s Girl – 2 White
Awarded to the character the GM liked the most.

The Long Haul – 5 White, 5 Black
Characters had their second birthdays – 8/24/2011
This karmic achievment causes your Karma pool to refresh. You may also immediately spend karma to raise one attribute by one point, without undergoing training.

Player:

Crusher settles into a folding chair by the table, its hinges squealing in protest. Despite the dull pain in his chest, he was feeling better, fit, hard, as if he had somehow regained the indestructible quality of his youth. Maybe it was his nap in the car and the dream of his days on the gridiron which had reminded him of the man he was. Or perhaps it was the eldritch touch of the dragon’s breath which drove his body onward in the face of death.

The mercenary rubs at a tusk while Aleister speaks. His eyes narrow as the mage finishes, the deep creases in his ebony skin juxtaposed by the inert blankness of his cybereyes. “Listen Al, no hard feelings, but we don’t exactly have close ties with your Johnson. Sure, us here have been through shit—we spilled blood together, had each other’s backs, an’ for that I see you as brothers. But this guy, he’s just another suit—dude wouldn’t rescue us if we was being held hostage by a megacorp, so why should we risk our lives to help him?” The ork sweeps his hand in front of him to emphasize his last point, inadvertently batting a dirty mug from the table.

Ling Fei’s hand darts out to catch the cup before it hits the floor. She looks at it, surprised with herself. She had been feeling as though all this time spent jacked in was conditioning her to react with newfound deftness, to understand the world in smaller and smaller slices of time. Maybe it was all in her head, but she felt sharper, more focused.

As usual, she found herself to be the voice of compassion, always urging her partners to do the right thing. “But think about it Crusher, what other way forward do we have? Rescuing the Johnson would put him in our debt, and we could use more friends these days. All of the information we dug up ourselves points to Wuxing, and now we have a reason to go after them. This is our chance to take the offensive, instead of just waiting around for some new disaster to fall on us.”

Moonclaw leans against the far wall, her arms neatly crossed over her chest. She had learned so much in the past weeks, made new discoveries about the world which had for so long been hidden. Yet this small sampling of knowledge had only whetted her appetite for new secrets. She wanted, needed, to learn everything there was to know about this new power. Although the Johnson was of little interest to her, convincing these people to rescue him would make it easier for her to gain access to the Culexus chip. “For once I agree with the elf. Saving this man might just be the key to survival against our enemy’s advances.”

Crusher looks at the two women, surprise showing on his face. “Both of you actually agree on this, huh? I guess I can see that, could be a good to have a man with connections on our team, and we might learn a thing or two about what Wuxing and this pajama motherfucker are up to. Let’s wait to see if any of the other ‘runner teams show tonight. Could be one of them found some dirt, or maybe we can convince them to pull Mr. Johnson’s ass out of the fire with us.”

[Crusher’s BOD increases to 9, Ling Fei’s QUI to 6, and Moonclaw’s INT to 6 as a result of the Long Haul achievement.]

Gamemaster:

The group exchanges old stories until midnight, of runs and wars, old comrades and new; even Grendel chuckles at times, the first signs that he really is aware of what is going on around him. When questioned, Aleister is loathe to admit much more information than necessary about Mr. Johnson, only that he’s been in the business a long time. “It’s not for me to decide what you must know about him,” the middle-aged man says.

Around the appointed hour, there is another rap at the entryway, this one a heavy gong of cybersteel on the metal door. This time, Aleister draws his snub-nosed Colt Manhunter, thumbs the safety, and peeks around the crack of the door. He swings the heavy frame open to admit five new guests: Hulder, Jets and Molly, the remaining members of the Sundowners, and Charlie and Bakcha from the Spiders. The door bangs shut and Crowley slams the bolt into place, then turns to greet the newcomers.

Hulder sits down heavily on the flattened mattress in one corner of the room, resting his great cyberarms on his meat legs and cradling his own sword wound, a lateral gash across his stomach which would have disemboweled a lesser metahuman. The wound is plugged by a flesh-colored antibacterial foam, but it still looks painful as hell. The others are unharmed, except for Bakcha’s nose, broken when the assassin mule-kicked him in the face. The hardened ork hardly seems to notice, though it does make his speech sound a little nasal.

The Spiders take up spots on either side of the door, leaning against the wall, arms crossed across their chests. Molly sits in one of the cheap chairs backwards, slumped over the backrest but never truly relaxed; her nerves are wired, and she seems tensed to leap up at any moment. Her handrazors flick in and out reflexively.

Jets curls her cute body up next to Hulder and looks over him worriedly. The troll starts his tale of the day.

“Good to see everybody is still alive. Crusher ‘n crew, we picked up the Spiders here off some street corner on the way here. Says Blitz wishes he could attend our little ronday-vooz, but he’s busy leakin’ body juice so they left him with the rest of their gang.”

Charlie cuts in. “Don’t get it twisted, chummer. We wouldn’t be here either, except the boss wanted retributions for what they did to our blood brother. The Spiders’re gonna pay that assassin sonofabitch back in kind. Find his kin, and fuck ’em to hell and back.”

Hulder continues, “Right, well, you may get yer chance yet. Remember how I was telling ya about that job I ran out in the Tir? After I got patched up, we holed out in a safehouse and I made some calls to some of the guys who ran that job with me. One thing leads to another’n we manage to get hold of some of the suits that were actually there that day the assassin came at ’em. Lucky thing we had Jets here—” he gooses the little elf’s shoulder affectionately, “—her Sperethiel isn’t great but it’s a sight better’n mine or Molly’s, so she gets to talking. Askin’ about where someone might go to learn what that assassin learned. Of course, none of them knew, but they gave us all kinds of contacts over in Elf-land for private security goons. Apparently there’s been a slew of assassinations recently by little assault-guys packin’ swords and masks, leaving their mark on a bunch of high-ups in foreign interests inside the Tir. Don’t target the elves directly, mind you, but it’s gotten so bad that it’s affecting business. And one thing a corp motherfucker don’t like is his business being affected.”

He shifts a bit on the mattress, “We truck the security contacts over to Hackworth’s brother. We gave him his bro’s deck and told ‘im the story. He was real sad, but one part of him must’ve said goodbye a long time ago, ‘cuz he took it in stride pretty well. No hard feelings there, so I ask him a favor, and he starts to dig up all kinds of spook-level shit on these security companies. Like he was readin’ the damn paper over coffee, this guy was blowing through IC like I never saw. Sure put his brother to shame.”

“Eventually, he reaches a freakin’ Otaku out in Tir Tairngire been following these companies as well. A real, live Otaku, and this guy is sitting there chatting like it’s the most natural thing in the world—I thought they were just a legend. Turns out this one is obsessed with old Asian mythology, and he’d done some digging of his own after hearing that real ninja were coming back. Traced their activity to an elven Shinto temple in the mountains near Serentaneyo, deep in the Tir. Said the place had a higher than usual birth-rate of elves, and Awakenings like you wouldn’t believe. But what really got this guy talking was rumors that they were training physical adepts there. Yep, religious, Bushido-ass physical adepts. Sound familiar?”

The troll lowers his hands, his tale done. Charlie looks at him and snorts incredulously. He shrugs his shoulders, “Look, I know it’s a long shot. Like, snowball’s chance in hell long. But I got a feeling about this tip, a good feeling. Enough of one that I want to fly out to the Tir and see this place for myself.”

Charlie starts to laugh in his face, but Bakcha silences her with a glare. “Look, chummer, we aren’t going to the fraggin’ end of the country looking for some monk-ass Jap elves. We got one right here in town! The Spiders are out in full force looking for info on this guy, and we could use all the help we can get. And for those of you with the proper gear—” he looks at Crusher, Hulder and Grendel “—might be there’s a spot in our leader’s good graces for you. Gang life don’t pay well, but they’ll keep your blade arm strong, a roof over your head and somebody’ll always have your back.”

Player:

Crusher strokes the day-old stubble on his wide jaw, considering the Spider’s offer. They were a serious bunch, this street gang, more street than any of the outfits he had ever run with before. Their red and black patterning reminded him of his blood red football helmet, the big red one of his unit. All dead or feeble with age, except him. It had been a long time since he had played on a team. The thought pleased him. “You know, I might just take you all up on that.” He cracks a smile. “I’m gonna need one of them big-ass swords first though. Wouldn’t fit in otherwise.”

Ling Fei slugs him playfully on the shoulder. “Yeah, decided you’re not gonna ‘run with us anymore, huh? How about we deal with the smokewalker first, then we can talk about what gangs you’re joining?” The elf turns to the orks by the door. “What do you uh, web-guys plan on doing to find this assassin?”

Moonclaw watches the more articulate troll as he tells his story, swept away in the scenery of her imagination. She had never been beyond the borders of Chicago, had barely known the domains of Nature other than the air spirits which came and went as they pleased.

She could feel her totem sniffing hesitantly at the thought, already in the uncontrollable throes of curiosity. “You, troll. If we ever finish this business before us, or, well, if you ever decide to travel to this Tir Tairngire, I will join you.”

Gamemaster:

Charlie mocks the naive rigger, imitating her feminine speech and mannerisms, “Oh, I don’t know, us ‘web-guys’ were just going to the mall, kick around the link clubs and get some BTL-heads to buy us booze. Get a grip, you slottin’ blond. This is street work. We’re gonna go out and start hurting folks, and see what the lowlifes in the Containment Zone have to say about killin’ people for money. Be surprised what kinds of runs get arranged in that place. But with that pretty skin o’ yours, you better be dosed to the gills with ZI* before even sniffin’ the petunias up there.”

Bakcha elaborates, “That’s the marching order for the low muscle we got, bladeless nobodys and street trash. The Grand Spinner has some real concerns about this, too; after hearing about ECM, he thinks Wuxing could threaten the black market chip-trade if it keeps up hits on major syndicates. It’s no big news the ’Massives were trading Kong-chips** and he thinks their destruction might rattle some of the bigger customers.”

He snorts painfully through his bloodied nose and hocks something deep in the back of his throat, before spitting it out on the floor. “At any rate, he can’t stand for some corp usin’ innocent gangers as bait for its fucking games. He’s getting together the Yaks, Eighty-Eights, Ancients and what’s left of ECM for a meetin’ of the heads. Gotta step wise around Vlad and Catherine, but he’s got the pull to make it happen. Me and the other swords are running security for the meetup site, could be you all could help with the recon. ‘Case you don’t know, all us Chi-gangs basically have bad blood, so getting the leads together isn’t a small deal. We gotta protect the Grand Spinner but also keep an eye on the other gangs, as well as watch for Lone Star, Terribles or Greats, or any ’runners or shitheads think they can make a name for themselves by taking out some big names.”

While listening to them, Moonclaw feels the presence of Cat in the back of her mind, nudging at her, trying to get her to remember something. The feeling fades as soon as she recognizes it.
______________________________________________________________________________
1* Zeta-Interferon, a modern antiviral shown to have some efficacy against the VITAS-1 plague.
2** A cheap form of one-shot BTL; SR3 p.317.

Player:

Crusher idly rubs his tusk with a metal thumb as the gangers weave their story. He eyes his two compatriots as Bakcha finishes. “I’m sorry girls, but I’m going with them. They’re talking about the hardest outfits in the city, and I’m not passin’ up on a chance to get good with them. They have what I need—muscle, power, connections. A second chance.” His mind leaps to Iran, to the endless expanses of burning sand. “’Sides, I never was one for the infiltration game.”

Ling Fei looks shocked. “Are you serious? You can’t split up the group—what good will one of us be without the others? Wuxing or the Tir would cut us down in days.”

“Well roll with me then, Ling.” Crusher retorts. “The hell do you owe that stinking suit anyway? I promise you, he ain’t our friend. I been through a dozen of those drek-eaters, they’re all the same.”

Ling Fei casts about for support. “What about Aleister and Grendel? He saved your life when we fought the ECM.”

Crusher slams his clenched fist onto the table, cracking the flimsy plasboard. “That fucker was good as dead, he just didn’t know it yet. No offense boys, but I don’t owe you two nothing. It’s just business, you all have been in the game long enough to know that. I’m riding with the Spiders, Ling. You two can come or go. I know I ain’t risking my life for some pink-skinned Johnson.”

Ling Fei looks cautiously to Moonclaw, suddenly unsure of herself, torn between the safety of her team and the pull of duty. She could feel the eyes of the assembled runners watching them.

The shaman tugs thoughtfully at a length of her braided hair, lost in her own thoughts. With the hermetic lay the possibility of great reward and a chance at the secrets of Wuxing’s binding chip. But to break into a megacorp’s own building and extract a man, alive? And with these two as my support? She regarded the dark orbs of the mage’s glasses and his troll’s wheezing bulk with insurmountable doubt.

Crusher and the elf were a more dependable team, that much Moonclaw knew. And the ork had a point—if at least half of the gangs she recognized were to join forces, it would mean power indeed. Her mind wandered to the abandoned trainyard she had explored that afternoon; if there had been even one more ghoul, she would most likely be dead. In the end, Moonclaw preferred having something large to put between herself and danger. “Okay, ork. I will walk the shadows with you.”

Ling Fei struggles with the decision, but for her it is all but made. “I’m sorry, really,” she apologizes to Aleister and Grendel. “I have to go with them. Please let us know if you are in danger.”

Crusher smiles and jerks his head at the gangers. “Charlie, Bakcha, time to put us to work. What can we do for the Grand Spinner?”

Gamemaster:

“Good to hear it, ork.” Charlie spits between her tusks. “But ain’t our place to give out the assignments. And sure as hell ‘as yer not gonna see the GS hisself. Only us swords get in to see him, and that’s on a need-to-know. And you sure as shit don’t need to know.”

“She’s right,” Bakcha intones. “He’s just as guarded as any Triad dragonhead or Mafia don. ‘Bout twice as secretive. They say there’s webs of the Spiders that don’t even know each other exist. Some of us bear the colors and some don’t. Ya never know with the Grand Spinner.”

He pushes off the wall with his back and the metal scabbard at his hip scrapes against the wall. “The meeting’s two nights from now. I’ll send ya the info once we got it squared and we don’t have these extra ears lyin’ about.”

Hulder seems nonplussed at Crusher’s decision not to help his team. “Suit yourselves. We won’t be leaving just yet, got to give our wounds some time to stitch up and find some replacements for the holes in our team. The Professor’s brother didn’t seem too keen to take up his position, so if you know any ‘netheads, point ’em our way. Maybe when I’m all better we can hop a Mistral over the T.T. lines together. Let me know.” He gives a pointed look at Moonclaw. Behind him, Jets shoots daggers at her through blaze-blue elven eyes.

He gets up to leave, but Molly stops him. “Wait. What about the squats that had our backs on the road out there? Nobody got their number, or we just figure they got merc’d on the way out?” The room is silent. Nobody had seen hide nor hair of the pair of dwarven riggers since earlier that morning. For shadowrunners, this usually only means one thing.

Player:

Ling Fei speaks up for the dwarves. “I wouldn’t write them off so easily—did you see some of their hardware? That anthroform had the biggest slug-thrower I’ve ever seen.”

Crusher scoffs at the suggestion. “Toy robots and UAVs are no match for a good rifle at your side. Who needs another set of neck-jackers, anyway? Uh, no offense, Ling,” he adds.

The mercenary stands to see the other runners out, clanging fists with the other orks. “Stay real, chummers. I’ll be expecting your call.”

He turns to Aleister and Grendel last. “Hope my reservations about your boss don’t affect our workin’ relationship. Let us know if shit gets too hot for you, we’ll come cool you off.”

Gamemaster:

Aleister isn’t angered or disappointed, just detached, as he always is. He simply nods, “Understood. The job will get done, one way or the other. Grendel and I lack the manpower to free him now, but perhaps there is another way. In the meantime, here is my contact ID.” He hands Crusher a small datasoft. “That is privileged information. It could be dangerous for the bearer if it ends up in the wrong hands.” He raises an eyebrow and leaves the way he came.

Grendel shifts his huge bulk with a groan and follows his handler out the door. Hulder also arises slowly, bracing his hands on his knees. “Here’s my info, too. You guys were pretty shit-hot back there on the escort, maybe we can help each other out sometime.” He looks to his two female companions, who get up and begin to leave, then he towers over Crusher to shake his hand. Their huge cyberarms smash together and the troll mercenary gives one last nod to the shadowrunners before leaving, hands resting on his giant knife and revolver.

[Aleister Crowley and Huldrekall Tusser become level 1 contacts.]

Player:

Crusher shrugs his shoulders under the weight of his heavy plate, the black chest-piece pressing painfully against his wound. He lets out a weary sigh, groaning with exhaustion. “About time I turned in. Ling Fei, can you give me a ride back to my apartment?”

The rigger gives him a worried look. “You’re going to risk staying at your home address? What if the bad guys decide it’s our turn to get a late-night visit?”

The mercenary waves her question off. “I have a feeling Wuxing and those daisy-eaters have bigger fish to fry after what went down today. We’re small change to them, just a couple local street Sams who got in the way. I mean, keep your gun nearby when you sleep and all, but really, you oughta be doing that anyway.”

The elf shakes her head. “I don’t know Crusher, this is a whole new. . thing we’re doing here. Not just running some dangerous errands for rich people; you’re talking about gangs and street war.”

Crusher shoulders his Ares Alpha. “Gangs rule the streets, Ling. Always have, always will. And Chi-town is nothing but street.” He leans in, trying to convince her. “You can handle it, I know you can. We rolled on some gangers already; this time won’t be any different. Moonclaw, you’re ready for this, right?”

The shaman leans against the far wall, slowly toying with a white ring between two fingers. “I am not afraid. And all you have to do is hide in your little shell and mind your drones. What difference does it make to you who we fight?”

Ling Fei rests a hand on her hip. “Alright, I’m in already, damn. Not like I have any choice. Let’s get out of here.”


Crusher wakes with a groan. He stretches, trying to work out the aches in his muscles, but gives up as his chest reminds him of his wounds with a fresh tinge of pain. Light streams in through the blinds, unusually bright. He fumbles for his watch on the bedside table. It was already 10:30—he hadn’t slept this late since he was forty-something.

The old ork hauls himself to his feet, taking on the day with the begrudging attitude of a man who has forgotten the meaning of well-rested. He shaves his face and head, showers away the grime of yesterday’s combat, and polishes his horns and tusks. He stares into the bathroom mirror for a long time, studying his own features, the history of his face. He runs his fingers over the warped patterns in the skin which surrounds his chest and neck where the dragon’s breath kissed him, then examines the hexagonal imprints of the ’wares on his cheek and neck, the cold spots where his flesh had been replaced with machine. He lingers at his horns, one a thick fang, the other a stump, taking in every nick and cut the saw blade had left across its uneven surface, like the trunk of a tree felled long ago. It reminded him of the depths of his loss, the curse of his orkhood. Shannel, the love they shared, the home they built. Their child. His son. But that life was finished, he had accepted that a long time ago. The man she had loved was gone, due in no small part to the loss of that love itself. Alfred was a name he only heard in dreams.

Crusher passes through his diminutive apartment, putting on Giant Steps before fixing himself a hasty breakfast of egg mix, toast, and sub-par synth-caf. He sits for a while after eating, swaying lazily to the music, lost again in thought. Coltrane spoke volumes to him in his old age which he had never understood as a young man.

The mercenary eventually gets to work, first changing the bandage on his chest and cleaning the wound thoroughly, thankful that the street shaman’s magic had largely stopped the bleeding. She was a useful one to have around, if you could get past her shit attitude. He then turns to his cybernetics, carefully cleaning the lenses of his eyes, the inner cowlings of his ear canals, and the joints of his arm and fingers with WD-40 and q-tips. He sets up the induction chargers on his batteries before settling into the lone chair in the center of his apartment to watch the trideo and waste away the afternoon. He falls asleep watching some stupid show about two hillbilly white guys driving around a Charger with a First Secession Era dixie flag painted on top.

He wakes for the second time that day to the early darkness of winter in the north, his rifle broken down and halfway cleaned in his lap. Restless, he decides to take a walk. He throws on his armored long coat, leaving the damaged vest behind, then switches out the explosive rounds in his Browning with regular .44s, holsters it, and slips another clip into his jacket pocket.

Crusher decides to travel directly downtown, to get a better feel for the central gangs, their signs and strength of arms. He boards an 87 bus and settles into the back seat, watching the denizens of Chicago jostle and struggle for position on the teeming streets, ever watchful for the tell-tale signs of gang life—shoes hanging from matrix wires, tags on looted store fronts, the occasional glimpse of chrome and ink amongst the huddles of young men bearing colors on the corners of their territory.

[Crusher is attempting to level his knowledge skill Gang Identification from 2 to 4 for 7 karma.]

Gamemaster:

It’s a quiet evening, and the painted lights of Chicago are flickering on, casting a neon cabaret show on the tragic streets. People flow in and out of the seats around him, and his silvered eyes watch behind dark sunglasses as the big electric GM bus swings North onto Halsted street to begin its trek towards downtown. The lights from the city wash out the last fading rays of sun, and become a new dawn.

He turns to look out the window, knowing that his neighborhood lies just south of some pretty hotly contested gangland. He can recognize the signs of East Coast Massive by now, scarce though they’ve become since having their headquarters destroyed a few blocks away. As the bus passes 71st and out of their territory, he sees a lone youth standing by a street corner wearing a yellow and black construction tape belt. The colors are subtle, but they’re there all the same, and the BTL burnouts on this street are having no trouble finding him to get their fix. The numbers on the street signs start to diminish, winding down through the 60’s, and Crusher knows that they’ve entered Englewood Ancients turf.

“The Ancients” is really a catchall term for a splintered and factious group of loosely collaborative elven gangs. The original Ancients were a Seattle elf go-gang made up of political outcasts from the Tir. They were primarily interested in supporting pro-elven political causes, whether that be political protest, terrorist bombings or assorted acts of pro-elf vandalism and mischief. The gang was almost wiped out after butting heads with the Seattle branch of the Humanis Policlub, and the original members were scattered throughout the NAN, UCAS and CAS. Now, the Ancients are united only by their adoption of a common symbol: a stylized, green and black circled anarchist’s A. Crusher looks outside to the street corners and sees the Englewood branch’s personalized logo: a circled green and black Æ.

Gang activity in the center of the territory is highly centralized around one street, maybe 58th or 57th. The gangers are in out-and-out full gear here: flying colors, displaying weapons, drinking, doing drugs and fighting. Crusher also notices the racial disparity: everyone here, without exception, is two things: black and elven. Tall, thinly muscled women with what appears to be severe hip dysplasia sit sensuously on top of ’yen-colored muscle cars. The men of the gang are either working out, drinking, or playing with weapons. Most of them are thick with muscle, but in that weird elven way which makes their limbs appear slim and long, despite their strength.

The green and black of the gang’s logo are everywhere, on clothing, buildings, vehicles and what rare cyberware there is. But Crusher also sees family here: little children run and play in some areas right along with the worst of the gangmembers. This must be inherited ground for the Englewood Ancients, and like any gang, tribe or society before, they will defend it staunchly. That’s also probably why they are making an unusual show of themselves: after all, even wearing the wrong sunglasses will get you killed in places.

The bus rattles down the road, away from the Englewood Ancients’ ground. South Halsted meanders North, through quasi-inhabited areas in which people have taken up residence in abandoned storefronts. The sandlots between every other building say more about the poverty here than the buildings, though: each is home to at least one group of the homeless, miserable around their trashcan fires. Nacho Snax™ wrappers blow and scatter at their feet.

Like a scene change in a movie, the outside landscape undergoes a sudden transformation, and the bums and dirt of Englewood are replaced by red lantern lights, bright neon signs, and the hustle and bustle of an Asian street market. Crusher’s bus passes slowly through South Chinatown, nestled into the crook of the I-90/55 junction, and the bus slows to a crawl. The streets here are packed with vendors selling their cheap plastic wares out of lean-to shacks on the side of buildings, and their customers, who ebb and flow with traffic like an oriental soup.

Looming over the packed streets, hexagonal storage units have been stacked into makeshift tenement homes, which rise to meet the underside of the highway above. Dim streetlights hang from the soaring concrete roof to provide light in the dim alleys formed by the improvised structures.

These shadows are where the real black markets begin; Crusher’s metal irises widen until the eyes are almost entirely black, and he pierces the dark with ease. Many asian men move through the alleyways with practiced movements ill-befitting the chaotic surroundings. Here, one slumps against a corner nonchalantly holding a cigarette, but never inhaling. There, another idly paces up and down the same streetcorner, his eyes locked on the crowd. The yellow bastards all look the same to Crusher—whose knowledge of East Asian physiology stops short of identifying nationality by sight—but what he can see is that they’re all wearing the same black business suits, custom fitted and surely armored, and have the same look of casual seriousness about them. Searching their bodies for weapons, his practiced eye spots heavy pistols swinging loosely in shoulder holsters.

One other thing unites them, and he spies it by chance when the bus revs its engines to break through the crowd. A bystander is pushed out of the street, dropping his plastic food as he stumbles towards the smoking man. Quick as a shot, the black jacket is open and his arm seizes the falling one, blowing him back into the crowded street with a flick of his wrist. Crusher’s thermal corneas catch the heatflash of a high-grade piece of cyberware burning through the tailored suit; the heat dissipates quickly, but he notices the same burning arm in the other suits. They must be powerful, since their men are arrayed about the streets in an obvious (to Crusher) show of force. As the bus moves away, he twists in his seat to get a final look, wondering where he can go to get some solid knowledge on these Yakuza, or Triads, or whoever they might be.

The rest of the ride is fairly uneventful. The bus turns around near 16th street, its route complete. On the way back, a pair of rowdy ork youths get on near the front of the bus, wearing black and red bandannas. Crusher wonders if they are a part of the spiders’ street presence, but keeps his thoughts to himself. The rattle and creak of the pleather seat underneath him irritates his old sit-bones, and he does his best to maintain situational awareness all the way home. Of course, nothing untoward happens—who in their right mind would rough up someone of Crusher’s stature, near 6 and a half feet of metal and muscle, wearing shades and some nasty battle wounds? His visage carries him safely through the night to his front door, where he can drop the facade and collapse into bed.

[Crusher’s Gang Identification skill increases to 4.]

Player:

Crusher spends the next day preparing his kit for the next run. Anyone carrying enough weight to spook the Spiders spooked him too—the mercenary wanted to be prepared for any enemy.

The ork begins with his new incendiary grenades, determined to get at least a little more comfortable with the new munitions in the short amount of time available. He wraps a half-dozen of the grenades with duct tape, taking care to secure their pins.

The old ork hops the local headed west, riding the few short stops to Dan Ryan park with the explosives in his pockets. He spends the afternoon lobbing the hand grenades at trees from various positions and distances. By the end of the day, he can nail the body of a tree more often than not from a decent distance. Maybe.

He stops at an Ammu-Nation on the way back to get some personal ablatives and a tube of ballistic glue for his chestpiece. He does a decent enough job closing the gouge and buttressing the seam with armor plates, but the vest was falling apart all the same. He would need to buy new armor soon.

The ex-marine turns his attention to his firearms next, breaking down each in turn and giving their components a thorough scouring and oiling. He takes special care with his Ares Alpha, carefully re-assembling each component and double-checking the smartlink output readings.

Crusher assesses his Ingram Valiant last, fitting the old leather harness to his large frame. The gyro-mount’s arm anchors at his left hip, its ball-and-joint support mimicking the movements of his left arm. He hefts the angular 50-cal by the top handle with his thick, heavily-muscled left arm, then connects his cyberarm to the rear pistol grip, racking the slide once for good measure with the remote link.

The mercenary does an odd dance around his tiny apartment, battling various targets with the LMG to test the system’s responsiveness, the ammo feed running from the bin on his back to the side of the weapon jangling as he moves. The gyro handles well, keeping the cannon steady in the air like the head of some mechanical bird. Let’s see Smokewalker dodge this.

But the harness presses awkwardly against his injured frame, awakening the ache in his chest. He stores it away in his army duffel, alongside some spare clips, grenades, and C4. He props his rifle in the hallway and staggers to bed, laying his brick-like pistol by his side. Every expensive thing I own is a gun, he chuckles to himself before falling asleep.


Ling Fei’s first night home is spent in a fitful sleep, every shadow of her room seeming to conceal a man dressed all in black. She sits Sparrow-2 on the coffee table in her living room covering the front door, and places a Nissan Doberman on sentry in the basement. She spends the night with her shotgun in the bed next to her.

The rigger rises early the next morning, anxious to get something done. She does a quick rundown on each of her charges, emptying out the hive of automatons stored in Boxcar’s depths to fill oil reservoirs, refill ammo hoppers, and charge batteries. She checks the aerial bots which have seen combat for signs of damage, but none of the Wuxing bullets seemed to have made it past the combat drones’ armor.

Ling Fei looks over Boxcar next, checking her levels and inspecting the underside for leaks. She feeds a fresh belt into the turret gun, patting the roof of the vehicle as if it were some giant pet beast.

Ling Fei logs onto her desktop computer to buy a UAV rocket training sim from a software pirate in some shady matrix den, then flashes it over to the VCR-interface box she bought from her fixer. Fell off a truck indeed. She spends the afternoon and all of the next day studying her craft. When she’s not slumped in a chair firing VR rockets from a MQ-16 Reaper at poorly-rendered tanks, Ling Fei is scrolling Baidu and the JSTOR node for articles about the latest advances in human interface tech and remote combat.

The rigger fires neurons she hasn’t used since grad school, delving through articles on group engagements, the captain’s chair versus jumping in, and a particularly illuminating thesis on kiting and stop-micro in drone-to-metahuman warfare. When she sleeps on the second night, her dreams are filled with thoughts of engagement patterns and overlapping fields of fire.

[Ling Fei is increasing her INT to 6, and training Launch Weapons (Rockets) to 2(3).]


Moonclaw drops through the skylight of her apartment and pulls the latch closed, pausing to listen for the lock to click into place before relaxing in the safe haven of her apartment. She hangs up her equipment and changes into a traditional Sioux dress, a light fabric woven with geometric patterns and streaming with tassels from the sleeves and waist. She curls up in a large leather chair and reflects on recent events. The shaman’s chest swells with pride as she remembers her triumphs in combat—the mighty glasswalker tossing about Wuxing thugs like they were playthings, the mangled corpse of the ghoul she had struck down with spell and bullet. She could not remember the last time she had faced her opponent in open combat, let alone a creature as fearsome as the ghoul, especially with the pack of zombies closing quickly behind it. Yet she had faced them all, and emerged victorious, unscathed even. The ork and the elf had been shot at, stabbed, their mechanical bodies riddled with enemy fire, yet where Moonclaw tread there was only death without reproach.

She felt as if she had passed some threshold, crossed the line between a mere Awakened thief and something more, a force in her own right, a shaman to be feared. Something within moved her to get up from the chair and enter the meditation room, a voice telling her it was time for the next step. The cat shaman listens, and obeys.

Moonclaw places her shamanic mask on the ebony statute in the corner of the room. The wooden fetish’s emerald eyes seem to make the feline figure come to life. She kneels opposite her deity, makes offerings of meat and incense to the White Buffalo, Wophe, and Cat in turn, then takes a pull of her ceremonial pipe before offering it as well to her idols, the embers still burning brightly.

She shifts onto the astral plane and bows until her forehead brushes the floor, then begins to pray.

O’ Tunkasila Wakantanka,
Ho naho tuwa mis tate el kin, naho mis!
Wophe, comet-rider, who taught us the tongue of spirits and the way of man!
Cat, deep are you secrets, quieter your steps!
Gaia, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world,
Hear me, naho mis!
I am small and weak—I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands supple to send the arrow true, my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my sister, but to fight my greatest enemy—myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and eyes unclouded,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

View
Act III: Gevurah - Scene VI
Feline Furlough

GM:

Moonclaw trudges along 87th, barely noticed by anyone; the streets are mostly abandoned here, probably because of the cold. Usually these metahume slums are lousy with invalids and burnouts, looking to make some quick yen however they can.

Eight blocks east takes her under the Gresham Metra, long since decommissioned by the Free City because, basically, it enables poor orks to get around and rob rich humans. The concrete roof running above 87th acknowledges that its time of service is past, and goes about the long process of decaying with dignified resignation. The shaman slips into the shadows on one end and emerges from the other after a short trek through darkness.

Another ten blocks brings her to the I-94 junction, a roaring artery of cars and trucks, so many cells in a giant urban circulatory system, carrying their payloads to whatever corporate organ requires them. The bridge over the highway is wide and bare. Nowhere to hide, no fencing along the sides, enabling juveniles to pelt the commuters below. She pauses, examining her surroundings, gauging the safety of the crossing before setting off again. It would be a serviceable ambush spot, but nobody has taken an interest in her for miles and the few homeless in the area seem to be preoccupied with their own problems: drugs, simsense burnout, hunger.

Row upon row of the same one story house greet her, going on for a thousand miles in every direction. Their similarity to each other really is incredible: the same brickwork, the same low, slanted roof, the same slapping screen door and shitty, dying lawn. Nobody is to be seen. Occasionally, a child’s bright playset breaks the monotony. The repetition puts her into a trance, and she meditatively places one foot in front of the other for what seems like hours, turning events of the morning over and over in her head. Her equipment starts to rub at her shoulders and body, and she shifts it uncomfortably.

Ten more blocks brings her to the Woodruff Metra. A sloped wall of dirt runs North-South here, supporting the still active Woodruff public rail transit, obviously deemed highbrow enough to remain in service. She must make it through this tunnel and then just a few blocks; the construction site is just South of 87th, near the disused rail lines between Dobson avenue and S. Greenwood. A furtive glance through the tunnel is enough to set her mind to paranoia again. This tunnel is longer and darker than that of Gresham; she should exercise caution during her crossing.

Player:

Moonclaw pauses a few feet from the entrance of the tunnel, reading herself for the dangerous crossing. Given the events of the day, the idea of entering into the murky shadow of the underpass seemed. . . somehow more dangerous.

It was an auspicious day already. She had no doubt the smoke-walker was still alive, prowling to strike again somewhere in the city. She only wondered which heads he would claim next.

Not wanting to take any chances, the street shaman readies her pistol, letting it sit free in its hip holster. She drops her smartgoggles and toggles the thermographics, the eyepieces humming with the strain of amplification.

Starting in, she sticks discreetly to the far wall, her senses tensed for movement.

GM:

Her progress along the underground passage is slow, at first, as her eyes become adjusted to the modified light coming in from her goggles. The first thing she notices is a pair of bright shapes on the opposite side of the tunnel from her. It turns out to be two homeless people sleeping off last night’s BTL run. Relieved, she continues, keeping close to her side of the walkway.

The way ahead looks clear: nothing on the scope but the grainy, washed-grey absence of the heat of life. She picks up her pace and starts to make good time. Around the midway point in the tunnel, her foot hits a stick lying across her path, and she stumbles. Regaining her footing, she looks back; the cold stick blends almost perfectly with the surrounding concrete, making it impossible to see on the ’therms. It protrudes from a small service alcove carved into the sidewall. Inside it, a grey metal fusebox is locked with a tiny padlock. Under that, a small bag or cloth backpack shifts, the stick somehow attached to the base of it…

She realizes after a moment that she is looking at the remains of a body, and retches inwardly. The flesh is so far decayed that there are bones and ribs visible through the thin clothing. She doesn’t notice anything else strange about it, other than the fact that it is a corpse on a public thoroughfare, seemingly having been left here long enough to rot away to almost nothing.

Player:

Unable to overcome her curious nature, the shaman stops to inspect the gruesome pile. She takes a step back to get away from the overpowering smell, then gives the remains a prod with the tip of her composite bow to see if it might be concealing something more interesting.

GM:

She retches on instinct—then stops, noticing something curious. Despite the state of the corpse, there doesn’t seem to be a strong stench of death. There is a stale odor in the air, but nothing like what she would have expected from being able to peer inside something’s body cavity.

Player:

She cautiously tests the air again, puzzled. Even if the body had been dumped here, it would still reek strongly. Put on edge by the discrepancy, Moonclaw withdraws her bow and keeps her distance, suddenly suspicious. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply, letting her senses drift across the metaplanar divide. Looking now upon the astral realm, the shaman carefully inspects the alcove and its occupant for signs of magic.

GM:

Astral motes rise up around her like little lamplights, bathing the dead concrete around her in a weird, offcolor hue. The lights play against the body before her, and it glows in her sight: this is a dual-natured being, a physical shell inhabited by a spirit. The body itself was of a caucasian human in his late twenties or early thirties, although the thin skin around the eyes and jaw has tightened and ripped, destroying the once-human face. It wears tatters of clothing, and scraps of its own flesh contain internal organs gone cloudy with suppuration.

With a shift of joints dry as the wind, and a dusty rasp, the old bones wake themselves, and the eyes open, unseeing. The creature lifts itself up and the arms pinwheel slowly, reaching out for a grasp of warm, life-giving flesh.

Player:

Moonclaw gasps, stumbling backwards at the sight of the abomination. She lashes out reflexively with the weapon in her hands, aiming a desperate two-handed swing at the corpse’s head with the length of her bow.

GM:

She bats back at the thing’s questing arms, shattering one along the exposed length of the ulna. It slouches to the side, efforts temporarily defeated, and almost appears to give up the chase altogether. When it starts to raise itself onto its other arm she bashes it back down to the ground with her bow, swinging mightily into its soft, decayed belly.

Grave dust whispers out of its mouth as it whispers a desultory sigh, merely putrid air escaping its lungs as the body moves. It appears quite broken but is still capable of some movement. It writhes slowly on the ground in front of the shaman.

Player:

Emboldened by her physical supremacy over the beast, Moonclaw pins the undead creature to the concrete with the tip of her bow, keeping it out of arm’s reach. She collects her willpower about her as if it were a shawl, then sends it jabbing like a spear into the heart of the spirit. “Where do you come from, corpse-dweller? What brought you here?” The street shaman commands as she drives her attack home.

GM:

She flays the captive spirit with the strength of her personality, and it recoils in its shell, writhing in pain. Its astral arm tries to lash out at her, feebly, but cannot, nor does it appear to respond to her spoken demands. Either the spirit was too wild or powerful to be tamed and taught language, or its time trapped in this decaying prison has arrested it of its higher faculties. The corpse squirms under her bowpoint.

Player:

Moonclaw frowns, her initial efforts fruitless. She leans her weight against the bow, watching the thing struggle on the ground with mild enjoyment. The being’s dual nature meant that she could examine its astral signature at her leisure, so long as the meat body was controlled.

The street shaman bends in closer, determined to glean some meaning from the zombie’s existence. Taking her time, she assenses the hapless spirit again, searching for some similarity between it and the anti-magic Culexus technology which seemed to be the source of all her recent troubles.

GM:

There isn’t a thing that the zombie and the knowsoft have in common, in fact, it is their differences which more ably define them. The Culexus work had been done to an inanimate object; by contrast, binding a spirit to a living thing—even a formerly living thing—is much more simple, the magic behind it more understood. A corpse already has the blueprints and circuitry for maintaining essence, and she cringes to think of the experiments that were done to replicate this behavior in a plastic and metal machine.

Additionally, the spirit inhabiting the Culexus knowsoft was a ravenous, powerful worm. Parasitic creatures in the astral plane are not mere pests or nuisances like mosquitoes or leeches; they are ruthless killers who bleed their victim’s souls away, and that one was a powerful specimen indeed—bred (or engineered?) to be a mage-killer. By contrast, the spirit inhabiting this run-down body is a simpering, pitiable thing. It is probably a lesser city spirit or a corpselight, caught skulking around the shadows of the astral plane and forced into this prison. Now the enchantments that bind it here are causing its force to bleed out, and it must consume the essence of others to survive.

Moonclaw takes note of the astral signature used to create the binding between spirit and host. She would recognize it if she saw it again.

Player:

The cat shaman stands upright now, looking down at the pitiable spirit with mixed emotion. It was unlikely this wisp of a being deserved to be so entombed, beyond the mere crime of being vulnerable to whatever voodoo spell had made it this way. It was not unlike discovering a rat caught in someone else’s trap. Another example of man’s twisted ways corrupting the natural world.

In a rare moment of benevolence, perhaps tempered by greater curiosity, Moonclaw decides to free the spirit from its binding. She leans in close, giving the zombie a firm warning jab with her bow, then places her free hand upon its forehead, palm first, then bearing down with her fingers, their astral presence becoming claw-like as she digs into the meat of the spirit in order to wrench it from its cage.

GM:

The conjuration magic holding the spirit to the body is strong, and the casting thorough and complete. The zombie may have left its master’s side, or been discarded, but the magical bond has been sustained by the essence consumed by the corpse. The original conjurer still has control over this construct, but Moonclaw could feel his or her hold slipping—the bond isn’t that strong. One more attempt at banishing might be enough to free the spirit into her own custody.

Player:

The street shaman’s astral aspect shifts as she draws strength from her totem, her hands becoming dark paws terminating in silvered claws as her eyes flash emerald set with black diamonds. Redoubling her efforts, Moonclaw takes a fresh grip on the spirit’s form, raking her free hand through the sorcerous binds that keep the spirit caged.

GM:

She reaches down and can feel the life force of the little spirit beating in the heart of the body. Plucking apart the magical fetters keeping the thing chained, she frees it from its prison, and it happily gathers its lost energy about, replenishing itself with the energies of the astral world.

In the meatrealm, the zombie goes slack, and becomes just another pile of putrid, decaying flesh. The stink already grows more noticeable, and the limp finger bones bounce and skitter on the ground as they lose their life essence a second time.

The little spirit bobs and floats in front of her. In exchange for its freedom, it has taken a karmic debt, and is now beholden to Moonclaw for one service. She can feel it tensing and braying, eager to get out from under a magician’s thumb, more eager still to hunt down its imprisoner.

Player:

“Free at last, little one?” The shaman stands to her full height, stretching her arms above her head to work out the ache of the astral exertion. “Cat tells me such encounters arise from the blessing of Wohpe.” She eyes the spirit warily, gauging its response. “She brought mediation to the Lakota and the spirit world. It is said that someday she may bring the same to the realm of man, when the Falling Star heralds the return of our people.”

Moonclaw collapses the arms of her pull bow, flipping it back into its sheath with ease. “Or so it is said.” She turns to continue on her way beneath the bridge. “As for your debt, you may resolve it by telling me of how you came to be so entombed.” She adjusts the hang of the pistol at her hip. “Preferably while I walk.”

GM:

The spirit chirrups to itself quietly, and then feeds Moonclaw a few quick images and feelings, a short emotional trideo show which plays out in her mind’s eye.

A dark figure shimmers through the fog of memory, a man with the white V of a business suit blazing across his chest. He gestures to one side, and the view shifts, showing a dark body lying on a table, surrounded by a team of shadows.

The body amongst them is a corpse. One of the shadows turns and calls out Moonclaw’s name, and the words seem to reach out through astral space, gripping her by the heart and pulling her across time and space. The shadow grows closer, and as she comes within arms reach, a magical word seizes her and lifts her over the cadaver.

The dead man’s head rolls to one side, lifelessly. There is a stirring in the lips, and then the eyes snap open and the mouth opens wide, and she is plunging into it headfirst, sliding into the freezing cold clutches of the mortal skin.

Now trapped within the decaying remains, her lifeforce rails against the walls of her prison, racing up and down, up and down, wearing itself thin in an attempt to escape. The man with the white V speaks a moment with the men ringing the body, then the walls of memory collapse into smoke.

The visions end abruptly, and Moonclaw feels the presence of the spirit within her retreating. Her mind reels for a second, getting a foothold on a more rational perspective of the world. The message from the tiny astral denizen was not very clear, the thoughts and emotions not well developed. This is the difficulty with communing within the ether realm; only the most powerful spirits know how to convey their thoughts in a controlled manner, while the lesser ones exhibit a firehose of consciousness that the human psyche has difficulty perceiving.

She presses on, but the white-hot V of the business suit still lingers, fiery, in her mind’s eye.

Player:

The street shaman shifts her perception back to the material plane, trying to shake the unsettling memories. Her eyes swim with the colors of the visible spectrum, her mind once again seeing the gradated blue of the Chicago sky, the cut of a shadow across the sidewalk, yet the images persist, the terror of the man’s suit, the sinking feeling of entombment.

She continues on, sifting deeper into her memories to take her mind away from the present. She thinks first of the Lakota myths she had described to the spirit in exchange for its own story. She had learned them as a child, sitting cross-legged in communion with her totem. As she sat in a trance, Cat would show her how Wophe had come down in the form of a comet to teach the Lakota the ways of peace, to pass the pipe and unite first the Lakota and Dakota as the great Sioux nation, and then to bring into harmony the Comanche, the Navaho, Cheyenne, Chippewa, and Apache. How Wophe, heralded by a white buffalo calf, had taught the Sioux to call upon the spirits, to conjure them and seek their council. She remembers being told as a child that Wophe would return again upon a comet, to bring unity to the new world, as she had brought unity to her people and to the spirit world.

Yet in the light of recent events, she was beginning to doubt that this was the whole story. There was too much left unexplained, too much that the prophesy of Running Water had left untold. Images flashed in her mind, memories she had stored away for further inspection. There was the Wuxing megacorp, able to bind toxic spirits to circuitry in a way she had not thought possible. And then there was the blood magic, practiced by the elves of Tir Tairngire right here in her city. And the smoke-walker, more dangerous than all of their enemies combined. And now zombies, roaming freely on the streets of Chicago.

And Mesay, she had almost forgotten her last encounter with him. The Semitic diagram of ten drawn on his ceiling, ‘Ein Sof’ splashed in blood. What had that meant? The Endless One, an existence prior to Gaia, yet another anomaly unaccounted for by the Lakota. To meet with it was to cast out what was human, he had said. And now he was nearly dead, attacked by yet another thing she did not understand.

Moonclaw clutches at the sachel of foci she had taken from his shop, taking some small comfort in their energies. Her run-in with the zombie confirmed what she already felt to be true—she desperately needed the guidance of her totem. The cat shaman quickens her pace, anxious to collect the proper materials and begin the construction of her lodge.

GM:

Moonclaw thinks that the lodge materials she needs are in the construction site to her South, immediately after the tunnel. She will need to gather at least one kilogram of construction materials, more if possible, and the more lived-in the materials were, the better. She should be on the lookout for the ruins of old public places or places of gathering; private residences will not do, as these are the domains of the hearth spirits.

The urban environment and the spirits that dwell within it team with life, but it is not the life which occurs naturally in powerful places of nature like the Amazon, the Marianas Trench or the Western NAN deserts. Urban spirits distill their power from the concentration of humanity around them, a phenomenon which is not fully understood, and likely never will be. Nevertheless, the resonance of millions of people living together draws otherworldly beings like moths to porchlight, and their presence in turn shapes the ebb and flow of mana around the cities of the world, creating a feedback of life energy which draws yet more spirits. Luckily, most places in the UCAS are still positive, growing and hopeful places. In darker corners of the world, places where hope and faith have fled, concentrations of urban mana can be a very dangerous thing indeed.

She breaks free of the haunted shadows and onto the open road once again. Passing the intersection of 87th and Dobson, she skirts around a bum and continues on to her destination, S. Greenwood avenue. If her memory is correct, there is an old trainyard here which may provide her with the materials she needs.

Player:

Moonclaw turns down Greenwood, following the vague memories of a lifetime spent prowling the city streets. The haggard row of trees to her right seems familiar, their bare forms outlined despondently against the afternoon sky. Another block or so brings her to the entrance of the trainyard, just how she remembered it.

The cat shaman steps casually into the shade of a nearby oak, leans against a lamppost, and surveys the entrance for signs of surveillance and a means of ingress.

GM:

The compound is surrounded by an eight foot tall fence, topped with barbed wire. The wire, and the fence, have rusted and decayed away in some places, which makes the place defenseless against the legions of invalids and homeless which besiege it nightly. This morning, the rabble are out elsewhere, getting food, or drugs, or dying the deaths of lonely men. One such opening in the fence is close to Moonclaw, on the right of the main entrance where the fence takes a ninety degree turn and heads towards the back of the installation.

To her left is the main entrance, wide enough for two large vehicles to pass each other unimpeded. Arching over it is the large metal outline of a gate; perhaps it once played host to doors, but these have since been removed, inviting in all who may pass.

It is quite obvious that this trainyard—or service station, or whatever the necessities of a dying transportation industry turned it into—has not been used for industrial purposes in years. The rusted hulks of tractor trailers, trucks and forklifts are strewn about like bones in an elephant graveyard. On the one hand, this will disrupt lines of sight, aiding infiltration, but by this same quality it creates pockets of shadow and blind spots in which the varied evils of 2061 lurk.

A single, large building in the distance dominates the skyline, the only portion of the yard which is not designated for the (de)construction of trains or occupied by train tracks. It looks to be of solid construction, corrugated metal siding and sturdy I-beams. Anything that is still standing has to have been made to a decent standard of safety, at any rate. There is about one hundred meters of open ground between the front gate and this building. To the left of the building, running away to the South, are three sets of train tracks. Even from this great distance the shaman can see that weeds and scrub brush have overgrown the tracks; the presence of some bark-bearing species seems to indicate that trains have been absent here for a long time. There are wide metal platforms nearby for the loading and unloading of cargo, and more fence and trees beyond those.

The entire place is quiet. Not even a stray dog or shadowcat is to be seen in the confines of the fence. Moonclaw, ever vigilant and suspicious, senses something poking at the back of her mind. That instinctual, animal part of her is saying, ‘Be careful here, cat. Tread lightly, this place is not as it seems.’

Player:

Moonclaw has been on the streets long enough to know when to trust her gut. She gets low, slinking to the corner of the fence, her fingers mechanically checking the chamber and safety of her pistol as she moves. Reaching the edge of the fence, she gives the grounds a check on the astral plane, ever cautious of the dangers less mundane.

GM:

There is a certain sensation detected by magicians, a sense of power which they receive in places where mana is strong, universally described as being drawn or summoned forth. It is this feeling Moonclaw gets from this place, but very subtly, like standing at the top of a gradual downhill and feeling the pull of gravity ever so slightly. The motes of astral light around her seem to be pushed forward, too, tumbling in wide arcs whose asymptotes converge in the direction of the building in the rear of the yard.

The grounds look clear of life. Of her varied filters for the world, astral vision is perhaps best suited to the detection of living threats, and it reveals none.

Player:

The street shaman pauses at the gap in the fence, weighing her options. Such founts of mana are rare, especially in an area so suspiciously undefended. She reasons that if anything is here, it will be astrally sensitive, negating the benefits of an invisibility spell. She will have to sneak in on both planes at once.

Moonclaw takes a moment to screw on her pistol’s silencer, testing the weapon’s new heft in her palm. She ducks through the opening and steals forward, keeping her presence on the astral plane as she moves. Advancing cautiously toward the shelter of the first chassis, she feels no fear despite the unknown, almost eagerly anticipating what may lie beyond. Her left hand tenses, shimmering with destructive energy, poised to strike out and rend her enemies.

GM:

Three more burned out trucks lie along the perimeter of the fence leading to the back building. They are offset from the wall by a couple feet, creating a corridor mostly shielded from the view of the open yard. Closer to the middle of the yard is a large semi trailer with an empty bed parked engine towards her on the road leading through the front gate, oriented as if on its way on a delivery. This creates another long, if low, way to stay out of sight, but the ~70 meters between the end of the truck and the building is open to view save for one large, broken down industrial courier truck at the halfway point.

Off to her left, light gleams off the rail ties leading out of the station, which she can see along with the whole left side of the yard, which terminates at the leftmost fence and transforms abruptly into a stand of trees, and from this to a scrubby suburban neighborhood.

Moonclaw sees no movement.

Player:

Ever cautious, Moonclaw steals forward along the edge of the fence in an espionage stance, shoulders hunched, her steps the silent ball-heel gait of her native blood, hands poised to deliver a stunbolt or silenced round. She diligently checks her corners as she passes between each truck, taking her time as she approaches the abandoned building.

GM:

The way ahead is quiet and still. After travelling past the first two truck trailers, she ducks quickly between the last gap and is on the home stretch to the shelter of the building, about 30 meters of open ground terminating in a small metal door in the front of the building low on the right side.

She tenses for the short journey, but then stops, noticing something by her bootheel, stuck underneath the truck tire. Peering down closely, she sees that it is a human foot half-buried in the mud and dirt. The exposed toes have been nibbled on by night crawlers and rodents, the flesh is pallid and sickly, and the interior of the marrow is black and hardened. The break in the flesh and bone is jagged and rough, certainly not the result of a blade.

Player:

Moonclaw’s stomach tightens, her neck bracing as she gags at the sight of the decaying foot. Remembering her training, she takes a determined breath, returning her mind to the task at hand. She breaths out, slowly, feeling the sensations of the world—the weight of her body against the ground, the balanced presence of the Fichetti in her fingers, the chill of the afternoon air against her face.

The shaman sets out across the open space, pistol leveled at the door, closing the space with light-footed strides.

GM:

She reaches the door quickly and quietly. Taking a look around, she is confident that no one has seen her approach, and her astral sight shows no signs of life.

The yellow door is rusted in great brown patches across its surface, but other than that, it is a plain, metal door. There is a padlock on it attached to a standard lock, a half-ring of steel sticking through a slot in a punched metal tab. The padlock has a keyhole, whose counterpart key is nowhere to be seen.

Player:

Moonclaw curses under her breath, confounded by the antiquated device. Locks were common enough in her line of work, but they were almost always digital, open to an easy short circuit or hotwire provided you could pry the casing open. For all her shadow talents she had never learned to pick a key and tumbler, as they almost never guarded anything of value. For once, she wished the ork were with her—his great steel fist would make short work of the whole assembly.

But for now she was alone, her natural state in the world. Resigned to find another way in, she takes a step back from the wall, peering up its surface for other options, a window or some sign of a rooftop entrance.

GM:

The front of the building has no windows to speak of; a sheer corrugated steel wall rises up thirty over her head and terminates sharply in a ninety degree angle to form the roof.

It would be impossible to scale the wall by hand, and it’s not immediately obvious there is roof access at all; however, a building this size surely has another means of ingress.

Player:

Frustrated again, Moonclaw continues her search, the metal siding cold against her shoulder as she slinks forward to the corner of the building. She puzzles for a moment over the nature of the crude padlock—it could only be locked from the outside, making it unlikely there was anyone inside… unless they were trapped there by someone else. Her mind flashed back to the zombie, lunging towards her, then to the decaying foot she had stumbled upon moments before.

The street shaman shakes the images from her mind, struggling to focus herself once again. She advances to the nearest corner, taking a quick glance around it before continuing on in search of another way in.

GM:

She is in luck. Peering around the corner, she can see that there are large bay windows facing the woods on the right side of the building. They are situated in the center of the large side wall, 40 feet wide, about 10 feet off the ground, and paneless, maybe used for moving long pieces of equipment in and out of the factory floor. A small metal cargo container is up against the wall near the base of the one of the windows, creating a convenient step up. The wall continues on for 30 meters, featureless, before turning left at the back of the building.

From here, it is impossible to see the ground floor of the factory, but by looking up through the windows she can make out structures near the ceiling: catwalks and long I-beam struts that are supporting a heavy-duty lifter fabricated into the structure of the building. It looks like it was once used to move pieces of machinery around inside the building, but its long disuse has rusted away any hope it had of bearing weight again.

Player:

Moonclaw thanks the stars for their blessing—with an entry like this she could be in and out in no time. She takes the distance to the cargo container in short strides, pace emboldened by her apparent solitude among the abandoned hulks.

The cat shaman vaults onto the box, keeping her shoulders below the window’s edge. She lifts her head just enough to peer into the belly of the old factory.

GM:

From Moonclaw’s vantage point, the factory floor is laid out as a large square, about 50 meters on a side, with a raised metal platform running along three walls, about level with the box she is crouching on. The fourth wall, opposite her, is mostly empty space: a giant cargo entrance opens onto the trainyard, and recessed, gleaming metal tracks run into the building for the construction and maintenance of trains.

The walls of the structure describe a very large, wide open space; the roof soars darkly overhead, divided into a grid by a canopy of girders and bearing low-hanging suspensor cables like vines. A gigantic industrial lift hangs from some of these vines, big as a house and rusted through to its joints. It must have been capable of moving entire freight trains through the air at some point, but now it looks to be one small tremor away from collapsing thirty feet to the ground below.

The working floor is mostly empty: workbenches and odds and ends are scattered around the tracks embedded into the concrete, and some broken tools and metal scraps shine dully in the corners alongside spent oil drums, a broken forklift, and shreds of wood in the shape of pallets. Moonclaw notices a doorway leading off of the floor, in the back of the building to her right. The door is ajar, and all she can see is darkness. The building appears to have some kind of extension opening off of the main space, perhaps housing offices or storage space.

She can see no movement, within the building or without. Not even a breath of wind stirs the grasses growing amongst the rail ties in the yard. A feeling of unease approaches her on silent wings, but she ignores it, convinced that she is simply being paranoid.

Player:

Moonclaw sighs as she considers the old train hanger, knowing that some part of her would not rest until the back room had been investigated. She grasps the lip of the large window and mantles easily, swinging her weight over the edge and dropping down onto the catwalk.

The shaman shifts her Sight to the mundane, then takes a few hesitant huffs with her nostrils to test the indoor air.

GM:

She lands on the metal grate softly, landing one foot first along the edge of her sole, gradually distributing her weight to muffle the noise of impact. She crouches down again, into the shade of the wall, and sniffs the air.

Aside from the odor of animal droppings and old machine oil, she detects a stale, decaying smell coming from somewhere nearby. It is not strong enough to be overwhelming, but it is definitely the stench of death. Probably just a rat or other animal which got stuck inside and starved, or was eaten, but the scent is unnerving nonetheless.

Player:

The street shaman does not like what she smells, but she has come too far now to turn back before exploring the old building completely. She skims through the afternoon shadow, traveling to her right along the walkway to position herself above the open door.

Moonclaw drops to her knees, inclines her head through the handrails, and takes another strong whiff of the air. Although the zombie she encountered in the underpass did not stink, if this was the place where it was bound other corpses might be within, vessels waiting to be imbued with another undeserving inhabitant of the umbra.

GM:

As she expected, the stench of death is stronger here, near the back of the building. Since she can’t see any signs of decay on the floor here, she deduces that the smell must be coming from somewhere in the rear offices. It is still a faint odor, not quite strong enough to be very recent.

There is a staircase leading down to the factory floor to her right, angling down through a rectangular opening in the walkway. Taking it would put her just on the other side of the door.

Player:

She is close now, and the thought of taking what is not hers fills the cat shaman with excitement. She slips her smartgoggles down and slides the jack into the butt of her Fichetti, pausing as the crosshair and ammo count swim into view. She pads gingerly down the steps, taking care to place each footfall, her shoulders hunched in a firing stance.

Moonclaw pauses at the entrance, listening and testing the air for unseen prey, her senses alive with the thrill of the hunt.

GM:

Stooping underneath the metal steps to get closer to the door, she sniffs the air again. The death smell is still present, and stronger here—it seems to be emanating from somewhere beyond the door.

The wooden door hinges on the right and opens inward, so she cannot see past it from here even though it stands ajar. The interior is very dark, and silent.

Player:

Moonclaw presses her back against the wall to the left of the doorway and quietly engages the low-light filter of her goggles. She leans out across the opening and gives the door a light push with her fingertips, allowing her to peer into the room through the hazy green wash of the amplified light display.

GM:

Moonclaw peers around the angle of the door to find herself staring down a hallway. The low-light goggles wash out all the color, but she can see down the darkened corridor as if it were bright as day. The hallway dead-ends to her right and extends left in the direction of the rail yard. There are two doors on the right-hand side of the hallway which lead into little offices; Moonclaw can see into the one directly across from her. There is a desk and a metal filing cabinet, and nothing else.

The end of the hallway has no doors, but opens onto another space, presumably a break room or cafeteria, which extends into the gloom beyond. Moonclaw can see the far wall of this room, but a larger part extends right, out of view of the hallway and hidden from her sight.

She hears a steady breathing coming from the break room.

Player:

The cat shaman ducks back behind the threshold of the entryway, conscious of the shadow her body would create if she entered a dark room with a light to her back. Considering her recent encounters, she was somehow glad the quarry drew breath.

Moonclaw draws up, then blankets herself in the satiny sheen of an invisibility spell, taking refuge in its privileged empowerment. Better to be seen second, her totem seemed to purr in her ear as she ducked through the entryway, her thoughts on silent footsteps and the dancing reticle of the pistol in her fingers.

GM:

Invisibility drifts over Awele Claws-the-moon like a shroud, and she is unseen. She concentrates on maintaining the spell, keeping her grip steady on the pistol in her hands as the wave of drain washes over and through her, leaving her out of breath.

Moving like a shadow, the trained shaman slinks past the offices on silken footing. She balances the pistol in both hands, its weight off of true because of the heavy silencer on its muzzle, and creeps forward towards the end of the hall. Nary a whisper of a sound does she make, but she can hear the breathing sound grow louder, and it has a kind of… desperateness to it now, she can tell. When an athlete is tired at the end of a long match, and he draws hoarse gasps into lungs ragged with exertion; that is the sound that she hears now, played over and over in slow, laborious gulps. There is something else odd about the sound, difficult to describe, which makes its location hard to pinpoint.

The room at the end of the corridor is empty, like the rest of the warehouse, and everything that can be moved without disassembly has been sold or stolen. A large industrial fridge sits in the near corner, with two smashed glass doors and a broken handle. The only other furnishings visible are a set of white polyresin tables with foldout benches, which lie in pews extending off to Moonclaw’s right.

She can’t see further into the room without revealing herself, in some small part at least.

Player:

Although she is invisible to the mundane eye, Moonclaw knows she is perfectly noticeable to any creatures perceiving the astral plane. Given the series of strange events leading to this point, she would not be surprised if whatever was breathing in the other room had some sort of dual perception. She feels no greater connection with her totem than when stalking the shadows, and she can feel its presence bearing down on her psyche, urging caution and padded steps.

The street shaman hugs the right-hand wall of the corridor and looks out beyond the angle of the wall, searching for her quarry.

GM:

Zombies! Four of them, huddled in the far left corner of the room, swaying and bobbing on their feet, heads down as if in prayer. They do not stir or look up as she peeks around her corner, but they do not seem to be concentrating on anything in particular, either; just the ground at their feet. Fat globs of vitreous flesh hang sickeningly from their slack joints, and the gleam of white bone is visible through the viewfinder her low-light goggles.

Moonclaw surveils the rest of the room. There are ten rows of the white polyresin tables, trash strewn about their benches and in the spaces in between. Half-eaten rats, raccoons and other small creatures of the night adorn the tops of the tables, almost picnic-esque but for their grisliness. The bones of the previous meals lay about as ubiquitous as dust.

The breathing sound is not being made by the zombies; it is coming from yet another room opening off of this one. There is a door in the middle of the far wall, past the rows of tables and just near the zombies’ corner, which stands open. Inside is darkness which even her low-light goggles cannot penetrate at this distance. The hoarse breathing rings like bells, cacophonous, in the dark space around her, and she feels the primal breath of fear on the nape of her neck.

Player:

Moonclaw recoils at the sight of the zombies, and the pace of her heart quickens at the new-found danger and the sounds coming from the room beyond. She ducks back behind the wall and takes a few deep breaths to sooth the ache of fear in her chest.

When she has gathered what courage she can, the street shaman calls upon her Sight, carefully drawing her smartgoggles above her totemic mask so she can have a proper look at the astral presence of the room.

GM:

Investigating the ether, Moonclaw can see that the pathetic auras of the huddled zombies barely give off enough astral light to illuminate their shabby corner. There is something interesting on the ground at their feet, something at which they endlessly stare, sometimes grasping at but never being able to touch.

A small mana fountain bubbles there, a raw source of Earth’s life energy, like a tiny volcano of magic Essence. Blue fog-smoke drifts around in whisps, and the frost-white ‘flame’ gives off bright motes of light every now and then, simultaneously flowing like water, yet guttering like fire. She can see the auras of the spirits trapped in the zombies, pulsating as they race about in their prison, searching for an escape. They feed off of energy coming from the fountain, too, bathing and basking in its power like a sauna.

There is another astral form here, something lying on the ground in the dark room. Its aura is brighter than the zombies’, and lights the interior of the smaller space, but she can’t make out what it is from the small sliver of it that is visible from her position.

Player:

The sight of the zombies being attracted to the mana fountain confirms Moonclaw’s suspicions: the zombies, as trapped spirits, can astrally perceive, so her invisibility would be useless against them. She drops the enchantment and brings her awareness back to the mundane, her senses enveloped once again in the inky dark of the unlit rooms.

The cat shaman leans against the wall, forcing herself to think through her options. The labored breathing of the creature in the other room combined with its prone position give her the sense that it is not an immediate threat, but before she investigates it or starts to toy with the mana fountain she will need to deal with the zombies.

An idea springs to mind. She draws her smartgoggles down over her eyes and turns back down the corridor, taking care to keep her steps quiet. She comes to the door of the first side office and looks it over, checking for sturdiness, locks, and a good set of hinges.

GM:

It’s a solid, wooden door, about an inch and a half thick, which opens inward on rusty metal hinges. The door handle is a plain brushed aluminum affair, with a push-button lock that can be locked from the inside. There are no windows or other openings into the room.

Player:

The door should serve, Moonclaw thinks to herself. She carefully depresses the lock on the door in until it clicks, then steps inside the room, scanning the refuse for a reflective surface, a shard of mirror or something chrome.

GM:

Inside the room is nothing but a beaten metal filing cabinet and wooden desk, neither of which is reflective. She recalls seeing some shards of broken glass out on the factory floor, however.

Player:

The shaman frowns to herself, frustrated by her inability to find the last tool for her trap. The broken glass outside might work, but she would prefer a truly reflective surface to allow her to see around the corner without sticking out her head, which might attract the attention of the zombies with their astral sight.

She kneels on the floor to begin her task, first holstering her pistol, then drawing her compact grapple gun from its sheath on her lower back and an arrow from the quiver slung across her shoulder. Slowly, ever mindful of the noise she is making, she uses the edge of the arrowhead to cut the grappling hook from the end of the line, then slowly spools out the corded rope, measuring it against the length of her arm until she has about twenty feet before making another cut. As she works, she realizes the metallic face of the arrowhead should be reflective enough to act as a mirror. Good, she thinks to herself, then I have everything I need.

Her preparations complete, Moonclaw tucks her things away, leaving her hands free, then stands with the length of cord, tying one end around the outside of the door handle. She lays the rope flat against the face of the door, making sure to keep it flush where it meets the floor, in case one of the shambling zombies trips on it.

Pacing backwards, she runs the line down the hallway, back towards the light, and leaves the other end at the entrance of the office space before lays her arrow down next to it.

Returning to the small office, she puts both hands against the dented file cabinet and gives it a hardy shove, hoping the crash will make enough noise to draw the walkers away from the astral fountain.

Before the cabinet can hit the ground, Moonclaw has already taken off, hustling back to the hallway entrance. She ducks behind it, grabs up the end of the rope in one hand and the arrow in the other, and sticks the tip of the barb beyond the entrance, angling it to get a view down the hallway as she waits for the zombies to react.

GM:

A great sound rings out from the little office space, certainly making enough noise to be audible to anything in the building with ears. Ducking behind the corner just as the cabinet hits, Moonclaw winces instinctively, and then there is silence.

Wait… there is silence. The hoarse breathing sound has stopped. For a split second, there is pure quiet, as even the vermin and insects play dead, waiting for the next move.

She hears the zombies first, groaning softly to themselves and beginning to shuffle in her direction. Their lopsided gait is very distinctive, and the squelching of organs and whispering tatters of clothing make it even more so.

There is another sound, a rapid slap of bare feet on linoleum, and a silhouette appears in the entry to the break room. Humanoid, with long, thin forearms, it crouches down and cocks its head toward the side office. She can hear an audible sniff sound, and then the head whips around, birdlike, to face her.

It begins approaching the doorway leading to the factory floor, moving on all fours like an animal.

Player:

For a heartbeat, Moonclaw is paralyzed with fear, her blood racing as she contemplates the extreme danger her failed gambit has placed her in. But it is only for the briefest moment, before her training sets in, driving her to act.

Taking advantage of whatever element of surprise she has left, Moonclaw drops the rope and arrow, whips around the corner, and punches the air in front of her, sending a rippling ball of destructive energy down the hallway at the ape-like creature.

GM:

She rounds the corner to face her assailant, and finds herself confronted, not by a man, but by a gaunt, pale and hairless thing, almost human. It is naked and covered in leprous, scabbed skin, with claws at the end of each of its fingers. Raising eyes gone almost white with cataracts, it opens its mouth wide to show rows of razor-sharp, pointed teeth.

The sight of the ghoul recoils her, and she loses her concentration for a moment. Only a heartbeat, but long enough for the thing to coil its long legs and begin a headlong charge towards her. Mouth set in a grim line, Moonclaw stares down death one more time, then gathers mana around her and blasts it down the hall, into her target’s very Essence. Drain washes through her again, barely noticed through the fog of combat; she shrugs it aside and braces herself as her opponent presses the attack. The abomination shudders and stumbles, but does not fall; bracing itself on all fours, it executes a clumsy running leap, claws outstretched and aimed for the shaman’s throat.

Moonclaw’s mind is quick, her hands quicker, and she catches the pale arms by the wrists, grunting with the physical effort of controlling the thing’s animalistic strength. The ghoul is now terrifyingly close to her, and the smell of necrophagic feces and dead flesh rolls off of it in waves. It gnashes and slashes at her with black teeth, but cannot get close enough to wound. She realizes with fear that it is much stronger than her, and it bears down on her with the surety of a predator stalking its prey.

Player:

As she struggles to hold the ghoul back, Moonclaw quickly realizes she cannot best the thing in close quarters, especially not before the zombies would be upon them. She pushes off the slavering monster, dancing backwards as she draws her SMG and chambers the first round in one practiced sweep. Firing from the hip, she squeezes off a burst at the beast’s gangling legs, desperate to slow its frenzied assault, then looses another blast as the recoil carries the muzzle upwards.

GM:

The ghoul bucks forward at her, grasping in a languid way as she releases its wrists and dodges away from the infected claws. Her hand goes to the submachinegun holstered at her side, and she yanks upward on the grip, popping the holster clasp, then pushes downward and back, clearing the muzzle by centimeters. The Ingram’s sudden report is deafening in the enclosed space, and the burst scores three pockmarks in the floor near the ghoul’s pallid feet.

Pulling the barrel up and wheeling backward, Moonclaw pulls the trigger again, and her off-balance shot finds its mark. The ghoul roars in pain, clutches at three crimson blossoms on its chest and topples backwards, long limbs splayed out on the ground. It scrabbles sideways like an insect and rolls over onto all fours, blood flying from its damaged torso. Attempting to stand, it falls back to one knee, coughing a monster’s cough, and finally pushes itself up with its arms to glare up at Moonclaw, hate replacing hunger in its eyes.

The four zombies shamble around the corner of the hallway and catch sight of the shaman’s tantalizing essence. They hesitate at the sight of the ghoul, but are emboldened by appetence, and after a moment’s hesitation, start after their next meal, with arms outstretched and skeletal smiles hanging on decayed lips.

Player:

Breathless, Moonclaw mutters a silent prayer to Wophe for guiding her shots as she checks the length of the hallway, trying to gauge how long she has until the zombies are upon her before making her next move.

GM:

The zombies are mere seconds away, moving purposefully but slowly.

Player:

Moonclaw continues to backpedal away from the approaching monsters, her mind scrambling for a way to survive against the odds. She can see no way out of this trainyard-turned-deathtrap, save to stand and fight, hair raised and back arched.

But if she must fight, she will give herself every advantage she can muster. The street shaman snatches a pouch from her belt and upends it into the air, watching as the finely-ground cat bone powder swirls in front of her on invisible currents. She can feel the presence of Cat asserting itself through the material fetish, filling the space between them with the cunning and secrecy of her totem.

She draws a deep breath, filling her lungs with hatred, fear, vanity, and shame, holding them in until the toxic emotions threaten to destroy her. When she can bear it no longer, she releases them, the sickly energies burning her throat, blowing out in a black miasma of doubt and confusion. The powder hanging in the air buffets and curls at the touch of her breath, the spell’s power amplifying as it passes through the lattice of magically charged particles, rushing out to confound her enemies with shadow and despair.

GM:

Magic rushes out of her into the hallway and blankets her target’s minds; she can feel it taking hold on each one of them in turn, except the ghoul, whose strong willpower penetrates the illusion. She can’t see the spell’s effects, but she knows what a powerful confusion spell can do to a mind, and hopes that it has at least slowed the already tainted brains arrayed before her. The cat-bone powder hangs in the air and absorbs the astral backlash from her sorcery, sparing her the effects of drain completely before wafting away on the air.

The ghoul blinks its white-scarred eyes and stumbles forward, barely on its feet. It takes a half-hearted swipe at her with its claws, but the wounds in its belly and chest have slowed its movements to a crawl, and Moonclaw barely has to step back to stay out of harm’s way.

The shambling undead continue on, heedless of the swirling colors and blaring noises which assault their dual-natured senses. The world swims in and out, crazily, and they falter and stumble like drunks, but come on nonetheless. The lead two zombies were formerly men, one still in a ragged business suit, the other, fatter one in overalls and a plaid buttoned shirt, ripped at the collar and covered with blood. Drawing close enough for their smell to be overpowering, they look hungrily upon Moonclaw, and the dead smirk on their faces grows into an evil smile.

Player:

The cat shaman’s head swims with the exertion of her awakened powers; but her fatigue is drowned out by the endorphin rush of the life-or-death melee, her body reacting with the confident ease of an athlete in the heat of a match.

Moonclaw takes a skip back and draws her Smartgun in, clutching the small-bodied weapon with both hands. She draws a bead over the ghoul, then hesitates. This one I will take alive.

She drops her sights down, aiming low at the beast’s clawed feet, away from the major arteries and vital organs. The shaman gives the trigger a squeeze, her ears ringing as the SMG’s staccato voice echoes through the cavernous enclosure.

GM:

Her shot is well placed, and the lower portions of the ghoul’s gangly limbs are splattered across the floor and down the hallway. She backtracks and warm sunlight brushes her shoulder as she steps out of the doorway into the main room. For a moment, the zombies are obscured by the sudden brightness, but she squints and can make them out, stuttering and shambling along, past the body of the unconscious ghoul. Cold fingers grasp out at her as they move forward; the businessman and farmer leave the other two behind as they quicken their pace.

Player:

Moonclaw wipes a fleck of the ghoul’s blood from her cheek as she backpedals away from the zombies, taking frantic glances over her shoulder, searching for a wheeled toolbox or generator close at hand, anything big and heavy enough to slow the zombies and keep them contained in the corridor.

GM:

No such luck; everything in the warehouse that could have been moved easily was stolen and sold for scrap years ago. The only outstanding features of the ground are pieces of broken glass, broken tools and pieces of wire. She spies the rusted frame of a forklift in the corner to her right, but the wheels have been removed and the engine block is missing, rendering it immobile.

The gleaming metal rails in the floor slide away from her on the left, out the bay doors into bright sunlight.

Player:

The shaman snarls in frustration; her instinct is to flee from the building, to get out under the open air where Cat holds sway. The hearth was not her domain, after all.

Yet there was something else, a voice urging her to stand her ground, to hold the beasts at the hallway.

Moonclaw casts about for a suitable bludgeon, anything with reach and enough heft to knock limb from limb.

GM:

There is a piece of the silvered track near her which has been jarred partway out of its mooring. It looks like it might come loose with a good tug.

Player:

Moonclaw plants a foot at the base of the loose track and wrenches at the length of steel with her free hand.

GM:

The track is held to the floor by a pair of rusted-out bolts. The shaman puts her weight behind her and one pops free; the railling lifts a little in her hands, but does not come loose. The zombies are so close she can feel their putrid odor on the hairs of her neck, and her skin crawls. With a last, desperate heave the other bolt comes free and the three-foot piece of machined steel comes away in her hands.

Player:

The shaman wrestles with the weight of the I-beam, struggling to find her balance with the improvised weapon. She adopts a batter’s stance, stepping into her swing as the first zombie comes in range.

GM:

Moonclaw hefts the heavy piece of metal and twists her body hard into the blow, catching the fat, undead farmer square in the chest before he has a chance to grapple her. She hears his breastbone fracture, but the damage barely slows the magically animated creature, and she dances back out of the reach of the businessman, who makes a clumsy grab for her as he closes the distance.

The weaker two zombies are women, two teenagers dressed similarly in filthy jeans and low-cut tank tops. They are, or were, two of the nameless street urchins who disappear from the streets everyday in Chicago, to suffer a fate worse than death. Perhaps their un-lives are a reprieve from the real tortures they had undergone before finally succumbing to oblivion. They move from the back of the pack to either side, attempting to surround the shaman completely.

Player:

Moonclaw’s bloodlust quickly fades as the abominations continue to shamble forward, edging around her flanks. Her childhood of back-alley muggings and territorial scraps left no room for things like honor or a warrior’s dignity, so when she drops the metal beam and runs, it is only the flight of a wild animal who knows it has lost, free from the human trappings of shame or cowardice.

She stumbles at first, batting away the grasping, bony fingers, then settles into an all-out sprint, angling down the tracks, into the light of the afternoon and the shelter of her domain.

GM:

Her headlong hurdle brings her to the threshold of the door, leaving the zombies shambling after her, about 12 meters behind. The warm sunlight, and her totem’s domain, is just in arm’s reach.

Player:

Moonclaw skids to a halt and wheels to face the slowly pursuing zombies, drawing her Smartgun once again. Her flight takes her just beyond the threshold of the abandoned railway hanger, the skittering sounds of its hearth spirits replaced with the familiar background noise of the city.

With the threat of the fast-moving ghoul eliminated, the cat shaman takes her time, flipping out the SMG’s shoulder stock and jacking in the lead of her smartgoggles. As she raises the gun to her shoulder she takes a deep breath, which feels like her first in hours. With her outbreath she releases the confusion spell, its absence a clean quiet in her mind, like hearing the sound of an empty room after a trideo player has been flipped off.

The street shaman centers the bead in her goggles on the chest of the lead walker, leaning into the stock to compensate for the kick of the first burst.

GM:

The empty quiescence in her mind is driven out by the triple-report of the gun going off in her hands, and she snaps quickly back to the now. Her shot is well placed, and the farmer’s rotting chest and neck explode, showering his companions with viscera. His head flies off and lands at his feet, his body crumpling to the floor beside it a moment later. The others take no heed and shamble on, arms outstretched again.

Player:

The shaman can’t help but smile at her power over the simple beasts. Briefly, she wonders at how they could be so fearful up close, yet so helpless at range. But Moonclaw just as quickly grows bored with their linear approach, anxious now to see what secrets she can coax from the ghoul.

She finds the torso of the second male in her sights and gives the trigger two metered squeezes, the muscles in her arms aching from the exertion of the afternoon’s combat and the recoil of her weapon.

GM:

The businessman’s suit was stylish during his days amongst the living: black and elegant, with platinum-chased lapels fitted tightly over a shirt made from a single piece of cloth, not sewn by needle but woven via chemical adhesion into its final shape. It offers little protection now.

Six bullets blow the imported fabrics through the undead wageslave’s stomach, and black streams of rotten vitriol splatter on the ground. When the smell hits, her nose wrinkles instinctively.

The two teenage zombies plod forward, heedless of their companion’s demise. They are about 8 meters away, moving slowly.

Player:

Moonclaw adjusts her grip to bury her nose and mouth in the crook of her elbow, the freshly-laundered smell of her camo jumpsuit doing an adequate job of filtering the graverot stench.

The street shaman adjusts her aim with casual nonchalance, the last two targets almost impossible to miss at this range. She aims for the walker’s upper chests this time, not wanting to perforate any more digestive tract than she can help.

GM:

Her Ingram lets loose again, the barrel smoking with burnt cordite. The first zombie in her sights goes down, her pale-pink braids tangled in the ruined mass of bone that used to be a skull and neck. Death is present here, performing its tireless duties, and the shaman pans her sights to the next target, squeezing her trigger and feeling the lightness of a near-empty mag.

The burst clips the zombie, punching a pair of holes in her left shoulder and ruining the daisy-yellow halter which served as her impromptu funeral attire. Inhumanly, she goes down without a word or grunt of pain, and struggles to her feet again just as silently, swinging her ruined arm as if it had never been injured. With a sickening, wet noise, the shoulder socket gives out and the limb flops to the ground, completely separated from her torso.

She takes a tentative step forward, the spirit within her struggling to balance an asymmetrical body. A glasgow smile rips at the corners of her mouth, and Moonclaw sees for a moment why necromantic arts are banned in civil circles of magic.

Player:

The shaman grimaces at the gory spectacle, taking another perfumed breath through the sleeve of her camo suit. Her palm sweats openly from the heat of the SMG’s exhausts, soaking the lining of her glove with a clammy dampness. Moonclaw finds the last walker’s head in her crosshairs and squeezes the trigger again.

GM:

The burst destroys what is left of the pathetic girl’s brain and sends her reeling backwards into blissful slumber once again. Moonclaw takes a breath, alone with the bodies of her defeated enemies; after the deafening gunfire, the silence of the trainyard fills her like a hot drink on a white winter’s day. The sun shines and the world trudges on, now five abominations lighter.

Player:

The shaman looks up into the sky, offering another silent thanks to Wophe, the Goddess of the Falling Star, imagining the Sioux deity riding down between the rolling clouds, her fiery mount ablaze.

Moonclaw turns her attention back to earth, and trots off toward the abandoned building, slipping a fresh magazine into her Ingram as she walks. She pauses to consider searching the handful of corpses, sprawled violently where they fell, but decides she would not touch their bodies for all the precious gems in the world, and continues on.

Her gun still hot in her fingertips, Moonclaw searches out the crippled ghoul in the shadows of the empty space. She stands over her quarry, regarding it with no small amount of satisfaction before giving it a prod with the tip of her toe to see if it still has life.

GM:

The ghoul lays on the ground at her feet, unconscious and bleeding out from the massive wounds to its legs and torso. It still clings to life, but that grasp will slip in the next minute or so. There is nothing she can do.

She stops to consider its form: long, sinewy arms and legs are clothed in scabbed and scalded pink skin. Predatory knots of muscle line its jaw, and fingers curl into talons where the fingernails should be. She can tell that before the virus ravaged it, this was the body of a male elf, and a particularly tall one at that, judging by the length of the loping limbs. Normally, the Krieger virus leaves the mind of its host somewhat intact, but in other cases it drives them howling mad, hungry for flesh and abandoned of their former humanity. Had he known the fate that lay before him, he might have taken his own life to avoid becoming abomination.

Player:

Moonclaw had hoped to keep the ghoul alive, to see what secrets she could learn from the exotic being. But in this state of near-death, the creature proved little interest. The shaman draws her pistol and puts a round through the beast’s head, ending its miserable existence.

She kneels at the edge of the ghoul’s pooling blood, holstering her firearms and drawing a half-dozen arrows from her quiver. She does not know much about ghouls—this one is the first she has seen, let alone fight. She had heard they ran free in the Shattergraves, but she has never been herself, ever wary of prowling where she knows dual-natured beings stalk.

Mesay once told her tales of ghouls in the Congo, hunting in great packs through the jungle, the offspring of a vampire aristocracy gone horribly wrong. If ghouls were born of the Krieger virus, their blood could be infectious, a terrible curse upon anyone tainted. Although the ghoul proved to be of no interest for her in life, at least in death it could provide her with a new weapon. The shaman dips the arrowheads carefully in the ghoul’s blood, then stands, flicking away the excess fluid and holding the shafts splayed out between her fingers to dry.

Her memories of Melese bring her mind to his shop and the foci she took from him. Part of her wished he never turned up again—a decent talismonger lost for a wealth of valuable trinkets was not a bad trade. There were other shopkeeps in the Windy City. She ventures into the back room to inspect the mana fountain, one hand holding the tainted arrows at a safe distance, the other toying with the satchel of foci at her belt.

GM:

Suede leather swims silkily through her fingers as the bumps and knobs of her stolen goods roll in their bag. The signature of them burns through the material on the astral, illuminating her for the world to see, as a criminal and turncoat. Around the items shimmers an aura of care and devotion, and they exude the raw willpower from which any focus draws its strength. That power is hers, now, with which to shape and create her own magic.

Finally, she stops at a point in the concrete floor where mana escapes from the essence of Earth. Its supernatural wonder is exceeded only by its brilliance: blue-white steam hisses from a tiny fissure, and a purple and teal aurorea borealis plays about the base like a halo. She can feel it rejuvenating her, lifting the drain from her tired mind and reconnecting her with Cat, the very essence of her totem, a being from Nature and so also a part of Gaia’s essence. The totem speaks to her then, just a brief moment in a tongue no man can understand; it congratulates her on a job well done and a life lived according to Cat’s inscrutable principles. A feeling of radiance washes over her and she finds her mind and body at peace.

Player:

Moonclaw basks in the life-affirming joy of her totem’s approval and stands with her eyes closed, soaking in the healing energies of the mana fountain; yet as Cat’s voice fades her eyes fly open, desperate to commune more with her transcendent guide. In her mind, she grasps out at the fading voice, begging for direction and guidance, for answers to the mysteries which swirl around her.

Gamemaster:

The astral mind that consorts with her drifts out of her conscience. As it goes it imparts a single, simple impulse: West. She must go West. How far, Cat cannot say, only that the next phase of her journey would take her out of her city, away from her home. The feeling fills her with trepidation, but she knows that the spirit animal has not guided her wrong so far; her interpretation of its message will be just as it needs to be to place her feet on the right path.

Player:

The cat shaman stands for a moment, taking in the silence of the room, the absence of her mentor spirit, the low, steady hiss of the mana fountain on the astral plane. She plays her fingers through the blue flames, lost in their otherworldly, ephemeral play.

Moonclaw turns from the fountain, her plans made. She carefully gathers an armload of material from the abandoned break room before returning to the mana spring. She arranges the refuse into a summoning circle adjacent to the flow, a ring of crumbled trash inscribed with a triangle of rat spines. She kneels by it, bringing her hands close as if warming herself by a trashcan fire, and gingerly pushes a portion of her life force into the diagram, an offering for a guardian spirit to protect her while she works at its hearth.

Gamemaster:

The hearth spirit scampers forth eagerly, a stooped little humanoid made of bits of paper, metal and glass. It salutes with a tiny little screwdriver that it has found to use as a cane, and starts to pace around her feet, busily tidying the summoning circle she has made. The summoning was almost effortless, she notices, and feels the warmth of the mana fountain in her hands as the magic flows through her like blood.

Player:

Moonclaw kneels by the spirit and commands it firmly. “Keep watch over this home and warn me if anything enters.”

The shaman turns to the fountain, finally alone with its power. She settles into a cross-legged position before it, then draws the pouch of foci from her belt and carefully opens the small sack, upending its contents onto the concrete. She picks up the most powerful of the objects, a ring of bone, and slips it over her index finger.

Immediately, the talismonger’s heady scent fills her nostrils. Moonclaw holds her hand in the dancing blue flames and exerts her influence over the focus, bonding it to its new master.

Gamemaster:

The Hearthshard nods its bespectacled head and zooms off into astral space, eager to seem helpful.

The shaman’s attention is then fully absorbed in her task, the wisps and wails of power soar through her like a song as the vent in Gaia’s energy lends its strength to her. It blossoms and grows in size, enveloping the focus and driving out the thoughts of Mesay Melese and replacing it with her feline form. The weight of the power behind the focus is lifted somewhat by the energies. The focus’ energy waxes and wanes and Moonclaw finds that time ceases to have meaning for her, as she concentrates wholly on her task.

Minutes pass and she breathes but a whisper. Ten, fifteen, thirty, then two hours pass as she sits in complete stillness. Suddenly, raucous ceremony and astral lights play about her and she invokes her spirit into the item, which stands before her, empty, yearning but for the words of power which will give it life.

[The binding ceremony costs two karma and takes two hours. Now she must imbue the focus with its new sustained spell.]

Player:

Moonclaw lifts her hand up, pointer and index fingers raised, then executes an invisibility spell with practiced ease. She can feel the ring’s essence being etched with its new task. Better to be seen second.

She collects a second item from the ground, this one a ring of brilliant ivory. The shaman slips the focus on, then engulfs her hand in the blue flame once more.

~

The quarterback is calling an audible again. Feels like a bad idea, they’re cheating off too much to one side. But it’s too late to shift the line. Before he can react the QB hikes the ball. The world slows as his adrenaline releases—he can feel the hot Kentucky sun on his arms, the smell of grass in his nose. The familiar crash of bulk-on-bulk sounds as the lines collapse into each other, and then they break through—he knew it—a blitz.

Number 78 is closing on the QB, but he is faster. His cleats tear once, twice into the turf, and then he is airborne, fists extended. The brute force of his tackle lays the Holy Cross player out with a sickening thud. He lies moaning on the ground beneath him. The crowd gasps, and then he is on his feet over him, and the crowd is chanting his name.

He spots Shannel on the track, with her black and yellow cheerleading uniform on. He jabs his finger at her, like a gun, it’s stupid but he does it anyway, and it feels great. She winks back at him. That was it, that was when he knew, damn, I’m going to marry that girl. Even Shannel is calling his name now. “Cruuusher! Cruuusher! Cruuusher. . .”

“Crusher!” The voice is tinny, too high pitched, like it was coming through a TV far away. It wasn’t Shannel anymore. “Crusher! I think we’re here.”

The mercenary jolts awake, tensing against the seatbelt across his lap before finding his bearings. He smells blood. One arm is cold, and sore, the other lifeless, dead. His chest hurts when he breaths.

The ork adjusts the ride of his rimmed hat with two fingers, then waves the rigger forward. “Just pull up to the gatehouse. Shouldn’t be a problem—Rawls and I go way back.”

Gamemaster:

Boxcar Rebellion comes to a stop at the front of the Chicago-area military pavilion, a sprawling semi-town of corrugated steel buildings, done up in beige and camouflage. The civilian areas of the town are lined with makeshift, cookie-cutter suburbs and too many jeeps, and the military areas resound with the rattle of automatic fire. Ling Fei rolls down the thick densaplast window and an armed guard steps toward the vehicle.

He puts one hand to his sidearm casually, “Excuse me, ma’am, this is private property. Do you have a registered appointment or contact?”

Player:

The ork leans across the van and inclines his hat to the guard. “We’re here to see Lieutenant Rawls. You tell him Crusher is here.”

Gamemaster:

The guard pulls a sour face for a moment, an involuntary consequence of racism, then remembers himself and steps back into his booth. He slides the door closed, slides a matrix phone out of its receptacle and places a call. He appears to be put on hold for a minute, during which time a CCTV camera regards them closely, but eventually he has a short conversation and hangs up. Opening the door again, “The Lieutenant is in the officers’ mess, go down the MSR and your first right.” The heavy, banded-steel gate arm swings up, the tire shredders in the concrete retract, and Boxcar is moving through into the guts of the compound.

Sure enough, the Main Service Road skirts two aircraft-hangar-sized metal buildings, then Ling Fei cuts the wheels at the first right, turning down onto a lane rife with activity. Two platoons of men parade up and down this street in lockstep, moving as one to the tune of comically foul-mouthed gunnery sergeants. Canvas-covered trucks and jeeps with missing doors veer around the drilling platoons, delivering men and weapons to different parts of the base. Everything is so mechanical and official here; it’s hard to believe these are private contractors—essentially, mercenaries—and not a real government army. They certainly dance the dance and talk the talk.

A helpful white-and-blue sign labels a large cookie-cutter building as the officer’s mess. Ling Fei parks her civilian monstrosity as best she can on the side of the road; some privates on kitchen duty shoot her icy stares as they haul their loads of carrots and potatoes. The engine idles noisily and the fat purring of the armored van dials down a notch, blending in with the hubbub of activity around her.

Player:

Crusher opens the heavy armored door and steps down onto the packed dirt. He jerks his head at Ling Fei. “Come on, the van is safe here. You should meet this guy, he’s got the best toys in Chicago.”

“Whatever you say, big dog.” The rigger jacks out with an unpleasant twinge, shaking her golden hair loose from the cord. Boxcar gives one last rev before winding down. The elf rushes to catch up with Crusher’s long strides.

The mercenary pushes through the mess hall’s heavy swinging doors, Ling Fei close behind. As the noise and hubbub of the barrack hall fills his senses, he is swept back in memory, to his early years eatin’ slop with the 1st Marines without a care in the world. Then, just as quickly, his mind races forward to Iran, to the fields of fire, to the dragon.

He shakes his head, pulls his shades off and rubs at his eyes. He looks up to find himself surrounded once again by the officers of Rawl’s mercenary outfit. He scans the lines of tables for the Lieutenant’s hulking form.

Gamemaster:

He spies his old buddy sucking down a plateful of mashed potatoes and army-grey mystery meat, elbow-to-elbow with two hulking officers of indeterminate rank. The clatter of forks and knives plays counterpoint to the percussive bang of cyberlimbs hitting the flimsy plastic trays, and all around a choir of gruff voices sing tales of battlefield exploits, acts of heroism and valor.

The lieutenant sees them enter and waves them over, gesturing to the empty spaces across the table from him. Some giant men shift and they take their place. Rawls smiles a wide smile and extends a metal hand. “Crusher! How’s the ‘private contractor’ life treating you?”

Player:

Crusher grasps the lieutenant’s fist, thumb over thumb, their augmentations ringing loudly against each other. “Hey, Rawls. Works’ good.” He lowers himself onto the bench. “That’s actually what I came to see you about. Got mixed up in some kind of spate between Wuxing and a buncha daisy-eatin’ Tir Tairngire.” The ork glances awkwardly at Ling Fei. “Uh, sorry. Buncha. . regular-type Tir Tairngire.”

The elf shakes her head at him. “Melegit samriel qua, trog?”

Crusher stares at her incredulously. “Did you just call me a trog?”

“Did you just call me a daisy-eater?”

Lieutenant Rawls’ loud guffaw breaks the awkward silence. “This one’s got a lip on her!”

Crusher shakes his head. “Yea, Rawls, meet my rigger, Ling Fei. She drives good enough when she’s not talking back.” The mercenary waits patiently while they exchange greetings.

“So anyway, that brings me to question one: you heard anything about Wuxing, the Tir, or a man all in black pajamas with a wushu sword, fights like the world’s most slippery elf?”

Gamemaster:

Rawls scratches his scruffy cleft chin. “You know how the soldiering life is, Crusher. We just get word from the top, and I don’t have any intel on anybody sounds like the guy you’re describing. Seems to me it’s somebody’s watched too many trid shows and has a nasty environmental streak in him. Ha!”

“Now what else can the Wind City Free Militia do to accommodate you and your young lady friend here?”

Player:

Crusher rubs at a tusk with one finger. “Ah, that’s a shame. Well, my second question is related to the first.” The mercenary leans in over the table. “I’m in the market for area control weapons—flamethrower if you got it, incendiary grenades, that kind of thing.”

Ling Fei chimes in. “I’d pay good money for a launcher system that could fit on UAVs. Some sort of multiple rocket tube, for dealing with enemy armor and targets in cover.”

Gamemaster:

“Well, little lady, even if I knew where to find something like that, you’d have a hell of a time fitting a launcher system like that on an aerial drone. If we had some of those Lashers lying around I’d sell you one but we’re clean out since some of our boys ran into a little light armor down in the CAS. And Crusher, that’s a mighty strange request, but we do have some incendiary grenades. Give me a few days to get them out of my man in Provisions and you can have ’em for ¥100 apiece.”

Player:

Crusher nods his consent. “Sounds good, Rawls. Better get me a dozen of them—whole egg carton. I gotta ninja ta’ fry.” Something in the ork’s memory triggers as he stands to leave. “Say, you ever get your hands on that Ay-pod clip I asked for a while back?”

Gamemaster:

Rawls rocks back so his gleaming bald head reflects his thoughts, and thinks for a moment. “You know, I did requisition that ammo awhile ago. I remember, he was bellyachin’ because it ain’t street legal. But that private sumbitch has it in the back, somewheres… I can get it for you, personally, for—” he does some quick mental math, “— ¥1300 a mag fer’ that bullpup of yours. He probably only has a box of about 100 rounds though so no more’n two.”

Player:

Crusher and the lieutenant stand as one, clanging the knuckles of their fists together in the solemn solidarity of ex-Marines. “Shit, I’ll take both of them—as many rounds as you got, I’ll buy ‘em. Thanks again, brother. I haven’t forgotten about your interest in urban work either; I might be having a major conflict sooner or later.”

The mercenary turns to leave. “Sooner, if you can get me those incendiaries.”

Ling Fei stands with him. “Right, thanks anyway. Peace.”

The pair bursts out into late afternoon chill, discussing their next move. The elf braces in the cold. “Well, where to now?”

Crusher shrugs. “I ain’t got shit else to do. Back to the safehouse?”

Boxcar Rebellion roars to life as they climb aboard, then throttles down to a low rumble as the rigger jacks in. “Your little shopping spree got me thinking about upgrades. Look, if you’re not busy, why don’t we go see what kind of toys my friends have for sale?”

Before the ork can even respond, Ling Fei whips the van around and guns for the exit. By the time they clear the gatehouse, Captain Winters’ address has already been entered into the autonav. She swings her nose left, back towards the expressway and the long haul uptown. The autonav routes her onto 94, but she swerves right onto I-90, opting for the scenic coastal route. She had had enough dense, urban driving for one lifetime already.

Gamemaster:

The mechanic’s square orange shop occupies its corner of the metro area like a large shoebox, twin garage doors facing outwards onto the parking lot. Boxcar pulls up, blending immediately with the other clientele vehicles, everything from an armored GMC 4201 to a sleek Leyland-Zil Tsarina. Ling-Fei stops to admire the collection of impressive machinery on display, letting her eye wander over every customization and tweak. She pulls herself away and opens the door to the shop.

Captain pulls himself out from under a VW Superkombi that looks like it took a direct mortar hit; the fat and balding dwarven man is in the process of removing the engine from its brackets. He wipes oily hands on his beard and looks up at her, “Chi Ling-Fei. Nice to see you, as always. And this a new partner? Or something more?—” He laughs a belly laugh and shakes Crusher’s metal hand vigorously. “I’m kidding, course, Ling here is all business.”

He rustles up to his full four-foot-something height and puts on his fixer face. “Now, please step into my office.” And he holds the door open to his cramped glass cubicle, slanting the venetian blinds shut.

Player:

The rigger shrugs and blushes a little before ducking into the office after Winters. She leans against the fixer’s short-legged desk. “Captain, this is my buddy Crusher. Crusher, Cap—Cap, Crusher.” The mercenary gives the dwarf a terse handshake, then Ling Fei continues. “Listen, I’ll keep it short. I’m in the market for AT hardware, solid state or self-propelled, doesn’t really make a difference. Been coming up on some light armor recently, and I’d like to be prepared next time. Figured I’d come to you, make the upgrade. What can I walk out of here with?”

Gamemaster:

Cap shakes his head, “Sorry, Ling, I don’t have anything like that here today. You know I try to keep my head above water with this shadow stuff—” he gestures around, to his office and business, “—and I can’t risk too much looking around for heavy gear like you’re asking for.” He sees the elf begin to look crestfallen, and chews his lip nervously, honestly wanting to help them out.

“I can probably find some rocket launcher tubes and regular commercial explosives by tomorrow. ¥1330 for the launcher tube, ¥55 for a kilo of the explosives. I don’t know about actually finding rockets for the launchers, though. That’s the sort of thing a guy shouldn’t do for just anybody—if you know what I mean.”

He thinks to himself for a moment. “Now, here’s one thing I could do for you. See all them junkers out there? I know a guy that presses his own ammo, was here a few months ago saying how the structural metal in these old ferrous junkers is dense enough to make nice bullets. I could have him whip up a custom batch for you when we melt these things down; it would take a while, but he could probably make a handful of anti-vehicle slugs in whatever caliber you want. Call it ¥100 a round, up to a dozen bullets, probably take him two weeks.”

Player:

Ling Fei twirls a lock of golden hair idly around one finger. “Okay Cap, I understand. I don’t have much use for demo charges or AT rounds since I’m not running anything heavier than an LMG right now. I’ll take that launcher tube and a mounting bracket if you’ve got one handy though, might need a 3rd party targeting processor to get the tube’s sight linked to my drone’s pilot CPU.”

The rigger wanders out of the office, excited to fiddle with her new toy. “Cap, you think you could help me get it bolted on straight while I’m here? I’d like to put it on one of my Ares Guardians, but I know my GM-N Dobermans have an open forward arc firmpoint if the flyers won’t take it. Crusher, you think you could call your friend to see if he has any spare rockets?”

The mercenary shrugs, somewhat overwhelmed by the gearheads’ babble. He wanders off to call Rawls, inspecting the variety of vehicles with passing curiosity.

Gamemaster:

Captain Winters cautions her, “Well, let me tell you, these are one-shot only tubes. If you put them on drones you’re going to have to reload them manually to fire them again; they weren’t designed for mounted work but it’s possible if you want to do it anyway. Womack over here—” and he points out his office at a fat dwarf with a lionish red mane, “—he’s always had a flare for the adventurous, and he’s good with guns. Shouldn’t take him more than 8 hours to replace the hardpoint on your drone. He might even walk you through it and teach you a thing or two, if you pay him real nice.”

He scribbles some figures on a ledger and looks up at her, “So that’ll be ¥1330 for the tube, call it ¥1600 even for parts & labor. Deal?”

[Womack can train Vectored Thrust B/R to 4 for 6 karma and a trainer’s fee of ¥400.]
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Crusher trails a metal finger over the rounded hulls of a half-dozen streetbikes, a BMW Blitzen, Gaz-Niki White Eagle, and Yamaha Rapier, then the stripped chassis of an Artimis Nightrider light aircraft. The tiny phone in his hand rings, and then the Lieutenant’s voice sounds on the other end. Crusher relays his needs, and Rawls says, “Sure, we got LAW rounds for days, can never have too many of those things. Ain’t cheap for a small civvy outfit like yours though. ¥1500 each, no negotiations on that price either, pard. Use ’em sparingly.”

Player:

Ling Fei takes the notepad and looks over the fixer’s deal. She considers her current financial state, realizing with pleasant surprise that she has more money than she has had in years—since university, since the Awakening, since living with her parents back home and the times after.

Besides the fact that she could afford it, Sparrow-1 had practically earned the damn thing itself. They were her little steel knights and castles, reaching out to touch her foes in far away places and protect her friends in combat. The same Guardian had taken down Big Jack, had covered Crusher and Grendel against the Tir bladesman.

She really was becoming a rigger, she thought to herself. Thinking of her drones like pets, giving them personalities. The VCR only sealed the deal. “Alright, I’ll take the drekkin’ thing. Swipe it for two thousand, for labor and a finder’s fee for yourself. I really would like to stay and help, but I just don’t have the time or energy to learn something new right now.”

Ling Fei boots her remote systems and ejects Sparrow-1 from Boxcar’s depths, then wanders off in search of Crusher. She finds him admiring the chassis of an old Japanese crotch rocket, one of the low slung electric models painted in a shiny crimson red. Some kid had covered it bumper stickers.

The ork turns around, still holding his comm to his head. “I got Rawls on the phone, says he’s got as many as you want.”

Ling Fei cranes her head indecisively. “Alright, get three—no, four of them. Never know when those Wuxing motherfuckers will come sniffing around.” Crusher nods and relays the message dutifully.

She switches to manual control in order to guide the Guardian into one of the shop’s harnesses, then steps in to inspect the mini-turret housing alongside Womack. “Yeah, getting the light arms mount off of there shouldn’t be too hard, just a couple bolts along the casing. It’s getting the tube on straight that’s going to suck. And make sure you wire the hard circuit on that safety right—the last thing I want is that thing going off because I thought about it wrong.”

The rigger thanks the tech and heads back to her van, hoping the dwarf doesn’t screw anything up too bad. Crusher climbs in after her, slamming his door.

She throws the van in reverse and pulls out deftly into the busy intersection behind her. “Back to your army buddy’s place, then we can grab my drone and head to the safehouse?”

Crusher folds his arms across his huge chest. “Marine buddy, but yeah, that sounds like a plan. Should probably pick up the shaman somewhere along the way.”

Ling Fei shakes her head in wonder. “Jesus, Moonclaw, I totally forgot about her. I wonder what she’s up to?”

The armored van sets off into the fading afternoon light, making the long drive back south, past Gary and it’s many airstrips. Boxcar’s senors ping as the passing planes come in and out of her radar space. For once that day, their trip turned out to be uneventful.

Crusher and Ling Fei collect the rockets, then the newly-equipped Ares Guardian, and finally refuel the transport’s massive diesel tanks. The ork and the elf then head south, to collect the third member of their group.

The cat shaman is waiting at the gate of an abandoned train yard when they pick her up. She slips into the back seat without a word and watches them expectantly. Ling Fei shrugs, then begins the last leg of their drive.

Crusher turns to look at her. “You look like you’ve been in a fight. Kinda smell like powder too.”

Moonclaw snarls back. “I was in a fight, remember? We all almost died?”

“I mean more recently,” the mercenary responds. “Whatever. What have you been up to?”

“I have been making. . . changes,” the shaman says dismissively.

Crusher grins. “Well, we been making purchases. If this ninja piece of drek shows his face again, we are going to fuck him up. I Can’t wait to see what those other ’runner teams dug up, if any of ’em are still alive, and stupid enough to stick around, that is.”

View
Act III: Gevurah - Scene V
Legwork

Gamemaster:

Hulder grunts his response. “Sounds like a safe place; they’d be crazy to send pinkskins into that ork ’burb. Lead the way.” The two other engines collectively throttle down until they draw level with Boxcar, and they follow close.

Ling Fei sits back and takes in the information from her spotter; the scene below the roto-drone’s cameras is one of ordered chaos. Corp goons swarm like insects around the top of the ramp, clearing the bodies and wounded from the grenade blast while hurrying down towards the limo. The limp body of the impostor Minister lies where it was thrown, forgotten. The assassin has yet to show himself again, and men with stun batons creep slowly toward the edge of the cloud, wary lest they be pulled in and dismembered.

Further East, along Lower Randolph, the runner convoy breaks out of the tunnel system into the morning sun and turns right, headed through Grant Park on highway 41. A tense silence takes hold of the teams, as each man and woman stops to take in the close call that they just had. One exception is Charlie and Bakcha, who joke and trade incredibly racist jokes in the back of the truck. Blitz wears a bemused grin on his face, laughing along with his brother and sister despite his injuries.

The drive takes them South, along the coastline, and the spray from the Lake washes away some of the coppery blood smell which clings to the wounded and wafts off the bodies in the flatbed. Soldier field passes them on the left, and Crusher, Moonclaw and Ling Fei watch it drift past, thinking of their clandestine meeting with the corporation there, not knowing then that what they were stepping into was a big setup, one that would cost lives. The autonav swings right shortly thereafter, heading south on I-90, making good time against the flow of rush hour traffic heading into downtown. They hook up with I-57 and from there head Northwest up 294, the great highway that rings the city proper.

The drive is short, and Ling Fei manually pilots them past Rubio Woods, on their way to Crusher’s hideout, so that they may dispose of the bodies. The woods themselves were once an old government preserve, before they were inhabited by foul spirits and paranormal critters. The daylight seems to keep these walking horrors at bay, but Moonclaw can sense the corruption here, can see it in the grasping motion of the tree branches and the sickly morning mist which seems to seep from dark holes in the ground, thick despite the sun’s warmth.

She doesn’t have a lot of experience with other runner teams, but she balks when Bakcha and Molly jump out and unceremoniously dump the pieces of Hackworth and the mage at the base of an old redwood. They rifle through their clothes first, removing credsticks and weapons, and keep Hackworth’s deck. They don’t look the least bit unnerved at this, like they’ve disposed of their share of teammates in the past. She gets the feeling she might have to get used to this kind of thing.

A few more minutes travelling West brings them to Crusher’s hideout: a low-ceilinged loft in a shit part of town. The building itself is worn white fiberboard, and the top level looks like construction was suspended when it was halfway complete. Wires and plumbing stick out of the foundations, exposed to the elements. Crusher leads them through a side door and down a dingy, splattered hallway. Some of the rooms look condemned, while others host squatters who peek out at them from behind their tarpaulin barricades, then quickly duck back when they see the guns, turning down the lights and staying quiet. An old fashioned metal key gets them through the door to Crusher’s safe room.

Player:

The heavy steel door protests on rusty hinges as Crusher shoves it firmly with his shoulder, stepping out momentarily to help Hulder muscle Grendel’s bulk through the doorframe. “Yea,” the ork grins, “welcome to my home away from home.”

The runner teams take in Crusher’s spartan safehouse as they file in. In reality, it’s more of a safe room, roughly 20 feet square. The far-right corner is walled-off to house a toilet, and a flimsy looking counter with a small sink runs halfway along the right-hand wall, stacked haphazardly with cans of beans, corn, and sterno, along with a few half-filled boxes of ammo. A fold-out card table sits next to the counter, flanked by four fold-out aluminum chairs, all of which are strewn with dishes, paperback mystery novels, and even more random shells. Three stained mattresses lie against the far wall, one of which has a mess of relatively clean-looking sheets on it. Across from the mattresses, to the door’s immediate left, is a giant, ratty, ork-sized couch, with a halfway-decent sheet thrown over it.

The mercenary laughs nervously, apologizing for the squalor of his pad. “Sorry about the mess guys, I never expected more than the three of us would be crashing here.” The more helpful among the party members get to work making space for everyone, laying out the three most severely wounded runners on the mattresses. Hulder props himself up on the bed closest to the table, where Crusher, Moonclaw, and Aleister have settled to hash things out.

Crusher speaks first, carefully stripping his armor away from the gash spanning his chest as he addresses those seated around him. “On the surface this felt like a standard setup, yea? Hire some expendables to make it seem like they were guarding something real, then sound the cavalry once the target flushed.” He eases back in his chair with a tired sigh, laying his sidearm on the table with a heavy thud. “But why open up on us too? We were still on their contract.”

Moonclaw interjected, her head tilted to one side in careful thought. “We weren’t under contract so much as under threat. . . Moreover, even if they had kept their word they would be under no obligation to pay us, as we all failed to make the kill.” Her eyes shifted to Aleister. “I still maintain they were trying to eliminate us, as they did that gang, the better to keep their secrets.”

Crusher scowled in frustration, baring his tusks. He swept his hand across the room, indicating the shadowrunners packed together in the tiny flat. “Then why draw everyone else into this? Whatsit to them to kill all of you?”

As the rest of her team mulled over the larger picture, Ling Fei was busying herself among the wounded, doing her best with her portable medkit to clean and dress the wounds of both trolls and all four orks. She had called back the last of her drones as they reached the edge of her transmission range, and now they were safely stowed within Boxcar, which sat outside with the other transports, watching for new threats with its electronics idling. She voice dials Doc Matthews as she dabs at Blitz’s dagger wound with an alcohol swab. “Hey doc, it’s Ling Fei, ah, Crusher’s rigger friend. Listen, we’ve got a half-dozen wounded orks and trolls here, two of them pretty serious. It would be huge if you could come out, or at least send someone to help me sew them up – I’m in way over my head here!”

Gamemaster:

Crusher’s gestured question is met with awkward silence. The members of the other teams shuffle around and tend to each others’ wounds, and nobody says anything. The quietness grows tense. Ling Fei is unable to reach Doc Matthews, and leaves a hurried message.

Finally, Hulder speaks for all of them. “There’s only one thing we could all think of.” The stern looks of agreement exchanged around the room lend the statement a conspiratorial air. “Our decker got in touch with the dwarves here before he got offed—” a nonchalant wave towards the riggers, who are lounged across one of the far mattresses. “Found ‘em through the ’net, figured there was gonna be some noise about this run if it was big enough. Due diligence, and all’at. Turns out we have some common history.” It’s weird to hear a troll sound so articulate; the words do not fit around his tusks like they are supposed to.

Hulder continues. “A few weeks ago, my team and I got this run… A real scrap job, just roll a small-time fixer with some big-time muscle and get out clean. Lost one guy in the snatch, but we gave ‘em more’n we got. Weird part of it was, the hiring corp didn’t want anything out of it. Not one thing, they said we could take whatever we found, and just to leave nobody alive. We cased everything, got some nice gray-market cyberware and guns ‘n ammo. And one other thing… there was a metal briefcase in with the fixer’s private stuff, we took it all and got out, and didn’t think twice about it ’til later.”

“We were keeping our loot in a safe-shed in the suburbs, with one of Jets’ boyfriends, a hired goon for hired goons. Problems start up about three nights after we cased the fixer. People in black vans driving up and down the street, hobos in Armani rags runnin’ surveillance at night. You know, sneaky back-door corp shit. We get wind of it, and the night we go to move the valuable stuff, we get a nasty surprise.”

Jets is sitting on the floor by the countertop on the right wall, rocking gently back and forth and shaking her straight, elven hair. At this point in the story, she puts her head down on her knees and seems to tense up. “Open the locker, and there’s these fuckin—I don’t know, these armored suits in there, riflin’ through our shit! They aced Jets’ boyfriend and got out with that metal case before we could stop ‘em. Roughed her up pretty bad, too. Few minutes after they disappear, the whole fraggin’ safehouse goes up, boom, real smoke-job, ‘n afterwards it was like nothin’ was there. Get back to my flat, same thing, scorched earth. Ditto for Molly, Hackworth and Cardini—we’ve been living outta hotels for weeks, watching our asses. Today was the first job we got, figured it was a lucky fuckin’ break.”

The male dwarf speaks up now, his first time communicating without a set of speakers. His voice is husky and strained, like he isn’t used to using it very often. “We were blackmailed into this job, too. We got offered the logistics end of a tactical insertion week before last. We dropped some ops team off on top of a corp HQ, were supposed to provide air support and recon until they got back.”

“The run took a lot longer than it was supposed to, and when they got out, all but two of them were gone. The guys who did get out were both shot up, and blasting their way out onto the roof. We laid down some rain and got them out fast, but they both geeked it in the chopper on the way back. Naturally, we stripped the bodies and dumped them, out in the deep lake. Nothing unusual on them as far as we could tell—the black box they were carrying just had a few megapulses of data on a SONOS-chip, and a knowsoft.”

“I don’t know how they found us, but they did. We get home that night, and some Johnson fuck is sitting in our home, and he’s threatening us, saying he’s got our place wired to blow all to hell, and that they’ve taken our daughter. Won’t tell us where, won’t tell us why, just says to hand over whatever we got off the run. We give him the black box and the guys’ gear, and he tells us to meet this morning, then leaves. We still haven’t seen our Ella.” His partner—and wife, presumably—holds his hand in a tight grip, and tears show on her rosy dwarven cheeks.

The one group left silent is the black and red Spiders, who sulk near the couch. When all eyes turn to them, they get defensive. Charlie spits acidly, “Look, chummers, we’re here on gang business and that’s all we know. If you wanna take it up with our boss, you’d be lucky to get in two words before he cuts you in half. Secrets iz secrets.” And with that, all three cross their arms and clam up.

Molly speaks up for the first time. Her voice is icy and loveless. “None of us were getting paid for this run, then. Sounds like this corp had a mess to clean up, so what’s the common thread between us all?”

Player:

Moonclaw sits upright in her folding chair, one leg crossed over the other, back and neck erect. As she listens to the other runners speak, connections begin to form in her mind, and she becomes conscious of her pulse quickening with the excitement of discovery. She breaths deep, reminding herself to maintain a rational edge and approach the situation with her eyes open to the myriad undercurrents of meaning.

“Common threads indeed,” she murmurs, fixing her gaze on Hulder. “You, troll, you said you were attacked by ‘armored suits?’ Were they like the men who we fought today?”

Ling Fei’s heart begins to race as well, but in her mind all interest in the situation at hand is lost as the dwarves tell of their lost daughter, her stomach knotting as she recalls the Johnson’s threat to her own family. The elf fumbles with her phone, finally pressing the speed-dial of her parent’s home in Taiwan, hands slick with sweat as she listens to the dial-tone.

Gamemaster:

Ling Fei’s call goes through the usual international connections, then connects to her parents’ home network. Nobody answers, and after a few moments the machine picks up; nothing unusual, it is almost 10 PM there and they may be asleep or out. She tries not to worry, but cannot get the thought out of her head that something may be wrong.
_________________________________________________________

Hulder says, “Those suits in our warehouse were definitely military grade tech. Powered exoskeletons, environmental seals, reactive armor, the works. They were running hotter than the boys we tangled with today, but a big enough corp-or a nation-state-could definitely field a small tac-op like that if what they were going after was valuable enough.”

Aleister interjects, “My employer was held at ransom recently, which is the reason for our involvement here. Is it possible that we are all being blackmailed by the same entity… someone with a secret to keep? That would explain how they got us together and why they ambushed us.”

From her seat on the floor, Jets speaks up for the first time. Her voice is sing-song and airy, with the lilting inflections of the San Fernando Valley. “What about that assassin guy? The guy in black. They were after him, not us, right?”

“That’s right. I feel like we were set up as bait,” Hulder says. “I’d never seen a guy move like that before, and I know I’ve never faced him in combat.” His hand moves to the bandage across his abdomen. “What’s tying him to the corp’s Foreign Minister, and what was his motivation for attacking them in the first place? We definitely need to do some digging on this one, ‘cuz it sounds like whoever’s got it out for us has deep pockets and a nasty killin’ streak.”

Molly’s frigid tone cuts in again. “Hey, ork.” She points at Crusher. “You never told us what brings you into all this. Seems like the rest of us have met this corp before, but you haven’t said a word. Maybe you had a bad ’run you want to tell us about?” She adds suspiciously, “Anything… weird you want to get off your chest?”

Player:

Crusher eyes Molly Millions, briefly contemplating the ways in which he could crush her little razorpunk skull. He quickly checks himself, acknowledging the value of these new allies despite this leather chick’s shit attitude. He was, after all, exhausted, in pain, and extremely on edge.

He puts on a bullshit apologetic grin and shrugs his shoulders. “Yea, sorry—we’ve been sitting here grilling all’uve you and we haven’t even told our own piece. Aleister’s Johnson brought my team together on a few ’runs, which carry alot of similarities with yours.”

First job we did, picked up a messenger with a metal briefcase ‘cuffed to his hand at O’hare. Roughed him up a bit," he grins at Moonclaw, “spilled the bean pretty quick. Said he was just an average Joe, the whole wife and two kids sob. Literally shit himself begging for his life. Let on that they’d stuck him with an egg bomb—nasty fucking invention. . . saw all sorts of inventive uses for them in Iran.”

Anyways, we dropped him at the Johnsons, money in the bank. Picked up another contract by the same employer a few days later. Related? Hard t’say. The John says he hired some gangers to steal a special knowsoft and some data, but that they made off with the goods without completing their contract. Apparently the chip was cutting edge drek, could make wizards out of average folks." He squints at Moonclaw. “What was it called? Cactus something?”

The shaman regards him calmly, unamused and unsurprised by his ignorance of the awakened world. “Culexus.”

The mercenary continues. “Right, that. So, we roll up on the banger’s turf—East Coast Massive, if you’ve heard of ’em—drop a half-dozen bodies, collect the goods no problem. Get this, though—their boss slotted the damn thing himself, completely fried his noodle.”

Anyhows, we bring the goods back, payday again." Crusher pauses here, his expression darkening as he recounts his team’s most recent events. “Yesterday, our rigger Ling Fei here gets a call from a new Johnson, basically threatens us into meeting up with him at the old baseball field. We make the meet, and he tells us our new job is to protect their suit against this unknown assassin, whether we like it or not. Hostile as fuck the whole time.”

We roll up this morning, and Al here tells us our old Johnson’s been kidnapped by this new Corp, so they’re being blackmailed into the ‘run too. An’ you guys know the rest. Real shitshow."

Crusher sits for a minute, rubbing his chin while the room takes in his story. Then he continues. “So here’s my read. All three of our teams, and maybe you Spiders too, if you’d have the courtesy to share, get hired to steal these mysterious suitcases containing this cutting edge magic drek. Then, some high-powered Corp shits all over each of us and takes the cases we just stole.”

Now, if the Corp that busted into your warehouse, or kidnapped your daughter, or bagged your employer," he gestures to each of the teams in turn, “was the same Corp that originally owned the shit in the first place, they would have just taken it back. Why bother with the elaborate setups and kidnappings?”

Crusher leans forward in his seat, his cybernetic arm propping his sizable bulk up against the table.“How about this: A rival Corp wanted the knowsoft, but didn’t want to start an expensive all-out war. So they feed intel to shadowrunners who nab the tech, and then turn around and take it from the ‘runners. Adds a whole ’nother layer of separation between their goons and the merch’.”

He balled his hand into a steel fist. “Then they hire us all for one last, impossible ‘run against this mystery swordsman who’s been slaying all of their execs. If we all get cut to ribbons, then their dirty secret is tidied up. If we end up killing him, then we’ve solved their problem, and then they can geek us at will.”

The mercenary spreads his arms. “What do you guys think?”

Gamemaster:

“Nah, I don’t buy it. Too many loose ends.” Hulder says. “For one thing, if another corp just wanted what we stole, there’d be no reason to leave us alive after taking it. It wouldn’t make sense to lead us around in the dark anyway, ‘runners never know who we’re working for and there’d be ways to make sure we didn’t know what we were stealing.”

Aleister speaks up, “There’s something we’re missing. Something is tying the people in this room together, and the only thing that seems obvious is those stolen cases. But, if we don’t have the cases anymore, then what’s the common thread? And who was taking the cases from us?”

“Maybe it was the same corp.” Everyone turns, surprised—Bakcha makes himself heard from the couch for the first time. He explains himself, “Crusher, what you said got me thinking. It makes sense that the corp owned the shit before. Sounds like in all our runs, tech got stolen and someone was getting it back. Then we got blackmailed into dealing with their assassin for them. But why did it have to be the teams that handled the cases, why all this morning, and why on their terms?”

“Interesting.” Hulder folds his arms skeptically, and sits down on the metahuman-sized couch. “That assassin attacked us first. He went after our lead guard when he could’ve just snuck the limo and scragged the target. He might’ve wanted to kill us, too.”

“There’s another thing that’s botherin’ me. A guy like that, he’s not some merc-for-hire. He was an adept, and adepts with those kinda skills, they ain’t trained, they’re bred. And since killers like that don’t whore themselves out for ‘yen, there’s probably a personal reason we were on his shit list.”

Aleister speaks again, “Then our assassin friend is tied to whatever it is that we all have in common. If it’s not the cases, then I don’t know what. Obviously, we need more intel on two things: him, and the Culexus items.” This jogs Ling Fei’s memory, and she recalls the favor she called in to Audell before this run; maybe it has turned up additional info on the corp.

Hulder stands with a grunt of effort. “Alright, then. If we ain’t got any objections, we’ll meet back here in two days. Find out what you can by then, keep contact if you must, but I don’t know if meeting anywhere else in person is going to be a great idea. Stay frosty, chummers, I have a feeling that blade-chuckin’ asshole in the PJ’s is gunnin’ for us.”

Player:

Moonclaw speaks up, her voice soft and aggressive. “Aleister is right, there is a common thread between us, and more must be rooted out about the knowsofts and the assassin before we have the truth.”

The shaman directs her gaze at any who care to meet it, the head-on, unblinking, wide-eyed stare of a creature who does not regard humans as her kind. “But I think there is more common knowledge to uncover before we part ways. I, at least, have more questions to ask.”

She begins to recite questions as if from a mental list. “Did anyone assence the knowsofts other than us? The item we recovered carried a bound toxic spirit, but I would be curious to know if the other chips were the same.”

She turns her head ever so slightly to regard the rigger couple. “Did you halflings manage to access the data on the SONOS-chip before it was taken from you?”

“And the assassin,” she turns now to the gangers, “you are trained in the arts of the blade. Did any of you recognize his technique as belonging to a particular school or discipline? Moreover, has anyone seen movements of such an. . .” she pauses, searching for the right word, “occlusive nature? I believe his evasive talents stretched belong the capacities of a mere. . physical adept.” She utters these last words as if they left a bitter taste in her mouth. “Perhaps he was enchanted by a more awakened accomplice before his attack?”

She twists her neck to address Aleister. “Hermetic, did you have a chance to see his aura? I admit I was too busy conjuring to use my sight.”

Gamemaster:

Hulder seems to give Moonclaw the cold shoulder at first. Clearly, he is someone who would rather put his trust in gunpowder and metal before mystics and conjurers. He also looks like he’s itching to get out of the safehouse. Then, he snaps his large fingers, as if something has just occurred to him. “Ya know, I do remember Cardini said something about that case. Said it gave him a splittin’ headache. Said we should get rid of it as fast as possible, and he wouldn’t ride in the truck with it. I figured he was just havin’ his time o’ month, but maybe there was something else to it.” The rest of the mercenaries look around, but nobody else here is Awakened, least of all the cybered ork gangers and plugged-up riggers, so no further information is available.

The male rigger bristles a bit at being called a ‘halfling’, and replies tersely, “No, that data was encrypted. We would have been able to crack it with time, but the Johnson took it off our hands before we had the chance.”

Bakcha’s hand comes to rest on the end of his katana, worn in the traditional place at his hip, but bolted into his armor instead of tied with an obi. He wipes at the blood on his broken nose, “I saw his style once on a wushu competition on the ’trid.” Like many blade-bearing gangers, the Spiders teach themselves and each other the art of the blade, with no formal sensei. Those that could not master their weapons generally did not survive; thus the style maintains its rigor.

“It looks like a Chinese style, all those fancy moves and spins. Thought it was faggy as hell when I saw it. Those swords don’t look like they could hold up to real steel, either—they was all floppy and loose, not cut up for street work. Never seen one used in combat before.”

Hulder speaks up again. “I have. This one time, workin’ in the Tir.” Ling Fei’s ears perk up. Non-elves aren’t supposed to be allowed to do military work within the Elven nation. “This group ‘a privateers and me, we’re invited in to this meet-‘n-greet. Buncha corporate elf-types wanna show off and get in good with the fraggin’ outsiders gonna do all their dirty work for ‘em. So they bring us to this Chinese-lookin’ pagoda, sit us down and feed us all kinds’a crap, eels on sticks and fried tofu, cups of fuckin’ tea. Those elves, they really see eye-to-eye with the slopes, s’way I figger, ‘cause they’re all from the same place. Asia used to be the cradle of civilization, right? Stands to reason there’d be some old elven blood out East.”

Charlie starts to look impatient. “Anwyay, we’re sitting down, all smilin’ and bullshittin’. This server comes forward to clear the plates for the Elven officials, and before you know it, there’s this sword in his hand. Cut his jacket clean off his back when he drew it. Fuckin’ beheads the two guys in front of him, and turns to charge down the rest of the table, yellin’ in Sperethiel. Me ‘n the crew flip up our wires and blew his ass to pieces, right in front of the ambassador. Funny seein’ straight-edge guys pickin’ brains offa their suits like that. But yeah, I’d recognize that elf shit anywhere, same moves, same dodgy bladework, same purpose: assassination.”

After a moment, Aleister weighs in on the assassin’s aura. “I don’t think that he was enchanted, Moonclaw. I didn’t look at him astrally either, but he exhibited all the talents of your usual physical adept; refined to an incredible degree, true, but still more or less things that any Awakened could achieve with time. And anybody can hide in a smoke screen, particularly someone with ninjutsu training.”

Charlie shakes her head. “I dunno, doc. When me and Bakcha were in that smoke cloud, we couldn’t see or hear shit. And we would have.” She taps a metal ear. “It was like he was really gone, like a spell was on him makin’ him part of that smoke.”

“That’s right,” Bakcha agrees. “I’ve tangled with adepts and ninjas before, and none of them’s ever been that good. This guy was fast, strong and quiet. Nobody I’ve seen before has been all of those things all at once, not like this guy. I think someone else was helping him out.”

Player:

Crusher hauls himself to his feet, surveying the rag-tag group of runners assembled in his safehouse. His eyes are orbs of matte black, etched with concentric metallic rings where his irises should be. “Right then, all debates aside, I think we have our marching orders. We’re digging for two things: a corp with ties to all of us an’ these Culexus chips, and this assassin, possibly with Chinese or even Tir Tairngire ties. We’ll meet back here in two days, midnight sharp.”

Ling Fei speaks up for the first time as Crusher hefts his heavy pistol. “I’ve been thinking, and well. . . if these people know about our homes and families, and even our comm numbers, we’ll all have to start from scratch if we’re actually going to be moving against them out there.”

Her simple good looks strike a hard contrast with the augmented robustus and ingentis sprawled about her, their heavy armor uniformly caked in blood. “In order to keep safe, we’ll have to get disposable phones, stay away from our homes, and make our meets in new locations.”

Crusher gives a silent nod, confirming her advice as sound. He moves to the door, priming his combat implants, his senses sharpening as the world slows to a crawl with the sickly artificial adrenaline boost of his ’wires. Brandishing his Browning, he cracks the heavy door and leans his head out, checking the corridor for signs of danger.

Gamemaster:

A quick check to either side reveals that the corridor looks clear. Hulder gives Crusher a knowing glance as his team makes an uneasy exit. The dwarves follow, but the Spiders tarry, asking whether they can recuperate in the saferoom until their comrades can retrieve them.

The rigger’s drone has been circling the building slowly, keeping to the shadows. It chases off one last vagrant as the other runner teams exit, and then the dwarves climb into their Westwind and head South.

Hulder climbs into the cab of Jets’ truck, and his spritely elven driver leaps in beside him. Molly climbs into the bed and her lithe, muscled arms pop the receiver of their late-model M60 machine gun. She clears the broken links from the top of the vehicle, slaps a new belt into place and racks the first round into position. The glassy lenses over her eyes regard Crusher’s team coldly as they drive away, heading East.

Crusher, Moonclaw and Ling Fei are left alone outside the safehouse. The day has already broken, and it is now between 9 and 10 AM. The usual cold wind rustles their clothes, and a few clouds cut across the sky, heading inland. The sun does little to lessen the Chicago chill.

Player:

Crusher hails the Spiders on his headset, inviting them to make themselves at home, and lock up when they leave. Closing the radio channel, he takes a moment to collect himself, his accomplices waiting patiently to either side of his immense form.

Moonclaw looks the ork over with her sight, gauging the warrior’s health and emotional state. His essence is rough, worn in like old leather. What’s left of his spirit is crisscrossed with the negative space of his implants, dark lines running along his spine and out into his limbs, the glow of his chest, arms, and thighs muddled with the opacity of subdermal plating. His entire right arm is a void, and his eyes are black pits which make her stomach turn. His chest still throbs with the fresh wound, and she can read Aleister’s hasty healing spell, a web of calculated infusions designed to bind the wound like a surgeon’s thread.

Something else about Crusher’s aura catches the shaman’s eyes, a minute whorling pattern which slowly works about his torso, like the movement of clouds viewed from high orbit. She has seen such phenomena only a handful of times in her life, in the most expensive foci adorning Talismania’s back room, and in her own totemic mask as well—the mark of ancient magic, originating before the Awakening. She blinks and looks again, but the effect seems to have faded, if it was ever present at all. She reasons that her assencing must be skewed by his ’wares, for if his aura was truly pre-awakening, that would make the mercenary 50 or older, and orks rarely lived past 45. Besides, his physical fitness showed him to be far younger than that. The anomaly was curious, to be sure, but Moonclaw was tired. Perhaps she was seeing things.

Crusher let out a weary sigh and looked down at the two women, doing up the buckles of his armored vest. His assault rifle dangling heavily from his shoulders beneath the stiff folds of his lined greatcoat. “Shall we?”

The rigger gave a wry smile, and beyond them the armored van roared to life in its spot on the street, spewing oily diesel exhaust. Crusher begins to trudge towards the vehicle, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat over his horns, which draws a chuckle from Ling Fei as she strides beside him.

The mercenary scowls at her. “What?”

“That hat,” she laughs back. “It’s so out of fashion. Only an old geezer would wear that thing.”

Crusher guffawed loudly, finding the jab far funnier than he should have. “Fuck you, elf. I like my hat.”

Padding double-time to keep up with the metatype’s long legs, Moonclaw raises an eyebrow at Crusher’s unusual response.

Boxcar’s doors pop as they approach, and the team settles into their usual seats. “Where to, big dog?” Ling Fei queries as she jacks in.

“Well, I’d like to check in with a barkeep I know downtown, and I know a guy with military ties who might know something about a fighter of this caliber.”

“Don’t you think we should check in with Doc Matthews first? She wasn’t answering my calls. What if something’s happened to her?” Ling Fei worried.

“No.” Moonclaw cut in flatly. “We don’t have the time to check in on people who won’t have any information. I have a contact with leads to both technological and arcane matters. If anyone can help us, he can. Moreover,” she added, “he can set us up with burner phones so we can make secure calls.”

Both women turn in their seats, looking to Crusher to make the final decision. “I have’ta go with Moonclaw on this one, Ling. Harriett’s my friend too, but we’re in too much hot soup to be guided by sympathies.”

Ling Fei reluctantly puts the transport in gear, snaking out of the ork slum and cutting east across the city’s suburbs to the docks of southern Chicago.

Gamemaster:

The docks surrounding Audell’s shop have gone unused for the six years since the emergence of the Containment Zone. During the quarantine, shipments received at Chicago seaports were subject to rigorous government “inspections”, which meant, more often than not, that the contents were seized and sold in black markets. Maritime trade between Chicago and Southern parts of Quebec suffered, harming the city’s businesses and forcing it to become more reliant on aid and commerce from within the UCAS.

As a result of this depleted use, the docks suffered as areas of business. After only six years, the entire wharf front around Lake Calumet and its feeder channels has transformed from major industrial to run-down residential. Some commercial enterprises survive, mostly entrepreneurs like Audell Scarlett, who run their businesses out of their homes.

The door is opened after the secret knock is exchanged. Audell welcomes them into his home/storefront, a space cluttered with electronics gadgets, and immediately begins. “You guys have gotten into it big. I’m no hacker, but from the IC surrounding this data, it looks like you guys have gotten yourself into some serious shit.”

He pulls himself over to a deck with a live Matrix feed displayed on an external trid set. He grabs the ‘dumb’ manual controls and navigates slowly through the net, speaking as he goes. “See this yellow SAN here? This is the entry point to Wuxing, Inc.‘s headquarters in Hong Kong. They’re new to the megacorp game, they just got their triple-A and a spot up in Zurich-Orbital, so they’re hungry to make a name for themselves. And it looks like they’ve got a hell of a project to do it.”

Audell punches up some rudimentary spoofing procedures and sleazes past the initial gateways. “This is as far into their systems as I could get on my own. See, it’s your standard internal portal, has access for employees, links to the main datastores and Wuxing’s primary departments: shipping, finances, consumer goods and services, typical corp wage-slave shit. But yer story intrigued me, so I rang up a chummer o’ mine, real deckhead, y’know, and he was able to dig up some paydirt.”

The image sinks back through the Wuxing architecture and the deck disconnects from the Matrix, now running its own internal file systems. “I don’t ask how he does it, but he gave me a couple megapulses of data which you’ll be interested in…”

The deck’s internal storage is rendered as a white room with files arranged on the walls, and a worktable in the middle. Ivory filing cabinets ring the space, and the deck’s view shifts to one of them. An invisible hand opens the top drawer and the files within fly across the room to display themselves in a preconfigured pattern on the far wall.

Audell turns around in his chair, explaining, “So, like most big corps, Wuxing has their hands in a lot of stuff. What they’re really known for amongst members of the Pacific Prosperity Group is their research into abnormal magical applications, especially stuff like this—” The terminal view flies to a white paper marked ‘CLASSIFIED’, and the first few pages flip back, revealing a header in large black font: ‘Ancient Spirits of the Elements: Applications, Research and Development.’

“The rest of this doc is mostly legalese, but at the back is where it gets juicy. Tell me if this looks familiar..” An image floats across the screen, and Moonclaw feels chills run down her spine. It’s a schematic of the Culexus knowsoft, all of the printed circuitry and hardware laid out plain as day. The patterns in the circuitboards are arranged in hermetic circles and ideograms, fulfilling their dual purpose of channeling both magic and electricity.

“You’d mentioned something like this, so I had my guy dig into this project some more. Seems like Wuxing found a way to harness spirits and bind them onto physical objects. As of now, they haven’t figured out how to get the spirits to do anything, not without human input anyway.”

Another image flicks up on the screen, showing a wide warehouse floor, bare but for a gigantic ritual circle in the middle, covered in blood. “This was taken by a team of runners infiltrating the Wuxing presence here in Chicago, on an unrelated run from yours. Their report says it looks like a site used for ‘ritual blood magic’, but you’ll have to ask someone else what the hell that means. The team that went in followed a bunch of elves looked like they were straight out of Tir Tairngire, said they were all Awake except for one guy, and when they came back out of the warehouse, the mundane wasn’t with them. They think they were trying out this spirit-binding tech on people, but that’s some major-league conspiracy stuff, nobody really believes it’s possible.”

Audell coughs, and shifts in his seat uncomfortably. “Getting at the higher-ups in Wuxing is going to be tough, if not impossible. I’d consider it a dead end, unless you can figure out who in the corp knows about this stuff, and where they are. Personally, I think there are angles to this thing that haven’t made themselves clear. Maybe someone else in the Awakened world has heard something that can be of use.”

“Now,” he slides back, all business. “I’m a friend, but I got needs too, and I don’t work for free. Is there something else you need from me, or should we talk payment for services rendered?”

Player:

Moonclaw uncrosses her legs and rises deliberately from her seat in front of the ’trid. “No, Audell, that is all the datawork we need for now. If you can furnish us with three pre-paid comm sets, we can be on our way.” Her hand goes for a credstick tucked into a belt pouch.

Throughout Audell’s presentation, Crusher has been jotting down names and connections in a small leatherbound notebook. He hauls himself to his feet beside Moonclaw, tapping his pad with the nub of his pencil. “Actually, brother, there is one more thing you could help us with—this runner group, the ones that did recon on the Tir doing the blood, uh, stuff. If you can get us in contact with them, it’ll be more easy cred in your pocket.”

Ling Fei is the last to stand, clearly still a little dazed by the volume and portent of the new findings. “Sir, would you mind putting a copy of those files on this, for posterity?” She produces a small data unit from her jacket pocket and hands it to Audell. “The amount of information you’ve been able to collect here is really pretty impressive. Although, as you can tell, it looks like we’re a long, long way from any sort of payday. I hope that in light of our situation you can give us your most. . . competitive pricing.”

[Ling Fei uses her Negotation (Bargaining): 3(5) skill.]

Gamemaster:

Audell takes Ling Fei’s data unit and places it on the transfer circuit embedded in his desk. Activity lights in the small pad glow blue for a moment, and then he hands the unit back [2 MP of data have been written to the data unit]. He stands and moves toward a back room, but pauses for a second to give Crusher an admonishing look. “You should know that I can’t tell you anything about my other clients. You wouldn’t want me selling your information to Wuxing, would you? Doublecrossing runners is a great way to get killed.”

The lanky African’s tan shoulders roll as he rummages through a plastic trash bag. He stands and produces three shrink-wrapped handsets from the bag, just cheap plastic cell phones about the size of a cigarette pack, and hands them to each team member. His hands tarry as he gives Ling Fei her phone, and he smiles at the pretty elf. “Well… I guess I don’t have much to worry about competition. You can have the phones for free, but I already paid my netrunner, and I can’t just write that off.” He shrugs, “his bill came to ¥1,200, which is friend prices considering what he risked to get that info. Believe me, he could have gotten much more for that on the black market. You’ve got my word that you’re the only ones’re gonna see that information, though.”

Player:

“Fair enough, sir.” Ling Fei tucks the phone and data unit into her armored jacket and gives the tech peddler a smile as she turns to leave. “Thanks for all your help with this.”

Crusher steps up next and gives him a terse handshake, taking care not to crush the man’s hand. “Well thanks for all the info, Audell. Guess I can’t fault you for watching your own hide out here.”

Moonclaw lets him swipe her credstick as the others shuffle out. “Your services were of quality, as usual, Mr. Scarlett.” She gives him a nod. “May the spirits watch over you.”

The trio heads back to the waiting van, each one wary and on edge. Ling Fei worries to her companions as they climb back in. “Holy shit. . . Can you believe this? Wuxing?”

Moonclaw cuts her off impatiently. “Our time is short. We can discuss on the way to our next destination. I’d like to show those files to a talismonger I know, near Columbus park off 290. Unless some else has a better idea?”

Crusher nods. “Sounds good. Punch it, Ling.”

Ling Fei fumbles with the rigger jack, and within moments they are cruising back down I-90. Her voice comes in nervous over Boxcar’s intercom. “I can’t believe we’re up against Wuxing—I mean, we’re totally fucked. How can a dozen runners possibly survive with an entire megacorp after us?”

Crusher does his best to sooth her from the backseat. “Alright, calm down Ling. I’ve gone up against bigger things than corps and I’m still breathing. It sounds like you know of them?”

“Okay, yeah, I guess there’s no use freaking out about it. Yeah, I know about Wuxing, ‘course I do. The name means ’five elements.’ In ancient Chinese culture they referred to the five elements for everything: medicine, philosophy, feng shui, you name it. Don’t know what the name has to do with the corp itself though.

“Wuxing is from Hong Kong. They founded the Pacific Prosperity Group two years ago, which was responsible for challenging the Japanese domination of the southeast Asian markets. At least where I’m from in Taiwan, they’re almost like heroes.” She sighs, a strange sound to hear coming from a vehicle. “If they had only come around sooner, my dad might still have his business.”

Crusher snorts. “And now they’re trying to kill us.”

Moonclaw cuts in. “I’ve heard of Wuxing a few times myself, but only in passing. They do a great deal of research on the nature of spirits. I’ve read a few of their articles online. In retrospect I’m not surprised they’re the ones behind this.”

In the back seat, Crusher puzzles over his notepad, absentmindedly rubbing at his enlarged teeth. “So Wuxing made the chip, but what about these Tir Tairngire elves, and their. . what is it. . ‘blood magic’?”

“They must be related to the assassin we fought this afternoon,” Ling Fei’s voice crackles. “Audell said that there was only one mundane with them, and he didn’t come out. Maybe this odd one out is the assassin, somehow estranged from the group?”

Moonclaw shakes her head. “Even given what I have seen these past few weeks, I cannot believe that a mundane could be given such powers as he had, regardless of the means. No, I believe the mundane didn’t come out because he was sacrificed—blood magic is so named because it requires a blood offering. It is powerful, and quite illegal in this country.”

“Ah, that makes a lot more sense,” Crusher says excitedly. “The pieces are coming together. Most straightforward explanation would be. .” he jots a few more notes down on his pad. "Wuxing loses track of their Culexus chip, hires these East Coast Massive thugs to get it back. They drek it up, Johnson brings us in to retrieve it. But Johnny tries to cross Wuxing, he gets plucked, and lands us in the soup too. This assassin has some sort of beef with Wuxing, and they throw us all in the mix to try to tie things off.

“I’m gonna call a buddy o’ mine, see if he can confirm that it was the Tir and Wuxing that were throwing down today.” He works his new com unit angrily, his orkish fingers too unwieldy for the human-sized keypad. “Damn thing. . so small. . ah, it’s ringing. Hey, Rawls, got a few quick ones for you. I got in a scrap today, and I need to confirm who I was fighting. First off, tell me what you know about Wuxing Inc., specifically, if armored vans and suits packing Preds’ fit the bill. Second, I need to know what you’ve heard about Tir Tairngire activity in Chi town, especially relating to Wuxing.”

Gamemaster:

The military grunt’s voice on the other end of the line is taxed and hoarse, probably as a result of his ceaseless training. “Hey Crusher, sorry to hear you went into action without me. I haven’t heard about Wuxing specifically, but a well-equipped outfit like a corp would probably field something along those lines. Usually if they’re operating inside urban centers —seems like the stigma about that has died down recently —they won’t bring out the really big guns.”

Boxcar’s engine hums along, merging them onto the 90-94 split. “I don’t know much about elves operating in Chicago, either- sorry, bud. You know those elves: they usually keep shut traps to everyone but their own.”

Player:

“Alright, I’ll be in touch Rawls. Thanks.” Crusher pockets his phone and shakes his head. “No dice. We’ll just have to wait and see what Moonclaw’s contact has to say.”

Gamemaster:

Usually, the bazaar around Talismana is a bustling place of paranormal commerce, but this morning it is eerily quiet. The lean-to inventory shacks and vendor stands are mostly empty, and those sellers that are present are nervous and on-edge, lacking the usual cries extolling their magical wares.

The team makes its way cautiously through the open-air market, heading to the far left corner where the lower floors of some abandoned apartment complexes have been re-purposed to create a strip mall-style series of shops and boutiques. Here is where Mesay and some other enterprising traffickers of magical items have set up their places of business.

Dust runs in streaks across the inside windows of Talismana. The windows display their accustomed set of wares, but the unusual silence of the courtyard around it, coupled with the events of that morning, have made the team more wary than usual.

The door to the shop stands ajar, another item out of place. There is no familiar jingle of the crystal bell when the door is pushed open. For no certain reason, the hairs on the back of Crusher’s hand stand up as the door swings open to reveal… an empty shop.

Mesay is not behind the counter; even the squawks and screeches of the paranimals cannot be heard. There is a door leading to the rear of the building, covered with a lilac curtain just behind the counter at the far wall. The rest of the store seems to be untouched.

Player:

Moonclaw gestures to the others to stay put and quietly draws her pistol.

Crusher pulls his Max Power in one fluid sweep and ducks between two dusty shelves, watching for danger from without.

Ling Fei hesitates at the sight of her partners’ weapons, unsure of what to do with herself. She finds her composure and takes cover in the aisle opposite Crusher. Heart thumping, she fumbles for her own pistol, the holdout piece diminutive compared to Crusher’s large-bore slug thrower.

The shaman pauses at the entrance of the talismonger’s shop and focuses her senses upon the astral plane, casting over the room for a sign of her contact.

Gamemaster:

The store is silent as the grave, and a lonely wind creaks the hinges on the blue door, ringing the crystal bell gently. Silence draws taught like a noose as the team scans their surroundings. Crusher can neither see nor hear anything amiss as he surveys the area; no other patrons appear to be approaching or entering the store from the outside.

Moonclaw stands tall and focuses inward, calming her sense and letting the sensory input of the familiar store wash over her, trying to see the place for what it is, and not what she knows it to be. A few moments pass and she cannot perceive anything amiss on the physical.

Turning her attentions to the astral plane, the world blooms into life in front of her, and the interior of the shop radiates blinding light, each magical item glowing with it’s own magical essence. A sealed rack of staves lights up like a lamp, and in the sudden illumination she assenses something… a familiar presence, like the smell of a childhood home long since departed . The feeling fades as quickly as it came over her leaving her with a faint notion of dread.

Turning her attention to the door in the back of the shop, she can perceive a faint life force just beyond the wall opposite, slumped down on the floor in the back of the shop. The aura is distinctly that of Mesay, but his strength appears to be ebbing.

Player:

Moonclaw strides softly down the main aisle, back arched and pistol held ready, alert for signs of danger as she approaches the rear door. [Moonclaw is using her sneaking 5 skill].

Gamemaster:

Taking on the airs of her feline counterpart, the spec-ops-trained shaman expertly maneuvers down the center of the store, keeping low and making no noise. Reaching the back counter, she can hear a faint, wet breathing originating somewhere behind the purple curtains.

Player:

Her senses still upon the astral realm, Moonclaw ducks beneath the curtain and enters the back room, weapon at the ready.

Gamemaster:

Talismana’s storage area is a rectangular room cluttered by a dusty jumble of books, boxes and cages. The room opens up out to Moonclaw’s right, and as she brushes the curtain back to get a better view, she sees a pair of legs protruding from a pile of books and broken glass jars.

Looking closer, she can see it is Mesay. He has been badly beaten, and his face is swollen and bloodied. One arm hangs at a painful angle, broken at the elbow. He makes no movement as she enters, but her astral sight tells her that he is not yet dead.

Player:

Ever cautious, the cat shaman scans the back room with her sight, alert for signs of the talismonger’s assailant.

Gamemaster:

A metal emergency door leads out from the back of this room, opening onto a small alley in the back of the shop, skies criss crossed above with the forgotten laundry of long-vacated tenants. The back of this alley ends in a T-intersection with another brick building, chipped mortar heavy with faded grafitti. Moonclaw checks the alley and the room quickly, but nobody is present.

Turning back to the room and the wounded man, one thing disturbs her. The aura of the attacker is still present, faint but noticeable, and it appears that he had magical company. The color of the residual presence is neither completely human nor completely otherworldly, but a little of both. Whatever it was, it was certainly Awakened, and it traveled the physical realm as if inhabiting a body, but also left marks on the astral, much in the same manner as spirits. Consulting her magical background and Sioux mythology, she does not think she has ever seen anything like it before.

The man on the floor groans, feebly, “He… help us… the hand of Iehov has come… come to right our wrongs…”

Player:

Satisfied for her own safety, Moonclaw holsters her sidearm and slinks to the talismonger’s side. She draws close, taking care not to kneel in the blood seeping from his broken form. “Mesay,” she whispers, “what has done this to you?”

Gamemaster:

“The left hand of God. A man in black, with twisted arm… looking for you. Beware, cat, this dog….” he loses consciousness with a boody splutter and slumps backwards amidst his books.

Player:

A look of mild concern crosses the shaman’s face. She pinches her sub-vocal mic to radio her team, “Get in here you two. My contact is down, I may need you to patch him up if his wounds are too old.”

Moonclaw pauses for a moment to listen for the sound of her teammate’s feet. Satisfied of their coming, she turns her otherworldly sense fully upon the old man, scrying his broken form for signs of life and the age of his injuries.

Gamemaster:

Several wounds and blunt impact marks mar the African man’s aura. The extent of the damage is severe for the small number of injuries he has sustained; the shaman deduces that the power behind each must have been devastating. Unfortunately, they are too old for her to heal magically; her suspicions are roused when she realizes that they must have come from earlier that dawn, mere hours before their conflict with the assassin.

Player:

Crusher comes thudding into the back room, Browning raised, with Ling Fei following closely behind. She rushes to Moonclaw’s side as Crusher moves to check the back alley.

“Holy shit, what happened here?” she demands, checking the talismonger’s pulse and breath.

“Something powerful,” Moonclaw indicates his broken arm, “using physical strikes, most likely of a paranormal nature. Anyway,” she sighs, standing, “there’s nothing I can do for him.”

Crusher curses under his breath as he takes a better look at Mesay’s shattered form. “Well Ling, he gonna make it?”

Gamemaster:

The elf ascertains the state and severity of the injuries. It’s hard to discern, but the African’s wounds seem deadly. He may not survive on his own, and certainly won’t stabilize without medical attention.

Player:

“Shit,” Ling Fei sighs, withdrawing her doubled fingers from Mesay’s neck. "He’s bleeding out quick. Uh. . " She hesitates for a moment, her voice wavering with stress. “Let’s see, uh, Moonclaw—find some cloth in this dump. Crusher, run back to the van and grab the medkit.”

Crusher grunts and hustles back outside to grab the kit. Moonclaw hesitates. “Honestly? Can’t you just wait for Crusher to get back with the gauze?” Receiving no response, she growls and begins to cast about the cluttered boxes for a bolt of clean cloth.

The rigger thinks back on her brief experience with Harriet Matthews, trying to imagine what the old street doc would do to stabilize a man who was bleeding out. Suddenly, Ling Fei recalls that Matthews hadn’t been answering her com calls, immediately filling her with worry.

She shakes it off, willing herself to focus on the task at hand. She gathers what’s left of his shirt to begin staunching his wounds, doing a more thorough job as Crusher arrives with the medical supplies.

Gamemaster:

The old man’s body responds well; as Ling Fei ties off bandages above the wounds, the blood flow slows enough for her to add some QuickClot, which seeps into the cut flesh and hardens the blood into thick, black scales. She takes another look at his left arm, which is clearly broken, but decides not to set it there for risk of causing more hemorrhaging. There is not much she can do for the internal bleeding and bruised organs, but for now, his condition is stabilized. He still needs to be taken to an intensive care unit to recuperate; he might be unconscious for days yet, or weeks, before he is able to speak or give information related to the attack.

Player:

Ling Fei leans back, her hands caked with layers of Mesay’s blood and the powdery clotting agent. She wipes her brow with the sleeve of her armored jacket and looks up at her teammates. “I got him stabilized, somehow. . . but he’s still bleeding internally. He won’t make it without real medical attention. We need to get him to a hospital, or at least to Doc Matthew’s, but she wasn’t picking up her phone this morning.”

Moonclaw huffs contemptuously. “A hospital? If Wuxing found him—a SINless immigrant in the projects—what makes you think they won’t know if he gets checked into a hospital? He’d be better off bleeding out here on concrete.”

“She may be right,” Crusher snarls. “A street doc is his best option.” Real concern flashes over the mercenary’s face as he considers the possibility that his old friend was visited by the same people who came for Moonclaw’s contact. “I’ll try her again,” he says, dialing her number on his new phone.

The ork checks his watch as he listens to the dial tone, trying to gauge how much time the party has left until their scheduled meetup with the other ’runners.

Gamemaster:

It is only a little before noon, and Crusher estimates they have about two and a half days until the scheduled midnight meetup with the other runners, back at Crusher’s safe house. He wonders idly what the other teams are doing to keep their heads out of trouble. They all seem like experienced runners, which as a matter of course means they are good at hiding; you don’t get far in the shadows without knowing where the searchlight is shining.

The dialtone on Matthews’ end of the line is a muted insect drone in Crusher’s ear. Eventually, however, the call is answered by a young-sounding ork youth; it must be the Doc’s assistant. “Doc M’s chop ’n shop—you blast ’em, we patch ’em. What is the nature of the medical emergency?”

Player:

Crusher grins widely and gives the thumbs up to his teammates.

“We’re taking him to another one of our contacts?” Moonclaw asks sarcastically. “Considering the situation, I hardly feel like that’s the most logical step.”

Ling Fei shoots a nasty look in the shaman’s direction. “For god’s sake Moonclaw, he’s your friend. Don’t you want him to live?”

“Come on,” Crusher adds, “we might even be in time to save her from whatever did. . . this.” He gestures to the battered man at his feet.

“Hey kid,” the ork calls into the phone, “Is the doc in? I got a bleeder here.”

Gamemaster:

The tinny ork voice on the other end mumbles something unintelligible, followed by a muted yelling to someone else in the room. The phone is dropped once, clattering painfully in Crusher’s ear, and then, for a few seconds, silence. When he gets back to Crusher, he seems out of breath. “You an ork? This Crusher? Yeah, we’re—she’s in surgery. It’s Monday, so it’ll probably get real busy in here; try to make it before the noon rush if you want a good spot in line.”

Player:

“Alright,” Crusher barks, “we’re on our way.” He nods to Ling Fei. “Bring the van around, let’s get him loaded up.” The rigger nods, then glazes over as she sends commands to Boxcar’s pilot system.

Crusher stoops and gingerly collects Mesay from the floor, then carries him slowly outside. Ling Fei rushes ahead of him to prepare the van for their newest trauma victim.

Moonclaw lingers in the back room, wondering whether she should object more seriously to taking Mesay to another one of their contacts. She knows each meeting is an opportunity for Wuxing to sniff them out, and fears that their luck may be running out.

Ultimately, though, if Mesay survives his wounds he could have vital information, despite his cryptic mannerisms. Moonclaw has spent enough time on the street to know the difference between insane ranting and mystic insight, and hopes she is right in believing that Mesay speaks the latter.

Still, she cannot shake the foreboding feeling that she is missing something. Something crucial. The cat shaman snarls quietly to herself, then takes one last look through the store for any valuables which might be of use before following her team out of the shop.

Gamemaster:

The back room is cluttered with the evidence of Mesay’s struggle, but it is, after all, a shamanic supply shop, and literally full of temptations for an Awakened burglar. The contents of a large bookcase are turned over in front of her, and beneath torn parchments and spilt spellbooks, she can spy many valuable magical radicals, ritual materials, and reagents. She looks around the room for more items of worth.

There is a glass case of assorted semiprecious stones and trinket jewlery by the far exit door. It is obvious their value is not material, and the glass case suggests they were designed to appear that way. Moonclaw guesses they are minor foci, but minds that they may be bound to the store’s proprietor. Stereotypically, a gnarled and twisted wooden staff leans between this case and the doorframe, looking discarded but worldly.

A large standing cupboard hang its doors on bent hinges by the door leading back to the store proper. There are assorted animal pelts, horns and teeth, and dried plant material spilling from runed glass vials. A silty powder cascades to the floor, forming a half-hourglass between the wide wood slats. Moonclaw thinks she could increase the efficacy of her shamanic lodge by sanctifying some of these items.

The back corner of the room is blocked off by a rectangular, ceiling-height metal barricade, covered with a large, heavy chain and padlock. It is the only feature in the room that does not appear to be damaged by the fight. Mesay is a talismonger, so the shaman guesses that this must be the supplies for his enchanting shop. He probably utilizes the shop on the roof or out on the docks, as the enchanting process sometimes involves smelting and processing metals. The only thing of use to someone without the skill to enchant items would be the ancient recipes and secrets involved with each enchanting.

She finishes her survey of the place. There will obviously be magical shielding or tracking wards on the more valuable items, and she feels dubious about robbing her friend’s business. The items surrounding her are probably worth a small fortune in the right hands, though, and the temptation to help herself to them is palpable.

Player:

This is the first time Moonclaw has considered stealing from someone she knows well, and she stands stock still in the room, her body tensed as if someone were watching. The reasonable choice would be restraint—her relationship with Mesay was valuable, and he would be a foolish talismonger indeed if he did not notice her using a piece of his own merchandise.

The shaman slinks warily to the glass case, already beginning to covet the items within. magical gear is incredibly expensive, she reasons with herself, far beyond the kind of cash she was banking. And Moonclaw could use an edge, especially now. If it came down to it, she could always lie, perhaps say she took it from a man she killed. Or that she was holding it for him, to keep it from being stolen by someone else. Either way, leaving the back door open would invite other robbers to cover her tracks.

Moonclaw shifts her sight to the astral plane and browses hungrily through the arrayed wares for foci of considerable power or interest, as well as signs of protective enchantments.

Gamemaster:

Moonclaw brushes her hand reflexively past the glass-encased collection, pausing at each piece to assess its worth. Some bear the hallmarks of custom pieces, being bound to spell categories and functions unknown, their function surely as mysterious to Moonclaw as most of the store’s inventory would be to any mundane.

All of the items’ astral signatures match that of Mesay, so pervasive is his mark on his wares; it is as if tiny arrows are pointing out their owner’s location at all times. An astral signature is a delicate thing, like a person’s scent and image and personality all rolled into the same sensory experience. It is impossible to mistake one person’s astral signature from another’s in the same way that it is impossible to mistake a stranger’s voice from that of a close friend. All in all, once an Awakened is acquainted with your astral self, the quirks and nuances of that self are not easily forgotten.

She picks out the points of power in the case. Those items that have required more than a cursory bonding stand out to her like lamplights to a moth, and her hand pauses an extra fragment of a second over each. The most powerful focus she can assense in the collection is a generic sustaining focus in the shape of a bone ring, fashioned from the hollowed knucklebone of a large, feral feline. Its strength stands out amongst its neighbors, but it is still not quite capable of sustaining very powerful magicks on its own.

Two more bright beacons draw her attention as well, another ring, this one of ivory, and a jade charm in the shape of an elephant. The first radiates a feeling of emptiness and void; the shaman twists the emotions in her head and realizes it must be a magic nullification charm, meant to aid in magical defense. The elephant grins a heartwarming, tusked green grin at her, and flashes once in the morning light. A matronly feeling cascades from its polished surfaces, and despite elephant spirits being uncommon outside of the voodoo pratices, she can understand that this one wants only to improve the wounds of others. It would make a good healing amulet.

Small bags of ash cling to one another in static embrace, leather tongs coiled loosely around the bags proper. Moonclaw guesses that these contain foci for the summoning of spirits, one bag for each specific domain, containing materials that would aid a magician in drawing out a spirit of that plane. One sack is leaking powdered glass, a sure sign that it’s use was intended to be conjuring city spirits. The others are filled with various forms of dried plant matter and animal refuse, in abstract representation of most of the accepted spiritual domains.

The two lesser items she is interested in belong to the two more common branches of foci: spell and spirit. The spell focus is a silver 6-sided die, each numeral etched in callilgraphed black ink. The spirit focus is a pair of tiny golden manacles, perfectly wrought except for that each side is missing the key to its lock, creating an unbreakable metal band. These two items are the weakest in terms of magical potency, the others either being stronger or appointed to an indvidual’s spellcasting needs, and thus useless to anyone but the individual in question.

The foci here beckon the shaman with the temptations of power, and, as all humans who are tempted with power must do, she is forced to weigh the consequences of seizing that power with the responsibility of wielding it appropriately.

Player:

The slowly dancing lights of the foci’s combined auras entrances Moonclaw, her imagination racing as she considers the manifold possibilities such equipment would offer. In all reality, she admits to herself, the decision had already been made the moment she decided to take one last look around the shop.

The shaman picks up Mesay’s wooden staff with both hands, swings it once through the air to gauge its heft, then brings it crashing down into the display case.

Gamemaster:

The braided wood is warm, and light, under her fingers. She hefts the four foot staff and feels the smooth texture of the wood, the corded knots and tendons worn to a marble polish by years of handling. It is a solid and unbending weapon, with a clubbed top where the wrapping wood gathers into a heavy fist.

It raises itself into the air with ease, and she pauses at the zenith of her swing to appreciate the natural feeling of the weight in her hands. She is part of the club as it begins its downward arc, and she closes her eyes against the flying glass as it hits a home run Babe would be proud of. The case offers no resistance, and the wooden weapon shatters all three shelves and both doors, leaving only the metal hinges screwed into their transparent moorings.

The trinkets scatter themselves at her feet, seemingly defiant of this theft despite their inanimacy.

Player:

Moonclaw casually discards the wooden staff, its utility spent. She kicks aside the larger pieces of glass, then picks each foci carefully from the mess of shards. After a moment’s search, Moonclaw locates a plain leather bag and carefully fills it with the jewelry. Holding the burgeoning satchel in one hand, she can feel the pulse of the collected items, even without switching to astral vision.

The cat shaman takes one dispassionate glance over the ransacked room, then spins on her heel and jogs out to the waiting van. She squints into the afternoon sun, shielding her eyes as she springs up into the passenger seat.

Boxcar’s turbocharged engine roars to life as Ling Fei takes the party out of the bazaar and back toward the highway. The rigger’s head turns to address Moonclaw, but her eyes are glazed and distant, her voice synthesized over the van’s speakers. “What were you doing in there?” she asks, dodging through two-lane traffic as she approaches the on-ramp.

Moonclaw shakes her head irritably. “It’s nothing,” she responds, slipping the sack of foci discreetly into the glove compartment. “Just had to grab something for later.”

Ling Fei’s impulse is to raise her eyebrows questioningly at the shaman, but the lower functions of her brain are currently hardwired into Boxcar’s ASIST interface, translating her kinesthetic commands into piloting input. Her face remains slack and expressionless as a result.

“Whatever,” she sighs, dropping Boxcar down a gear as they make the turn back onto I-290, heading east toward Doc Matthew’s.

Gamemaster:

The drive to doc Matthews’ is uneventful; Mesay has gone completely unconscious and listlessly rolls in and out of a fevered delirium. Boxcar maneuvers calmly in and around traffic, its servo-shock absorbers recoiling and bracing at their rigger’s command to keep the cab as level and steady as possible.

The drive goes quickly, but it still seems an agonizingly long time before they arrive at their destination. The street doctor’s house looks as decrepit and rundown as ever, but the team knows from firsthand experience that the looks of this place can be deceiving.

Player:

Crusher steps first from the van, his heavy boot crunching into the gravely surface of the broken pavement. He checks the tilt of his brimmed hat, his eyes whirring in their sockets as their aperture adjusts to the afternoon glare. The familiar smells of the Auburn Gresham slums fill his nostrils: fresh asphalt, human urine, the smokey, minty bite of cheap synth-menth.

The old ork reminds himself to stay frosty, even on his home turf. Especially on his home turf, even. Familiarity leads to complacency, complacency to death. And considering the caliber of enemy they were brawling with—entire megacorps, these Tir dandies—they couldn’t afford to get complacent.

Crusher can tell Moonclaw is standing quietly behind him, can sense her impatience.

The mercenary stamps his boot. “Alright, I’m going in to get a stretcher. Watch the block, stay alert for fuck’s sake.”

He marches up the porch steps, swinging the broken screen door aside so he can bang on the front door. “Doc? Doc! It’s your boy Crusher! I gotta mark needs a patch job!”

Gamemaster:

A ringing crash of metal-on-metal echoes from within. Crusher can see the ‘waiting room’ through a glass window in the white door, ratty couches and lawn furniture ringing a living room with textured yellow paint on the ceilings and walls. A few ork patients idle here, leafing through dog-eared travel magazines: a broken arm, a bandaged eye, a gunshot wound which leaks onto the stained hardwood. A very old orkish man sits up against the wall, muttering to himself, with nothing outwardly wrong with him; he is coming off of a drug binge, perhaps, or has some other psychological damage born of weapons far more scarring than a blade or bullet.

There is a long hallway visible from the front door as it leads away from the living room, other spaces branching off from it. The familiar young ork aide stumbles into this hall from a side room, hopping on one leg to free his other from the clutches of a blue tarpaulin. He kicks it aside after some effort and runs up to open the front door.

Breathlessly, “Where’s your injured chummer, chummer?” He grabs a folded stretcher leaning against the wall by the door.

Player:

Crusher jabs his thumb over one shoulder. “He’s back in the van. ’Ere, let me help with that.” Between the two dark-skinned orks, the stretcher seems like a miniature toy. He grips it in his left hand, letting it jostle limply between them.

Being back at this house always recalls Crusher’s mind to his first piece of cyber, the one he got after the war in 2020. It almost feels as if it were real, just a little heavier, but when he looks down at it, his memories flash back to that day: his entire right half engulfed in flames which danced impossibly from pink to blue, and the beast’s great horny head, twice as big as a Sherman, spitting out arcing gouts of burning liquid into the convoy of Hummers ahead of him.

“Crusher? Crusher?” His mind swims lazily back to reality, the events of the past racing away from him like a bad dream. A youthful, native-looking chick is standing in front of him in some sort of ‘Solid Snake’ getup.

Moonclaw watches him impatiently. “The body isn’t going to move itself. Any ideas?” Crusher shakes his head, apologizes, and ducks into the van to help muscle the talismonger onto the stretcher.

Ling Fei runs up alongside them as they cross the brief, poorly kept lawn, taking care to avoid the wild clumps of crabgrass growing amongst the dirt.

Gamemaster:

Their patient, now freshly going into shock, is carted straight through the waiting room and all the way down the hall, to the last door in the house. Paint chips flake down off the ceilings and walls onto the floor, pooling at the baseboards like wax.

The end room is devoid of furniture, save a sturdy fold-out table covered with a clean surgical tarp, and Doc Matthews’ wheelchair. The doctor looks Crusher up and down, eyeing his sword wound and the disheveled appearance of his armor, breathing in the potassium nitrate from caked-on gunpowder fumes. “Alfred, are you sure it’s not you that needs attention today?”

She turns her practiced eye toward her new patient, noting the shattered bones and contusions, the bruising around the impact sites, the hemorrhaging. “Your friend here took quite a beating, but it looks like it wasn’t meant to be fatal. We can get him fixed up with some blood, the nano-platelets should do the rest. As for the broken bones, we’ll have to wait until he wakes up to see if he wants them replaced, but in the meantime we will set them. Mork, start the transfusion here—” she taps the inside of Mesay’s right elbow, “—then get the osteovice ready. Alfred, if he lives, he’s going to need to pay for our services, but we need some money up front to make sure we’re not doing charity work. You understand, this is a business. Whatever you can part with now is fine, I understand you’ll get it out of him one way or t’other.”

Player:

Crusher bares his enlarged canines in frustration. “Shit Moonclaw, good thing we went to see this guy.”

The shaman ignores Crusher’s taunts and draws her credstick. “I will give you five thousand now, the balance as you see fit after the operation.”

Moonclaw looks down at the street doctor as she hands over the money, examining the ork’s gnarled form, the array of mechanical limbs splayed out behind it in some sick parody of natural life . She fights to keep her nose from wrinkling in disgust. “He is, of course, a magically active being. Any unnatural augmentations to his body will have. . . repercussions. Even the loss of a limb will reduce his ability to draw from the rivers of Gaia. I trust you have operated on our kind before?”

Gamemaster:

The doctor adopts an uncharacteristic air of condescension with Moonclaw. Out in the real world, she might have been more polite, but here, as an elder in an ork ‘burb, with nobody but the local tusks to watch each other’s backs, she is used to a little more respect. “Young lady, I assure you we will not damage him any further than he has already been damaged. There may still be a risk of some magic loss, as you know, and—” she chuckles, looking down at the credstick as she slots it into a port in the side of her chair “—this isn’t nearly enough cred to get this man the cyber he needs to walk around tomorrow. We never amputate unless it’s necessary.” She hands the shamans’ credstick back with a wrinkled, arthritic meat hand.

“Now, please, wait outside or come to pick him up later. We have to resanitize the OR and you lack the necessary safety equipment.” As she speaks, a metal arm slowly lowers a black rubber gas mask over her face. She gingerly fits her tusks in with the air scrubbers and pulls her goggles down over her eyes, completing the image of a mad scientist, spidery limbs uncoiling and flexing their various faculties around her.

Mork finishes placing the central line and pulls a white sheet over the body with a practiced tug. He reaches up to the ceiling and pulls a black metal sphere down from a hanging mount. He calibrates it for a few seconds, then pulls on a gas mask and goggles and waits expectantly for the team to leave.

Player:

Moonclaw retrieves her credstick with a huff, holding Matthews’ gaze for a moment longer before stalking out onto the front porch. Ling Fei follows quickly after, embarrassed once again by her partner’s brazen haughtiness.

Crusher lingers behind, concern on his face. “I owe you again, doc. You watch out for yourself, you hear? The streets. . . are hot these days.” He stares dumbly down at his boots, rotating his cyberarm in its socket. Finally, he inclines his head to her, showing her the respect due a matriarch, the closest thing he’s had to family in his adult life. She nods knowingly back to him, breathing evenly through her surgical mask.

Crusher bats the screen door aside casually, enjoying the freedom of walking through ork-built doorframes. He steps off the porch to join his unit, scanning the horizon for trouble from beneath the brim of his hat. His shadow pools beneath him in an indecisive blob, the wind whipping up the tails of his overcoat. The gusts have almost lost their frosty bite now, and he could even feel his face, cold as it was. April in the windy city.

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Ling Fei forces an optimistic smile for the sullen pair.

Crusher shrugs. “I have one more guy I want to see. Anyone else?”

Ling Fei shakes her head. “Unless we’re trying to build some sort of remote-controlled death robot, none of my contacts are too useful.”

Moonclaw tries to act casual. Her mind is already drawn to the contents of the rigger’s glove compartment, filling with the tasks ahead. “I have. . preparations to make. If you don’t mind,” she adds.

Crusher shrugs again. “S’up to you, I just want to stop by my buddy Rawls’s—see if he can’t produce something a little more. . .” He searches for the right term. “Fire producing, I guess.”

“Well, I don’t really think you’ll need me for that.” Moonclaw responds flatly.

“I’ll give you a ride over,” Ling Fei offers, “I don’t really have much to do anyway.”

The street shaman watches the armored van power away to the south, away from the city. She takes a moment to find her bearings in the unfamiliar neighborhood. She walks to the closest intersection, finding to her surprise that she is on west 87th, the same street that runs all the way to her block.

She sets off east, keeping to the quieter streets when possible within the dangerous ork ghetto. She is making a deliberate beeline to her apartment, heading beneath I-94 on her way to a construction site she knows of.

Moonclaw takes out the satchel of foci as she walks, going over the items again. She mulls over the 5k plus she has just dropped on a man whom she knows only through business, although she ultimately tallies the talismonger’s medical bill in her favor, as his services, and the avoidance of his wrath, were both valuable.

But there was nothing to be done now. She will need to build another lodge to bind the foci, now that she had moved to a new building. She would need aluminum piping and tarpaulin, as well as most of the standard urban elements—concrete powder, steel in some manageable form, and glass if one could get it. She smiled to herself, recalling the havoc her glass spirit had caused earlier that morning. Yes, she would have to get some glass as well.

Eager to bind these new objects of power, the young cat shaman quickens her pace, anxious to reach the construction site and begin her collection.

View
Act III: Gevurah - Scene IV
Breakout

Gamemaster:

The morning air, shaken and roused to unnatural action by the battle, shivers as the sound of approaching engines hums between the skyscrapers and builds to a slow crescendo. All eyes leave the limousine and are cast upward, seeking the new enemy. The four strike teams described by the dwarves arrive simultaneously, surrounding the runners completely on both sides of the bridge, and the top and bottom of the E. Randolph ramp.

The three teams to the North, West and South— those not arriving via the subterranean tunnel— are each comprised of two slick, black corporate cars and what looks like a modified LS Black Mariah, the favored riot-control vehicles of Lone Star. The usual Sheriff’s Star logo has been removed, and the vehicles look shorter overall from back to front, but still boast the impressive armor and sensors packages common to their loadout. Conspicuously absent are Lone Star’s signature less-than-lethal weapons: the volt-hoses, sonic cannons and tear gas launchers of police brutality newsfeeds. In their place are firing slots leading into the interior of the vehicle, running the entire length of the chassis. If the interior of these beasts has been converted to a dedicated troop-transport role, each must be capable of holding nearly a dozen men.

The team at the bottom of the ramp is composed of four of the smaller corporate cars, and Ling Fei suspects that the armored vans were not able to negotiate certain parts of the tunnel with the active-radar ‘rabbit ears’ assemblies mounted on the roof.

The panel-doors of the Black Mariahs slide open and the gull-wing doors of the cars star to raise themselves slowly. Men in black, unmarked jackets and sunglasses pile out, Ares Predators in hand. Only two or three from each group can make it into a position in time to draw lines of fire, but there are a lot of them left, and they continuously pour forth from the black interiors like ants.

The smoke clears from the street completely, and Bakcha is the first to rally. He turns to Charlie, “Get Blitz out of there! This run is fucked!” and his UZI-III blazes up at the men at the top of the ramp, hitting one but not dropping him. He moves as quickly as he is able— blood still drips from his face —towards Jets’ truck, and Charlie nods to him, starting towards the limo and firing her own weapon down the ramp at the corp cars. She crouches low and moves quickly, and small-arms fire starts to drizzle down around her, promising a deluge. Passing the driver’s door, she notices a large-bore bullethole through the side window, and the driver himself slumped over the steering column, rigger jack still protruding from his temple. One of the goon’s own bullets strikes the glass and bores deep, but does not penetrate fully. Spidery cracks race outwards and hug the rubber rain guards. Moving on, she steps quickly past the gundrone and the door-less opening in the vehicle, eventually reaching Blitz, still winded from the assassin’s phantom kick. She hoists her brother ork across her metal shoulders, careful to avoid the knife in his shoulder, but he shrugs her off, preferring to walk himself. They start out at a patient jog towards the truck, working up to a run as the mayhem around them continues to escalate.

The truck itself is now a scene of chaos, as the remaining Sundowners realize that, with Boxcar full of Ling Fei’s team, their vehicle is the orks’ only method of egress. The corp seem to notice this, too, and they begin to concentrate their fire on Hulder and his teammates. Jets cowers behind her armored glass as the lead rain falls around her, but Molly is out in full force, her Ceska Black Scorpion sweeping AP rounds across the Northern bridge top opposite her. Hulder lets out a roar and trains his .50 cal on this group as well, and the concentrated fire tears one man in half and downs another. The rest of this group takes cover behind the concrete barricade as they exit their vehicles, heads down and pistols raised over the railing, blindfiring. Hulder’s back is exposed, though, and the wounded troll takes a few hits from the Ares Predators, but shrugs them off and continues firing.

The battle is deafening now, and the runners are having trouble making themselves heard over the concussive blasts of a dozen gun barrels discharging at once. Shells rain down from the bridges and roll like cigarette butts from the top of the ramp. Over this cacophony, a voice can be heard, a furious shout slowly building in power until it drowns out all but Hulder’s heavy-caliber reports. The back passenger door of the limousine flies off its hinges, and the Prime Minister is tossed across the street like a ragdoll; he slams into the opposite ramp wall, a bloody mess where his face must have been not a few moments before. The assassin steps into the light and makes himself heard, roaring at the top of his lungs, a cry of absolute rage, stopping all combatants in their tracks, balking at the volume of it. Then, he speaks, and the runners hear his voice for the first time. It is a voice of barely-restrained anger, calm and matter-of-fact, but wavering on the precipice of homicidal madness. “WHERE…IS…HE?!” Three words, spoken plainly, addressed to no-one. A grenade falls from his hand, and he looks up at the ambushers accusingly, almost as if expecting an answer from them.

[The assassin has exposed himself. It is Ling Fei and Crusher’s delayed combat turn. It is Moonclaw’s regular combat turn.]

Player:

Ling Fei’s voice rings out within Boxcar’s interior. “Drek, we’re in it now!”

Moonclaw depresses her earbud with a gloved finger in an effort to hear her radio above the storm of fire. She turns urgently to her teammate. “Time to escape, elf!”

“Not yet, Goddamn it!” Crusher is yelling from the back seat, training his rifle on the assassin. He bares down, his face a mask of concentration. “This time I’m gonna get this fucker.”

Just before he seems ready to fire, the van lurches backwards, jogging the ork’s aim. He cries out indignantly. “The hell, Ling?”

The rigger’s voice is even and apologetic. “Something tells me he’s not the enemy anymore, Crusher. Besides,” her head ducks instinctively as a round rings off the pavement nearby. “we could use the friends.”

Moonclaw turns to face the cabin, her voice uncharacteristically loud. “Hey! We must escape soon!” She points out of the windshield, directing her allies’ attention to the tunnel in front of them. “The underpass! It will be easier to lose them there.”

Crusher glares at the two women, his face a deep-set frown. “Fine! Let’s move already!”

Aleister Crowley places a hand on Ling Fei’s shoulder. “Ms. Chi. . .”

“Yeah Al, I’m gettin’ him.” The rigger continues to wheel the van backwards, expertly whipping to a halt at Grendel’s side, the vehicle’s nose pointing East toward the darkness beneath the bridge. She brings her VCR to the foreground and indicates the suits deployed in the underpass entrance. “Sparrow one, Scarab one, advance and attack these targets.”

Opposite the mage and troll, Crusher leans from the right hand side of the van, taking advantage of the transport’s temporary stillness to fire off a round. He barks into his mike as he lines up the shot, rifle angled steeply to give the grenade proper trajectory. “All units, new escape vector is East! I repeat, retreat to the East! Get the orks in that truck and let’s get the fuck into the tunnel!” With this last breath, he releases the grenade, sending it sailing toward the closest car blocking the tunnel entrance.

Moonclaw glances sideways, just catching a glimpse of something entirely other within the shimmering surface of the Aon center. She calls out to its astral signature, her fingers curling about the air as if clutching some unseen organ. “Garou-kin! Step now to me, on the plane of things, to spill the blood of men!” She reaches out towards the figures beneath the underpass, her outstretched fingers brushing the pane of Boxcar’s windshield. “Beginning with them!”

[Ling’s Guardian and Roto-drone test to comprehend their orders. The Guardian rolls 5 dice (pilot:3 +2), the Roto-drone 2 dice (pilot:1 +1). Both drones are at +2 to comprehend because Ling is currently rigging a vehicle. Comprehension will cause the drones to make sensor tests to lock on. The Guardian has sensor: 4, the Roto-drone sensor: 1.]

[Crusher takes aim for one action then fires. Modifiers are smartlink -1, take aim -1, moderate wound +2. Manual gunnery modifiers (pg 153) may apply. Cybernetic optical mag may reduce range modifier.]

Gamemaster:

As one, most of the corp guards shift their focus of fire from the runners to the assassin. The armored shell of the limousine rings like a klaxon as bullets skim and dent its surface, and the black-clad warrior jerks back and forth as some of the rounds find their mark. His armor holds, and the smoke grenade at his feet goes off with a whoosh, filling the combat arena with smoke again, this time forming around the rear of the limousine. In a few moments, he will be gone, free to do his disappearing act and move undetected within his smokescreen.

The hit squads surrounding them become yet more numerous, as the Black Mariahs continue to spew forth men. From within one emerges a man with an electrostatic bola gun, essentially two dud grenades joined together by a six-foot taser wire. He shoulders the awkward Y-shaped launcher and fires at the limousine; the round is ducked and skims off the roof where it kicks up sparks, then lands in the street, crackling. A second man begins to reload the weapon immediately.

In the pit below, Crusher’s huge twin barreled Combat Gun raises its mouthes to the sky and coughs forth a mini grenade. It arcs up and over beautifully, following the calculated curve on Crusher’s retina with perfection. The detonation echoes and reverberates down the tunnel as the grenade lands amidst the corp cars parked at the bottom of the ramp, impacting left of center. Five men with guns drawn are scrambling through the cars here, and the bright flash and noise scorch two of them, knocking them backwards onto the pavement, concussed. Another, rushing forward to return fire, is peppered by gravel and shrapnel but manages to make it to cover behind the hood of his car.

Ling Fei’s drones take this moment to follow their leader perfectly, and they take flanking positions on Boxcar before moving forward, machine-like, laser sights playing over the black jackets at the bottom of the ramp. The miniturret hanging from the underbelly of Sparrow-1 whirrs to life, aiming the FN-HAR carefully, auto-correcting slightly. The ghost in the machine decides to make the best of the heavy assault rifle, and the entire body of the drone shakes as the gun goes off in fully-automatic fire, a long burst that cuts through the staccato beat of the combat. Bullets ring off of the armored cars downrange, and men flinch as they raise their pistols to return fire, but nobody is hit. The roto-drone, taking its time, rotates its fixed firmpoint by fine-tuning the torque of its vertical rotor; it picks out a man who emerges to move forward and tracks him slowly. Mounted upside down beneath the dwarf-like chassis, the UZI-III barks once, a three-round burst that sounds like an angry doberman, and the man goes down as he runs, bouncing on the pavement hard.

Boxcar pulls around to an Eastern facing, down the ramp. Grendel hauls himself over and crashes into the cab, forcing the winded magician and wounded ork to scramble out of the way of his bulk. The scarred troll breathes heavily and sloppily; he holds a metal arm to his chest, where the long gash can be seen plain, a lightning wound in a tree trunk. He’s lost an alarming amount of blood, but he doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Crusher can hear Hulder returning fire with his .50 caliber machinegun, and gets a glimpse of the three spider orks combat-running towards the truck. Rounds begin to hit the pavement outside Boxcar’s open door, and Crusher grabs the crash handle, slamming it closed as more bullets bury themselves in steel armor.

The Awakened have remained silent throughout all this, staring out their respective windows, she up, at the window panes, and he West, to their adversaries blocking the route to Upper Randolph.

Moonclaw feels the spirit materializing, gathering itself high above her. It is like spellcasting for them, she thinks—a slow build of energy and then, sudden release. Her breath catches as a spidery vein runs along one of the upper story windows, splitting it into large triangles, growing to the next pane over, where the metal frame is already twisting out of the walls. The crack picks up speed, rounds a corner where it is stopped short by a cornice, but then proceeds, looping back on itself, tracing out a large rectangular section of glass. The sunlight on the panes swims crazily as the glass shudders and undulates, building up to a mad dance even as the rectangle shatters in a hundred places, raining silica splinters down below. The safety panes miraculously hold together, and then the whole shape bunches at the middle like a cat and leaps off of the building into the bright morning air. Wage slaves in the interior scream and scramble away from the now-bare corner of their illustrious office in the sky.

The glass folds itself as it falls, making a kind of tumbling origami, and a shape begins to coalesce in the core of it. It rolls over and over in the air, twisting itself into new shapes and surfaces and now it rockets toward the earth, the shape of a stalactite cone, air resistance gone. All eyes are on the street; nobody is watching the skies. The spirit hits the packed cars at the bottom of the ramp like a bomb, taking the enemy there totally by surprise. The cone, point now embedded in the concrete, unfolds its gleaming shell as the men around it scramble to get to their feet. Like an oyster, the cone splits and reveals the form beneath: a large, yeti-like form made entirely of glass. It folds the last of its monstrous appendages from the glass cone and then stands tall, humanoid but for its size and sharp angles. The head, sitting atop a wide chest, is adorned with a massive crystal spike, and the arms are sharp-edged plate glass, elongated forearms ending in balled fists of powdered crashglass, and large triangles with razor’s edges for fingers. The twisted remnants of the steel windowframes make a rickety skeleton within, refracted a thousand times by its own glass flesh.

The men around it gather themselves, retreating to find cover and deal with the combat one threat at a time. The closest one of them scrabbles to his feet and retrieves a shotgun from the gull-door of a car, leveling it one-handed at the spirit’s form. The gun goes off loudly and the sound of dropped marbles can be heard, as the pellets bounce crazily off the glass figure, ricocheting everywhere and burying themselves in the wall opposite. The glass is unmarred, and the creature seems to shake itself before stepping forward and slamming one of its razor-hands down into the man’s chest. His head bounces off the raised door and he hits the ground, groaning.

Aleister mutters fervently to himself, beads of sweat beginning to show on his brow as he concentrates on the casting. The target is weak-willed, he assures himself; these corp goons and hired guns never are the particularly mindful type. Still, his head is close to splitting, a steady migraine which builds with the effort of the sustained spell. Blood flows from his nose; or had it already been flowing? He couldn’t tell. Gazing out the firing slot, he seems to lock eyes with one of the jacketed men at the top of the ramp. He stares hard, and feels the other man’s essence. He knows that the man has locked eyes with him too, now, even through the sunglasses, and he bares down with his will, suppressing the other ego with his own. The man’s spirit breaks almost embarrassingly quickly, and Aleister works his magic fast, thumbs and forefingers twitching in a convulsive but controlled way, like a puppetmaster.

At the top of the ramp, the man in question stops firing, and stands up slowly. He drops his gun clumsily on the pavement, then reaches into the car he was using for cover and plucks a grenade from an ammunition pocket in the back. Quivering a little, the man raises the grenade to shoulder height and rips the pin out of its mooring. He holds the grenade above him in a shaky grasp and releases the spoon, which flies off behind him. No emotion shows on his lips.

Boxcar’s engines sing in Ling Fei’s legs, and her elevated heartrate makes the engine idle high, all systems ready for her signal to move.

[It is Ling-Fei’s combat turn]

Player:

Ling Fei drops the clutch and ramps Boxcar’s RPMs, the heavy diesel engine roaring out a challenge to any would-be pursuers. “Okay people, I have spearhead—form on my six!”

The Roadmaster clanks into first, its tail swerving as the belted tires struggle to bite asphalt, and then the armored transport is in motion, its voice rising and falling as it climbs through the gears, straining to haul its capacity load.

Her sightless eyes dart back and forth as she scans the battle scene in front of her, searching the blockade for a gap wide enough for Boxcar Rebellion to penetrate.

[Ling Fei is making an acceleration test, see pg 141 SR3. She rolls 5 dice (car skill) against TN 4 (handling), adding 2 control pool dice (5 remaining). Each success increases speed by 13 (accel).]

Gamemaster:

The van redlines and lurches forward, jarring the passengers inside. The needle slowly climbs past ten miles per hour, then twenty, then reaches thirty. Ling Fei thinks she can fit the van in around one side of the pack of four cars, which are parked perpendicular to the road, spanning all four lanes. They are spaced so as to block an exit, but Boxcar might have enough weight behind it to ram one of the cars on the ends out of the way.

Jets guns her own truck’s engine, and Hulder sways back and forth in the back as the bed rocks and the vehicle gets on its way, belching smoke from twin upright exhausts. She pulls a hard right over the median and then accelerates, following Ling Fei’s lead. The truck angles to meet the orks in the street as they run; Bakcha swings himself up first, grabbing onto the handrails and vaulting into the flatbed. Charlie springs up to the running boards and offers her hand to help up Blitz as the truck gains speed, almost but not quite matching Boxcar.

The two laden trucks start accelerating east, passing the limo on their left and gaining speed. The gun drone’s wheels slam onto the pavement from their housings in the legs, and the drone accelerates away from the limo with the runners, matching their speed. It passes through the gathering smoke cloud and the twin guns on its arms track down the ramp, the torso pivoting to stay aligned with the road. It maneuvers alongside Boxcar on the left, crouching as it does, and the Ares assault cannon lets off a round which screams downrange deafeningly.

The guards are wholly unprepared for this kind of munition, and the fat shell hisses into the engine block of the car second from the right. There is a muted explosion, then the entire chassis lurches back; the transmission grinds itself into powder as the electric engine bursts its mountings and collapses into the driveshaft. Thick, electric smoke starts to seep out from underneath the hood, and black battery acid leaks out onto the ground.

[It is Crusher’s combat turn.]

Player:

The force of Boxcar’s acceleration drives Crusher into his seat, pressing his insides up into his ribcage. He struggles to his feet and discards his Combat Gun to the floor, which toggles itself to safety as it leaves his hands. Gripping the turret’s pistol grips for balance, the mercenary settles into an awkward, hunched position straddling Grendel the troll, face pressed to the rubber of the digital scope.

He picks out two of the corp goons in the van’s forward facing and gives each a short burst, adjusting his shot with the targeting computer as he had been taught.

[Crusher fires 6 rounds, 3 per target. 10D damage, 4 points recoil reduction. gunnery skill: 4. Adding 4 Combat pool dice (3 remaining). moderate wound +2.]

Gamemaster:

The men downrange are busy scattering from the runners’ fire, but some have found cover and are counterattacking with pistols and the shotguns retrieved from their cars. The spirit, on the left of the ramp, advances inexorably and the men draw away from it, moving towards the right.

There are sixteen of them, four to a car, and Crusher can count three —no, four —down but still moving, getting to their feet. The glass spirit raises its arms over its head and slams them down on the back of the man on the ground in front of it, who is crushed into the pavement. Back to three.

The dwarves’ powerful Eurocar Westwind revs its turbochargers and pulls in between Ling Fei and Jets, following close. The shadowrunners, now armed, armored, and mobile, careen down the ramp towards the tunnel entrance with all barrels blazing.

Boxcar shakes as it accelerates, and they feel the LMG firing with its muted thud-thud-thud on the roof. Through the sights, Crusher watches the first burst catch a corp goon in the chest and shoulder; his arm flies off at the joint as the bullets mushroom inside his body, and he topples backwards. The second burst is aimed a little low, and puts three holes in the trunk of one of the cars, keeping the heads behind down and in cover.

The orks in the truck lean around Hulder and fire their UZIs en masse, joined by Molly Millions and her pistol from the cab. Their small arms fire is accurate and deadly; one man is caught in the crossfire and dances about like a puppet on cut strings before slumping over the hood of his cover, bloodied. On the left, another running man goes down, and another, and two others feel the sting of Molly’s AP rounds as her bullets find their mark.

The scene is chaos, and the corp has once again begun firing at the runners, having lost their main target. The heavy pistol rounds carom off the sides and rear of the truck, and heavy buckshot flattens itself against Boxcar Rebellion’s windshield, spiking Ling Fei’s ASIST. A corp barrel high on the right side tracks the truck carefully and fires, putting a round high in Blitz’ right shoulder. The ork takes a knee from the blow and slumps to the ground, breathing heavily from multiple open wounds, blunt trauma, and blood loss.

The bottom of the ramp is beginning to fill with the black smoke from the damaged car. Two men lie dead, with eight more wounded or down, but six remain standing.

[It is Ling Fei’s combat turn.]

Player:

The elven rigger hunches forward, her face a mask of concentration, willing her vehicle ever faster. Action reports from her combat drones pop up in the periphery of her vision, alerting her of the successful hit as their pilot systems prepare to send out another volley.

Doing her best to focus through the sting of rounds impacting off her hull and the bone-rattling concussion of the LMG firing from the roof, she scans the road in front of her, sending out microwave pings to check the remaining distance to the barricade while using visual scanners to locate a gap wide enough for the convoy to smash its way through.

Gamemaster:

The rangefinder reports the distance remaining is only 47 meters to the nearest vehicle, that being the damaged one, positioned second from the right. The four cars are parked equidistant from each other, but the cars on either end cannot quite reach the ramp wall, and there is a gap there larger than those between the cars. Regardless, it is far too small for Boxcar Rebellion to fit through unscathed.

Player:

Quickly weighing her options, Ling Fei chooses the far left of the blockade for her breakout attempt. The gap is a little wider here, and with any luck the monster Moonclaw seems to have somehow called down from a nearby skyscraper will impede anyone trying to follow them out.

She drifts to the left of the ramp, hugging the concrete barrier as she calls out to the convoy. “Here we go kiddos, stay close!” She lines her nose up with the trunk of the corp cruiser, knowing that the car will be lightest on this end, and easier for her Roadmaster to shunt out of the way. With a mental push she wills the metal beast onward, dropping into 4th and pouring on the gas, her lungs burning from the prolonged sprint.

[Ling Fei makes another acceleration test, adding 5 control pool, zero remaining.]

Gamemaster:

Ling Fei jams on the accelerator, and Boxcar gives a hiccuping cough and roar; the turbochargers seem to choke, but the talented rigger works the throttle, manually controlling the carburetor and air intakes with masterful finesse. The I.C. engine relents and the monstrous vehicle accelerates even further, the needle flying past 40 and almost brushing 50 miles per hour. [Boxcar accelerates a further 24 m/ct, reaching 63 m/ct (47.25 mph)].

Jets tries to keep up with Boxcar’s reckless run, but her truck’s engine is not up to the task, and she starts to fall behind Ling Fei and her team. The dwarves’ car remains between the two larger vehicles, giving Boxcar enough room to maneuver, and keeping a safe distance in case the Roadmaster is not able to punch through completely.

The drones to either side of the van drift off-course to engage their targets, and Ling Fei realizes that she will leave them behind if she keeps up her relentless flight. The Guardian’s nose-mounted FN-HAR blazes and the roto-drone’s Uzi III barks again, but the shells wang harmlessly off the pavement and metal sides of the corp cars, missing their marks.

The autocannon on the dwarves’ anthroform droid cycles its action, and the heavy brass shell hits the street like a bell, rolling into the median. The arms track swiftly sideways and the yawning barrel blasts another round loose into the body of the car second from the left. The heavy munition blows through the front-right tire and telescopes the connecting axle like a cheap antenna, totally ruining the front quarter panels and blasting the differential gears outward, peppering the men taking cover behind it with their metal teeth.

The runners are almost on top of the barricade, the distance to the left hand side closing within ten meters. It is impossible to turn back now, and everyone in the van braces themselves for the impending impact.

[It is Crusher’s combat turn.]

Player:

The corp vehicle quickly fills the turret’s sight, approaching faster than the mercenary had expected. He pulls his eyes away, ducking under the array to get a better look through the windshield. He mutters under his breath, voice heavy with apprehension. “Ooh drek. . .”

He half sits, half falls into the bench seat behind him, his heavy frame dropping roughly upon the spartan padding. His large fingers fumble with the seatbelt, and he lets out a low groan as he reaches back to loop the chest strap over his shoulder, which stretches the delicate scar tissue spanning the jian wound etched across his front.

His seatbelt secure, he extends his legs out across Grendel’s gargantuan form, doing his best to anchor the troll’s torso. He then calls out to the magician, whose actions appear to be almost slow motion to Crusher’s wired perceptions. “C’mere, Al!” He wraps a muscular arm around the mage’s slender torso, pinning the man against his chest in a bear hug. “This is gonna suck!”

Gamemaster:

The world slows as the adrenaline rush takes hold of each passengers’ brainstem, warping the passage of time with icy fingers. Bullets seem to crawl through the air, and details leap out at them with sharp relief. The next few seconds are a whirl of activity:

The corp guards at the bottom of the hill realize the bulky armored van is too massive to stop now. They are gathering themselves, hustling for their car doors, preparing to give chase in the one remaining vehicle. Some gesture to their compatriots to pull the other armored cars around.

Soldiers at the tops of the ramp have climbed over the railings, and are dropping the short distance to the ramp pavement, guns drawn and approaching the smoke screen warily. The taser bola fires again, but the ordnance zips clear through the smoke and bounces along the pavement, striking the wall opposite.

The orks and troll in the back of Jets’ truck grab the nearest handrails, and the great engine emits a great guttural growl, pushing the laden truck’s speed up to 30 mph as she tries to keep up with the Roadmaster and Westwind in front of her.

The rear of the target car looms large in Ling Fei’s vision. Forty feet, now thirty… She can see the interior upholstery, the shining rear panels. Twenty feet… the steering wheel, the grooves on the tires’ contact pads. Ten… her vision narrows to a tunnel and her body tenses reflexively, and she focuses her mind on the point of impact. She hears Moonclaw’s sharp intake of breath as Boxcar’s front bumper comes within five feet of the other vehicle. She wills herself ever forward.

[It is Ling-Fei’s combat turn.]

Player:

Ling Fei leans into the charge, dropping her shoulder as she prepares to buck the smaller car out of her way. She has lost track of the fact that she is rigging, her consciousness entirely immersed in the phenomenal world. For a handful of moments she is at one with the world, neither elf nor machine, not one, and not two.

Boxcar’s rear suspension tightens, angling its nose downward to dig beneath the imposing vehicle, as a charging bull ducks its head to throw its target clear.

[Ling Fei performs a ramming maneuver, PG 143 SR3. Rolling 5 car skill dice and 2 control pool to ram. Rolling damage resistance with 5 body dice, 4 control pool dice. Rolling 5 car skill dice and 1 control pool for the crash test. Zero control pool dice remaining.]

Gamemaster:

There is a moment of silence just before the hit. Like a coming storm or the sweep of an executioner’s blade, all anyone can do at this point is watch events unfold, and hold on.

Boxcar’s heavy, armored fender meets the Americar’s chassis with animal energy. There is a jarring scream of metal scraping against metal, and the heavy van jumps back on its suspension. Everything in the cab lifts up for a moment; Crusher and Aleister hover over their seat, the drones attain flight in their cages, and Moonclaw feels a roller coaster weightlessness before everything crashes back down to Earth.

Outside, the rear of the rammed car bends inward like a tin can, giving way before the massive, juggernaut force of the Rebellion. The car spins clockwise on its front tires as the rear bucks like a horse, and the nose slams into Boxcar’s sliding door as the van passes. It teeters on its side wheels for a second, looking as if it means to roll over, but then comes crashing back to the pavement on all four tires. Ling Fei’s Roadmaster sustains only cosmetic damage, but the corp’s car is undriveable, the rear half having been shattered beyond repair. None of the men on the ground were close enough to be struck by it, and they are now left with only one functioning vehicle with which to give chase.

Ling Fei’s speed drops to 23.25 mph, her drones almost catch up to her as she and the rest of the convoy break through the line. The guardian and roto-drone fire their weapons again at the corp, and one of the men on the ground jumps like a marionette, never to move again. Molly and Charlie vent their frustration with metal barrels as the truck enters the hole in the line, and draws level with the cars. Deprived of cover, the men are easy targets, and one more goes down, clutching his chest from Charlie’s SMG burst. The women don’t even bother shooting around the glass spirit, knowing that few weapons of this world are able to harm it.

Aleister loosens Crusher’s grip on him, his head still swimming dizzily. He bends down to attend to Grendel, patting the great troll down, checking for additional damage.

[It is Crusher’s combat turn.]

Player:

Crusher lets out a whoop of jubilation as he unbuckles himself and rises unsteadily to his feet. “Yeah baby, nice hit!”

Ling Fei turns in her seat, her otherwise serious expression betrayed by the slightest smile emerging from the corner of her mouth. “We’re not out of it yet, big guy! One of their cars is still mobile, looks like they’re getting ready to give chase!”

Crusher steps over Grendel’s massive bulk and wedges himself between the front seats, facing backwards. He wheels the turret controls about, panning over the blockade until he spots the remaining car the corp goons are hustling into. He thumbs the cannon’s firing mode to burst fire and trains the cross-hairs over the Americar’s rear tire, taking care to make his shot count.

[Crusher toggles to burst fire and calls a shot on the rear tire.]

Gamemaster:

Crusher holds the green reticle steady with the turret on a low inclination, letting the forward movement of the vehicle carry his gunsights to their target. He squeezes the trigger when the crosshairs are just about to cross over the rear left wheel well, raking the back of the car with the Valiant’s heavy rounds. The rubber tire is shredded immediately, and the whole car shudders and starts with the impacts, finally settling back down unevenly on its discs.

The ragtag convoy clears the gap in the corporate line and opens up their formation, the dwarves entering the traffic flow and accelerating to clear a path. Jets and the anthroform drone stick close to each other, staying on the left behind Boxcar, but moving slowly. The orks in the back fire some leading shots at the corporate goons scrambling around the damaged cars, but ricochets and metallic clangs announce misses. Hulder turns his attention forward, and fires two rounds into the ceiling above the intersection, to warn oncoming traffic to make way. The intersection is still about 100 meters ahead, and the railings to their right prevent crossing over into the correct lanes. If there is heavy cross traffic, this escape could be halted before it even begins. As if in confirmation of this, the corp car behind them roars to life and spins away unevenly, rear wheel kicking up sparks. It is damaged, but traveling in the correct lanes of traffic, and the Ford motor is still capable of outrunning even the most powerful armored truck.

Blitz sheaths his katana single-handedly, one fluid motion. He crouches on one knee in the truckbed, clutching his right shoulder and chest, where the gunshot wound and knife handle still remain. He grips the knife and rips it out, throwing it into the back of the truck. It rattles around before coming to rest amidst the split bodies of Hackworth and the magician. The red and black ork ganger takes to his feet, UZI III ready for the next opposition.

From behind them, they hear the abrupt thump of a hand grenade going off at the top of the ramp. Aleister’s mind control victim has been vaporized from the chest up, and shrapnel from the explosive he was holding above his head peppers his teammates, scarring exposed flesh and shattering car windows. The Glasswalker at the bottom of the ramp continues to give its own targets hell, picking up one injured man in a razor-edged plate glass grip. The otherworldly hand tightens until body armor gives way and the glass fingers lacerate flesh and sever limbs, splashing the spirit’s shining torso with blood. It discards the body and lumbers forward to chase down the remaining wounded men.

[It is Moonclaw’s combat turn.]

Player:

Something like a dark smile flits over the street shaman’s face as she watches the city spirit tear apart the body of yet another man in the shaky frame of the van’s rear-view mirror. She shifts her gaze away from the gory scene long enough to crane her neck around, calling into the bowels of the Roadmaster, yelling to be heard over her partner’s vulgar cheers of self-congratulation. “Hermetic! Do you need help healing your troll?”

Gamemaster:

Aleister shakes his head no; shouting over the engines and gunfire, “he’s seen worse wounds than these! I believe he’ll make it!”

Player:

“Good,” Moonclaw snarls, baring her canines. “I despise healing the cybered.”

Ling Fei’s voice fills the cabin once again. “Nice shooting Crusher, but they’re coming after us anyway!”

The shaman twists in her seat, shouldering the stock of her Smartgun and pulling down her goggles. “Open the window so I can take a shot.”

She braces the weapon tightly against her body and plays the reticle out in front of the driver’s seat, letting off a burst as soon as the muzzle clears the window, filling the van with the staccato crack of small arms discharge.

[Moonclaw calls a shot on the driver of the pursuing Americar, firing a 3-round burst. Smartgun skill: 4, adding 4 combat pool dice (4 remaining). vent 2 and folding stock negate recoil, 7M base damage. Smartlink -1, Called shot +4, moderate stun +2, unmounted weapon +2. Manual gunnery modifiers PG 153 SR3. All remaining combat pool to damage resistance.]

Gamemaster:

Placing her elbows on the doorframe, the shaman leans forward to get a better angle on the corp windshield. She counts the concrete support columns as they whiz by, timing her shot to travel between them. One… two… thr…

Her lead is too much, and her burst flies wide as the SMG’s report rattles around inside the cramped interior. The shot is echoed a second later by Charlie’s own gun, which plows three pockmarks into the driver’s side window but fails to penetrate: the corp is packing armored glass.

The enemy car makes a play, taking this opportunity to accelerate, the shredded tire flopping awkwardly against the pavement. Henry Ford’s legacy fires up its electric engine and the Americar pulls forward, easily equaling Boxcar’s speed, even on its shredded tire. It is still 20 meters behind, but gaining.

The dwarves’ anthroform pivots at the waist, dropping back slightly to draw level with the pursuers. Its gyroscopes stabilize the torso against the yaw and bend of the chase, and the autocannon sends its fourth round of the day. A manhole-sized blast knocks reinforced concrete out of the tunnel wall, showering the corp car, but it keeps coming, accelerating inexorably.

[It is Ling-Fei’s combat turn.]

Player:

Ling Fei ducks into the sports car’s wake, following the dwarf as he cuts a path through the oncoming traffic. She shifts focus to her drone network, bringing their interfaces up in her peripheral vision as she drives, issuing them a mental command. “Sparrow one, scarab one, shift attack priority to any enemy units attempting to enter the underpass.”

As she waits for the drones to process her input, she patches into the Guardian’s crude speaker system and projects her voice across the street at maximum volume. “Attention assassin! It’s clear that we’ve both been set up by these people, our common enemy! If you fall back beneath the pass our remote units will cover your retreat!”

Gamemaster:

The drones acknowledge their order and hang back as the convoy roars away through the tunnel. Hovering just behind the hulking glass walker, the mechanical minions lend support and open fire on the right and left. The Guardian’s micro-turret swivels on the end of the nosecone, and the FN HAR mows down a corp goon running away from the spirit’s reach. The roto-drone’s UZI III fares less well, missing its mark by a wide margin.

In the truck cab, Molly Millions holsters her Black Scorpion in her shoulder holster with a practiced hand. The extended clip butts against her breast uncomfortably, but she ignores it and goes rummaging through Jets’ dash compartments again. She finds something interesting—a fake SIN registry—before coming up with the flare pistol that she was looking for. Snapping open the action, she is pleased to see it is already loaded, and flicks her wrist, cocking the pin back as the breech snaps shut.

She leans out the window again, flare gun at the ready, as a warning to approaching motorists in the intersection.

[It is Crusher’s combat turn.]

Player:

Crusher lets out a roar of frustration as the Americar continues to shrug off the convoy’s combined fire. He drops to one knee and raises his Ares Alpha, tracking the hobbled vehicle as it comes up alongside Boxcar, bellowing as he pours more lead at the driver’s window. “Raaagh, eat shit you corp motherfuckers!”

[Crusher fires a 3-round burst, calling a shot on the driver. Gunnery 4, adding 4 combat pool (3 remaining). External vent II and internal vent II negate recoil, called shot +4.]

Gamemaster:

Crusher aims carefully, gripping the rifle hard to ensure as small an impact area as possible. He knows the grouping will matter; if he can land two successive hits in the same place, the glass stands a good chance of shattering.

His cyberarm and rifle fit together like two cogs in the same machine, and the old soldier fires. The cutting-edge tech in the rifle balances his aim, steadies the tremble of imperfect human hands, and delivers on its promise to shoot straight and true.

The first round disintegrates into molten fragments on the armored glass, carving out an impact crater the size of a quarter. The next rounds hit within this small area, the glass gives way and the third bullet punches through, striking the driver in the upper chest and penetrating the armor there.

Coughing blood, he slumps sideways, pulling the wheel sharply to the right. The car swerves across two lanes of traffic and caroms off the far guardrail, coming to a juddering, violent halt. Though it was only moving about 30 mph, the impact jars the passengers, stunning them as they bounce around inside the unsecured interior. Boxcar and the rest of the runners pull away from it, now 30 meters ahead of the car and getting further with each second.

The orks watch the receding wrecks, and the glass walker, which continues to thrash its mortal adversaries, flanked by its immortal allies. Hulder lets the machine gun rest, and knocks on the rear glass, sliding it back to ask Molly for something to dress their wounds.

[It is Moonclaw’s combat turn.]

Player:

Moonclaw watches the wreck unfold over the sights of her Ingram, then turns her attention back to the traffic ahead, a frustrated growl rising in her throat. The brief lull in the action gives the shaman a chance to feel the fatigue of her earlier conjuring, but she shakes off the closing weariness, checking the HUD of her smartgoggles and staying alert for fresh danger.

[Moonclaw delays her action until a new threat appears.]

Gamemaster:

Blood continues to pool on the textured metal surface of Boxcar’s interior, outlining the battered body of Grendel. Aleister asks Crusher if there are bandages in the compartments surrounding them.

It does not appear that the corporation is attempting to pursue them at this point, as the tunnel entrance is still mostly blocked off. The runner convoy bumps along, the dwarves leading the way. They’ve pulled ahead a considerable distance already, and the team holds its breath as they pass through the four-way intersection.

No cross traffic impedes their path, and they zoom through with no trouble. Next in line is Ling-Fei, the intersection is only 30 meters ahead and there is no impeding traffic between her and it. She will cross the threshold in only a matter of seconds.

[It is Ling-Fei’s combat turn.]

Player:

Although it seems against her better judgment to leave two combat drones to hold off an entire platoon of men, she can’t stand the thought of losing a potentially friendly relationship with such a devastating fighter. Trusting that Boxcar can provide the juice to amplify her rig’s flux high enough to keep her fliers in range, she decides to leave them there and keep an eye on the fate of the assassin.

The rigger turns her attention back to the road as the intersection looms ahead of her. She drifts to the far-right lane of the road, hugging the central guard wall. She figures that by entering the intersection farther to the right, it will give her another car-length of space to react to oncoming traffic from the left.

[Ling Fei makes a maneuver test to safely pilot Boxcar Rebellion through. Car skill:5 against handling:4. Putting all 9 control pool towards dodge tests.]

Gamemaster:

The van screams forward and everyone engaged holds their breath again, bracing for a second impact. Crusher’s eyes flit to the left-hand firing slots, the direction of oncoming traffic. They pass the threshold of the intersection, with Jets close behind… and then, in a moment, they are free of the danger. The convoy passes through with nary a scratch, a lull in cross traffic admitting them without so much as a honked horn.

The corp pursuers become a blur in the distance as the three vehicles pull away from the scene of the battle. The combatants breathe a collective sigh of relief, and slump against their weapons, sure that the worst is behind them.

A raspy cough comes over the intercom. It is Hulder. “Everyone accounted for? Let’s pick up the pace and get the fuck out of here. Should we split up now and try to lose them, or regroup somewhere else? If somebody’s got a secure location it would be good to get some medical treatment and ditch these bodies. An’ I’m sure someone here knows something they’re not saying. It might be good to compare notes.”

Player:

The throbbing pain in Crusher’s chest begins to rise as the last traces of adrenaline clear from his bloodstream, opening his nervous system to the presence of his agonizing sword wound. With a mental tic the old mercenary toggles his wires off, taking what feels like his first deep breath in hours as the world slows to some semblance of a normal pace. He throws the safety on his rifle and pulls his palm from the connecting stud, propping the cannon up on the seat beside him as the smartlink HUD fades from his view.

Crusher fingers the comm stud in his ear and gives a tired response. “I’ve got an old safehouse in Crestwood, out by Orland Park. Considering the state we’re in, s’probably safest to head out there together. I can call my doc to come tend the wounded, and there’s a shitty old forest across the way for the dead. You dwarves had better keep an eye out for tails or any fliers snooping on us. If we can all agree onnit, that is.”

The ork leaned back in his seat as he waited for the others to consider his proposition, not wanting to give direct orders to men like Hulder or the Spiders, so clearly his martial equals. The short term considerations were easy enough—find cover, tend to the wounded. It was the long term which bothered him. The run had gone sour, that much was clear, and it was more than just a simple botch. They had been hired as bait, or a distraction, or worse, and at the moment he couldn’t be sure which. It was the not knowing which really got to him. He had been in the game long enough to understand that it was what you didn’t know that got you killed.

Such considerations were far from the forefront of Ling Fei’s considerations, her mind too preoccupied with the state of her wounded friends, and more pressingly, the fate of the man she still believed could be their ally. She ordered her Guardian and the long-forgotten Condor blimp to meet her on the other side of the underpass, leaving the cheaper roto-drone to stay and observe the outcome of the battle. Trusting Boxcar’s auto-nav to follow safely behind the dwarves’ Americar, she threw her senses back into the miniature helicopter, taking a more detailed look at the scene surrounding the cloying smokescreen.

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