Far to the north of Locastus, nestled in a once-fertile valley in the Knuckle Hills, foothills of the Thunderhead range, lies the city of Akelor. Once, before it was lost forever in the maelstrom of fractured reality unleashed by the first and only Conversion Weapon to be detonated, it stood as a sentinel on one of the few passes through the Thunderheads.
This pass, named the Ironfrost pass, was the only passable route linking the Locastrial southern lands with the territories north of the mountain range, the dominion of the Rift Hags, the enigmatic rulers of the Witchocracy. Now, even that is forever sealed, inaccessible behind the churned, mangled reality left behind by the warhead Ultor.
In the year 155, one of the exploration teams sent out by the expanding Locastrian dominion, crested a scree-covered slope and came upon the hidden valley and its ancient, long deserted mountain city.
The prospectors and scientists of the pioneering team spent some weeks exploring the Akelor valley, sending exited communications back to Locastus, detailing the still-intact decahedron-palaces, delicate seashell-like domes and soaring spiral-towers of a city built by a long-extinct, technologically advanced but clearly alien race, nestled like a gem at the heart of a green, flowering valley, irrigated by many clear mountain streams.
Strangely, even though the city, its buildings, parks, monuments and avenues seemed in pristine condition, it appeared to have been deserted, left behind by its builders, some centuries or even millennia ago. Archaeological analysis that the original inhabitants had, simultaneously and in orderly fashion, tidied up the city, locked its doors and left, vanishing from the annals of history, as if they disappeared into thin air. No bodies or even depictions of the Builders (as the original inhabitants came to be known) were ever found whatever the circumstances surrounding their evacuation, they had had time to linger long enough to bring with them the bodies of their dead. Their tombs were all breached, unsealed and empty.
The Locastrians, planning to use the alien city as a base for their further exploration of the Knuckle Hills, quickly established a garrison and science/prospecting depot in Akelor. With the first encounters with traders from the other side of the Thunderheads, arriving in the Akelor through the Ironfrost pass, bringing with them strange, intensely puissant greenstone fetishes, gemstones, exotic woods, furs and tinctures from the unknown lands of the North.
A lucrative, although uneasy trade began, a bartering of goods between peoples who had little or nothing in common. The Northerners, at best a surly, secretive bunch, let slip tales of strange and terrible, non-human creatures that ruled in the North.
Tales of the Rift Hags, as these enigmatic beings were called, were drenched in blood and spoken of in terrified whispers, along descriptions of ghastly, winged abominations and gibbering tentacled horrors from the deepest pits of the underworld, brought into the world by perverse sorceries to do the Rift Hags´ bidding.
Despite these chilling rumors, trade with the Northerners continued, warranting the establishment of an official trading post and, with the dawn of steam technology, the construction of a railroad into this outpost of the Locastrian dominion. Under the mother-of-pearl roofs of the alien palaces of Akelor, Locastrian merchants signed contracts and struck deals with the surly caravan captains of the Witchocracy.
For close on twenty-five years, trade flourished, before, for unknown reasons, the caravans grew fewer and further in between. In 178, a Witchocracy saboteur team, disguised as a trader caravan, tried to assassinate key personnel in Akelor in preparation for a Witchocracy invasion. Although the attempt was a failure, it served as a reminder the Locastus was not the only power faction in this part of the world, and that it, sooner rather than later, might be forced to defend its territory.
For even more obscure reasons, late in the same year, a skirmish occurred between Locastrian armed expeditionary troop and a Witchocracy force high in the upper passages of the Ironfrost pass. No one is sure as to why the Locastrians were there, attempting an incursion into Witchocracy territory, or even if it was Locastrians or Northerners that struck the first blow, but it is certain that this was the starting point for a series of conflicts that has become known as the Akelor Wars.
Before long, in early spring of 179, Witchocracy forces, led by obscene, inhuman entities and armed with powerful, alien theurgies, were attacking Akelor itself, taking the city after several months of prolonged, bloody trench warfare, only to be retaken by the Locastrians some months later.
Over the following six years, Akelor changed hands eighteen times, taken and retaken by forces unable to hold conquered ground against the other´s counterattack. At times, the Norterners were pushed back up into the upper reaches of the Ironfrost pass, where the Locastrian forces were too weakened to follow; at others, the Locastrians were pushed clear out of the Akelor valley, into the ravines and gulleys of the Knuckle Hills where their superior fortifications and high ground made it impossible for the Northerners to give effective chase.
As the increasingly pointless struggle continued, the tactics became increasingly desperate and underhanded. Witchocracy soldiers, flash-mutated by obscene sorceries and armed with terrifying magics, launched suicide missions on Locastrian entrenchments, unleashing unbelievable horrors and dark magics but accomplishing little, while Locastrian assassin-commandos, trained in arcane killing and sabotage, crept behind enemy lines to assassinate the mastermind behind the Northerners campaigns. Few of these teams returned at least in any form resembling human.
While the conflict slowly ground to a standstill, the killing became bitter and infected, and the death tolls on both sides started to pick up as weapons of mass destruction were employed. Locastrian napalm, thermite and poison gas were answered by the flesh-eating, viral theurgies of the Witchocracy´s Fetal Bombs, Viscera Worms, Fangsnares and Tooth-Swords.
Hastily dug artillery entrenchments became permanent, the Howitzers continuing their alto, coughing reports day and night, raining death and destruction upon similarly entrenched enemies, mere miles away. Periodically, one side or the other would mount a push, rising from their trenches to die among magnesium flares, gunfire, razorwire and gibbering, semi-organic theurgies.
The city of Akelor itself became a killing ground, battles raging street to street, forever changing back and forth with the tides of ambush and sabotage. Snipers occupied the high, fluted towers and artillery shells pulverized the delicate conch-shell domes and coral-like buttresses of the magnificent alien city.
The once fertile valley had become a churned, muddy wasteland, criss-crossed by razor-wire, abandoned entrenchments and dotted by the rusting hulks of derelict artillery and breached bunkers. Abdead conjurations, summoned by the Witchocracy´s Hag-mages, gibbered semi-entombed in the gelatinous mud, too damaged to move but unable to die.
Men and women on both sides started to change, turned feral and twisted by the horrors visited upon them by the embittered conflict, yet unable to walk away from it all. By this time, no one could remember how it all had started it was as if the sides had been enemies since birth.
Locastrian propaganda demonized the sorcery-wielding Witchocracy, naming them aberrations, monsters and freaks, while at the same time failing to see the inhumanity perpetrated in their own ranks. Those soldiers that returned to Locastus were changed, often in some terrifying way, bearing scars witnessing their close encounters with inhuman enemies. And each of them was a source of tales of ever-increasing brutality and horror, sufficient to put a chill down the spine of even the most grizzled veteran.
The war was, slowly and insidiously, staining the Locastrian collective consciousness. Dormant xenophobic tendencies, inflated by the recent Apt Event, suddenly blossomed anew into paranoia over Northern spies and in violence at, randomly picked, minorities suspected of collaborating with the enemy or attempting to hamper the war effort. And while crisis after crisis passed Locastus itself, the war-turned-meatgrinder kept grinding away in the North, neglected, but fed by the ever-dwindling ranks of fresh recruits.
The Locastrian government, still shaken by the near-successful coup of Izal Apt two years previously, and further distracted by an uprising among its Nascogiban colonies, was unable to free up the resources needed to finish the Akelor situation in a final and decisive manner, and so, allowed it to grind on, swallowing rank upon rank of the City´s young.
Then, in 185, the war suddenly took a turn for the worse. A decisive strike by the Witchocracy forces routed the Locastrians, and in one swift push, the enemy held lone possession of the city and the valley. Shortly afterward, Locastrian scouts and spies reported that a massive troop reinforcement had taken place, an army of over 1500 men had been marched across the Ironfrost pass and were now holding Akelor with a strength the Locastrians would never be able to break.
This setback coincided, according to Locastrian spies, with the arrival of a new, hitherto unknown player in Akelor the Horned Paladin, a semi-demonic, theurgy-warped creature with a flair for military strategy, come to the south to lead the Hag-sworn hordes in conquest against the Southern Lands.
Very soon, after a few tentative strikes, a massive, brilliantly executed offensive sent the Locastrians reeling, severely decimated and the rest sent retreating in disarray through the ravines of the Knuckle Hills, swept like twigs before a flood down the highlands and out onto the Sharegrave Moors.
However, the Horned Paladin, Champion of the Rift Hags, was not yet ready to bring the war onto Locastus itself. Instead, he hesitated, waiting for additional reinforcements to march across the high passes before beginning his march of triumph across the lands to the South.
In this brief interval, the Locastrian Government - who had looked on in terror as their semi-neglected border conflict suddenly exploded into a threat to the City of Mirrors itself broke their passivity, flailing and floundering for a solution.
Recalling overseas military elements were out of the question the time for such actions had long since passed. So, the Locastrian rulers turned to one of their most valuable assets the inventiveness and ingenuity of their citizens, in this case as personified by the eccentric (although admittedly brilliant) Dr. Greyleaf.
Shortly, Dr. Greyleaf presented his Conversion Warhead - and the rest, as they say, is history. (For a more exhaustive introduction to Greyleaf´s Devices, please see Conversion Warhead.)
With no other option, in desperation, the Locastrian High Command deployed its untried new weapon - and in doing so, unleashed unimaginable terrors upon the earth.
When the warhead Ultor, delivered by a primitive rocket-launch system, activated high above the city of Akelor, it tore a hole in the world, caused a disruption, a fraying of reality itself, instantly killing every living thing within a 2-mile radius. And through this hole, something alien came through, reaching out into this world.
The Witchocracy threat was ended, but it would take a while before the Locastrians fully understood what had been created in its stead: a contaminated zone, an area of perverse physics and warped energies, through which no one could ever hope to cross.
In the immediate aftermath of the Akelor Event (as this episode has become known), several heavily armed and armoured survey teams were dispatched into the dense fog delineating the Akelor contamination zone. Some of these, most in fact, never returned, swallowed by the stained earth without a trace.
Those were the lucky ones.
The few that survived to return into unstained territory all carried something of the nature of the stain with them. Some came out with pieces of their equipment or clothes irreversibly fused to their flesh; others were covered in gigantic, phosphorescent warts which burst, spewing forth a proteolytic slime, while some simply became increasingly insubstantial, fading away over a few days into nothingness.
Those few who returned sane reported of encounters with nightmarish creatures, of walking, tentacled trees, horse-sized protozoa and gigantic, jellyfish-like creatures floating in the fog and snatching prey from the ground with translucent tendrils.
Locastrian army elements quickly established fortifications across the valley mouth, erecting a cannon-studded stone wall to hold back whatever is inside from escaping into the outside world. Some years later, the barrier was joined by a sizeable research camp, a multidisciplinary, state-funded project attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Akelor Stain.
And so it remains to this day. The affected area seems to be reasonably stable, but deciphering its secrets has proven difficult. The research project is now sorely neglected, almost forgotten for lack of results. Although fruitless, the studies are ongoing, and the Locastrian High Command keeps one of its companies, the Leatherhearts, stationed on the Barrier, to defend the southern lands from the creatures or Akelor. Over time, garrison and science station have grown into a small town, aptly named Bitterfruit.
As a side note can be mentioned that, although the Akelor Event effectively ended the war with the Witchocracy, the respite for Locastus would be short. Within a year, semi-human, barbarian tribes, driven from their native lands through new passes opened by the altered weather patterns left behind by the Akelor Event, welled out onto the southern lands and laid siege to the City of Mirrors itself in a series of events called the Backlash Wars.
The Nature of the Akelor Infestation
While the Akelor Event swiftly and decisively ended the threat of Witchocracy invasion, a new enemy sprang up in its stead. The detonation of the Conversion Bomb, an event of unmatched thaumaturgical power, had ripped open a conduit, a portal of sorts, into a neighboring reality, a hellish, alien place, chaotic in nature and ruled over by monstrous, god-like abominations - an alternate reality named Nerak Keltu, called the Realm of Bones and Ashes by some.
And from this frayed hole in reality itself, something alien, evil and immensely powerful, an entity of god-like power called Oagru Hactor-Newath, were able to push through, establishing a beachhead of sorts in this world and releasing creatures of its home realm to walk in its newly occupied territory.
This obscene God-King, the Eighth in a hierarcy of seventeen Apostles of the Void, saw in the newly formed gateway a way to set himself and his kin free from the purgatorial realm in which they have spent eons imprisoned, exiled from the rest of the universe. Inserting his formidable arcane might (and much of his own physical being) into the nascent rift, he was able to stabilize it into an interdimensional passageway, through which he could extend his powers into another world.
The conduit, centered upon the activated Warhead suspended above the city´s center and emanating from it the insidious, viral nature of its own, alien environment, created a perimeter where its own physical laws clashed with those of this world. The result is a contaminated zone, covering the city and the entire valley, where reality itself is uncertain and unstable, where conflicting physical laws fight for dominance and where time and space runs and flows like wax under an acetylene blowtorch.
The disruption effect catalyzed by the activated Ultor continually ripples outwards, creating a chronic wound in the skein underlying this world, a weeping, infected sore that the universe desperately try to heal, only to have it unknitted again, in a neverending cycle. However, the Akelor Rift (as it has become known) is not static it expands and contracts cyclically, by feet or yards.
On the boulder-covered valley floor in front of the dip between peaks that signifies the entrance to the Akelor valley sits the heavily fortified township of Bitterfruit, a motley, run-down collection of barracks and prefabricated huts, wooden walls bleached iron grey, brick walls crumbling and corrugated tin roofs blotched by rust. The smoke from hundreds of chimneys, alchemy vats and steam-boilers accumulate in the narrow, steep-sided canyon, capping it with grayish-yellow, unhealthy smog.
The aptly named town, too large to be surrounded by palisade, is instead ringed by an intricate system of trenches, mine-fields and ditches, with access to the town only possible through a few entry points. The no-mans land surrounding Bitterfruit is dotted by wooden watch towers and sniper nests, especially in the direction of the Akelor valley.
A narrow-tracked railroad runs up through the hills, crossing a mine-laden depression on a rusty gridwork bridge and enters the town. Everything this community needs is brought in on the railroad Bitterfruit itself produces nothing, and nothing can be grown in the thin soil of the canyon. If one were to look closely, one would see that the railroad used to run into the Akelor valley itself, but those tracks has been torn up.
The town itself, nestled within layer upon layer of fortifications, is shaped roughly like a trefoil, separated by chainlink fence and brick walls. The separate districts (is so grand a name can be used) are the Science Station, the Leatherheart Garrison and armory and lastly the quaintly named Auxiliary Row, home to the supporting roles of this particular enterprise bakers, bars, lumber mills, brothels and so on.
The buildings are in a fairly run-down condition and the streets are mostly dirt, turning to sticky mud in the cold, wet climate. Carbide and peat stoves burn continually to keep out the damp cold wood is scarce at this altitude.
Strangely mutated vermin, altered by the proximity to the Stain, scurry in the garbage-choked gutters and narrow alleys. The grey-scaled Rift Rat, a twisted rodent-lizard hybrid with mad, yellow eyes, great cunning and dexterous almost-hands is a common sight, rifling through garbage heaps for food or climbing, gecko-like, on the crumbling brick walls.
Everything in Bitterfruit focuses on its two main purposes: the Garrison and the Science station. The atmosphere here is harsh and unfriendly. Like in every frontier town, life is hard and luxuries are few. People here are close-mouthed, rough and wary, seeing to their own interests first and foremost. Here, there are no charities to be had, and nothing ever comes for free. The closeness of the Rift Zone further burdens an already rough existence, here on the border of hell itself.
Like Locastus itself, Bitterfruit is ruled by several political interests, namely the Garrison Commander, First captain Cadmus Frost; Head of the Science Station, Urbedil Bose and last but not least Alebrus Tween, political commissar, sent here by the Locastrian Civil Government to balance the military interests already in place. Despite its lack of profit, Bitterfruit and the Akelor Zone are too important for any one of Locastus´s many power factions to control. Here as everywhere else in the Locastrian dominion, conflicting political agendas and bureaucracy keeps the power structure fluid and out of reach of any one person.
People not directly involved with the Science Station or the Garrison are, usually, not here by free will. The Locastrian justice apparatus commonly sentence criminals to forced labor here. A security force of Constable-Guards is employed to keep the convicts in line.
Sentences are harsh, usually ten years or more, and there is absolutely nowhere to run. One way, there´s miles and miles of dangerous mountain terrain, the other, the Akelor Rift and the Constables, who have several trained bloodhounds, are extremely adept at tracking fugitives down. You come here by train, and you leave by train. There´s just no other option.
The Leatherheart Garrison
The Leatherheart garrison is located on the northern lobe of the trefoil Bitterfruit, a fort-like collection of symmetrically arranged barracks, constructed from grey, anhydride-impregnated planks and corrugated tin roofing, plus a few more well-built, but small, houses for the highest ranking officers. The base incorporates a smithy, a heavily fortified armoury and a mess hall and is surrounded by a high, corrugated sheet palisade.
In the middle of the compound, tethered to high, gridwork mooring masts, are two military Blimp Dragons - the Sorosh and the Obamesh. The organic airships are both equipped with bomb-dropping rails, automated steam cannons and missile ramps. They fly regular reconnaissance missions around the periphery of the Akelor fog bank.
Security is tight: both entrances to the compound is heavily guarded, there are high watchtowers along the palisade and teams with guard dogs patrol the perimeter the garrison sits on some serious military hardware, and will take no chances of it falling into the wrong hands.
The Leatherhearts is one of the younger Locastrian Free Regiments, structured according to the modern form of military unit, self-sufficient, mobile, versatile and doing its own recruiting. At any given time, it has at least 560 men enlisted, arranged in four companies, a Staff group and a small maintenance corps black-, and weapon smiths, animal handlers, cooks and the like.
Hierachially, each company is divided into squads, each under the command of a Sergeant, who, in turn answers to the company Lieutenant. The highest authority are the First and Second Captains.
The Leatherhearts, a product of the protracted trench war that preceded the Akelor Event, has earned a reputation (and rightly so) for dogged persistance and endurance. They tend to rely less on quickly executed maneuvers and dynamic tactics (if you want speed, you bring in the Maul Rats) preferring to bet more on carefully constructed fortifications, pill-boxes, minefields, trenches, ditches, barbwire and booby traps.
They can fortify and hold just about any ground, executing brilliantly planned enfilades and obstacles for slowing the enemy down. With a wide knowledge of geology, demolition and fortification, they can make the ground itself work against their enemies. For defensive actions and holding conquered territory, they are unmatched among the Locastrian Regiments.
They are not much for stealth, speed or finesse, but excel at holding otherwise indefensible terrain in the face of vastly superior numbers, enduring in the process artillery fire, mud and the horrible life in the trenches. The Leatherhearts are like bulldogs, once they have sunk their teeth into a piece of land, they never, ever let go.
Anyone who has seen the Leatherhearts in action is always astounded by the ant-like effectiveness with which they work, feverishly digging away, filling a field with pot-holes, trenches and pitfalls in a matter of hours. A Leatherheart is always, always ready to dig himself in, to improve and fortify his current location. Fortifying is something the Leatherhearts do compulsively, without thinking, as natural to them as breathing. Some rumors say that a Leatherheart would rather dig a hole in the ground to sleep in than laying in a bed and that rumor dont hit too far off the mark.
Morale is generally high, despite the depressing environment, and the Leatherhearts display uncommon strength of will, a trait nurtured and ingrained in the fresh recruits. The common soldiers and officers alike usually present a certain dark humor and sarcasm in the face of difficulty. There is a tradition of ironic understatement, non-complaining, dogged acceptance and stiff upper lip that helps them deal with the often hellish reality of trench warfare.
The Leatherheart uniform consists of a grey, calf-length trench coat, heavy boots and a bowl-shaped, thin-rimmed and spike-mounted steel helmet. An embroidered patch with the regimental insignia a heart with a spade in it is worn on the right shoulder, and their company-, squad-, and individual number painted in white on the helmet. Signs of rank are displayed by means of metal pips on the left shoulder and are as simple as the hierarchy itself one pip for sergeants, two for lieutenants and three for First and Second Captains - and also stenciled in white on the helmet.
On top of this, most also wear a leather harness studded with D-rings, loops and pockets for grenades, ammunition, weapon holsters, tools and other necessities. All Leatherheart soldiers wear the trademark collapsible trench-spade on their belt, always ready to dig another hole to take cover in.
Weaponry is quite varied some prefer the long-barreled sniper rifles, for picking off enemies at a long range, while others use a snub-nosed, long-bayoneted breechloader, easier to use in the confined spaces of a trench or tunnel. Officers usually carry only a pistol, or, rarely, a short-barreled rifle.
Almost every soldier carries several long-handled hurling-grenades, and they are extremely accurate, even at long distances. For hand-to-hand combat, most prefer to use their sharp-edged trench-spades, and the overlong Leatherheart bayonet almost a short sword - but some carry additional meleé weapons, such as the common Smatchett or a trench-dagger with a brass-knuckle hilt. In the cramped, claustrophobic environments of the trenches, the spike-mounted helmet can also be put to good use, in a heads-down charge.
Character: First Captain Cadmus Frost
The current First Captain, Cadmus Frost, is a classically schooled man of good breeding, stationed, or so the story goes, in this god-forsaken place as punishment for alleged incompetence.
These charges are, at least in part, a construction Frost was removed from Locastus after a scandal concerning his romantic involvement with a younger man under his command. Frost, raised as and at heart a conservative, have always struggled with the stigma of his own homosexuality, and getting sent here further fuels his self-loathing.
While not a man of great mental sophistication, he is courageous, methodical and passably competent (especially when supplemented by his Second Captain) and has discovered in himself a genuine affection and responsibility towards the men under his command, almost enough to relieve his bitterness at being sent here in the first place. In many ways, he is the perfect officer, brave, thoughtful and with a well developed sense of duty.
Of late, however, the seemingly endless, depressing assignment up here, on the edge of hell itself, has taken its toll more and more frequently, First Captain Frost drinks himself to sleep or spends sleepless nights playing pathetically mournful ballads on his beloved zither, an instrument that he has named Emma after his mother, who, he tearfully claims, died of a broken heart after his disgrace.
Frost is an unusually tall man, standing almost 2 meters tall, and with a slim, athletic build. His imposing figure is further accented by a large, dramatically curled moustache, piercing blue eyes and shaven scalp. His height and general presence ensure he can look down on just about anybody, and commands respect from his subordinates, despite his other failings.
His grey-blue trench coat is always crisply pressed and he carries only a blue-steel pistol with a bone stock in a belt holster. He is not above making surprise inspections in the mud and filth of the trenches, and generations of Leatherheart soldiers has learnt to fear his stooped-over progress and he makes his way down the trenches, ducking to avoid making of himself a target.
Like all true trench-soldiers, forged in napalm and quenched in blood-streaked mud, he never ever puts his head above the lip of a trench, even if there is no one shooting at you.
Old habits die hard, and sometimes rightly so.
The Science Station
On the southern outskirts of Bitterfruit stands the Science Station, a walled compound of grey-brown brick buildings and chimneys. Here, some fifty scientists of a wide variety of disciplines along with various assistants and security personnel, try to unravel the mystery of the Stain that befell Akelor and maybe, just maybe to find a way to reverse the effect of the Conversion Weapon and restore the valley to its former beauty.
The Station is built around the Laboratory, a long, low concrete building, windowless and heavily fortified, where the various specimens collected during the hazardous steam-tank expeditions into the contaminated zone is kept, dissected and experimented upon, their very beings teased apart by scalpel, acid and bone-saw to provide some clue to the workings of the contaminant.
The Laboratory has one, incredibly heavy, iron door which is constantly under insanely tight security. The security guards are outfitted with state-of-the-art, steam-powered exoskeletons and some extremely heavy weaponry, designed to counter any of the monsters breaking loose. Since there is no predicting what the next expedition may bring back, they take their duties seriously and their services are often called upon to deal with one creature or another.
Inside, the Laboratory is comprised of many low, bunker-like rooms, well-equipped labs and holding cells. The interior is designed so that parts of it can be closed off with thick iron doors, to prevent any escaped specimens from getting out. Great ducts in the ceiling can, if necessary, provide the (for humans) toxic blend of gasses that passes for atmosphere in the Akelor Zone.
Scientists move around in baroque, goggled face masks, protective armour and rubber gloves, performing bizarre, excruciatingly torture-like experiments on the caged, monstrous entities. The many, perversely twisted creatures, held in cramped, barred cells or constrained by iron chains to examination tables, are constantly being poked, cut, stung, electrocuted or dissected alive. The air is heavy with inhuman screams of pain and panic, and the floors are sticky with alien ichors.
In many cases, one is moved to consider if there is any scientific benefit in the procedures being performed, or if it is all just a sham, an excuse to torment and kill in inventive ways the Akelor creatures. The place, with its low ceiling, weird lightning and macabre activities, has a hellish aspect, and begs the question as to who the true monster of this establishment really is. The scientists, family men and women in their normal life, certainly show no mercy or compassion, they just go about their grisly business like automatons.
Character: Head Scientist Urbedil Bose
The Director of the Akelor Research Project for four years, Doktor Urbedil Bose, is a career academician, highly driven and ambitious. Not a physically impressive man rather short, rotund and pig-like he tries to compensate his lack of height and charisma by wearing opulent frock coats, cravats and top hats, all of the best manufacture and in the latest fashion.
Dr. Bose is, besides a ruthless career scientist, also a natural sadist, rapidly developing a taste for the inhuman, torture-like treatment of the Akelor specimens. The atrocities perpetrated within the sealed Laboratory has completely gone out of hand since his installment as Director and his psychopathic nature have begun to infect his staff.
Character: Political Commissar Alebrus Tween
Tween, a functionary at the Bureau of Colonial Affairs, was appointed to the title of Political Commissar in Bitterfruit after the Locastrian Civil Government felt that the Bitterfruit operation was too firmly in the hands of Military and Concilium influences.
Alebrus Tween is a born bureaucrat, a parasite, who after unsubstantiated rumors of affiliation with the late Izal Apt was shunted sideways into a position where he could do no harm. His new job as Political Commissar - almost as far away from Locastus as it is possible to go within the Dominion-Nation is just another expedient way of making sure Apt´s agenda is not furthered.
Tween is a tall, almost emaciated man, with a drawn face and hooded, sleepy eyes, like a lizard. He wears wire-rimmed, round glasses and a leather coat with the pewter Special Commissar badge on it.
Although he is, officially, the sanctioned ruler of this little outpost, he has very little real power, although he operates a small spy network aimed against the Science Station and the Leatherheart Battalion. Many of the alleged forced labourers in Auxilliary Row are Tweens agents and he also commands the 150-strong force of Constables.
The No Man´s Land
North-west of Bitterfruit, between the town and the Barrier, is a stretch of relatively flat land, covered in mine fields, sniper nests, entrenchments, barb wire and cannon redoubts, guarding the town from any enemy that got past the Barrier itself.
A single road runs in a zig-zag pattern from the northern gate of Bitterfruit through the no man´s land and terminates in the only, heavily fortified gate in the wall-like stone bulk of the Barrier. In case of an incursion that penetrates further than the Barrier, the road can be collapsed at key points, leaving the invading creatures to advance through a veritable smorgasbord of booby-traps, pitfalls, mine-fields and kill-zone enfilades, not to mention the blanketing fire of Howitzers and grenade launchers that are constantly trained on the killing field.
A few, gnarled trees and bushes, singed and mangled by frequent target-practice drills, cling to the earthworks, and mosses and yellowed clumps of grass grow on the lips of the labyrinth of entrenchments.
On the opposite side of the no man´s land from Bitterfruit, stretching across the narrow, v-shaped opening into the Akelor valley stands the Barrier, a 30-foot, slab-like wall, massive and crenellated, bristling with cannon turrets and narrow sniper apertures. Its slate-grey, patched masonry bears the scars of many close calls and hastily enacted repairs and reinforcements. Though the monsters of the contaminated zone tend to die quickly outside the fog, in their death throes, the larger of their kind can cause great damage, and have done so, many times in the past.
On the broad walkway on top, many observation towers crown the edifice, endlessly keeping high-powered search lights wandering across the open ground on the other side. Leatherheart soldiers in their characteristic blue-grey trench coats and spike-topped helmets can be seen moving across the top of the Barrier, vigilant for any movement in the eldritch fog that may signal an attack.
Their near-paranoid alertness is justified the ground before the Barrier is strewn with bizarrely malformed bones and scraps of alien skin. This close to Akelor, the alien presence in the fog can be felt like a tingling upon the skin, and a smell not unlike that of ozone and sulphur. Occasionally, an alarm is sounded as a sentry spots movement inside the fog bank, glimpsing some strange, gigantic creature or other through a momentary opening in the streamers of alien fog.
Usually, the wails of the steam-powered klaxons are a false alarm, but sometimes often enough they herald a genuine attack, some lumbering, unnatural, stalk-eyed thing lurching out of the mist to assail the Barrier, or membrane-winged monstrosities sailing out to rain organic projectiles on troops atop the wall.
In the middle of the wall is a large, heavily reinforced iron gate, through which the tread-mounted exploration tanks can be given access to the fringes of the Akelor Contamination. On the other side, an ancient, raised road runs across the killing field and disappears into the fog. Many exploration tanks have trundled down that road only to disappear, their gutted hulks discovered months later, by another terrified exploration crew.
The Akelor Valley
Beyond the Barrier, what was once the fertile, park-like valley of Akelor is now an alien landscape, covered in ashes and wreathed in streamers of weirdly undulating mist. The once neatly hedged fields and pastures, bearing the scars of prolonged trench warfare, are now a wasteland, sheathed in a thick layer of grey, choking dust. Among the white-grey ashes, weird crystal precipitations, like oddly-colored salt blossoms, aggregate as the ground gives up its minerals to the desiccated surface.
Some areas are turned into striated sheets of glass, while, in some places, weird termite-mound structures some approaching 100 feet in height seems to have grown from the valley floor.
Raised, jagged-edged craters, oddly organic-looking, dot the blasted landscape like miniature shield volcanoes, spewing forth great geyser-like plumes of the alien mist that blanket the entire valley.
Visibility here is very low, due to the low-hanging cloud base and the dust-choked air. The air smells of ozone, brine and wet ashes, the smells of the alien realm that bleeds over in this place.
The partially collapsed trenches, potholes and artillery craters are that riddle the valley are all half-filled with ashes, which is stirred by the weird, hot winds to send oddly purposeful dust devils dancing across the dead plains. There is an ever-present, warm wind flowing from the City at the center of the valley, blowing across the ash-covered wasteland, carrying with it strange smells and oddly resonating bass hoots, like whale song on another world.
Strange, stilt-legged monstrosities roam these arid plains, creatures like insectoid leopards on eight, 10-foot legs, searching for whatever strange nutrients they can siphon out of the clogged air, or hunt the small, fast prey that burrow in the powdery topsoil. Tentacle trees can be seen moving ponderously across the skyline, gnarled, sinuous branches lashing at the low-hanging clouds like an enraged nest of vipers, and in the arroyos, gigantic antlion-like predators lie patiently below the ground, awaiting their prey.
Sometimes, when the eldritch mists clear fractionally, one can observe gigantic, jelly-fish-like entities floating among the clouds, translucent tentacle-tendrils occasionally darting earthwards, snatching prey from the ground, and large flocks of manta-like, flying monsters circling and wheeling high above, like monstrous, windblown leaves.
Fauna: The Sorimutis Malipodus
Glimpsed only briefly and on rare occasions, the creature the Locastrian expedition forces have dubbed Sorimutis, the Steam Walker, is a true giant; its six, spindly, many-jointed legs, each ending in a pad-like hoof, holds its egg-like, squashed-spherical body - itself larger than a steam locomotive aloft at an altitude of more than 50 meters.
The titanic creature, precariously balanced on its great, pillar-like legs, migrate slowly across the mist-wreathed landscape, moving each leg in turn, putting down each hoof-pad deliberately, almost gingerly.
It is a uniform iron-grey color, and its warty hide, especially on its central body, is studded with tumorous, glistening, lobed growths and branched, antenna-like spurs. From great, cave-like orifices on its underside it emits not only great plumes of fog, but also a mournful, droning dirge, not unlike whalesong, which can be heard for miles and miles.
The Locastrian Scientists believe that there are no more than three Sorimutii left in the Akelor Zone although there used to be one more. In 199, an enraged Sorimutis, roaring like a volcano and spewing plumes of steam like an ocean liner, charged the Barrier and actually stepped over it, toppling roughly a third of it in the process.
The Sorimutis was well into the no man´s land and approaching Bitterfruit before it could be stopped, finally going down under the bombardment and cannon fire laid down by the courageous Captain Piper and her Blimp Dragon, the Zareph (later renamed Grey Lotus).
Running in a line from the Barrier into the wasteland beyond, straight as an arrow towards the ruined city at the heart of the contaminated zone, is the ancient raised road. Built in the old style, from earth, stone and brick paving, it has withstood a thousand years of neglect, a prolonged trench war and the abrasive presence of the alien contamination. It is pockmarked with potholes and craters, where artillery shells have hit, and, in places, it is bisected by old trenches and fortifications, but it is still basically sound and possible to travel down.
On the Road are the numerous, rusting hulks of exploration tanks, ripped apart, crushed and perforated with their crews. These wrecks are common along the first two miles, but gradually become more and more scarce. No one has ever gone beyond the 4-mile marker.
On a separate bank, flanking the Road, runs the railroad that once connected Akelor with Locastus itself, although the rails are now in a state of advanced disrepair, rusted and twisted.
Even with its depressing track record, the Akelor Road is probably the best route to choose if one would be insane enough to try to reach Akelor itself, although it is damaged in at least two places, enough to make progress by any vehicle impossible (at least, for anyone not bringing road repair equipment along).
The Road is home to the Ourobori, odd, lead-grey snakes, short, fat and plated like armadillos, that curl up into a wheel to chase its prey. They are large and heavy and tend to rely on crushing their prey once they catch up with it.
The Fossil Forests
As one journeys deeper into the Akelor Zone, one will find the crystalline, glittering boles of petrified trees still standing, the bone-like remains of flash-fossilized forest pockets.
Turned to stone in the aftereffects of the Conversion Weapon´s detonation, these isolated streaks of forest are long dead but hung with dark, Sargasso-like alien creepers and populated by octopus-like creatures, all rubbery, snaking, barbed tentacles and black, ichor-dripping, fang-barbs, that swing among the branches and drop onto their prey from high above.
Weird creatures, like arm-length leeches with membranous wings, glide through the lace-like panoply, eyelessly locating their prey. Below, squat monsters, like leathery and wrinkled barrels on three stumpy, elephantine legs, waddle quickly through the labyrinth of roots, boulders and broken boles. These egg-like pack-hunters, crowned with a nest of slim, snaking tentacle-sprouts, are surprisingly fast and can exhale a cloud of nerve gas that can paralyze or kill anything human-sized.
Fauna: The Aliviae
Also stalking the petrified forests are the nightmarish Aliviae, a bear-sized creature with slimy grey-green, mottled and warty skin, its rotund torso supported by six stumpy but powerful legs, each ending in a sensitive pad-foot.
The creature has no head as such, just a hood-like structure set low in front of hunched shoulders, a slimy fold of flesh from under which projects a large fan of rubbery, branching, fungal-like fronds, vividly scarlet and dripping with moisture. Anything these fronds touch is attacked by a powerful, clinging organic acid, inflicting hideous chemical burns on living flesh, chewing through metal, leather and bone in seconds.
The Aliviae, despite their size, are capable of bursts of great speed over short distances, charging in with their acidic fronds extended. Because of the fronds, almost any frontal attack is doomed to fail (even bullets are digested, before they are able to penetrate into vital organs), and its rubbery skin makes it hard to hurt, even from behind.
The hideous creature, while quick and powerful, is quite blind and deaf. Like many of the Nerak Keltu creatures, it relies completely on vibration sense to locate its prey. Standing completely still will makes you invisible to the Alivius, although its sensitive feet will feel even the tiniest movement, such as a human shifting his weight.
Dotted around the hellish landscape, emitting eldritch, blue-green light and thick eruptions of fog like portals into another realm, are the craters. These pore-like vents, the main source of the ever-present fog that wraps this valley like a shroud, have a disturbingly organic look, their jagged edges ridged and furled like melted wax. Their obsidian-like, infernal effluvium mars the ground in star-shaped patterns for miles around.
The size of the crater varies some are no larger than a regular bomb crater, while some are major geological features, half a mile or more across. They also grow with time, at a slow but steady rate. If one would attempt to follow the Akelor Road towards the city, one would soon find oneself close to one of the biggest of these calderas, having grown so large that it threatens the Road itself.
The discharge from these hollows are, like the fog itself, harmful for any living thing not from the breached alien realm, causing mutations and sickness as seen in those first unfortunates that joined the early expeditions teams.
However, if one were to journey close, close enough to look down into the crater itself, one would see, at the bottom, a writhing, living mass. Each caldera is dug out by and shelters a colony of arm-length, phosphorescent worms, slim and segmented and studded with feathery feelers at both ends. Beneath the semi-translucent skin, alien organs can be seen, pulsating in weird rhythms and glowing with internal, eldritch light. The Locastrian exploration teams, having observed these beings through remote mechanical probes, have named them Anestae Obscus Liger, the Insatiable Obscenities.
These repulsive beings are, in fact, parasites, suckling at the power from ley line conjunctions and power meridians in the ground. These worms, glistening with alien ichors, wriggle and pulsate in ecstasy, basking in the raw power springing from the earth, which they absorb, digest and, by alien alchemies, convert into toxic fog. The released thaumic effluence is palpable like a heat shimmer in the air above the pit exposure to the raw magic itself would be enough to kill an unprotected human.
Circling the craters, flapping ragged-edged, translucent and mottled wings, are the Pteromali Jolusi, the Killwings. These predators feed primarily on the Worms, swooping down to impale them on long, chitinous, razor-barbed tails.
Growing in great mats around the Craters, hanging like curtains over the lip, is the odd plant called Hellvine, long rubbery strands, like glistening, black, branching umbilical cords, studded with what looks like opalescent eyeballs and furled, slimy, fungal leaves.
These carnivorous plants, constantly dripping with corrosive digestive juices, have some motile ability, and can ensnare an unsuspecting victim within minutes. In the Akelor zone, this plant can grow up to 6ft a day, although all attempts at extracting and culturing it outside of the Contaminant has been unsuccessful. It is hypothesized that it needs the alien effluvia from the craters or the fog to thrive.
Here and there across the skyline, one can see strange, jagged mounds, some with chimney-like tubes stretching more than 50ft high in the murky air. The shapes of these mounds are reminiscent of a termite mound, an impression that is not far from the truth. Like industrial chimneys, these constantly spew out plumes of fog, adding to the obscuring cloudbank over the valley.
The mounds are, in fact, hive-colonies, home to thousands of the Limulus Enibula, a palm-sized, black crab/beetle hybrid, rubber shelled, stalk-eyed and scurrying quickly on twelve stumpy, crab-like legs. The front end houses a collection of six stalked eyes, a complex set of mandibles and a haphazard array of feelers, antennas and gastropods, all set into a series of heavy chitinous folds.
A lone Enibula poses no threat in and of itself, but can - through pheromonal communication - summon thousands of its hive-siblings, which can make short work of any human-sized animal, their intricate mouthparts ripping flesh like the rotating teeth of a chainsaw. The creatures can tear any animal to shreds, even the bones, which they then will transport back to their hive, down into the dug-out tunnels where weird alchemies are employed to make more of the strange fog.
They are hard to outrun and climb very well, and their shells are surprisingly tough - although fire or explosives can be used with some degree of effectiveness. However, if the entire hive (comprised of some 200 000 individuals) are roused, no weapons system will be effective enough.
Along the Akelor Road, several Enibulus Mounds have sprung up, some quite large. Any traveller is well advised to step lightly around them. They are extremely sensitive to vibration, so if, say, a steam-tank passed by, that would probably set of an en force attack by the entire Enibulus hive.
Flora: Glowcap Mushrooms
Not only are the Enibula hive-crabs proficient hunters; they are also farmers. Around their hive-mounds, they plant and cultivate orchards of waist-high, thin-stalked mushrooms. The stalk and cap is fibrous and quite tough, hard to break or uproot.
These fungi, called Glowcaps by scientists, have a sharply peaked cap, which is coated in a thick, glue-like slime. Underneath the slime coating lies a layer of phosphorescent cells, which produce a slow, swirling kaleidoscope of hypnotic colours and complexity that draws in whatever insect-analogues exist in this hellish realm to get stuck in the glue coating and then slowly digested by secreted proteolytic juices.
The Enibula cultivate the Glowcaps, not for the meagre harvest of insects, but to collect the various larger animals that also get caught on the sticky caps. The epoxy-like glue is strong enough to hold a fully grown human in a solid lock for quite some time, ample time for the Enibula scavenging detail to arrive.
As one follows the Road closer to the City itself, one comes across an old Witchocracy camp, a staging ground for the lion part of the Hag-sworn army, all instantly killed when the Conversion Warhead struck.
The Road passes through the Camp itself, a maze of crumbling fortifications, old tent poles and wrecked wagons, all choked in ashes and dust. Among the scattered wreckage, standing or sitting as they were in their final moment in life, are the flash-fossilized remains of the Witchocracy soldiers, thousands of them, bodies and faces contorted, twisted, in their last, painful moments.
Although many have suffered erosion by the elements over the years, and still others have been assailed by the weird mosses, algae and fungi of this place, it can still be no doubt that these were, once, living humans. Although their mouths, distended in silent screams, have long since clogged with ash and windblown debris, their horror and disbelief cannot be mistaken.
Many lie in fetal position on the ground, desperately, vainly trying to shield themselves from the hellish energies released by the Conversion Weapon, while others simply stand staring, shielding their faces as they stare, endlessly, towards the City in the distance. One and all, their exquisitely preserved faces hold miens of pain, panic and horror.
In their vitrified hands are strange weapons; oddly organic-looking rifles sprouting feelers and eyes, twisted bone daggers, grenades like leathery mummified organs and more baroque artifacts, things like clusters of fused seashells and bone, that defy description. Some, the more inhuman ones, have limbs or sensory organs replaced with obscene, cancerous biotechnology; one may have a hand replaced with a chitinous lobster claw, another her eyes replaced with feathery tufts of unknown function, yet another a fringe of many-jointed, insectoid legs grafted onto his chin. These are the foul and abominable creations of the Rift Hags, masters of perverting flesh.
The statues also crowd the Road itself, so to proceed beyond this point, one must either thread his way through a maze of dead people, or, if one were so equipped, drive through them in an armoured tank, crushing their porcelain-like flesh to dust beneath the treads.
This place, a graveyard for the unburied, standing dead, is also a place of lingering, mind-numbing horror. A normal person cannot stay in this place for too long after a while the harrowed faces of the once-living statues and the abject misery in their poses will start to wear on even the most calloused veteran.
If one would be brave, stupid or cold enough to search through the Camp, rifle through the debris of collapsed tents, cracked-open chests and rotted back packs, one would, potentially, find a great many objects of interest. The enigmatic Rift Hags had provided their armies with many invested weapons and unknown theurgies, so even a perfunctory search would turn up a hefty pile of fetus-like greenstone fetishes, gnarled bone rods odd, melted-looking metal lumps and shell-sewn medicinal bags, all strongly puissant, but of hard-scried purpose. Still, if one managed to bring them safely out of the Akelor Zone, they would heft a healthy price for a collector or thaumatechnological researcher.
Fauna: Galistygia Afestrea
Circling the old campsite, riding high on thermals, are the missile-like Galistygia, the sword-wasps. These slim, blade-like creatures - longer than a man´s arm span and looking like a black, jaggedly chitinous sword with three pairs of membranous wings on the hilt circle the plains in great flocks, scanning the ground with ultrasonic pulses for any sign of movement.
Once they detect their prey, they fold their wings and plummet to the ground in a sharp trajectory, impaling their victim and snatching it high into the air whilst feasting on its bodily fluids. The Sword-Wasp absorbs nutrients, proteins and carbohydrates but rejects the water, leaving behind a great plume of ubiquitous Akelor Fog, before it drops its flash-mummified victim to the ground.
Equipment: Shadow Blade
Found beneath the crumpled form of a Hag-sworn soldier, a bestial-looking man with protruding tusks and great ram´s horns projecting from his forehead, the Shadow Blade looks like a semi-material, translucent shadow, like an indistinct, blade-like shape carved out of solidified smoke. It constantly sheds streamers of smoky shadow, bleeding of the insubstantial blade as if evaporating.
Holding it feels strange, the blade changing inertia and weight randomly, as if it fluctuates in and out of existence. The handle feels like its squirming obscenely against the palm and it is also intensely cold, quickly sapping body heat if held in an unprotected hand it is meant to be used together with some rather powerful warding hexes.
These blades, forged by the Rift Hags themselves in their secret, arboreal lairs, were given to their highest officers, the Non-Men and they still hold powerful theurgies. It is unknown how much damage they make or even how they are supposed to inflict damage but it may or may not have some deterrent effect on Nerak Keltu creatures, and it would surely be worth a fortune for anyone able to bring it back to Locastus.
The Wreck of the Avanesse
By an ironic twist of fate, the Locastrian Blimp Dragon Avanesse,plucked out of the air by the blast front of the energies released by the Conversion Warhead, went down just outside the Witchocracy army camp, next to the Road itself. Anyone travelling along the Road towards Akelor itself will, after passing through the horrors of the Camp, come upon the hulk of the Avanesse, lying crumpled, broken and half-submerged in dust and windblown debris in an old paddock just to the side of the Road, an open space it shares with a small Enibula Mound. An observant traveler will notice, however, that the Enibulae carefully avoids the wreck itself.
At first, it appears to be nothing more than an outcropping of naked rock, weathered and grey, poking through the desiccated, ash-blended topsoil but then one notices the characteristic antenna-like spurs and buoyancy compartments, and the skeletal, broken remains of wings, sticking up at odd angles, carrying stiff, desiccated flaps of skin, like semi-translucent, leathery banners.
Then, you realize that this is a dead Blimp Dragon, its soft tissues rotted away, dried into dust over many years, leaving only fibrous supporting tissue like grey, splintered wood and the rusting remains of the gondola bolted directly onto its body.
The Avenesse, its crew already dead or incapacitated from exposure to the energies from the blast, came down fast and hard from the South, smashing a stone wall and plowing a great furrow in field beyond, its spurs and wings splintering like firewood, its buoyant body ripped and the gondola breaking open, spilling bodies and military hardware in a broad trail across the paddock.
The body of the Blimp Dragon, with the gondola mounted on the underside, is lying on its side, making it necessary to circumnavigate the wreck to reached the gutted, dented gondola a simple, semi-cylindrical structure, heavily armored and studded with gun turrets and portholes, bolted flat side up against the body of the Blimp Dragon.
Thundering through the stone wall at the end of the field tore a huge gash in the bottom of the gondola, eviscerating it completely, ripping out the bomb bay and engineering quarters. The explosive canisters and drop shells are all dispersed among the dirt and ashes in the field beyond, along with most of the hand-weapon racks and engineering bay tools.
Searching through the debris left from the crash could well turn up a few items, useful for the adventurous traveler, especially if said traveler is planning on proceeding into Akelor itself. Hidden among the trail of debris are grenades, ammunition and, perhaps, even a functioning gun or two. However, much of what is buried is ravaged by the harsh environment, and prone to malfunction, sometimes lethally so. But then, anyone who has made it this far, is probably in need of restocking ammunition and explosives supplies, and will do so no matter what the risk.
Climbing inside the wreckage, one will discover that the interior more or less destroyed, bulkheads split, furniture and fittings reduced to splinters. Of the eight-man strong crew, five is nothing more than scattered bones, half-buried in the dust across the field, their bodies thrown from the disintegrating gondola during the crash.
In a dented gun turret, visible from the outside, a sixth corpse, a gunner by his uniform and safety harness, has been affected in a manner similar to that of the Witchocracy soldiers, his body fused in an unnatural manner with the steam-powered cannon he was manning, flesh, brass and iron running like candlewax, brass piping extending into arteries, tendons stretching like ropes into solid metal it is apparent from his posture that he spent his last few moments struggling against the metal that traps him, rapes him.
His mummified face is frozen in a grimace of pain, horror and disbelief. In one eye socket, the occipital bone unnaturally distended, a brass steam-gauge replaces the eye, obscenely, as if grown in its place. In various areas, his body is disfigured by clockwork tumors, melded with the mechanical parts around him. His mouth is full of gears, coughed up in his death throes.
His brass dog tags, hanging miraculously untouched on his chest, reveals that his name is Uvar Golt, twenty-five years old and a vice corporal in the Locastrian Air Cavalry.
Proceeding into the rusting hulk of the Blimp Dragon, into the disemboweled bomb bay, another corpse is revealed - the First Mate by his peaked cap and epaulettes - thrown backwards against the casing of one of the remaining bombs, a man-height cylinder, the back of his head has fused with the brass canister and the mechanisms within.
His face, now the same tarnished hue as the brass bomb canister, has its eyes screwed shut and jaws spread wide in a scream of unfathomable panic and pain, a semi-solid, wax-like substance pouring forth from its mouth, collecting on his chest and on the floor like dribbling candle wax. This mass is a precipitation of corpse wax and crystallizing high explosive, a volatile cocktail which could go off at any second. Shots fired close to the tragic figure will almost certainly cause an explosion of titanic proportions.
Close to the body, perfectly preserved in its protective case, is a Kraggen-Mills Rocket Launcher, along with a crate holding 8 rockets. The weapon system is bulky and heavy, but uncomplicated and in fine condition. Prudent adventurers should see the benefit of bringing this discovery along.
Towards the bow, in the heavily shielded cock pit and rudder compartment, the helmsman of the vessel, inextricably fused and entwined with the psychoreactive mechanisms necessary to control the Blimp Dragon. It is obvious from his contorted limbs and twisted expression that he lived for some time after the crash, unable to extract himself from the intricate cradle of arcane conduits, meta-clockwork, thaumatoptic lenses and psionic receptor bulbs, an oddly hand-like mechanical embrace that is now a part of him.
A verdigrised gun held loosely in one mummified claw-like hand bears witness that he chose to end his own life rather than die from exposure and thirst. The hole in his skull reveals black, shriveled scraps of brain tissue as well as verdigrised gears and pipes.
The relatively undamaged bridge has become the lair of a hitherto unknown monster, the Hexendron, which hides beneath the gridwork floor and will leap up and attack anyone that enters its territory.
Fauna: The Hexendron
The creature that has claimed the wreck of the Avanesse as its lair has a fat, centipede-like body, segmented and twice the length of a man, on top of which sits a head shaped like a pick-axe.
When it attacks, it will rear up and attempt to use the hooked, serrated edge of its head to stab at its opponents. The body and head is encased in glisteningly black chitin, with a curious melted finish, a natural armor that is very hard to punch through. Steam hisses out from a series of gill-like vents lining the sides of its wedge-shaped head, and its short, stumpy legs, hoofed in chitin, clatters a quick-step staccato on the metal floors as it rushes in for the kill.
Equipment: Kraggen-Mills Mk. III Rocket Launcher
First prototyped by the eccentric weapons designer Helmuth Kraggen, answering a need for a personalized bunker-buster and anti-tank weapon and then consecuitively refined during the Akelor wars, the Kraggen-Hills Rocket Launcher was the state of the art in hand-held weaponry at the time of the Conversion Warhead.
The Mk. III itself is a simple tube, some 4 feet long, flaring at both ends and with simple, open sighting aids, various carrying hoops and a single trigger-handle close to the front end. A shafted, fined and self-propelled grenade roughly the size of a grape fruit is inserted into the barrel, armed by pulling out a pin and fired from a shoulder mounted position. The black-powder-fuelled projectile is spin-stabilized and has an effective range of 200-300 meters, although it will travel much further than that.
The City of Akelor
The great, alien city of Akelor, once an architectonic marvel, is now a ghost town, the great palaces of strange, geometric forms stands empty, their sea-shell-like, porcelain facades crumbling and the delicate wave-form carvings choked beneath layers of windblown ash. The streets, broad and cobbled in snug-fitting ceramic tiles now lost beneath drifts of dust and debris are filled with fallen masonry and the still, nightmarish shapes of the petrified dead.
The city itself is laid out like a wheel, with six great avenues radiating outwards from a central plaza. The Road enters the city via one of these avenues, although the trench war has gone rough on this quarter of the city. Old barricades choke the street, and the rusting, silent husks of broken Howitzers lie broken among the dust, like dying dinosaurs. The whisper of dust and the moaning of the wind permeate the deserted streets, and in the shadowed doorways, weird shapes jerk quickly out of sight.
Ringing the city proper, like a wall of fortifications, are the tombs of the Builders, standing empty and meaningless, their contents long since removed. The Tombs District consists of three concentric rings of igloo-like, earth-covered mounds, each with an elaborately carved stone portal set into the side facing the city. The earthworks completely encircle the city, broken only by the six avenues radiating outwards from the city centre.
Within each mound is a warren-like complex of dressed catacombs and low-ceilinged burial chambers, now the home of many dangerous Nerak Keltu creatures that has made these subterranean tombs their home.
During the Akelor Wars, both sides of the conflict used these, relatively protected, chambers as command bunkers and ammunition depots and in some of them there are still crates and barrels filled with a few needful things grenades, guns, ammunitions, mines and other military hardware that might come in handy for the adventurer passing through the area. However, they might have to fight one or two monsters for the cache.
Fauna: The Theropathis
Hunting among the rubble-filled trench remnants and craters between burial mounds are the terrifying Theropathii; semi-translucent protozoa the size of a draft horse, gelatin-skinned, lozenge-shaped body held off the ground on a spaghetti-like tangle of twisted flagellae filaments. Beneath its slime-encapsulated outer layer, weird, phosphorescent organelles can be seen, pulsating and twitching with peristaltic movement.
The creature, bursting like a champagne cork from its lair within one of the Tombs, will attempt to engulf its victims in a fold of itself, digesting them as an amoeba hunts bacteriae. Powerful digestive enzymes will make quick work of anything absorbed into the bulk of the Theropathus.
Because of its gelatinous consistency, blunt or edged trauma does very little in the way of harming the Theropathus. Fire, explosives or acid are, probably, the only effective ways of harming it. The creature´s phospholipid skin also makes it supremely vulnerable to any type of detergent sprinkling it with soap powder may be the best option (if any adventurer is hygiene-conscious enough to bring that along).
Strangely, the digestive enzymes doesnt affect metal, so it´s not uncommon to see a Theropathus with all kinds of human-fabricated items suspended in its cytoplasm guns, belt buckles, watches, cartridges and pocket knives, all perfectly preserved. Slaying a Theropathus might, potentially, be a treasure trove in much-needed ammunition and other useful items.
The Outer Ring
The Outer Ring is the labyrinthine outskirts of the city if Akelor, its streets are crooked and narrow, with many branching alleys and side-streets. The Road is the only larger passageway in the neighborhood and here, even that is choked with rubble in places. The buildings are of many different styles, sizes and materials, but most are high, narrow, with conch-shell roofs and high, thin window-apertures.
The facades are commonly decorated with carved scrollwork, geometric designs and fluting, although this is now in an advanced state of disrepair, subjected to twenty-five years of abrasive erosion. In the narrow passages between buildings, crookedly winding stairs the steps subtly unsuitably spaced for a human lead up and away to balconets, platforms and catwalks above street level.
Everything is coated in a patina of clinging dust, softening sharp edges and burying detail beneath a feathery layer of oblivion. Fallen masonry clogs the streets, the lumps shapeless beneath a shroud of ash. The signs of the old trench war is everywhere rusting coils of barb wire, hastily dug trenches, barricades and rat-holes - and blast craters, thousands of them, ranging in size from a soup plate to gigantic potholes, 10 meters across or more. Many of the fabulous, alien buildings have fallen to the relentless pounding of the Howitzers, porcelain facades reduced to heaps of rubble, fanning out into the streets.
The trees that once lined these avenues, now no more than pillars of crystallized wood, are festooned with slimy, tumorous alien mosses and creepers, phosphorescent fruit-bulbs hanging like glowing eyes among the few remaining branches.
Fauna: The Ytholemus
Roaming the rubble-strewn streets of the Outer Ring are a tribe of the hulking Ytholemii, great, four-legged, bull-like creatures, enormous slabs of muscle rippling beneath the black, pebbled skin. The creature carries, on its back, a thick, horned, chitin carapace, not unlike a tortoise´s and the short, powerful legs, awkwardly bent and jointed, end in chunky, clog-like hooves which tap out a distinct beat as the creature navigates its massive bulk among the toppled buildings and dust-filled fountains.
The Ytholemus have no head as such, only a single, curved, glistening horn, almost as long as its actual body, sweeping forward and down from its massive shoulders like a battering ram or the cow-catcher of a steam locomotive. Two tube-like siphons, sticking out at angles beneath the horn-structure, constantly eject thick streamers of opaque fog, billowing outwards as the creature sings out its weird-harmonic, metallic whale-song call.
On the scent-trail of prey, the Ytholemus are able to smash through just about anything in its way. The incredibly tough material of its horn-ram, with the ton-and-a-half weight of the Ytholemus behind it, is able to penetrate a brick wall and even the 2-inch, tempered steel armor plated flanks of a Steam Tank.
Fortunately, the Ytholemus is quite blind and deaf, navigating more or less exclusively through its impressive sense of smell. As long as one stays mobile, the creature can be quite easily avoided, although the structural damage to buildings caused by its passage can present danger to anything nearby.
Fauna: The Paravorax
Moving slowly through the abandoned trenches of the Outer Ring, the enigmatic Paravorax, due to its accumulated camouflage, can be hard to spot at a distance and if you come too close, especially if you are carrying some interesting piece of machinery, you might be too late.
The Paravorax, shed of its carefully collected mechanical shell, is reminiscent of a corpulent slug, larger than a 500-liter whiskey barrel and with a crown of retractable trunks at the top. Some of these rubbery limbs are tipped with an eyeball, others with a trefoil of stumpy fingers. The creature moves slowly on a pseudopod-like flesh-skirt, leaving a trail of thick, glue-like slime. The small, sphincter-like mouth is situated in the middle of the cluster of limbs.
What is most remarkable with the Paravorax, however, is its habit of collecting bits and pieces of rusted machinery, engine parts, axles, piping, helmets, drive shafts and other scraps of mechanical junk left behind by the humans that once inhabited this place. The creature shows uncanny artistic talent in assembling and arranging its protective layer, which makes it (along with its slow locomotion) exceedingly hard to spot.
The City Centre
As one draws closer to the heart of the City, and the nexus of the portal into an alien realm, the alien infestation begins to become more and more obvious. Weakly phosphorescent, scab-like lichen draw intricate, spiky maps on every flat surface, covering everything in intricate whorls, spirals and fractal patterns.
Weird streaks and clusters of spherical, reticulated mushrooms grow in the corners, filling the air with bitter, greyish clouds of spores. The closely fitted flagstones of the streets are pushed upwards by outlandish, urchin-like growths that swell tumor-like from the ground, sometimes forming barriers of fleshy, finger-like fronds.
Odd, wavering fruit-stalks and knobbly, antenna-like weeds poke out of the cracks in the buildings and dark, rubbery mosses erupt, foam-like, from nooks and crannies. In some places, gigantic mushrooms, conical caps 2 meters in diameter hanging high above the pavements, held aloft on leg-thick, fibrous stalks, like a tree.
Here and there are odd structures, like clumps of chitinous candle wax, excreted against walls and streets, hollow network edifices made from some form or resin or organic epoxy, serving as barrier or perhaps some form of sculptures. When the ever-present, warm wind passes through the gridwork structures there´s an eerie, dirge-like sound.
The buildings here, once much more impressive than those of the Outer Ring with great octahedron palaces , soaring spiraling towers and fused-seashell colonnades are now dilapidated, crumbling beneath the aggressive alien flora and fauna. The great conch-shell domes, constructed from marble carved so thin as to be almost translucent, now rises into the murky air like cracked eggshells, smog-stained and covered in fleshy alien creepers.
The tall, spiral-carved towers, once crowned with fantastic gilded onion-cupolas now look more like blasted tree trunks, shaggy with creepers and alien growth, home to a menagerie of flapping, floating monsters. The arcing catwalks that link the towers are bedecked with languidly moving, rubbery curtains of vines and creepers, crawling with hordes of climbing, alien creatures.
The streets are wider here, broadening into avenues and esplanades as they cross over the circular moat that separates the City centre from The Outer Ring, running atop elegantly sweeping, white-stone bridges studded with strange-looking statues, everything now covered in lichen and creepers.
This part of the Akelor was hit pretty hard during the trench wars, pounded by mortar and Howitzer fire. The remains of the war is everywhere; trenches, barricades, sniper nests and tank obstacles lie discarded in every corner and the streets are often blocked by tumbled-down buildings or fallen pillars
The Mosaic Plaza
At the heart of the City of Akelor is a hexagon-shaped plaza, an open ritual-, and parade ground more than 500 meters across, cobbled with slabs of exquisitely colored blue and red ceramic tiles. Although it has been severely dilapidated over the years, an eye-watering, fractal-like spiral pattern of incredible intricacy is still apparent.
Once, the Plaza was the site of six great towers, great, pointed, spiral-carved pillars of stone that reached more than 50 meters into the air. Now, only stubs remain of five of them and only one, in the eastern edge of the square, remain standing. The once-opulent palaces, their impressive, alien facades facing outwards into the Plaza, are all in bad shape, great chunks of masonry torn from their structure and thrown in great fans out across the cobbled expanse.
The open expanse within the henge of the obelisk-towers is cluttered and heaped with debris; piles of masonry from collapsed buildings, the husks of old, upturned wagons and drifts of ash. In the exact center of the plaza, directly below the source of unearthly light in the low cloud base, is a motley, piled-up collection of damaged human-made items; steam-tanks, weapons, furniture, bits of masonry and carpentry loot dragged here by the various Nerak Keltu creatures for the inspection of their master, Oagru Hactor-Newath.
Here and there, weird, translucent mirages of fantastic, monstrous creatures shimmer into being. Some of these assume physical substance and venture out into the City and beyond, while most just fade away, dissolve, unable to fully incarnate into this, to them inimical, realm.
The air here is warm, constantly stirring, and there is a powerful mélange of wet ashes, decay, ozone and fermenting flowers. The whole Plaza, in contrast to the half-twilight encloaking the rest of the City, is dimly illuminated by an otherworldly, blue-green glow. As the streamers of fog shifts, one can see that the light comes from a pin-point source suspended some 40 meters above the center of the Plaza.
This is the Conversion Warhead Ultor, hanging, suspended like a fly in amber, forever active, and forever shredding reality around itself. The blue glow comes from the exotic energies released by the conduit into the realm of Nerak Keltu, the Realm of Bones and Ashes. Occasionally, it will flare, discharge in a dazzling bolt of brilliant energies. Each of these discharges creates a short-lived rift, a passage way into the realm of Nerak Keltu, through which, occasionally, another monstrous creature can cross over into this world.
As the fog stirs, something enormous, nightmarish can be seen floating above the bright pinpoint of the Warhead. Something reminiscent of a gigantic, black cephalopod - a pulsating, curved mass the size of a mansion and shaped roughly like a conch-shell, trailing a forest of intestinal tendrils, segmented, coiling tentacles, pulsing siphon tubes and knobbly stalks from the open, flaring end. Around the frayed edges of the main torso, the slimy, mottled skin is studded with antenna-like spurs and clusters of opalescent, lidless eyes. The great shape holds on to the last remaining tower with a tentacular grip, like a monstrous airship to a mooring post.
This is Oagru Hactor-Newath, one of the seventeen Apostles of the Void, semi-god rulers of Nerak Keltu. His corpulent, buoyant body, bedecked with tattered, glyph-scribed banners, decorative chains, wagon-sized iron fetishes, malformed bone trophies and smears of pigment, is constantly orbited by smaller, man o´war-like creatures, looking like wagon-sized brains with gelatinous tentacles those are his servants and lieutenants, attending to his every need. They bask and wriggle ecstatically in his emanations, feeding from him, while he occasionally snaps out a barbed tentacle and consumes one of them.
From series of crescent vents on the flanks of his hideous body, Oagru Hactor-Newath spews forth great geysers of alien fog, streamers spiralling as he slowly revolve in the air, forever fingering, stroking his prize. Occasionally, he will exhale a great plume of fog, accompanied by a loud, alto, foghorn roar, resonating in alien harmonics.
Parts of his towering, floating, hot-air balloon-like form fades in and out of being, flickering between existence and non-existence, indicating that he is not fully here, only able to partially project himself into this realm. He has inserted his vast theurgies into the wound created by the warhead, holding it open, creating an abscess in reality itself. It is by his presence, the evil, virulent energies he emanates, that the rest of the Nerak Keltu creatures can survive here. His presence alone is the cause for the blight that has devastated the Akelor valley.
The Apostle constantly probes and caresses the Warhead, gingerly cradled like a gem within the curtain-like wall of branching, snaking tentacles. His limbs forever hover near the weapon, but never actually touch it. To his frustration, he is unable to physically manipulate the warhead, for fear of collapsing the distortion field effect. It is a problem he has spent the last twenty-five years trying to solve, to no avail. He occasionally vents his frustration on his orbiting cronies, flicking them out of the air, or slam a tentacle down on the buildings circling the Plaza.
Oagru Hactor-Newath cannot be killed, at least not by any means available to humans, but he can be hurt enough to withdraw his presence from this realm, in which case the conduit that links this world with Nerak Keltu will collapse. One of the best ways to achieve this is to use the Kraggen-Mills Bazooka from the Avanesse.
The struggle to combat the demi-god should consist mainly of avoiding his building-crushing tentacle attacks, dodging from cover to cover around the rubble-strewn Plaza while trying to get into position for the next clear shot. Oagru Hactor-Newath will, at first, be enraged, answering the attacks with house-sized thrown chunks of masonry, tentacle attacks and thaumaturgical discharges - but after three or four direct hits, and much roaring and tentacle-thrashing, he will retreat into his own realm to save himself from serious injury, taking the glowing Warhead with him.
The Apostle´s departure will not be very dramatic he will simply fade away, dissolve into nothing along with a howl of frustration, the resonances of which is enough to give sensitive adventurers nose-bleeds and migraine.
Character: Oagru Hactor-Newath
The Apostle, basically a gigantic, buoyant cephalopod and in possession of a brain the volume of several box-carts, has no psychology dechipherable to a mere human. He is powerful beyond any description, both physically and thaumaturgically.
In his home realm of Nerak Keltu, he is the undisputed ruler of his territory, near omnipotent, in possession of vast machine-warrens capable of channeling the weird energies of Nerak Keltu itself for his benefit, but he lacks the mental tools for understanding human goals and motivations. It is just not in his nature to notice or even care about anything so insignificant as a human.
It is probable that Oagru Hactor-Newath has not fully realized that the world he has invaded is, in fact, ruled largely by humans - therefore, if the adventurers are successful in driving him from this realm, he will see this as a serious threat to his own personal safety, something intolerable, even isolated from that threat in another dimension. Even if the adventurers succeed in driving him from this realm, they will have gained the personal enmity of Oagru Hactor-Newath, which is not a laughing matter.
With Oagru Hactor-Newath and the Warhead gone, the reality abscess will collapse and the rift will close up. As the Apostle departs, the normal physical laws of this realm will reinstate themselves, the fog will start to dissipate and the Nerak Keltu creatures will start to die, the smallest first and the biggest last.
The fog will begin to thin, and the smoke pillars spewing forth from the Worm Craters and Enibula Mounds begin to peter out. As blue patches of real, normal sky begin to be glimpsed through the blanket of cloud, the creatures of the alien realm sags to the ground, spasming, gurgling in their death throes, before the weird biochemistries of their bodies unravel, reducing them to cinders and oily vapors.
Last to succumb are the titanic Sorimutii, stampeding around in panic, trumpeting like steam locomotives and crushing everything in their paths. But they no longer spew forth fog, their basis for survival is gone and they will perish, dying in the dissolving fog as the first rays of the sun in twenty-five years reaches the valley floor.
Just because the adventurers has successfully driven off the Apostle, lifting the 25-year-long transdimensional siege on Akelor doesn´t mean that the story must end here. A number of loose ends need tying up and a couple of new, more serious problems may arise from the removal of Oagru Hactor-Newath from this realm.
First of all, making the Akelor valley transversable may, once again, expose the Locastrian Dominion-Nation to the threat of the Ur-Kaol Witchocracy. Sealed off from the southern lands by the Akelor Event, who can say what nefarious plans has been made ready in the dark, forested lands north of the Thunderheads. Will renewed contact mean renewal of hostilities, or has the 25-year separation made the Northerners rethink their hatred towards Locastus? No one knows.
Secondly, some rather powerful political interests in Bitterfruit will have their basis of existence shaken. The political commissar, Alebrus Tween, will see his illegal but profitable - mining operation shut down. Urbedil Bose, Head Scientist, will face an uncertain future in the world of academia and First Captain Cadmus Frost, a political embarrassment, will have to face his disgrace once again. All of these three men will have mixed feelings towards disbanding the Bitterfruit operation.
Thirdly, and perhaps most serious, is that Oagru Hactor-Newath and the rest of the Apostles, having personally experienced the threat posed by humanity, will begin to make plans to meet that threat. Although none of them have the physical presence in this realm that Oagru Hactor-Newath had, there are agents and avatars that can be used. In defeating the Apostle, Locastus may have acquired an enemy greater than it has ever faced.
Back in his volcano-crater throne hall, backlit by the flickering of the bluish lava-flows, Oagru Hactor-Newath strokes his prize and broods on those microscopic vermin that caused him such pain and embarrassed him by driving him from his conquered lands. Through his intermediaries, he will form whole networks of cults, whose sole purpose is to hunt down and capture the adventurers. He´ll want them alive, to fully savour their pain and relish their fear as they are slowly, carefully tortured to death. The adventurers were lucky to beat him once, catching him off-guard but that will not repeat itself. And as long as he has the Warhead Ultor in his possession, there is a good chance he will learn to open another portal and rebuild the conduit between Nerak Keltu and this realm, if he could only find out how it works.
Two years back, I read CaptainPenguin & Murometz´s excellent Mountain of Boats and thought: I want to something like that.
So, after roughly a year of Locastus crystallizing out of my head onto paper I decided to gather up some ideas and make something that you can actually play. As you know, most of my Locastus posts are made to develop the scenework and atmosphere for my creative writing, but this is a bit different: it´s written with RPG in mind.
I´ve tried to draw on as many of my favorite themes as possible dark, cynical, oppressive industrial revolution; Chtluhu-themed horror and a bit of gritty war realism. The end result is not what I expected, but still feels useable.
You will notice my other two fetisches as well constructing new, unusual monsters (am I the only one that has an I Hate Dragons bumper sticker?), and exploring human motivations. The latter may or may not be believable, but I sure have a lot of monsters
If you want, you can play this the Munchkin way, fighting through hordes of monsters to finally kill off the bad guy or, you could go for the realistic approach and play the horror card for all its worth. I would suggest the later go and see The Mist, and then you´ll know what I´m talking about. Also, no one has said you need to use it all from top to bottom let the PC:s go on expeditions with steam tanks and prospect for treasure and scientific clues at great risk for their own lives.
As for the rest of this, admittedly rather long, piece, I have to admit that there are things in here themes, ideas, bits and pieces that I have stolen. Some of these things I´ve even used thinking it´s my own idea, but finding out latter that its not. I´m pretty sure the name Bitterfruit is taken from another Strolen sub if the author would please stand up, I will happily give you credit for the name, or change it (your choice).
Also, I´d like to give a big thanks to Murometz, who has helped me back on track when I was derailing fast, and to Kassil, whose vision seems close to my own.
These subs have been great sources of inspiration. They should be credited, so please click on the links all of these deserve to be seen:
Moonhunter: The Wastes
.. and many, many others.
Last point: If you intend to use this, it is my duty as a medical professional to ask you to print this out, to save our eyesight.
I hope you enjoy it, and that you can find something in here worth using in your campaigns.