Note: This post contains information relating to the events of Black Atlantic.
“Schild, wake up!”
Your eyelids are heavy from blood loss, painkillers and lack of sleep. The sun hasn’t yet cleared the horizon, but already the morning fog has coated the lenses of your gas mask in tiny dewdrops.
Trebbien hisses again: “Look. At. The. Box.”
Rolling to your chest, you crawl haltingly through the muck to a small, flat, glass-topped box that sits on your rucksack. Wiping the condensation off your mask, you focus on the ants inside the box. Hundreds of them, each a half a centimeter long. They’re moving rhythmically in a slowly shifting pattern. Just like last time, and the time before.
You stand up. Absently you reach through the gash in your suit and touch your neck. The sutures are holding for now, but any sudden movement will tear them open. Your gaze falls on the bodies of Müller and Esposito. It would have been better if you’d had time to bury them. At least Nowak received that last bit of dignity. The other six – wait, seven – best not to think about them.
Trebbien wobbles to his feet. The bandage around his left thigh is completely red now. He looks down and slowly draws his Preservalis sword. “No sense trying to hide any more,” he grunts. He looks at you, then out into the mist. His voice is firmer now. “This,” he says, “is where we make our final stand.”
Catastrophe has visited proud Briton. The hero Vicarent is dead. His successor Yasen, who calls himself “The Merciful”, has assumed control of the Anabaptist stronghold and wiped out the Spitalian garrison at Rennes. King Oppolus is dead. Aquitaine has been obliterated by the Wrath of God. Humanity’s fortress in the west is hemorrhaging refugees. All is madness.
As the year 2597 comes to a close, the full story of what happened in Briton is cloaked in confusion and rumor. Commanders of teeming armies, leaders of the faithful, spies who see and hear all – none of them know what comes next for Briton. The Spitalians, reeling from treachery and humiliated by shattering defeat, need to know if Yasen truly operated on his own. The Anabaptists are bleeding from a thousand cuts. Now one of their own has gone astray and tossed them into a fight with their closest ally. Cathedral City must get eyes into Briton. They must find the means to pull it back under their sway. And the Chroniclers, blind and gutted, are gasping for lack of information – the oxygen they need to survive. If they are unable to gather reliable data from Briton, their power will continue to wane.
The old route from the Protectorate to Briton has been overrun. Swamps have enveloped the Northern Passage. Pheromancers and their Drones now control the Gauntlet. Spore Fields bloom. Death awaits. But for an important enough mission, lives will be sacrificed. The Cults send some of their most motivated and most expendable into the Gauntlet, hoping that a few might make it to the other side and penetrate the fog of silence that surrounds Briton.
They also send riders galloping along the roads south to the Alps, through Hellvetic passages, down the Scorched Path to half-dead Toulon, and west to Aquitaine. But Aquitaine is no more, and stories tell of Yasen’s men at the border turning away those who seek entry into Briton. All of this is somewhat beside the point, however. Because journeying by this route takes far too long. time was never a greater enemy than it is now.
There is another path. Some call it the Loire Route. They name it, but naming it does not make it real. The Loire Route is an idea, a hope. Yes, it is said that a few brave and foolish adventurers have cut through Franka’s wide midsection, following the Loire to the ruins of Nantes. But how many have tried and perished in the attempt? The Loire Route is long and risky, to say the least. Risky or not, it’s certainly no worse than the Gauntlet.
There are others who have an interest in finding a new route, but their intent is to get out of Briton. People flee the region for a variety of reasons – some for fear of persecution and others to tell their masters in the Protectorate what really happened. Then there are a handful who have faced unimaginable horrors that no one would ever understand. All they want to do is get home.
Why Are You Here, Stranger?
Loss of Control
“We have a little scorpion that needs to be crushed,” Emissary Raab sneers. Strapping on his sword, he continues. “I’ve called you here because I have it on good word that you can be trusted to keep your mouths shut, and that you won’t quail in the face of Aberrants. If you’re up for it, you’ll be well-compensated.”
The Spitalians are a hair away from abandoning their alliance with the Anabaptists. After the catastrophe at Lucatore, the loss of Briton to the madman Yasen is too much to bear. A faction of the Council of Emanations is dispatching Emissary Raab, a man known for cutting to the heart of problems. He aims to infiltrate Briton, ascertain the true situation, and if necessary, remove Yasen with extreme prejudice. But first, he must get his team through the Loire Route. And he needs help.
Kowalski leans across the rough wooden table, his rusty beard wagging as he talks at you. “Listen,” he rasps in barely-recognizable Frankan. “This lot,” he jerks his head from side to side, eyes narrowing suspiciously as he surveys the chowder hall, “they can’t be trusted. These Frankan Scrappers have always been a closed-in bunch, but after what happened in Toulon, they’re even worse. Can’t do business with them. No, we need outsiders with no skin in this game. A simple deal. Your crew helps us get our haul to Justitian, and you get a third of the profit. Fair’s fair, mate.”
Jakob and Piotr Kowalski are twin brothers, Scrappers who go their own way. For months they’ve been salvaging in the waters off Saint-Brieuc, and a few days ago they struck gold. Or rather, the power of the Bygones. In a ruined chamber deep below the waves, they found a sealed box containing five Memorials, artifacts of the Bygones in pristine condition. But the Kowalskis don’t trust anyone, and they are anxious to turn this find into Drafts as fast as possible.
I Was There
“This is RJ-45. Operating at estimated 70% cognitive capacity due to blunt trauma to the head. Issued secure communications device was destroyed. Am broadcasting in the clear on a non-secure device. A Code 19 Event has occurred in Aquitaine. I say again, Code 19 in Aquitaine. I am located at Safehouse F-44. Device power is… [garbled]… and there is someone… [garbled][silence].”
Shutter RJ-45 made it out of Aquitaine alive and managed to make radio contact with the Cluster. But is it really RJ-45? As the Cluster analyzes incoming data relating to Aquitaine, it must determine what information can be trusted. Why is RJ-45 using an unsecured radio? Is this disinformation designed to make analysis more difficult? This is just one input out of many, but it is important. Resources are depleted. External hires must be utilized.
Know Your Enemy
“They’re Famulancers, Arnett. And you’re a Preservist. Subtlety is not in your nature. No, you need scouts out in front of you to get the lay of the land and ensure you don’t make any unexpected contact with locals. We need to get eyes on Briton right away, and this is the only way.”
A team of Spitalians has been sent to sneak into Briton and find out what’s really going on. In particular they must determine how much of the public supports Yasen, and whether an uprising can be fomented. But they are not organized and trained for stealth; as they move through the Loire Route they need scouts who can make contact with locals and spot danger before it finds the Spitalian main body.
“It doesn’t matter what you did here. They’re going to use you as a scapegoat. You were the only ones who saw it all happen, and Yasen already wanted you dead. He’ll come after you. If you’re smart, you’ll get out of Briton while you can.”
The earthshaking events of Black Atlantic will ripple through history for years to come. In the mean time, those who were at the center of it all are a threat to the new order in Briton. While it might be possible to slip through the Anabaptist checkpoints and patrols to the south, the perils of the Loire Route may be preferable, especially since the Druids are on the move. Who knows – maybe you’ll be able to make it through the Forest of the Druids alive. As for the swamps, what horrors can match what you’ve already lived through?
Heading west from Contis through barren hills, one encounters scattered Clans eking out a living through subsistence farming and hunting. These are the pitiful remains, those who couldn’t stomach leaving their ancestral lands, too proud and afraid to join the ranks of Clanners who have swollen Bassham. Huddling at night around sputtering fires they tell tales of the olden days when they found marvels in long-forgotten Bygone structures hidden, when wool from their hardy sheep produced fat profits, and trade with the alpine cantons brought them metal wares and fine drink. Now they are nothing but feeble prey for the groping lines of Drones that ooze from the Ziggurath of Iomedes.
Eventually hill streams meet an endless valley, and the Loire materializes. It is a broad, slow river. As it plods slowly westward the ground around it becomes less forest and more swamp. The water oozes out into tributaries and eddies. The fog stays longer in the morning and returns as soon as the sun drops below the horizon. Soil turns to mud, and mud to watery sludge.
But the swamp is not lifeless. Keep your ears and eyes open and you’ll notice. Foxes chase nimble rabbits and wily hares. Frogs and toads grab insects nonchalantly. Woodpeckers hammer at the bark of slender swamp trees, and marsh grebes dip their beaks into the water in search of crayfish and minnows. There are also stranger things hiding in the swamp – Acid Jellyfish wait for the incautious, and the bodies of the dead are slowly devoured by Armored Snails.
The air teems with insects. Armies of ants chew through dead foliage, wasps nest in rotting logs, and termite highways carry the raw material for mounds. In the swamps packed earth is often the first giveaway, a clue that mounds may be nearby. And even a single large mound is a sure sign that a Pheromancer is near.
Because the swamp is so perilous, the river is a tempting option. Lash together some logs to form a raft. Pole your way downriver, and avoid the dangers of the muck. Termites, ants, and wasps will stay at the banks. It makes sense, but rafting the river carries its own risks. With no concealment and no cover, you’re an easy target for anyone with a rifle or a bow. And while the area is sparsely populated, you never know who or what you’ll encounter. The Solar Wind Flock occasionally uses the Loire to transport Burn, both upriver and downriver. They are well-armed and operate in large groups, since they don’t have to fear Drones.
Eventually, assuming one makes it through the swamp, the Forest of the Druids eventually appears. The path becomes less tangled, the ground more firm. The air is less stagnant. Broad-trunked trees appear, and spongy ground gives way to open grasses. It’s a more inviting environment, but Britons know it holds hidden dangers. The Druids rule this forest, and their Horned God follows its own agenda. There may be a way through, however. It seems they have been making forays into civilized territory. They need something. Find a way to give them what they need, and you might also gain passage through their lands.
People are scarce along the Loire Route. The Resistance is busy in Souffrance. Most of the Clans long ago left to join them, or to take up new lives in Briton or the Protectorate. Those Clans that remain are few in number, but quite tenacious and well-adapted to the hazards of the swamp.
They are also suspicious of outsiders. Normally most consider any outsider to be in league with the hated Solar Wind Flock. But now they don’t know what to think.
Lately strange folk from the west have been entering their territory, telling stories of upheaval and carnage in Briton. These refugees know nothing of the ways of the swamp, and their salty sweat and loud splashing attracts Drones and Pheromancers. Most of the Clans avoid them where possible, and push them away if they make contact. Let the fools find their own fate.
Some refugee groups are guided by opportunistic Solar Wind Flock leeches, who take the refugees’ money in return for aid in traversing the Loire Route. Along the way, they provide free Burn to help smooth the discomforts of travel and keep spirits lifted. By the time the refugees clear the Loire and enter the hill country west of Contis, they are hooked and willing to pay whatever they have left for one more huff of Burn.
The Mud Hares live near the Loire, but members of the Clan seldom approach its banks. The river is dangerous – too open, too broad, too obvious. Short sight lines and plenty of places to hide is how you stay alive, and the swamp provides that. It’s a deadly place, but it’s home. Unflagging vigilance and pure cunning keep Mud Hares alive.
Everyone in a Mud Hare village wears loose layers of thin fabric to help keep insects off the skin. Whenever they venture outside the settlement, whether on foot or in small skiffs, they use a special ointment they call “Bug Snot” to block the pheromones projected by Pheromancers. Prepared using ground white willow bark and the boiled stomach and thigh fat of a slain Pheromancer, over time this ointment leads to a loss of smell. This is reflected in the cooking of the Mud Hares, which tends toward bland, boiled tubers and roots supplemented by whatever meat they can boil.
Children spend much of their time atop the tallest trees, playing “Spot the Creature”. But they seldom spot one, because their older siblings are on patrols, moving in random patterns through the swamp. Their skiffs carry cast iron smoke pots filled with Gland Gas, a mixture of ash, dried excrement, and Pheromancer glands that have been dried and finely ground. The pots are moved frequently, which creates a confusion of shifting scents that disrupt Pheromancers’ ability to detect the village, while cutting the range and effectiveness of their communication with Drones.
If ant watches reveal impending contact, or if anyone spots Drones or a Pheromancer, every villager knows what to do. Adults drop whatever they’re doing, pick up weapons, and form fighting lines. Children light fire pits at the perimeter of the settlement. Anything that gets through the flames takes arrows, spears, and the odd rifle bullet from the defenders. But Mud Hares don’t fight to the death; they are smarter than that.
Whether in wicker baskets, rucksacks, or woven bags, each family’s most precious valuables and a day’s worth of food and water are kept packed in the low baked-mud huts they inhabit. Every Mud Hare knows what direction to run if they must flee, and how far to go before they regroup. In the event of an overwhelming attack, the eldest are expected to buy time for the rest. They draw machetes and wait, prepared to die if necessary so their kin might survive. Every child in a Mud Hare village can recite the names and deeds of elders who sacrificed themselves for the Clan, going back several generations.
Outsiders don’t know the ways of the swamp, and are sure to attract the attention of Pheromancers. That said, anyone who is not an Apocalyptic and asks for succor will be given food and a place to sleep a night. During their stay they will be protected. Mud Hares adhere to a strict code of hospitality. In a land as dangerous as the swamps along the Loire, being alone at night usually means death. The other side of this code is a rigorous adherence to honesty. Adultery, deceit, and other forms of dishonesty are punished swiftly – the answer to any of these crimes, no matter how small, is for the perpetrator to be cast out naked and alone into the swamp.
- Clothing, white willow bark: p.59
- Machete: p.101
- Ant watch: p.122
- Memorial: p.204
- The Gauntlet: p.29
- The Druids: p.36
- Aquitaine: p.258
Clans of the Frontier
- The Druids: p.17
Justitian: The Righteous Fist
- Briton cut off: p.10
- Politics of Rennes atrocity: p.49
- Refugees from Briton: p.188
- Geology of Franka: p.73