Otters aka Roadkill
PPJ stays behind to work on disrupting the ZCorp end of the ritual, with Barkins offering to help him contact some of the various Blackjacks and Anarchs that have previously tried to destroy the Taco Temple analogues here. Aradia warns PPJ again of rumors that the Black Lodge has made bargains with Blackjacks in the past of unknown specification, and he promises to watch his back. The rest of the team bust out the Map of the Astral Ways and the Sextant of World copy, which impress Barkins, who says if they are ever looking to part with such items or if they can uncover the secrets of their manufacture, he knows many clients who would pay well for the info.
With some skilled analysis of the magical trail heading out of the plane, and some navigational assistance from Creep and Otters, the team figures out that they need to either go way up or way down- the plane can’t be exited at it’s edges, as they had encountered while scouting TT locations with Barkins. Deciding to avoid the domain of the Rat King for now, they all link hands and Aradia uses a powerful levitate spell in concert with a high force illusion to make them look like one of the aircars they see zipping by over head.
With The Detective’s gift at leadership, they are able to inspire Aradia to safely fly them up and out of the plane without any altercations, though their relatively slow speed almost results in a number of crashes and the near misses are shocking enough. They avoid the white spire at the center of the plane but edge near to it and slip out into a wide expanse of twilit white sand dunes. The dunes seem to move although the “air” seems still, and they realize that there is no obvious light source to explain the dusky shadows.
Still levitating, they continue following the magical trail, with Aradia doing some impressive work to keep an eye on it while also floating the whole team along and keeping an eye on the Map and Sextant as well, with TD, Creep and Otters all helping. Heat mostly is just overwhelmed by the strangeness though he plays it real cool, especially as there no traces of the matrix out here. Creep spots distant changes in the sand that might be strange ruins or could be the entrances to other metaplanes, but they steer clear, not seeking additional adventure at the moment.
After they’ve travelled for an indeterminate amount of time, they close in on what they think must be Carcean’s location, if they trust their map, which they partially verify using Creep’s Geiger counter to check Miggon’s rough proximity, and avoid it. They enter into the plane, but in the transition, Aradia loses the trail they were following. They find themselves in a dilapidated medieval European plague village, which Creep ID’s from the architecture. He scales a bell tower near the center of the small hamlet and takes a look around the plane, while Aradia is almost lured into a well by the sound of buzzing flies, which as she gets closer seem to almost resolve into a decipherable voice.
Heat, TD, and the mule drone (which has gone through a series of strange transitions in all the plane hopping, now looking donkey like) manage to haul Aradia back from the edge and she mostly snaps out of it, though remains curious. Creep reports back that he spotted a bunch of different small areas separated by wide expanses of barren, dead terrain. Each area looks like an analogue for a different historical plague, with more temporally recent ones being the furthest from their current location. Checking the map and sextant, they see that although it focuses slightly on the plane they are on it does not given them specific internal information- so seems primarily useful for navigating the endless dune sea between planes.
Creep also spotted two areas of movement nearish-by: a large excavation of some sort at a closeby jungly area, and what looks like a post-apocalyptic go-gang traveling through the dead zone between plague villages. The team wonders if this is the all-vamp go-gang from Miggon that they had heard of, but are unsure what they are doing here, so decide to steer clear for now and check out the excavation. Sneaking over, with TD helping Heat get the hang of the “sneaky peeky” maneuver, they spy a large collection of AZT-brand earth movers and excavators, strung up with chains laden with alchemical preparations.
After some analysis, Aradia suggests that these are likely to keep the machines from adapting to the local paradigm, and Creep and Aradia recognize the gear that the people working them are wearing as also being for the same purpose, looking like more advanced/mechanical versions of their shadow cloaks. These bring to mind both the APEP Consortium’s “rift jumper” suits and ARES’ Encounter suits that the team found data on courtesy of Dr. Aurand. They watch for a bit, and Heat is able to scrape a little intel from the local WorkNET that the excavation expedition is running to link up comms and gear.
What they learn is that this is likely an AZT opp, based in Miggon, excavating plague pits and other burial sites/corpses here to seek material for experimentation (this likely also implies weaponization though it is not stated). The guards seems to have control over the suit functions of most of the workers, implying that the staff here isn’t likely all volunteer, or even necessarily willing. The alchemists seems to be the only Awakened in the group, and Aradia confirms that the background counts are pretty bad, so that checks out.
After they watch a while, and see the workers separating flesh from bone from the excavated burial pit, they see a post-apocalyptic truck roll up, slowly turning more and more anachronistic and starting to shift to the local paradigm. A group of Gnawers emerge and seem to engage in a trade of scrap parts and reagents for the bones the AZT excavators have set aside, before hurrying on their way before their truck fully finishes it’s transformation. It also looks like AZT site security had been expecting this visit and had deployed to counter any threat from the Gnawers, so as they redeploy to a more regular perimeter, the team sneaks off, not wanting to get spotted.
Avoiding further plague towns, they do occasionally feel called towards them though TD and Heat hold the group together. Otters and Aradia are having an especially hard time, and the team is a little worried at seeing their shadow cloaks decaying faster than the others. They see other plague villages filled with strange acolytes worshipping dark spirits and engaging in disturbing rituals, but manage to stay their course as they head towards the more historically recent area. As they reach the mid-2000’s VITAS analogue zone, they spot a chance to ambush the vamp biker gang and take it, having spotted that they are carrying captives.
Heat and Creep manage to drop the first two bikers in the ambush, but after coming under attack from the survivors, Heat forgoes saving the hostages and blows up their bikes and gear with a grenade, though the remaining vamps escape in mist form. Aradia considers giving chase but as the only assensor abandons that plan. They search the two semi-intact bikes, and free those two captives, though Creep quickly shoots one of them in the head to everyone’s surprise, before he explains that it was another Pepper-Jack who was also bleeding purple!
The lone survivor turns out to be some sort of fire elemental person made of cracked rock and caked ash, and introduces himself as Absolom, saying he will owe them a favor for the rescue, and asking if he can take the one useable bike and be on his way, saying that he was captured along his trade route when he swung too close to Miggon at one of the points where it connects to the Plane of Fire. He gives them his info should they find themselves there in future, and takes off quickly before they change their mind.
Aradia levitates the PPJ body along with them as they continue, figuring it might be useful. They find the most recent area of the plane, which looks to be some kind of bizarre combo of a number of different metropoli from around the world- London, Lagos, Hong Kong, Metropole, Berlin, but most predominantly, Seattle. Aradia stashes the PPJ bod in a HK style alley near the edge of this area. As they venture in, they find that it seems to be growing and shifting around them, as if it isn’t fully there yet- they find it occasionally seems transluscent, and more of their cloaks burn off as they try to hold onto their senses of self.
Using Otters’ drone skills (which she seems happier to focus on) the team avoids the Myrmidon patrols throughout the branching streets and alleys, and Aradia is finally able to get a bead on the ritual- interestingly, they seem to have once again cleansed the mana in this area thoroughly, so she should be able to cast freely as well. They spot another ritual circle of 12 infected mages, maintaining what Aradia thinks might be a Blood Gestalt- a sort of horrifying pooling of sacrificial energies to attain some large scale magic. This is likely where the hostages were bound, so death by grenade may have been the preferable outcome after all….
They also spot 6 reserve mages resting in a small camp setup, and worst of all, a scarred but very much alive Martin DeVries prowling the perimeter, with both his enchanted knife and now with a burnt axe with the word “White” carved in the haft. They decide now’s the time to use the strange Tarot card they got on ZCorp, so Creep activates, slicing his palms open with the edges as the cards melts and flows into his hands, healing the wounds. He gets a sort of 6th Sense of DeVries’ location, which they use to plot another ambush. Heat overclocks his augs to the max, and everyone loads up on drugs.
They our fire down on DeVries with Heat focusing on cracking his armor while Creep blasts him with wood pulp rounds to keep him from regenerating. Otters focuses fire with the mule drone on the resting reserve mages to keep them distracted while Aradia uses spells and dispelling to blunt DeVries’ magical powers. Otters hooks up a chunk of C4 to the snake drone and starts it crawling towards the ritual to try to disrupt it. DeVries goes after Creep, worried about the wood pulp, and Creep just barely heroically dodges as they dump more fire on him. The team comes under psychic assault from the pinned down reserve mages, taking some heavy damage.
They finally stagger DeVries but are horrified as the demon statue amulet he wears around his neck glows and he rises again. They blast through his recast armor spell and both Heat and Creep take called shots on the amulet, cracking and bursting it into an orb of strange green energy, which badly injures Creep before he is felled by another psychic attack. They team hears screams from a number of different voices emerging from the sickly, crackling sphere of energy, but there is no sing of DeVries, so they think they got him.
Otters detonates the C4 and Heat and the Mule dump fire on the ritual until it collapses, and start picking off mages as they desperately try to hold the Blood Gestalt under their power as it starts sucking them dry, the team horrified to watch as multiple mages at a time go from grape to raisin as their fluids are drained into the massive growing Blood Spirit in the center of the ritual space. They fire on the floating chunk of strange onyx metal there and it shatters, blasting the rest of the mages with shrapnel and critically distracting them, allowing the Blood Spirit to consume the remainder of them.
TD has been sneaking around confirming kills on any fallen Infected mages with their flame thrower, and dashes back towards the team as Aradia also goes down from spell damage. Heat starts collecting everyone together around Creep’s body and frantically searching in his leg for the Aes Sidhe Banrigh card as well as the sprig of wheat they had bought for just such an occasion. As the Blood Spirit speaks some horrifying word that their brains can hardly comprehend, Otters and even TD quail in terror, leaving only Heat to get them out of there.
In a panic, he fumbles the deck and Tarot cards go flying everywhere, though he manages to grab the ASB one and light the wheat. The card disappears into a cloud of smoke, and it smells faintly foresty. Pulling as hard as his overclocked limbs can, and controlling the mule through the TacNET, Heat manages to get everyone moving or sliding or being dragged into the smoke, and just keep walking, kicking a few Tarot cards along with where he can.
As the last of most of their shadow cloaks burn off, they find themselves atop some of pillar of stone, surrounded by windows overlooking various forest scenes around what seems to be a large castle. Heat slaps medkits and trauma patches on everyone and at TD and Otters gradually overcome their terror they start helping too. They get Creep and Aradia revived, and use the map and sextant to confirm that they indeed at the Seelie Court. Heat reports feeling as if the smoke could have lead them various places, so they feel lucky to be in a closed chamber with noone else around?
After they heal and debrief on what just occurred, they are surprised by a knock at the door, and the entrance of two beings who look near identical, except one seems slightly spectral. As he questions them about who they are, how they arrived here, and what they seek, he gradually seems friendlier and friendlier, though they seem almost unable to deceive him. After name-dropping their team as “Hired Power”, he introduces himself as Niall O’Connor, and say it was lucky it was he that discovered them. He instructs his spectral ally Mathanas to remain and watch the door, and he becomes more corporeal, to the point that the two men are indistinguishable.
They talk Mathanas into making some magical furniture for them to rest on, and providing some healing, and then merely wait as some of their cloaks are fully gone and they’ve been warned about eating and drinking in this place. Looking out the various windows, they notice that they don’t seem to have a contiguous view, which is confusing. After what seems like a few hours, Niall returns and says that he has secured a deal to get them back to material plane destination of their choosing (they request Denver), and in exchange for intel on what they just encountered as well as the location of the dropped Tarot cards, he upgrades their astral map with a deft hand.
He instructs them to wait til nightfall, leaving Mathanas on guard, and returns then with cloaks for them to wear, explaining there is a large ball this evening which they will use as cover for moving through the castle unnoticed. He takes them down a series of stairs and passages, with them all working hard to stay together and not be tempted off by strange and delightful smells and sounds just around a corner here or there. They enter some lower levels of the castle, and continue descending, finding themselves eventually transitioning from passageways of stone to earth, entering what Aradia and Creep recognize as a system of Passage Graves.
This seems to lead them outside the walls, as they eventually emerge in a forested grove where they find a cozy cabin waiting. Niall lights a fire and seats them around it, telling them to focus on the flame, as he and their surrounding drift backwards. After a moment of darkness and confusion, they find themselves waking up the the distinct sunrise of the material plane, with a Fomorian troll cooking breakfast in another cozy cottage. He serves them up food, blending some for Creep, and welcomes them back to Earth. He says his name is Dan and he’ll be arranging passage for them from here. After asking some questions about ways and means, he warns them to stay away from the crackling rift outside the cottage, and leaves to contact some people.
He provides them a Satlink to make a quick call to Ringmaster with a basic mission debrief, and then they rest and eat until he loads them up in a cloaked zodiac, and gets them aboard a fishing vessel with a Scouser crew, who get them ashore in England, where they are picked up by a Transit van and driven to Heathrow. They take a suborbital, while all their gear is smuggled separately on a cargo flight to Dean Costello’s “import/export” warehouse, which Aradia calls to arrange with him. They arrive back in Denver after an impressively quick flight, and Otters goes to pick up the van while the rest of the team heads to the warehouse.
They pay off Dean, grab their gear, and get it all stowed again, before calling Ringmaster back for a more thorough debrief. Ringmaster is excited about their success, though PPJ has yet to return, so they’ll have to see what happened in ZCorp still. Also, Taco Temple remains a global presence, and has just opened their first orbital branch on ZO with “more to come”, but an analysis of their food shows that although the Carcean reagent is still present in some of it, it seems inert at this point. So they chalk it up to job well done, and get some payout. They also give a general metaplanar debrief, and Ringmaster pitches them on being a dual-realm ops team for Grey Cell, which they agree to, since many of their number are excited for more metaplanar jaunts.
He also reports some optional paydata follow-ups: apparently an SK exec is the father of the lead on the team of dwarves who died shutting down the Earthside Ordo ritual, and the exec was able to salvage at least some bits of his daughter. He’s put out the word that he’s looking for solid connections to “brain in a jar” sustainability and also seeking copies of the “Jack’B’Nimble” program or other means of reliably creating e-ghosts, so it seems like whatever state his daughter is in is not currently sustainable. Since Ringmaster thinks a high level SK exec would be good to have in pocket for Grey Cell, he encourages the team to pass along any relevant leads.
He also suggests that Heat ought to seek out contact with Perri/the Nexus about what he noticed in ZCorp and the Seelie Court- it seems like their local matrix analogues are changing, and are more present than has been previously reported. Ringmaster says that Perri has been throwing around terms like “nous” and the “the noosphere” referring to a new investigation of hers, and suggests the team could get involved in that. He also thanks them for the note from ZCorp and says that once/if he is able to confirm it, he will likely have more work for them, and that it could be a pretty big deal if true, and not a trap. He is disturbed of what the AZT excavators on Carcean could mean for their bioweapons division, but is also intrigued as he has heard rumors of them working on an HMHVV “cure” as well.
He takes his leave for the time being, welcoming them back to Earth. The team is also relieved that not much time has passed- it seems like the bulk of their time in the metaplanes was actually spent roaming the astral sea, which seems odd in retrospect, but they are glad to have had the shadow cloaks, which seem to have done their job well, as they were only gone for 4 days or so in total. Back in Denver, and needing to restock on some expended gear, they accept a call from Niki the Gardener about another job, once again for Vishala, the femme fatale that PPJ and Heat lost their cool over after the previous job.
Niki runs the meet and gives the details: a big payday (which Heat negotiates up, feeling he maxed out the new fixer’s budget) for a risky gig- stealing high force foci from ZDF impound! As summoning is illegal, summoning foci are often seized by the ZDF, and Niki has a line on where they keep the seizures. She passes along some solid recon intel, as well as a maintenance key to the facility. She offers bonus pay for bonus foci, at least of a certain quality level, and tells the team they are welcome to keep some for themselves but that she doubts any fence in town would take them, and warns the team that if they are caught with them, especially bonded to them, it would be big trouble.
With those caveats in mind, they are welcome to do as they will! Niki requests the team keep this on the DL, even from Cat and other trusted fixers, given the riskiness. They take off, excited to plan a regular old heist.