Mutant Chicken Kebab (A Lunchtime Lairs Adventure)

Our brave adventurers stare out of the farmhouse window. Below, five mutant ten-foot-high chickens roam. The horse and cart which brought our group to the farm remains undisturbed. A flaming arrow, aimed at the warehouse, burns out on the grass.

Reckoning that the vines – that have blocked the only exit – will part for the horse and cart (just as they did for their arrival), the group decides to try and make their exit. The invisible barbarian Hector leaps from the window and creeps towards the carriage with relative ease. The carriage is brought within leaping distance of the window. A mattress is then launched from the window, tearing through the canvas roof of the wagon, to cushion their escape.

The four remaining adventurers – Faqual, Seneca, Romula and Moloch – stand on the window ledge, hold hands and decide to jump on ‘three’. But Faqual, still reeling from the betrayal of his brother, jumps on two and pulls the entire party with him. They crash down beside the carriage.

With a cluck, the interests of the mutant chickens are piqued.

‘Go! Go!’ Romula jumps aboard the wagon, shielding her party. Faqual takes the reins and with a flick of the wrist the horse starts forward.

Two chickens try to break for the horse and the three remaining chickens charge the rear of the wagon. Seneca defies form, catching a chicken square in the throat. Faqual steers true, the horse thunders back towards the path – the wagon lifts on to two wheels. A chicken pecks at the wheels but to no avail.

Are these chickens intelligent? Has their mutant size increased their brain capacity? Come to think of it – where are the Beak Squad when you need them?!

Seneca lands a few arrows, albeit from close range. Hector spears a chicken through the neck, almost decapitating it and Romula hooks her mace in to the fleshy thigh of one of her foes, dragging him from the sky.

One of the chickens blocks the path to the gate. Hector races to the front of the wagon, using the cross bar to leap over Faqual (almost dislodging his hat) and mounting the horse. He attempts to spear the chicken dead ahead, but his spear finds only feathers. However, Moloch catches the chicken off guard, knocking it to the ground prone.

Faqual continues the charge of the wagon, wondering if a change in career path – from chocolatier to equestrian – might be in order. He successfully leaps the horse over the prone chicken and the wagon bounces down upon their fallen foe.

With Hector’s brave leaps and Faqual’s skilful horse handling, Seneca feels somewhat deflated. His shots were all looking so skilful, but in comparison…

And so Seneca reverts to type. As a mutant chicken swoops upon the wagon, Seneca spectacularly fails to miss his target.

Faqual notices that the vines across the gate are showing no signs of retreat and decides to change tact. He makes another spectacular hairpin turn and charges across the crops towards the warehouse. But in the excitement, Hector is thrown from the horse. The vines stir, the two remaining chickens move in on the barbarian, who despatches them with ease.

Moloch tries to relay a new plan to the party. He wants to fire a flaming arrow in to the warehouse, blowing it up (and dispensing any flammable gas) whilst sparing the horse and wagon. But Romula is caught up in the blood fever of battle. With a howl, she lights the mattress in the back of the wagon on fire and shouts for her comrades to jump from the speeding wagon.

Hector, dispensing of the remaining mutant poultry, watches his companions leap from the burning wagon. The horse speeds on through the warehouse door.

There is a brief sound of shuffling, as if something in the warehouse has been disturbed.

And then…

BOOM!

The flames reach the farmhouse and it begins to burn alongside the warehouse.

With the farm destroyed, their foes vanquished and the vines trapping them within the compound, it seems our party has one option;

To wait for the warehouse to burn out and then find the tunnel that leads – hopefully – to Celebration…

Lunchtime Lairs is a RPG session played weekly at Justplay Games Liverpool, Wednesdays 12-2pm. We are currently playing The Black Hack.

Atlas Shrugged – A Tale of Unrequited Fraternal Love (A Lunchtime Lairs Adventure)

After dispatching the ill-fated Guy family the party enters the farmhouse in search of the shadowy figure spotted at the top floor window, leaving for now the mysterious force in the barn that cast one of the farm hands across the corral crushing him against the house exterior.

Inside the party sees evidence of the Guys austere bunkhouse lives as the ground floor consists of a space split between a series of simple bunks and a kitchen area providing the rudiments of domestic life. With all appearing quiet Seneca and Moloch are dispatched upstairs, and displaying unusual dexterity, take stock of the first floor unnoticed by its sole occupant.
Like the ground the first floor consists of a single open space. At the centre stands an altar bearing a bas relief sigil of a blood drop. Lying upon the altar is an apparently fresh cadaver, channels on the surface are funnelling the body’s fluids into a pail on the ground. At the far end of the room is a workspace consisting of desk, bookcase and workbench upon which is a cage containing 3 contentedly clucking chickens. Around the walls are a series of potted thorny plants that hold little aesthetic appeal in the metropolitan eyes of the thieves.

At the window stands the shadowy figure spied from below. Dressed is the robes of a conjuror, also bearing a blood drop sigil, stands the mysterious overseer of the Guy farm. Satisfied he has marked everything of note Seneca makes to return to the party to plan their next steps but he is stoped by the far wiser, observant and competent Moloch – Aside from an impressively waxed and trimmed beard lending him an air of sophisticated menace this unknown conjuror is a perfect likeness of Farqual, the party’s mage and confectioner.

Below the party regroups and the thieves confront Farqual about his doppelganger above. Farqual admits he has a twin brother, Barqual, he has not seen since his youth. They were both conjurors but Barqual disdained the confectioner’s school of magic in favour of the darker arts of necromancy.
The party forms up into their now signature battle formation, a shield wall of Romula and the impressive bulk of Hector to the fore and the unreliable ranged weapons of Seneca and Moloch in the rear. Feeling an appeal to his brother’s better nature could save bloodshed (usually his own as his mounting disfigurement attests) Farqual hails his brother and reminds him of their time as children with their mother Marqual and father Parqual. Barqual informs his brother that much has changed since their youth and as a demonstration animates the corpse upon the altar and enchants the chickens at the far side of the room which burst from their cage growing to five feet in height.

Sensing his brother may be numbed to their family ties Farqual changes track and makes a plea to his brother’s sense of civic duty to join the party in their righteous (and mandatory upon pain of boat) quest for the region’s governor. This proves a costly misjudgement of his brother’s political thinking who reveals himself to be a libertarian seeking to be free of the oppressive meddling of the state in his entrepreneurial enterprise of selling magic beans to Celebration. As a last roll of the dice Farqual decides to mock his brother’s fowl based sorcery to which Barqual announces he has more eggs to hatch and a large crash is heard outside the farmhouse.

Entering combat Moloch is quick to move and mounts the altar to fire his sling unsuccessfully at Barqual who places his cadaverous defender between himself and the party’s first line of attack. Two chickens close on the party and one jumps the altar to peck at Moloch. Showing a dramatic flair worthy of his facial hair Barqual casts invisibility over his undead protector causing a wave of unease in our heroes. Doing what he is almost most well-known for Hector the Hoplite rains two mighty blows down upon the nearest chicken cleaving its head completely from its body. As the head falls to the ground the body runs off and is quickly ensnared by one of the potted thorns.
Seeking to further even up the odds for the party Romula knocks over the pail of blood and bodily fluid and as the contents spread across the floor she notes two voids appear in the vicinity of the nearest chicken. Visualising the snow carpeted steppe bathed in the winter long moonlight of her homeland she calls upon the power of her God to banish the revenant from the field of battle. A series of crimson footprints appear and race towards to wall where, sensing prey is nearby, a thorn plant activates and ensnares the zombie causing the invisibility to fade. Feeling their more martial comrades have things in hand Farqual and Seneca rush to the aid of Moloch and attack his feathered assailant.

Not wishing the heroes to grow overconfident Barqual aides Hector in doing the thing he is actually most well-known for by casting charm upon him. Showing the usual resistance his simple mind is capable off Hector once again turns on his companions and climbs the altar to face Moloch. Identifying Hector as the most pressing threat to Moloch’s life Farqual rushes behind Hector and grabs his cloak. A combination of his considerable bulk, elevated position and surprise conspire to send this human siege engine arse over tit and he crashes to the floor. Utilising the break in the action to their benefit the thieves combine into a single competent and dexterous whole and dispatch the altar based hen.

Romula braces to fend off the final bird but quickly realises its attacks are hardly above the level of minor annoyance and its main function is a mobile shield for Barqual. In a hectic period Barqual gets Hector back to his feet and casts invisibility over him to up the ante, and Seneca and Moloch return to form and send a series of projectiles everywhere but into Barqual, save for a single hit. Farqual wants in on the projectile action and attempts to launch the blood pail at his brother but slips on the slick blood soaked floorboards and hits himself in the head.

As arrows and stones continue not to rain down on Barqual Farqual makes a last appeal to his brother and launches into a song from their childhood

“Who can take a rainbow
Wrap it in a sigh
Soak it in the sun and make a groovy lemon pie
The Candy Man…”

Barqual hesitates and tells his brother he has touched his necrotic heart. He has decided to kill him last. This touching scene is disrupted when Romula dispatches the final chicken and Barqual, shouting “screw this for a game of soldiers” jumps through the window to a chorus of excited clucks. Still singing Farqual races to the window to see six twelve foot tall chickens below and his brother disappearing into the warehouse. No longer under Barqual’s influence the thorn plant release the corpse which falls to floor once again lifeless. A disembodied confused voice asks “What’s happened here?”
The party searches the desk and workspace and find a ledger, set of blueprints and a letter addressed to an Ayn in Celebration. Piecing the information together it appears the Guy Farm previously supplied the brewing industry in Celebration with Hops but has recently moved production to a mysterious bean which, in order to avoid ‘Guberment interference’ is being transported to Celebration by means of underground tunnels accessible from an entryway constructed and hidden in the warehouse. Successful experiments with chickens have increased production due to a superior supply of guano now being available but has caused problems – the gas it produces is flammable and heavier than air so long term storage in the warehouse is dangerous as gas could pool in the tunnels.

Excited at the prospect of finally getting to burn something the party decides to shoot a flaming arrow at the warehouse from the first floor window of the house. Quite literally, however, Seneca fails to hit a barn door and the arrow falls some way short causing the twelve foot tall chickens to recoil from the flame.

The party regroups to consider their options…

(By James Leader)

Lunchtime Lairs is a weekly RPG session at Justplay Games Liverpool, Wednesdays at 12 until 2. We are currently playing the Black Hack.

Lucky There’s A Family of Guy’s (a Black Hack Adventure)

Adventurers hiding in a mausoleum. Bodies removed from caskets and from graves. An unmarked wagon. An attack that left the wagon driver slain, horses scattered and a coachman prone.

So begins today’s adventure.

The stubborn coachman is reluctant to provide information until Romula applies pressure to his wounds. He reveals he has been hired to bring bodies to a plantation that provides crops to the town of Celebration. Seneca tortures him, removing a few fingers – the terrified coachman knows nothing about his employer or why the bodies are needed. He asks no questions and takes his coin, although he does remember hearing that the plantation has recently changed their produce.

With a knife to the coachman’s back, Moloch rides up front after Hector has helped retrieve the spooked horses. The rest of the party hides in the back of the wagon as it trundles off towards the plantation.

As dawn rises, they approach the gates. The plantation is surrounded by heavy thorns and bramble. A gate leads through a large field of crops towards a corral. A farmhouse is in front, with a barn to one side and a warehouse to the other.

The coachman is reluctant to approach, but his employer waits at the farmhouse – a sinister man in heavy robes, features obscured. They pull up alongside him and the coachman reacts nervously. With a nod from Moloch, the coachman moves to unload the ‘bodies’ from the carriage…

His employer peers in to the dark carriage, the majority of the party successfully hidden. But Hector steps forward and asks Moloch if he needs a hand. With cover blown, the party enters combat. The mysterious employer shouts to some farm workers, who emerge from the crops (the Guy Family). Pitchfork Guy is unsuccessful in skewering Hector, who swiftly slices the robed employer’s head from his shoulders. Trowel Guymakes a beeline for Romula, who quickly forms a hield wall against the wagon with Hector. Scythe Guy takes an unsuccessful swing at Moloch as Seneca climbs atop the wagon and begins to fire arrows.

The coachman panics and runs for the gate, all but forgotten by the combatants – for now.

Faqual charms Scythe Guy, who takes a swing at his brother Trowel Guy. Swinging his scythe, he spills Trowel’s guts, and –

A boy plays in a field with a dog. The dog runs in to the tall grass and is missing. The boy mourns his lost pet, his first encounter with mortality. His father teaches him to farm, his strong hands growing steadily weaker and older, until he passes the family trowel to his son and departs this plain. The tears brim in the boy’s eyes and he brings his hands to his face to catch them. The tears are warm. And red. He looks down at his hands and the tears are blood. And entrails. Before him, his brother readies his scythe. Only, it is no longer his brother. A hooded figure extends a cold, bony hand. They rise. From amidst the chaos, they rise and float away. Beyond his brother’s. Beyond the family farm. Trowel Guy smiles.

The door to the farmhouse opens and Running Guy (no relation) emerges and makes his way towards the closed barn door. A few well placed arrows slow his progress to a crawl.

And the coachman gets closer to freedom.

Unarmed Guy (formerly known as Pitchfork Guy) tries to get a few punches in on Hector before his sword separates him from this earthly ream –

A realm in which he once lived so happily and peacefully with his cousins. Now his favourite cousin – Trowel – lies slain at Scythe’s hands. Was it grief that forced the gleaming sword in to his body? Did he secretly long for release? How would he have looked Mother Guy in the eye and told her of the horrors that had befell her beautiful boys? He couldn’t live with himself. He didn’t have to. With a whimper, he ceased…

Moloch’s blade stabs Scythe Guy in the back. Wobbling, he takes one futile swing at Romula before Moloch finds his neck –

Scythe Guy was always his mother’s favourite. It was his smile, she said. He lit up any room. And when his father, Old Guy, died, he helped them carry on. He was strong for them all. He kept them going. His cousin’s adored him. His brother looked up to him. It was his smile. Always his smile. And now it widened and it lit up the room. Crimson.

Only Running Guy remains of the farmers, still staggering intently towards the barn. He lifts the latch…

The door bursts open, throwing him across the grass, crashing against the corner of the farmhouse. He slumps to the floor, dead –

No relation.

Finally, the coachman reaches the gate and his bid for freedom. Suddenly, the vines and thorns in the surrounding bushes rumble and they shoot out towards him. He is skewered in the gateway and the thorns entwine together, sealing the entrance.

The door to the barn swings closed and settles slightly ajar. A startled whimper can be heard within, coming from multiple sources.

A shadow, having observed the battle from an attic window, retreats in to the darkness of the farmhouse.

Together, the adventurers make their way in to the farmhouse…

Lunchtime Lairs is a weekly RPG session at JustPlay Games in Liverpool, Wednesdays 12-2. We are currently playing The Black Hack.

Lunchtime Lairs: Death and Taxes

Having found a dazed Blegrim in the tunnels under the dragon’s mountain, Faqual had found himself confronted by a troop of guards. The bumbling conjurer proved unconvincing and was captured, along with Seneca. The fate of the Beak Squad – six mutated intelligent penguins – is unknown…

Waking up in a dungeon, Seneca and Faqual find themselves reunited with Hector and Romula. They wait in their cramped cell for two days, with nothing to eat but more snook (where’s the Beak Squad when they’re needed?) Eventually, they are visited by Commander Fencer, who is looking for volunteers. Complete a job and earn your freedom. Well, of sorts.

Our brave adventurers volunteer, as does Moloch the Thief (Dan, joining our adventure for his first RPG outing). Stepping out in to the bright sunlight, they are presented with their task. The Regional Governor has a dispute with a small town two days journey away. It seems the town’s primary business has changed in the last six months and they have since stopped paying their taxes. Several expeditions have been sent to the town to speak to the new Mayor – none have returned. The Governor, having noted the alleged crimes of our merry gang, wishes to enlist them as an expendable enforcement team that are known as the “Red Shirts” (this despite the white shirts with which they have been presented)

Seneca saw this as an opportunity to scarper, but Fencer had a few surprises in store. The snook they had been fed contained miniaturised canoes (an oddly specific way of storing transport that was defined in the previous campaign). The Governor’s resident conjurer could use his crystal ball to monitor the progress of the Red Shirts. Deviate too far, and their waistline would expand by several feet.

By way of demonstration, the conjurer showed the previous party that had been tasked with this job. One moment, they supped beers in a tavern, the next moment five canoes occupied their spaces at the bar along with a lot of fleshy bits and bodily fluids.

Convinced, the adventurers set out.

They were advised that the road to the town of Celebration was a two day journey. The landscape was open and flat. There was only one notable place to shelter for the night – a church halfway between both towns.

After a weary day of travel, the group approached the churchyard. But something was off. The church itself appeared a little…ventilated. The churchyard was scattered with rubble, the church roof and bell tower had crumbled and the shattered altar looked to be the scene of some magical explosion.

More alarmingly, the weathered and aged graves looked to have been recently exhumed.

A lone mausoleum, decorated with a hop motif, was locked. Seneca picked the lock. Inside, they found ten coffins. The newest was judged to have been placed less than a year ago. Two of the oldest coffins had been tampered.

Deciding to set up camp within the mausoleum, the gang carried the coffins out to the church – in case any of their residents decided to go for a walk. The two oldest, tampered coffins were empty.

They set a decoy fire in the ruins of the church and Hector and Moloch took first watch. After a few hours, they heard an approaching wagon. They roused the rest of the party and readied themselves. Moloch stepped out in to the road to hail the driver, but the driver was already slowing the wagon down. Two horses, two men and a large contained wagon.

Moloch tried to charm them as a lonely adventurer, but one of the men trained a crossbow on him and told him to send his party out from the church. Another attempt at charm failed and the driver became aware that the campfire was a decoy. As he bade the horses on, the bowman took fire, catching Moloch and depleting his armour. Seneca failed to hit a horse, as did a charging Hector. The coach driver was thrown from the carriage and Hector flung his iron rod in to the wheels of the carriage, forcing the horses to break free and bolt. The bowman was flung forward, his neck snapping as he landed head first on the ground.

Moloch darted to the driver and held him captive.

The horses are scattered and the driver is captured. Where did they come from? What was their intention at night in a graveyard?

Lunchtime Lairs is a weekly roleplay session held at Justplay Games in Liverpool, Wednesdays 12:00-14:00. We are currently running The Black Hack.

UK Games Expo 2018

Last weekend, I spent two fantastic days at the UK Games Expo at the Birmingham NEC. Having done many a Comic Con over the years, I thought I had an idea of what to expect – how wrong I was. The scale of UKGE is impressive, and the organisation of such an event is incredible. The Expo was split across Hall 1 and 2 of the Exhibition Halls at the NEC. Most of this space was devoted to traders and developers, with plenty of opportunities to play test or interact with some tantalising new (and old) titles. A large part of Hall 2 was devoted to Tournament play, with Fantasy Flight Games hosting the European Championships of X Wing Miniatures and a Star Wars Destiny tournament (both of which I spent a small fortune on expanding my collection this weekend). The free play areas were always bustling with gamers – the confidence of the experienced gamers mixed with those concentrating on new rule books, getting to grips with new worlds. The atmosphere was electric. A quick stroll past the Viking and Orc encampment (who’d have thought they’d mix so well?), led to the Hilton, who were hosting most of the RPG sessions and seminars.

Needless to say, before I could immerse myself in the Expo, I had to navigate the surrounding roads – far too recent for my ancient Sat Nav to comprehend. Having gone 30 miles out of our way (yes, I’m serious), we made our way to the Holiday Inn Birmingham Airport and took advantage of their excellent complimentary shuttle to the Airport, which is a short walk to the NEC.

We arrived at the Expo early Friday afternoon. We had been warned that the crowds on Saturday would likely be tough to navigate, so I was glad to wander with ease around the Halls on Friday. There was no entry queue, nor any queues to collect tickets and passes.

 It took me all of five minutes to make my first purchase of the trip. Having spotted the Backspindle Games table, I was drawn to a Mexican wrestling game called ‘Luchador!’. Backspindle are the company behind the awesome Discworld title, ‘The Clacks’, which I was bought whilst directing a theatre adaption of Going Postal (on which the game is based). It’s quickly become a favourite, having been played on many drunken evenings around our table. Simple, yet challenging – and not so heavy on Discworld lore that it scares off the casual player. In fact, it’s one of the few we’ve been able to play successfully with the in-laws. But I’ll give a full review of The Clacks another day.

 As luck would have it, the designer of Luchador had stopped by the booth and was able to sign a copy for me, which was a result. First blood to Backspindle! 36 hours to go…

 Having surveyed the Hall, we were drawn to the Bring and Buy. With no real intention of buying much, we queued a reasonable 20 minutes (queues on Saturday were unreal) with a wish list of games that we didn’t expect to see. How naive we were. For those unfamiliar, the Bring and Buy is like a massive board game jumble sale. Sellers register their items, check them in and they’re added to the pile. Sellers then check back in over the course of the weekend to see how much they’ve earned. It’s Expo eBay, basically.

 We were really pleased to see wish list item ‘Thud’ for sale (another Discworld title) for a reasonable price, considering it’s out of print. We tried it out later in the bar and it’s gorgeous. Again, review to follow!

 With time ticking on, we made our way to our first show of the night. Ian Livingstone reading Deathtrap Dungeon. The contestant was John Robertson (from the hilarious ‘Dark Room’ fringe show). After giving us an insight in to how they met (“Hello, I’m Ian. I invented the thing you’re parodying”), we spent 2 hours trying to lure Robertson to his death. The room was packed and really warm, but it didn’t put the crowd off. At one point, Livingstone pulled out a harmonica and Roberston sang an impromptu blues song about his visit to the borehole. Both were completely captivating and laugh out loud hysterical.

 The Hilton’s bar was a highlight of the weekend. Every seat taken by gamers, each with a pint and a game in front of them. A couple of oblivious hotel guests looked totally bewildered by it, but there was a buzz throughout the building that was infectious. We finished the night off with a trip to see old friends Jollyboat (who we’ve shared a fringe platform with on the odd occasion) and John Robertson getting his revenge on Ian Livingstone in ‘The Dark Room’ – which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’re in Edinburgh this summer, sell your soul for a ticket.

 Our taxi brought us back to the Holiday Inn at 1am. In reception, a group played Magic the Gathering and a few board games were set up in the bar!

 An early start on Saturday for the busiest day of the Expo. The crowds were bustling and I was glad to have had the opportunity to peruse at my own pace the day before. I stopped by Ian Livingstone’s table to shake the hand of the man who started my love of fantasy way back when and stopped for a chat at the Black Hack and Cthulhu Hack booths (The Black Hack being our current game of choice at Lunchtime Lairs – Wednesdays 12-2 at JustPlay Liverpool)

 In the afternoon, we had a game booked at the Hilton. Although I’ve dabbled on and off over the years, I’m still relatively inexperienced playing RPG’s and only ever with friends. Lunchtime Lairs was my means to break the ice and jump in head first and I was determined to have a similar experience at UKGE. So I had found a Level 1 Dungeons and Dragons 5E campaign that seemed suitable.

 ‘Against the Grain’ was written and DM’d by Simon Rice, who was a brilliant and welcoming DM. The campaign saw 4 adventurers investigate a missing farmer and the mysterious mist that had descended upon the area, leading people astray. We were fortunate to play with such a great group – each of whom embraced their pre gens from the very start. There was no clichéd wariness, this motley crew were very soon squabbling comically, much to Simon’s amusement. There was a great use of tarot cards, drawn randomly by the adventurers in an encounter with an insane cannibal clairvoyant, which helped determine some random encounters for each player. It was excellent.

 By the time we wrapped up, it was now near 8pm on Saturday. We headed back to the bar, bought a few pints and played a few card games that we’d picked up that morning before jumping the shuttle bus back and heading to bed.

 I would have loved to have added a third day to the trip but I don’t think my wallet could take any more!

 So, a week later I’m still mulling over a brilliant Expo. There’s still a lot of games to play (and review), but there’s nothing quite like having so much enthusiasm in one place.

 = = = = =

David Griffiths is a writer, producer and director from Liverpool. His novels, ‘A Christmas Cthulhu’ and ‘Bearquake’ are available from Amazon. As a sports journalist, his ice hockey show, Drop The Puck, has been broadcast across the UK’s local TV networks for five years. His sports documentary, ‘Dragons Fire’ is available on YouTube. His latest feature film, ‘Saving Grace’ is currently in post production. Follow him on Twitter @daveygriff82

The Citadel – A Short Story

She tried to rip down the creeping vines that covered the rusty iron gates, but centuries of growth held them strong. In all their months of expedition, they had never encountered a dwelling so fortified.

They had travelled the road for some time before reaching the outer perimeter. From there, a long network of wide pathways, overgrown on both sides, led towards a central fortification. The highest towers were barely visible over the trees, but they pressed onwards, veering ever closer.

Vasily trailed behind Anjum all the way. Her enthusiasm far outweighed that of her partner, who grew tired of their excavation. At night, he gazed at the stars. “Our constellation looks so different from down here”, he would say as he pined for home. Above them, their ship maintained orbit awaiting recovery instructions. It had been orbiting the planet for twelve weeks as excavation continued. A great deal of that time had been spent walking. Now, before this rusted gate, their journey had reached a dead end.

“Nowhere to go.” Vasily seemed pleased. Perhaps now he could return to the ship and begin the long journey home. The temperate climate of this planet did not agree with him. Anjum was not prepared to admit defeat. She tugged at the vines.

Stiff. The roots were thick and heavy.

Pulling harder, they gave a little.

“Knife.” Vasily placed it in to her outstretched hand. She began to hack indiscriminately at the branches. They creaked and cracked, brittle from centuries of atrophy.

A piece broke off under Anjum’s pressure. It allowed her an opportunity to untangle a knot of branches. The leaves were brown, they broke apart in her hand. The vines were clearing quite rapidly now, large chunks coming free at a time. Soon, the gates loomed bare and imposing.

Anjum pushed.

A creak. The gasp of the metal as it exercised its joints for the first time in millennia. They gave a little, then seized up forever.

The gap was small, but Anjum squeezed through. Vasily followed.

Beyond the perimeter, they stopped and studied their surroundings.

There were structures, buildings overrun with plants and trees. First amongst them, what appeared to be a Gatehouse. Large portholes looked out upon the approach – presumably were sentinels would have stood guard. Beyond the portholes lay a vast courtyard surrounded on all sides by large residences and stables.

Cautiously, they crossed the Gatehouse, passing under vast arches. The ornate decoration long since crumbled, only flashes of extravagance remained hewn in to the rock.

They stepped out in to the courtyard. Ahead of them, a path led towards the largest and most domineering structure – a turreted fortress, dark and desolate. The uppermost tower they had followed for miles. One final mile to the tower. Anjum became anxious. She struggled to contain her breathing, as much to reassure Vasily than anything else.

“What if it is inhabited?” Vasily had a point. But they had found no sign of life on their entire journey. This civilisation had long since departed. Still, she found herself watching the windows nervously, trying to shake the dreadful feeling that they were being watched.

“We press on,” was all that she could say to reassure him. Together, they strode up the street towards their destination.

Anjum caught Vasily glance up at the sky. Dark grey. If he was looking for the reassurance of the orbiting ship then he truly was terrified. She found herself questioning if their Comms could even function through such thick cloud coverage. Best to put it out of her mind, concentrate on the task at hand. This was what they signed up for. They were archaeologists, explorers – this system, this planet, was a treasure trove. And they had it all to themselves.

At least that’s what Anjum hoped.

Vasily stopped her. “It is late. We should rest.” She was about to protest. “We made it inside the perimeter. It can wait until morning.”

They turned back to the shelter of the Gatehouse. Setting up camp, they watched as the rain began to fall. Light at first, dancing off the cobbled stone and twisting pathways. Then the rain erupted in to a thunderstorm. Huddled under the stone structure of the Gatehouse, they watched and waited for morning light. Occasionally, the rain eased and afforded them an hour or so of sleep. But another crack of thunder would follow and rouse them.

By morning, the storm had passed and the temperature was beginning to climb. The rainwater steamed as it quickly evaporated from the worn stone. Anjum began to pack up camp as Vasily checked in with the ship – a morning ritual of his that seemed to provide him an element of comfort. Anjum had argued with him the first few times he had done so, that he should have more faith in the equipment, that he should trust the onboard systems, that his fears were baseless and unbecoming of a planetary explorer. She had since made peace with it. “All good?” Vasily nodded. They had at least two more months before they would need to head back to the ship and run a diagnostic – the slightest failing in the systems could strand them years from the colony. At that point, Anjum would need to decide if they were to stay for the remainder of the year or head back home. She had a feeling that the latter would be Vasily’s preferred course. Something about this planet didn’t agree with her partner. It haunted him.

Slowly, they followed the path from the gatehouse towards the fortress – a straight path surrounded on both sides by looming buildings and battlements. Vasily’s breathing grew heavier, the sound of a man who could feel the walls closing in with each step. Anjum couldn’t help but marvel at the civilisation that had build this citadel. She thought of their attackers, charging through the iron gates towards the gatehouse, picked off one by one from the safety of the portholes. Those that made it through would be bottle necked in to the underpass that led to the courtyard. No doubt the defending army would be waiting there as the invaders squeezed through. Their ranks broken, the invaders would be torn apart. Finally, should they make it any further they would race down the path towards the fortress whilst bombarded from both sides by guards in the surrounding buildings.

For a primitive civilisation, the citadel was impenetrable.

Anjum turned, Vasily was no longer at her side. He had stopped a little further back. “Found something?” she asked as she watched Vasily stand transfixed. He was staring through the doorway of a building. Most others had been boarded up, or were buried in moss and leaves. But one door stood wide. She was surprised with herself for having missed it, but her eyes were always drawn towards the tower. Vasily did not reply. She approached him. As she came within viewing distance of the door, Vasily turned to her. His eyes pleaded, he wanted to leave.

Through the door lay a mountain of skin and fur. From etchings they had discovered in their travels, they appeared to be animals – small, filthy, still.

“Who would do this?” Vasily uttered. Anjum couldn’t answer. The animals were most certainly dead. Their arrangement seemed to suggest a display, likely a warning. Their small bodies had been treated to preserve a lifelike image, their eyes were black and cold.

“Come on,” Anjum pulled Vasily away from this macabre display.

“They were fresh.” Vasily’s voice trembled.

“They were preserved.”

“Something is still alive here. I can feel it.” Vasily’s heart beat out of his chest. Anjum took him by the hand and started to lead him along the path towards the tower.

She noticed further paths, winding off in all directions of the citadel. But one thing united them all; the tower. The fortress at the centre of it all. All roads led to the tower, its small windows looking out in every direction. A fortified panopticon.

They now moved within the shadow of the tower itself. A small stone bridge led up to the main entrance, crossing what once was a moat. The water had long since turned to slime, it oozed rather than flowed. Vasily’s eyes darted around at the surrounding pathways whilst Anjum stared up intently on the tower.

Stood before it, the door was immovable.

Anjum was adamant, she needed to see inside. Vasily set up a camp in the doorway and ate some rations as Anjum prepared a grapple hook and cable. Vasily watched her silently. She knew that he wouldn’t go. His fear of the citadel was completely irrational, but she wouldn’t force her partner to scale the tower.

She took a few steps back, swung the grapple and launched it towards one of the windows. With a thump, the grapple connected with a ledge and held. Anjum tested the cable. It seemed secure. She looked to Vasily. He nodded.

With a military quickness, Anjum climbed the cable. At halfway she was able to get her feet upon the wall and walk the rest of the way. Scrambling at the balcony, she pulled herself inside. As she dropped to the floor of the chamber, she heard the echo of her arrival reverberate around the building.

There was no reply.

Looking out of the window, she gave Vasily a thumbs up. He stood open mouthed watching as Anjum disappeared inside and was gone.

The chamber in which she had entered was bare. So much time had passed that Anjum was unsure if the place had been stripped or had always been sparse. There was no door, only an open archway that led out in to a central open hallway with a winding staircase. Cautiously, she stepped out.

In contrast, the hallway was elaborately decorated, but suffering at the hands of centuries of decay. The walls had been lined with wood panelling and metallic weaponry now rusted and warped. The spiral staircase seemed to be in tact, Anjum tested her foot on the first step. It held. She ascended towards the top of the tower, her footsteps echoing off the cold and empty walls.

The tower seemed far smaller than it had on the outside. She had ascended to the uppermost rampart and stepped out on to the balcony.

From her vantage point, Anjum could see a remarkable distance. She could see the roads that they had followed as they had followed the fortress. She could see the perimeter, the gatehouse and Vasily stood directly below her. She waved. Vasily shouted, “What do you see?”

She scanned the landscape, then peered through the window at the back of the tower. The rear of the citadel was far bigger than she had anticipated, with residences arranged in to small clusters, each uniquely different – even from Anjum’s height. When Anjum descended, she told Vasily. He seemed relieved that she had found nothing in the fortress itself. But the empty shell had only piqued Anjum’s curiosity further. Having rested, they opted to advance further in to the labyrinthine pathways of the alien citadel.

Some paths were blocked, trees having uprooted or rusted gateways barring access. Some led to residences, long since sealed and abandoned. Wherever they went, the fortress watched them from the highest window – Anjum’s vantage point – but they pressed on. One route led them in to the trees, a series of huts and access ways having now deteriorated. As the sun sank low on the horizon, Anjum and Vasily set up camp in the shelter of an exposed doorway that looked out upon a metallic framework – the remnants of a primitive transport system. By nightfall, they were in total darkness, too sheltered to find any light amongst the stars. Their senses heightened, they rested uneasy. Vasily would occasionally hold his breath as if alerted to a noise in the distance. Anjum could hear nothing. She took the opportunity to rest well, falling in to a long deep sleep.

Vasily woke her with some food. She could sense that she had slept long in to the morning. The sun was now high, the temperature cool from their shelter. Packing up camp, they advanced further until they heard the sound of running water.

Before them, a stream flowed around a large building. Their approach was quiet, disguised by the stream. As they drew near, they could see the water ran thin and relatively clear – the cleanest water they had seen since reaching the citadel’s perimeter.

“Artificial?” Vasily suggested. Anjum suspected he was right. Perhaps it ran from a Well or a Dam?

There was a small boat that sat moored alone in the water. Vasily examined it as Anjum scouted the surrounding area. The stream ran partially around the residence before disappearing in to an open tunnel at its base. The boat appeared to be a means of access.

“Shall we?” she asked as she stepped aboard the boat.

Vasily hesitated, “It goes inside.” He couldn’t shake the image of those animals at the approach to the tower, slaughtered and arranged in a gruesome pile of bodies, staring intently at anyone who may dare to enter. And the tunnel was dark. Anything could be waiting inside.

Anjum fumbled in amongst her supplies and tossed Vasily a flashlight. Reluctantly, he clambered aboard.

Pushing the boat along with their hands, they floated towards the entrance. The water splashed and rippled, everything else was so still.

The boat passed through the entranceway and they descended in to darkness.

A few moments later, Anjum lit her flashlight. The small beam of light explored their surroundings. They were passing through a narrow tunnel. Markings lined the wall. Anjum studied them, a few markings were familiar. Clearly the civilisation was sophisticated enough to communicate.

The tunnel began to open out in to a wider room, dark and cold. Anjum let out a shiver. Vasily spread his flashlight across the expansive cavern.

There were structures.

Detailed, intricate, Anjum wondered why there had not been this level of detail inside the fortress. Her eyes were still adjusting to the minimal light levels. As they focused, she realised what it was that she was looking at.

There was a settlement, hidden here in the dark.

The houses were small, far smaller than anything they had encountered before. The residents were clearly of much smaller stature than those who ran the citadel.

Or were they? Was this the true inner sanctum? Could the exterior be merely a ruse to protect the residents? Anjum’s head was spinning. The expansive journey, the false fortress, the single boat providing access through a small tunnel to an entire town. If this were a means of defence, the detail and planning was incredible.

“Shine that torch over here,” she asked Vasily, frantically. As the light settled on a small house they could see a figure within.

It was watching them.

“There’s someone there.”

The figure turned away from them, slowly, nonchalant.

And with a whirr, the town was illuminated.

The explorers were startled, their eyes fought to adjust to the sudden burst of light. They spun around and the people were stood along the banks of the stream, staring at them, grinning. All of them were a fraction of the height of Anjum and Vasily, grotesque distortions of what they had come to know as this planet’s dominant species. They chanted and laughed, a sinister high pitched chuckle. Vasily shouted, desperately trying to turn the boat back and flee through the tunnel. One of the townspeople slowly flew towards them in an aircraft.

Anjum dropped her flashlight, she struggled to turn the boat back with Vasily as the chanting became louder and louder, the screams and laughter from the townsfolk at a fever pitch, the cold stare in their eyes as they watched the explorers and grinned maniacally at them.

The boat bounced off the banks of the stream as it sped backwards towards the tunnel, the two occupants hoping that it would take them out of the townspeople’s reach. The cheering and singing continued unabated, sickeningly pleased with themselves for having turned away their invaders.

The boat rocked back through the entranceway, out in to the glaring light of the midday sun. Vasily scrambled to shore. “What was that?”

Anjum tried to maintain her cool as she joined him on the shore. She pocketed her shaking hands. “Evolution? The remnants of an ancient race?”

“Will they follow us?”

They watched the entrance, but all was once again quiet.

“I don’t think so. We trespassed, I think they were just defending themselves.” Anjum noticed she was looking up to the sky, at the small speck of metal that gleamed above. For the first time, she longed for the safety of home.

“What were they chanting?” Vasily asked.

Anjum had to admit ignorance. She caught her breath and after a few moments found herself suggesting a return to the ship. Was it for comfort? Or was she done with the mission now that they had found life? She couldn’t be sure. But Vasily had been right, the place was haunted. And, for the moment at least, she couldn’t stay.

As they waited for the Recovery Pod, Anjum reflected upon the life they had briefly glimpsed. Were there more civilisations scattered across this fragmented world? Were they also in hiding or would she be able to approach them openly? They could communicate, their town was powered and defended. She marvelled at their ingenuity.

Aboard the Recovery Pod they sped away from the surface, the sounds of the chanting and singing still reverberating in their minds. There was so much to report upon their return to the colony. Had Anjum understood the alien language, she would have no doubt agreed with the sentiment of their song;

It truly was a small world, after all.