Voyage of the Iron Duchess, Part V: The Forgotten Depths

Wherein our heroes evade a mandatory inspection by the Imperial Navy, journey deep into the lower decks of the ship, and come face to face with an ancient evil…

In the aftermath of the Iron Duchess’ battle against the pirates, two Imperial Navy frigates arrived, identifying themselves as Lancer Squadron of Battlefleet Kerberus, and they sent out an area wide vox demanding that all ships stand down and prepare for inspection. The Iron Duchess was quick to vox back a summary of events and assert their claim on the captured Hazeroth as a prize– something the Navy did not dispute, but they still sent shuttles over all the same, for they had a mandate to search all suspicious vessels in the sector.

On the captured pirate vessel, the adventurers were left with mere minutes to prepare for the inspection, though Brigitte used some of her administrative clout to delay the Navy’s shuttles from docking. Ka’ra and Cygnis, in particular, were forced to retreat further towards the aft of the hull to avoid being discovered. As they ventured deeper into the pirate vessel, they overheard the news start to spread like wildfire among the ship’s enslaved crew that the Navy had arrived to liberate them. Cygnis’ senses also picked up something else further to the aft– the distinct sense of a psychic mind in distress. Without explanation, she raced off to find this mind, with a flustered Ka’ra following close behind her.

When the Navy shuttles finally docked, they found Dent and his voidsmen ready to receive them in the docking bay with a formal military greeting. The officer in charge of the inspection, one Lieutenant Althea Spar, was impressed by Dent’s thoroughness, and seemed convinced by his assurance that everything was under control and nothing was out of the ordinary. All the same, as Spar told him, the Navy had its own orders to fulfil where pirates were concerned, and those orders superseded any authority a Rogue Trader dynasty might claim to have. As they spoke, Dent couldn’t help but get the impression that Spar had a bone to pick with the Avalon Dynasty…

At Spar’s order, Navy armsmen scoured the ship, rounding up and arresting pirates and executing those that resisted. The Captain was found near the ship’s bridge and summarily executed on the spot…but not far from him, the armsmen found the ship’s navigator, a twitching, half mad rogue psyker who bruised and filthy from years of abuse. The psyker was muttering over and over again about things outside the walls, and was frantically pleading for the newcomers to keep quiet “or the noise will attract them.” Everyone present braced themselves, recognizing that this psyker was seemingly on the verge of becoming possessed…

Here There Be Daemons

Spar was about to have the psyker shot then and there to prevent a warp incident when Cygnis and Ka’ra came bursting onto the bridge behind them. Cygnis pleaded for Spar to let her help this psyker, assuring her that she could prevent his possession. Spar was skeptical at first, but at Dent’s insistence, she reluctantly agreed…though every gun in that room remained trained on the twitching psyker.

Slowly, Cygnis extended her mind to touch that of the psyker. At first, the psyker resisted, but Cygnis quietly urged him to be calm and to trust her. As the onlookers watches, the two psykers became still, and frost began to spread on the floors and walls around them as the temperature rapidly dropped. Ka’ra, not knowing what was going on, tried to inject the seemingly unconscious Cygnis with an adrenaline shot; only the reassurance of Dent prevented her from doing so, causing the T’au to grumble about “Gue’la mind-science.”

As the two psykers joined minds, Cygnis opened her eyes and found herself in a bare, empty room in a ruined shell of a building, overlooking the upper reaches of what looked like a smog-smothered hive city. The psyker was there, nothing more than a frightened teenager huddled in the corner, and Cygnis got the sense that once, maybe, this had been his home, before he had been enslaved by the pirates and before he had found himself as attuned tot he warp as he was now.

No sooner had Cygnis realized this, however, when something banged against one of the windows. Claws suddenly began to rake and scratch at the shutters from outside, and a growing chorus of inhuman hisses and shrieks could be heard on the wind. There were daemons outside, hungrily trying to claw their way in to feast on the psyker’s soul. As the psyker crouched in a foetal ball and whimpered about “the devouring shadows,” Cygnis stood and traced symbols in the air, invoking words of warding that she had learned from her studies as a Void Dreamer. As if in response, the clawing at the windows increased, the creatures outside suddenly driven into a frenzy of hunger by the presence of two psychic souls to feast upon.

The windows cracked then, and a gust of wind blew through the room as a clash of wills erupted in the mind-space. Cygnis exerted her power and her willpower, declaring to the daemons that they would not be devouring this boy’s soul today. The wind raged through the room as the daemons battered themselves against the barrier again and again, but though her willpower was strained to its limit, Cygnis would not let them through.

In the end, Cygnis won: the daemons were repelled from the rogue psyker’s mind, and the illusion crumbled as the poor boy suddenly felt the voices in his head go silent.

Revelations and Mandatory Inspections

Having vanquished the hungry warp-gheists, Cygnis and the other psyker woke up, and Cygnis assured all present that the rogue psyker was no longer a danger for now. Dent insisted that they take the psyker– who identified himself as Jacen– back to the Iron Duchess to be put into the care of the Avalon Dynasty. While Lieutenant Spar at first objected, stating that the Imperial Navy had a mandate to retrieve and neutralize rogue psykers, she ultimately conceded that there was nothing prohibiting a Rogue Trader dynasty from taking responsibility for a rogue psyker.

As the securing of the new ship continued, the adventurers escorted Spar and her men back to the Iron Duchess. As they walked onto the bridge, however, Captain Avalon suddenly recognized Spar. It was suddenly revealed that Captain Avalon and Lieutenant Spar had encountered one another before– that Lieutenant Spar was in fact the Captain’s estranged, illegitimate daughter! After the party recovered from their shock, however, they were forced to quietly relocate items from Cygnis’ and Ka’ra’s quarters as the Navy began their cursory inspection. The last thing they wanted or needed was for the Navy to find evidence of xenos on the ship…

The inspection went on for another five hours…during which time,
in a meeting with the adventurers, Captain Avalon admitted that, yes, Althea Spar was his illegitimate daughter, and that no, she hadn’t been recognized as a formal member of the family (despite his best efforts), and no, he hadn’t been a particularly good (or present) father to her. Five hours later, the inspection finally concluded, and the party breathed a sigh of relief as the Navy armsmen began to leave. Dent, who was somewhat smitten with Lieutenant Spar, escorted her back to the airlock. On the way, Spar revealed much about the state of the sector– how pirate activity seemed to be on the rise, how warp storms had increased ever since the Gyre had widened, and most mysteriously, how there were reports of a strange vessel, blacker than the void itself, appearing from out of nowhere to attack merchantmen and leaving massacred, mutilated crews on their wake.

Before she returned to her shuttle, however, Althea told Dent that if he was ever at Kerberus Prime, to look for her at a renowned tavern in the orbital dockyards. More ominously, she warned Dent not to trust her father– that as charming and as charismatic as he was, he was ultimately a self-serving man who didn’t care whose life he had to ruin to earn fame and fortune.

In the aftermath of the battle and the inspection, several other issues were resolved. The Remington brothers conveniently arrived on the scene several minutes after the Navy had left. Jacen was put under the protection and tutelage of Lady Selethon, the ship’s navigator– although she refused at first, she ultimately accepted after Cygnis deliberately goaded her into it by suggesting that her mon-keigh teachings were inferior to those of the Eldar.

The pilgrims, as well as the slaves liberated from the pirate ship, were all offered safety, shelter, and new, and more humane work under the coin and colours of the Avalon Dynasty– an offer the poor wretches all too gladly accepted. Those who wished to continue their pilgrimage, however, were escorted by the Navy as they continued their journey. The pirate ship itself was renamed the Ascension by Andromeda, and with the ship’s master at arms transferred to the prize crew, Dent was offered, and accepted, a promotion to lieutenant first class of arms.

Later on, in a private meeting, Ka’ra confided in Captain Avalon that she was rather concerned about him– that she had once seen another commander whom she had respected succumb to madness and vainglory, gradually becoming a bloodthirsty tyrant. Avalon assured her that, despite all of his bravado or posturing, he would never put himself over the well being of his crew or his dynasty, and he gave Ka’ra permission to shoot him of he ever did. Avalon then asked Ka’ra a personal question in turn: if the T’au Empire did in fact invade the sector, as everyone seemed afraid they were going to do, would Ka’ra’s loyalties lie with the ship or with her people? Ka’ra admitted to the captain that she did not know the answer, and hoped that she would never have to.

Into the Depths

As the ship made arrangements for retranslation into the Warp, there remained one important issue to address– namely an expedition into the lower holds. Contact needed to be made with Obadiah and his mutant clan, and the other things that Dent had found down below— the dormant ship’s systems and the mysterious door– needed to be properly investigated as well. The entire party was dispatched, including Brigitte (much to her horror, as she disliked dark places, filth and ugliness in general), along with her retainers, while Dent’s squad accompanied them down along with Adept Noxx and a loader servitor.

Just before they left, Ka’ra met up with Leandro Skalinsky, the Dynasty’s archivist, for any information on Obadiah that might be helpful. While Skalinsky had nothing on Obadiah, he did have one particular revelation to share: old schematics, dating back millennia, that seemed to have no bearing on current knowledge of the ship. Skalinsky told Ka’ra that there were old, abiding rumours that the Iron Duchess’ hull had originally been wrested from a space hulk at the inception of the Avalon Dynasty. If such a thing were true, then it would mean that large parts of the Duchess’ hull may have come from other ships…and if that were the case, there was absolutely no way of knowing what secrets the ship could hold, or what else might be waiting for them down below…

Image by Ivan Late

As one, the expedition set off below the waterline, going down by elevator to the further possible level, and then setting off to journey through the long-abandoned lower decks. As they went, they passed by many of the landmarks Dent had first seen in his first venture down here. Andromeda dispatched her servo skull (“Skully”) ahead of the party to act as a scout, while Cygnis used her Soul Scry ability to maintain a constant awareness of their surroundings.

As they marched through the long-abandoned hallways and through corridors long surrendered to rust and mold, Ka’ra decided that if she was going to trust the Voidsmen with her life, then they would have to trust her. In that moment, she took her helmet off, and revealed herself to be a T’au to to the accompanying Voidsmen- something that only her friends, the Captain, and some of the ship’s senior officers had known about at first. The Voidsmen were stunned into silence by this revelation…but, to their credit, they slowly but surely accepted this. Ka’ra belong to a race that was enemy to the Imperium, they reasoned, but she had proven her loyalty and her worth to the dynasty often enough that they could trust her now.

Eventually, the party reached the mysterious door. Cygnis attempted to scan it with her mind, but as she did so the runes on the door blazed hot: Cygnis was forced to pull her mind back as she felt the door actively repelling her psyche, leaving her feeling numb from thr powerful contact. Cygnis was left only of the fleeting impression of a psychic signature behind the door, that of something clearly not of human origin…

At that moment, however, Skully encountered several blips before it was disabled by a blunt object. At that same moment, Cygnis sensed several souls converging on their position. At Dent’s command, the Voidsmen took up defensive positions…just as a ragged band of mutants came into view.

The mutants came in a ragged mob, wielding crudely fashioned spears and blades, though some of them also carried ancient but still well-maintained stub guns. The mutants became agitated and violent at the sight of the purebloods, and started jeering and cursing at them. The voidsmen grew tense, awaiting Dent’s order to fire, and a conflict seemed inevitable…that was, until the familiar shape of Obadiah shoved his way to the front of the throng and barked at them all to stand down. To the voidsmen’s relief, the mutants lowered their blades, the one or two of them who protested being angrily shouted down by Obadiah. The twist-catcher of the lower decks recognized Dent and Noxx, and welcomed them back to the lightless depths.

Dent greeted Obadiah: as promised, he has returned, with a shipment of food and material for his kindred, as well as with a cadre of the ship’s officers so that they could meet face to face and discuss the mutants’ place on the ship. Obadiah was delighted that Dent had kept his word, and invited the newcomers back to Scrap Town, where a feast would be held in honour of their visit.

True enough, the adventurers were eventually led to Scrap Town– a settlement built within a massive, abandoned cargo hold deep in the bowels of the ship, made from the refuse and detritus abandoned by the upper decks over several centuries. The place still had air coming in from ducts and filtration vents, and the mutant kindred had subsisted on local algae, indoor lakes and lower-deck creatures for sustenance all of these years. As the party reached the center of the town, they were met by the amazement of the mutant villagers, but they too were amazed by what they saw in the town square– a massive symbol of the Aquila Imperialis, carved from now-faded gold, wrought with holy scripts and votive candles. This confirmed everything that Obadiah had told him: his Kindred were faithful to the ship, to the Emperor, and the Imperium, and could be relied to continue to be so.

The adventurers were led to a massive table, and true enough, they and the mutants partook in a massive feast (though Brigitte tried to avoid eating such under-ship delicacies as roasted giant centipedes). At this feast, a great many things were discussed with Obadiah and his mutants, including the possible integration of mutants among the crew above-deck, and Obadiah’s officer status being fully restored so that he might again take his seat at the Captain’s table. For all of her revulsion at the feast and the mutants, Brigitte nonetheless was vital in directing the talks and calming any animosity the mutants felt.

In the middle of the feasting, however, a runner came to the table, and whispered something in Obadiah’s ear. Obadiah’s demeanour suddenly went from jocularity to outrage and panic: grim-faced, he beseeched the adventurers’ aid as he imparted to them a dark and terrible secret.

A Nemesis Returned

As Obadiah rushed off with the adventurers to the site of an apparent emergency, he told them of how, hundreds of years ago, before his mutation, he had come down here with a team of voidsmen and engine-adepts to repair some minor irregularities, before a freak lift malfunction left them stranded in the lower decks, cut off from the rest of the ship and trapped with the mutant population.

Over time, the lower decks’ high radiation and greater exposure to the Warp caused them to mutate as well, and they settled in with the mutant population, with Obadiah continuing to set them to work in maintaining and repairing the ship. However, while Obadiah remained faithful to the dynasty and to the Emperor, and tried to instill this same loyalty in his mutant charges, one of the other members of the team– a technician named Caliban Ramirez– had become embittered by his long years in the dark, and was convinced that they had been abandoned and left to die by the crew. He eventually spat on his old loyalties, and declared that the mutants of the underdecks would never be treated with any fairness unless they rose up against their human masters and took the ship for themselves. This led to an argument between the two men, an argument that escalated as mutants rose to support both of them.

In the end, to avoid a bloody conflict, Ramirez and his followers– dubbed “the Forsaken” by the Kindred– were forced to leave into a more sealed-off part of the ship, and were never heard from again. That was probably for the best, for the Forsaken had moved onto a part of the outer hull that was only thinly protected by the Geller Field: over the long centuries since their exile, Ramirez and his Forsaken had surely been tainted even more by the raw powers of the Warp…but thankfully, they hadn’t been since in centuries.

That was, until recently. A stray shot from the Iron Duchess’ recent space battle must have damaged some long-dormant systems in the underdecks, for the locks sealing the ancient airlock sealing away the Forsaken’s section of the ship had been damaged. Now, Obadiah feared that Ramirez and his Forsaken would try to return, and would be coming back with violence in mind.

c. Tony Tran

Following Obadiah, the party was led to an ancient docking bay. Sure enough, while the great circular airlock at the end of the room remained locked, there were sparks spitting out of some of the adjacent consoles and power grids that spoke of feedback damage. Going to a console, Andromeda and Ka’ra were quickly able to determine that the airlock’s automation, while still somewhat functional over the millennia, had been damaged, and that it would be impossible to close again if opened. There were, however, emergency measures in place: as this was an airlock, there were special explosives fixed to the docking ring in case an attached ship needed to be jettisoned immediately. A quick inspection by Andromeda and Ka’ra determined that the explosives were still functional…though re-activating them and initiating the detonation sequence would take time with this ancient machinery.

No sooner had they mentioned this, however, when a loud clanging could be heard from the other side of the airlock. A loud, throaty voice called out for Obadiah by name, and demanded that he open the airlock. The voice declared that it was nigh time that all mutants aboard the ship rose up, slaughtered all of the non-mutants, and took what was rightfully theirs, and that this was justice for centuries of oppression and neglect. Even as this voice spoke, Cygnis shuddered as her psychic senses felt the palpable taint of the Warp on the other side of the airlock, recognizing the diseased touch of the Chaos god known as Nurgle…

Obadiah remained silent, as Brigitte successfully advised him not to be goaded into a response by his nemesis. At Obadiah’s silence, Ramirez burst into loud chuckling. “Suit yourself Obadiah,” he gurgled. “You and your kindred will rot with the rest!” And then, with a great screech of metal on metal, the airlock began to grind open…

What greeted the adventurers on the other side was a horrific sight. Caliban Ramirez could no longer be properly called human: his form had been bloated and distended to the point where he now stood three times the size of a normal man. His flesh was sickly and gangrenous, a patchwork of boils and growths, and his head was little more than a grinning, hairless stump of flesh, his covered by a pair of industrial goggles that were now fused into his skin. He wore a simple pair of workman’s coveralls that strained against his tremendous bulk, and his arms had been replaced by a massive pair of hydraulic claws that even now whined as they forced the airlock open.

Behind Ramirez, little could be seen of the other side except for bilious green mist that seemed to shroud everything in its toxic haze. Out of this mist came scuttling and crawling a horde of the horde of the Forsaken– ragged mutants clutching makeshift weapons, their mutations marred even further by the signs of rampant disease that bloated their forms. With them scampered rats, chittering centipedes, and other vermin, impelled onwards by a cackling figure clad in filthy robes.

Together, these mutated things swarmed around Ramirez’ bloated form as he forced the airlock open, pouring out into the docking bay in a blighted, scabrous tide…

The Battle of the Airlock

The adventurers quickly found themselves in the eyes of the storm as, around them, the Voidsmen and Obadiah’s mutant tribe clashed with the Forsaken. With Ka’ra and Andromeda working on the console to close the airlock, the rest of the adventurers took it upon themselves to protect them. After managing to injure a few of the mutants at range as they charged in, Dent, Kathima, and Kinette soon found themselves embroiled in close combat, fighting blade-to-blade against multiple mutant attackers. Ka’ra was quickly forced to abandon her console in turn, snapping off accurate shots with her pulse pistol, while Brigitte used her camo-cloak to climb up into a gantry and fire down on the mutant horde from relative safety. Cygnis, meanwhile, hung further to the back, and used her psychic powers aid her compatriots, and, occasionally, to make a mutant’s head explode. Obadiah made his presence known in the fight as well, wading into the thick of the fighting and using his man-catcher to latch around the head of one Forsaken, before using him as a club with which to beat another to death.

For every mutant, or swarm of creatures, that they killed, however, another came swarming out of the gate to take their place. Eventually, with a great tearing of hydraulics, Ramirez pried the gate open completely. Knowing she had to do something, Andromeda activated her mag-lev systems and hovered over towards the gate, using Scully to jump-start the timer on the explosive bolts. At the same time, she lunged at Ramirez to distract him, hitting him with with a luminen shock. Roaring in pain, Ramirez swung at her with a great metallic claw, but Andromeda managed to dodge at the last minute. Knowing she had to save Andromeda, Cygnis unleashed a burst of raw psychic force at Ramirez, hurtling him back through the airlock.

At this moment, the adventurers were starting to get overwhelmed. Dent, Kathima and Kinnette found themselves fighting three mutants each, and while each had managed to kill two opponents apiece, yet more mutants were rushing into the fray with them, and Kinnette was starting to bleed from multiple hacking wounds he had taken. Taking a chance, Ka’ra fired on an old fuel tank in the middle of the docking bay, hoping against hope that the fuel inside was still active– and was rewarded when it detonated, causing two mutants and a nearby swarm of creatures to catch fire. In response, the Verminspeaker of the Forsaken, who had been summoning more and more vermin all the while, angrily made an incantation…and abruptly disappeared, as his power over the warp faltered and he was temporally displaced.

For a moment, it seemed as though the giant mutant was about to stride into the fray…that was, until Cygnis channelled her psychic powers against the brute, throwing him backwards through the airlock back into the mists of the Forsaken’s realm (and crushing three mutants who had been behind him in the process). At this moment, Ka’ra finally managed to activate the charges, and the timer commenced…but unfortunately, the airlock itself was not yet activated…

At that moment, a roar could be heard from beyond the airlock as Ramirez got back to his feet. Iron-shod footfalls echoed across the docking bay as the great mutant lord came stomping back through the airlock. At that same moment, the temporally-displaced Verminspeaker reappeared…although this time he was gazing ahead in a dazed manner, counting upwards in a droning voice. The adventurers watched in horror as the psyker’s skin began to bloat and decay at a rapid rate, his hair began to fall out and a single, vestigial horn began to sproud from his forehead…

And then, at that moment, the charges went off.

In that moment, the section of the hull that had been tainted by the warp was jettisoned explosively out into space, and Obadiah roared as he, the possessed Verminspeaker, and those mutants closest to the airlock were suddenly sucked out into the void. The adventurers had the presence of mind to engage the mag-clamps of their void suits, but anyone who didn’t have that luxury held onto the nearest solid object as, for several fraught seconds, the entire docking bay was wrenched into space by the fleeing atmosphere. After those several seconds, however, the airlock finally activated and closed, sealing off the docking bay and saving those still inside. At that moment, Ka’ra frantically voxed the bridge and told them to target the jettisoned hull section and fire until nothing remained: the bridge voxed them back several minutes later, informing that nought remained of that section except dust.

For the time being, at least, the Chaos taint on the ship had been destroyed.

The Aftermath

With the Chaos incursion into the ship defeated, the adventurers found themselves with a lot of explaining to give to the Captain afterwards. The entire battle-site was purged with fire, and the ship’s confessor was brought down afterwards to reconsecrate the entire site. The adventurers themselves had to spend several days in decontamination, and were subjected to an endless plethora of medical tests to be certain they had not been infected by the Nurgle-worshipping mutants.

Despite the carnage, the adventurers’ mission had, in many ways, been a success: they had re-established contact with the mutants, and, more importantly, established a rapport with them– something of an achievement given the many long centuries of neglect that the mutants had suffered at the hands of the Avalon Dynasty. More importantly, they had established that the mutants were not only loyal, but could be counted on as allies.

Even so, as preparations continued for the next warp jump, several issues remained unresolved…in particular, the worrying fluctuations in the Gellar field below-decks that had allowed the Chaos incursion to happen in the first place, not to mention the mysterious door that still remained barred to them. If one thing was certain, it was that the Iron Duchess was far more mysterious, and much less safe, than anyone had even realized…

Notable Quotes:

“You are a bold one, little flea.”
-Caliban Ramirez, after being punched by Andromenda’s luminen-charged fist

“FUCK YOU MUTIES! Um…no offence!”
-Kinette, while fighting the Forsaken alongside Obadiah

“Hello Althea.”
“Captain Avalon.”
“Althea, we’ve been over this before. Call me father.”
“Captain Avalon, in accordance with with the mandate written by Sector Command at Bakka, I am hereby authorized to conduct a mandatory inspec–“
“Yes, yes, bloody well get on with it.”
-Captain Avalon and Lieutenant Spar, having a tender family reunion

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