The Coldest War

The Thousand Young

Firestone, shaking and sweating from severe withdrawal, nevertheless determined to tough it out and prepared his tank and trailer for the expedition north toward the Ravine to try to scavenge a piano for Rhyme, notwithstanding Rhyme’s theft-by-Chin-seduction of his Silence fruit. Along for the expedition were, of course, Team Badass. Rhyme opted to bring her Rocket Men into the field, and felt it an appropriate time to attempt to appropriate one of the rocket launchers from the Have Rats. Rhyme sought out Fleece and, after an earnest conversation, endeared herself to the leader of the Have Rats so much that Fleece practically adopted Rhyme, taking her under her wing as a confidante, and lending her a rocket launcher, along with a single rocket. Rhyme in turn handed the launcher to Rum, and they prepared to depart.

Silver, interested in this old cache of musical instruments, opted to go as well, bringing along the mysterious sexy solo wanderer Sunny. Cass came along as well, bringing the scrounger Mac, in hopes that they would finally be able to swing by Mac’s hidden cache of potential medical supplies. Finally, the sole Have Rat in the party Quick came along as the guide to the location in question.

They made their way up Roosevelt toward the overgrown belt of greenery that was the Ravine. Although the actual Ravine was further east, the dilapidated old musical instrument store was at the edge of a green belt of thick growth along what was once “Ravenna” street. As the tank, trailer, and Rocket Men footsoldiers moved north, Team Badass patrolled the flanks. There were sporadic drops of rain, thick fog and mist blanketed the world in a sound-deadening gray.

They arrived at the old dilapidated music store, finding that much had been scavenged or rotted by the moisture, but that proximity to the savages of the Ravine had kept it from being totally picked clean. Firestone stayed outside in the tank, nursing his withdrawal, while Team Badass rode off into the mist to scout and keep an eye out. The rest went inside. In an upper room there were a number of pianos, most of them somewhat worse for wear. Silver, poking around, found and almost entirely intact drum kit before hearing, in the distance, the muffled sound of combat. Suddenly, a crazed madman leapt out of a dark alcove and plunged a knife into Sunny’s shoulder, babbling about “awakening the children.” Rhyme slung one of her throwing knives into his throat and he died, gurgling on his own blood. Silver, ignoring the crazed man, headed rapidly out to the tank to warn Firestone that Team Badass was apparently engaged in distant combat. She realized that there were hints of movement in the mist, and that the building was being surrounded. Silver roused Firestone, and leaned on the tank’s horn, sounding the alarm.

On the dilapidated upper floor of the building, Sunny and Cass used the windows to peer out, shotguns in hand. Both received the ricochets of random small arms fire as the half-seen figures in the mist began chaotic potshots. One bullet grazed Cass while another came disturbingly close to Sunny, whose lithe dexterity managed to avoid it. Silver climbed into the tank and took hold of the machine gun while Firestone started up the engine. Rhyme directed the Rocket Men into the secure position of the building, encouraging Rum to ascend to the second floor for optimal use of the rocket launcher, then she took a moment to concentrate on her visions from the mysterious pantheon of entities she was slowly coming to grips with. Something about the situation, or Rhyme’s own mental state, brought a disturbingly vivid vision to her mind, full of surprisingly specific metaphor, and featuring a strange and arcane branching symbol.

The group from Mount Safeco began securing themselves and preparing for assault while the horde of Ravine savages slowly emerged, firing small guns and throwing stones and knives. Sunny ordered Firestone to back the tank up against the front door, helping further secure the building, while Silver opened up the machine gun on a cluster of savages, reducing them to pulp, and scattering them. Cass ducked down the stairs, seeking a back door, and finding the crazed old man’s hidden living area in the old store stockroom. She saw savages coming for the back door, and turned around and fled, but not before snatching up a flawless, shiny trumpet. From the upper floor, Rhyme ordered her Rocket Men to attack, but they saw something disturbing… behind the horde of savages were strange, capering figures, humanoid, but covered in short black fur, with limbs jointed in strange places, and red, blood-filled eyes. The creatures seemed to be driving the human cannibals into a frenzy with strange capering, and dissonant, eerie song. The sight of the creatures so disconcerted the Rocket Men that they refused to fight, some shouted out their surrender, while others looked likely to openly rebel against Rhyme. Meanwhile, below, Firestone made an amazing, crack shot with his magnum that whizzed past the savages and neatly bisected the head of one of the black-furred creatures, causing the group of savages it had been directing to fall into disarray.

As Silver lay down a steady stream of machine-gun fire, Sunny did what she could from the upper floor while Rhyme sought to regain control of her gang, to no avail. Even Rum, bolstered as he was by possession of the rocket launcher, ultimately turned to flee. Rhyme sought to pluck the rocket launcher from her fleeing minion, only to have Rum turn reflexively to cling to it, causing it to go off. The rocket fortunately missed Rhyme, but disintegrated much of the wall and a part of the roof in an outward explosion that rocked the dilapidated building. Rum dropped the rocket launcher in surprise and bolted down the stairs, with Rhyme in hot pursuit, calling out to the Action Man, a figure she had not beseeched since her last fateful battle in the Reclaimer’s lair. Sadly, the Action Man was slow to respond, and Rhyme put her foot through a rotted stair and toppled to the first floor, taking some damage, but avoiding bullets from the savages who, by then, were pouring into the building from the back door, and hacking down the fleeing Rocket Men.

Cass, fleeing ahead of those savages, jumped into the back of the tank, doing what she could with her shotgun. Firestone laid on the horn again, trying to summon Team Badass, who eventually came out of the mist like a cavalry charge, guns blazing and chains whipping overhead, swathes of savages were cut down by the bikers and they swept past, finishing what Silver had started, and effectively wiping out all the savages but the ones in the building. The furred creatures, however, started capering and ululating. Both Silver and Sunny blacked out for a brief moment, only to come to a few seconds later finding that they had cut the palms of their hands with a strange pattern, and that their blood had been momentarily black and viscous…

Rhyme, recovering from her fall, felt the fury of the Action Man fill her as she single-handedly slaughtered the dozen remaining savage men and women in the building, and putting the fear of death into her Rocket Men followers. Team Badass turned to make another charge at the capering furred creatures, who ululated a dissonant song at them, causing the entire cavalry charge to lay down their bikes in a massive crumpled pileup as every biker in the gang was struck suddenly senseless. Cass, from inside the tank, noticed that the blood of the furred creatures seemed to flow like thick tar, and move of its own volition from the corpses. She realized that this viscous fluid needed to be burned. Daring the ululating song, she grabbed Firestone’s spare gas can full of gasoline and sprinted out of the tank, covered by Firestone and Silver, to splash gas over the spreading tarry black blood, pulling out the lighter she kept on hand for sterilizing medical equipment, and setting the black blood ablaze while Sunny drove off the remaining furred creatures.

The battle was over. Team Badass was roused, more angry at the damage to their bikes than the assorted injuries they had suffered. Some of the Rocket Men had died in the fighting, and the rest were deeply abashed at having broken and run in battle. Rhyme expressed her severe disappointment. While Cass attended to her own wounds and the wounds of the two gangs, Firestone scavenged the corpses of the dead savages hoping deep in his heart to find more Silence Fruit, but to no avail. In the stockroom, Silver, Sunny, Rhyme and Cass found various useful objects, including a small bag of Silence fruit. Cass, remembering Shazzy’s offer, sought to take them, but Silver, in no uncertain terms, indicated they needed to be destroyed. Rhyme told Cass that these were the fruits that Firestone was addicted to. Cass then sought to keep them for investigatory purposes, but again Silver insisted they be destroyed. Cass grudgingly permitted Rhyme to do the honors, and Firestone was never the wiser.

They scavenged the drum set, a mostly-intact piano, and assorted piano pieces and extra strings. They put the badly injured in the trailer. They swung east, hoping they had done enough damage to the savages of the Ravine that they would remain unmolested while they collected Mac’s hidden stash of rare medicinals. They then returned to Mount Safeco.

Firestone came to Cass’s clinic to get patched up after the battle. Cass realized that Firestone was in some serious withdrawal, and with Rhyme’s tacit support, sedated Firestone for about a week to help him through withdrawal. While sedated, Firestone was wracked by nightmares in which all of his deepest fears manifested in the forms of those he knew best. Rhyme was Firestone’s fear of betrayal. Silver was his fear of commitment and being tied down. Mizz Stockton was his fear of going soft while Cass was his fear of death. He resisted the blandishments of these nightmare figments and when he awoke, filthy from a week’s worth of sweating toxins and less pleasant bodily functions, he felt oddly better.

During that week, Rhyme earned a bit in the Supper Club, while also working with Quick to fix and tune the piano. Cass talked to Mizz Stockton about the Silence Fruit and revealed Shazzy’s interest. Mizz Stockton spoke to Silver about the mysterious mercenary band who seemed intent on trashing the Supper Club, and they speculated about who could be behind it. Silver conceived a plan to fake being injured and vulnerable to see who comes to take advantage. She was still considering this as Firestone came to the Supper Club and purchased a full-service luxurious bath. Mizz Stockton remonstrated with Fleece for permitting a rocket launcher to leave the Have Rats control without permission. Clearly Rhyme’s strange charismatic influence was spreading…

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Dark Currents

Firestone met with The Machinist, the father of Fuse and Chin, the kids he had taken under his wing. The Machinist believes in self-sufficiency, and doesn’t want his children given a free ride, but Firestone convinced the old man that he would not only look after the kids, but also challenge them. The Machinist agreed to help Firestone and the two kids upgrade Firestone’s tank with new, improved armored windshield-slats to help keep the driver from being constantly shot up.

Silver invited Absinthe up to the Supper Club. While there, Absinthe saw Rhyme perform a song that captivated all present. Absinthe decided then and there to accept Silver’s offer of employment, and departed to make her decision known to Team Badass. Quitting the Team apparently involved a similar process to joining it: running the gauntlet. The motorcycle gang formerly allied with the King’s Gang has a strongly held “survival of the strongest” ethos, and to join, you have to prove you’re a true badass… and to be allowed to leave with your life requires the same. Absinthe was beaten, broken and bruised, but emerged with a bloody grin. She sought out Cass at her clinic before returning to Silver for some training. She ran into Farley, the former leader of Team Badass, who was being kicked out of the clinic. Farley decided the time had come to formally challenge Firestone once more, this time in Mount Safeco’s arena.

Farley entered the garage and made a big production out of his challenge, which Firestone accepted. By the time they reached the arena, word was spreading throughout the hold. Team Badass was there in force, but also the Have Rats, and the Rocket Men. Mizz Stockton herself, along with many Regents, as well as Silver and Rhyme were there to watch. Cass was on hand to tend to the loser.

The Ringmistress began the fight with her usual showmanship, bringing a gleam of maternal pride to Mizz Stockton’s eye. Farley came out swinging, dealing a brutal blow to the already-injured Firestone. Suddenly, Firestone’s usual bluster drained away, and with a strange, uncharacteristic silence, he smoothly executed a series of blows that not only laid out Farley, but severely damaged his spine. He was stopped before he could execute the former biker, and the strange, liquid silence faded, leaving him bloody and panting.

Cass desperately, once again, tried to save Farley, but on transportation to the clinic, the old biker died. Cass handed the corpse over to The Reclaimer, and hoped that nobody would inquire into Farley’s fate, for the arena is not supposed to be fatal.

Cass was consulted by Mizz Stockton on the strange red-flowing plant that seemed to have taken the lives, or at least the motor-control, of the two kids Dog-Face and Enough. They theorized about whether the plant killed its prey and animated the corpses or somehow controlled living bodies to fetch it more sustenance. Either way, Mizz Stockton added it to the general warning signs scattered about Mount Safeco. As she departed Cass’ clinic, Mizz Stockton caught a glimpse of the mysterious Shazzy, who had apparently been coming to the clinic. Shazzy ducked out of sight, but not before Mizz Stockton saw him. She gave pursuit, which led eventually to one of the stairwells. She chose to go down and ran into a gang of a dozen heavily-armed individuals, none of whom she recognized. It was clear she had interrupted them prior to some violent endeavor. She and the two Have Rats with her, Jackson and Jeanette, realized they were severely outgunned, but the thugs also did not apparently consider that Mizz Stockton would run in on them without backup lurking nearby. Mizz Stockton attempted to talk her way out of the impasse, but ultimately relied on buying off the thugs, who were apparently mercenaries hired to cause trouble for someone in the tower. She got the name of the leader, Balls, and a location where she could contact him in the next few days if she wished.

Rhyme, remembering the infatuation that the young Chin had for her, invited the lad off to a private chat. Since her epiphany, her strange charisma has manifested itself in new and more alluring ways. It was no time at all before Chin was thoroughly in love with Rhyme, willing to do anything she wished. What Rhyme wished the lad to do was find Firestone’s hidden stash of Silence-fruit and destroy it. Rhyme convinced Chin in no uncertain terms that Firestone was addicted, and killing himself with these strange fruit. This Chin promised to do.

Firestone, for his part, sought medical attention after his fight. He was treated, and slept off the worst of the bruising, but the dreams that plagued him were far worse than the usual bouts of vivid madness that afflicted him before he started taking the Silence-fruit. Once he was released from the clinic, he rushed to his garage to take another berry only to find his secret stash gone. He freaked out, demanding that everyone in Team Badass open up their saddlebags, furious that someone had “stolen his shit.” Ultimately he determined that Chin was the culprit, and although Chin never betrayed his love, Firestone put two and two together from previous conversations and left to confront his oldest friend in the Supper Club.

Meanwhile, Silver was training a bruised up but happy Absinthe in her new duties as back-up bouncer for Mice. Absinthe was clearly a rough work in progress, not really understanding the notion of restrained violence necessary to be an effective bouncer, but she seemed willing to learn. Silver was informed that a new woman had arrived at the tower asking for her. A scantily-clad girl with a very big gun and a stone-cold attitude handed Silver a bag full of intact Butterfinger candy bars and was invited up to the Supper Club. Her name was Sunny, and she had come into Seattle from the north.

After Firestone and Rhyme had an inconclusive disagreement in a back room, Firestone began hitting “the good stuff” to drown his withdrawal while the Have-Rat Quick started chatting up Rhyme. Rhyme referenced the “piano-man,” a figure in one of her songs, and Quick spoke of a building full of broken and rotting pianos, and the possibility that maybe a full, working instrument could be salvaged with enough effort. The problem was, the building was at the edge of the Ravine. Another expedition was formulated, as Cass also needed to visit that vicinity to pick up a stash of useful supplies revealed to her by Mac. And, of course, to haul back a whole piano would require Firestone’s tank and a trailer. Firestone had an avid gleam in his eye about this expedition, remembering that the berries came from a Ravine savage. Quick left to start working on putting together a full group, and the rest spread out to consider what to bring.

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The Seward Market

With Carver’s trial over, and the ongoing threat of sabotage and assassination at least momentarily averted, the time came at last to attempt to recover from the poisoned hydroponic gardens. Mizz Stockton prepared an expedition to the Seward Market, a monthly occurrence lasting some few days, far to the south in the old Seward Park, which juts into Lake Washington.

Firestone and his Team Badass, along with half of the Have Rats (including Toledo, who apparently won some internal lottery to carry the rocket launcher) led by Fleece, came along, as did Silver, who decided she needed some fresh air, and Cass, who was asked along in case there should be violence and death.

Team Badass was inducting two new potential recruits, Dog-face and Enough, the teenage kids who had shown such spunk and aggression in the fighting pit. Both were given alternating permission to sit in the machine-gun on Firestone’s tank while the other rode one of the spare motorcycles. Firestone’s tank pulled a trailer in which the Have Rats rode, while Fleece rode the other spare motorcycle. Mizz Stockton, Cass, and Silver rode inside the tank.

As they made their way over the ruined 520 east toward the arboretum exit, part of the bridge crumbled. Fleece ditched the bike, barely avoiding falling into the mucky marsh beneath. They all lost some time recovering the bike. Eventually, however, they reached the west bank of Lake Washington, and started to make their slow way along the overgrown streets between rows of rotting houses. The lake could be seen, sporadically, through the trees to their left.

Eventually, many among the group spotted boats out on the lake. A band of small vessels was putting to shore near to them, and it became shortly apparent that it was a band of pirates who had spotted the caravan and sought to attack. Toledo, with reluctant permission from Mizz Stockton, and with great joy herself, got to finally fire the rocket launcher, destroying the biggest boat (and killing the pirate leader). This resulted in a fairly short fight, spurring the remaining pirates to flee.

In the course of the combat, however, Firestone’s instructions to his gang were to retreat up the hill. This rankled with them, and they grumbled once more about the seeming cowardice in their leader. At this point, the young buck Dog-face, seeing a chance to not only gain full membership in the gang, but also to catapult to leadership, turned Firestone’s machine gun down, seeking to fire it through the tanks roof in a bid to take Firestone out. Silver, with liquid alacrity, slit the lad’s throat, and Firestone forcefully re-asserted control over his people. Enough, crazed at seeing her brother sliced, also attacked, but was handily subdued. Cass managed to keep the kid barely alive, but he couldn’t travel. Enough stayed behind with her brother. Firestone informed them both that they were out of the gang, no chance for membership. The caravan then left them behind.

They arrived at the Seward market. Every month or so the Mercer Enclave takes their boats across the narrow water to bring their agricultural products to market. Because this is one of the few sources of fresh fruit and vegetables in the city, and since violence at the market results in the Enclave fleeing to their boats and not returning for a few months, everyone, even the King’s Gang, eschews violence at the market making it a de fecto neutral safe zone. As a result, the market has expanded beyond agricultural products as any and every group who wishes sets up a stall.

Firestone and his crew went to buy sheet metal for the purposes of reinforcing his tank. The only ready supply was a King’s Gang stall, and there were some harsh words between the King’s Gang and Team Badass, who were once affiliated with the King. That said, Firestone was able to procure the metal he needed, and even learned a bit about the King’s Gang’s allegiance with the mysterious Yellow Brotherhood.

Speaking of the Yellow Brotherhood, Cass noted a starving-looking man in tattered yellow clothes wandering seemingly aimlessly, but inexorably in her direction. She started to subtly attempt to avoid him, only to realize that subtlety was not working. She fled his presence.

Mizz Stockton managed to procure raw seed stock, as well as untainted, fertile soil and other necessaries to rehabilitate the poisoned hydroponics beds. She also had a run-in with an old man, scarred, grizzled, who glared at her like an old enemy, which he was… Rolfball, a former Regent who had made a bid to replace Mizz Stockton once, some many years ago, and now harbored a lasting desire for vengeance. He took no action against her at the market, though, but did make a point of reminding her that he was still alive, and still seeking vengeance.

Silver wandered the market looking for useful oddments only to encounter a strange woman. The woman seemed knowledgeable in fashion, art and aesthetics, and seemed impressed by Silver’s own tastes. The woman, whose name was Preen, told Silver that if she ever wanted to “learn” deeper mysteries of art and beauty, all she needed to do was call at the Needle. Subsequent, subtle investigation resulted in a deal cut with an elderly member of the Mercer Enclave named Mill, who revealed that Preen, and a companion named Corbett, came to pretty much every market, apparently looking for “talent” to entice back with them. It was pretty clear they represented the Refined. Mill’s price for this information was to bring her back to Mount Safeco and provide a relatively safe and comfortable place to live out the rest of her life. Mizz Stockton considered a resident of they mysterious farming enclave to be a useful addition and agreed.

Firestone went wandering by himself, seeking the small orange berries that had come to dominate his thoughts. He found a man, under a tree, with a small pile of them on a blanket. At first, Firestone didn’t recognize the man, but eventually saw him as the same savage from the Ravine who had first sold him berries. The savage was shaven, no more dirty hair. No more cat-pelt clothes. He was dressed in simple rags, but was clean. His eyes were almost entirely black, the whites having been stained. All he did was smile eerily at Firestone, letting him take as many berries as he wanted, seemingly for free…

The caravan spent the night encamped at the market, and started their return journey the next day. They opted to return via a route that would bring them back to where they left Dog-face and Enough, but the two kids weren’t there. The keen eyed noted a trail leading back to a large, rotting, overgrown house wrapped in creeper vines and other growth, including a sort of vine with large, vibrant red flowers. Mizz Stockton, Silver, Cass, and a few Have Rats investigated only to nearly fall prey to the mysterious pollen the flowers emitted, the same pollen that must have attracted the two kids, both of whom were dead but still quite ambulatory. The dead, plant-possessed kids attempted to subdue their would-be rescuers and bring them into the plant’s domain. They were killed… presumably for good this time, and everyone fled the scene. Mill, who had been left behind with Firestone and the vehicles, sagely pointed out that her people kill that particular flowering vine wherever they find it taking root.

The caravan returned to Mount Safeco to lick their wounds, repair their hydroponics bays, and upgrade the tank.

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The Trial of Carver

In the week after Carver was captured as the saboteur and strange, psychic assassin the various denizens of Mount Safeco recovered and hungered in equal measure.

The hydroponic gardens were unable to really recover from the sabotage, and belts were tightened throughout the hold while the Regents advised Mizz Stockton that a mission needed to be sent forth to the Seward Market when next the Mercer Enclave set it up to fetch new seed-stock and young plants. The Regents and Mizz Stockton had the more immediate concern, of course, in interrogating Carver. The mad hoarder seemed convinced that her parents, who were once peers of Mizz Stockton and the Regents from before the Madness, were giving her instructions and that Carver’s real goal was to kill the Regents and Mizz Stockton so as to “reunite” them with her parents so they could all be together again. Carver tried whatever strange new psychic ability she had manifested on Mizz Stockton, but the hardholder seemed immune to such blandishments aside from experiencing a “hot flash.” She managed to convince Carver, however, that she wanted to see Daniel and Ammie, Carver’s parents, face to face. She managed to convince Carver to actually leader her to the hoard.

Carver insisted that Mizz Stockton go alone, and the two of them skulked through the ruins of the old University district until they entered the sealed basement of the old Hardwick’s hardware store. Inside was Carver’s horde of assorted fetish objects, books, maps, and esoteric taxidermy projects. Buried deep within the pile of assorted junk were the mostly skeletal remains of Carver’s parents. Mizz Stockton apologized to the corpses for failing in her promise to look after Carver and keep her safe, and intimidated the insane hoarder back into custody for later trial.

Under the care of Cass, Firestone’s various wounds, older and newer, faded into scars while Rhyme’s recent traumas were much reduced. Farley spent much of his time awake, but unresponsive while Mice tossed and turned in a feverish coma. Cass was running into an acute shortage of medical supplies and spent some of the assorted trade goods that she had been given thus far to try to feel out new suppliers in Mount Safeco’s market. Instead of supplies, she instead got a badly injured supplier. Mac was rushed to Cass’s clinic, unconscious and covered in blood from hundreds of small but savage bite wounds. Cass used up the last of her stock of supplies patching the near-death scavenger up. Once she regained consciousness, Cass learned that Mac had been spying on the cannibal tribes in the Ravine and had been attacked by hundreds of feral cats. In gratitude for her medical aid, Mac offered Cass the location of a stash of scavenged goods hidden just south of the Ravine… sadly, Cass would have to arrange an expedition to get them.

Silver took a shell-shocked Rhyme into her care. The young prophetess had been traumatized by the apparent abandonment of the Action Man, and the deeper visions of greater, darker powers. She didn’t resist as Silver bathed her, brushed her hair, lent her some nicer, somewhat more feminine clothes to wear to replace the shredded clothes from the battle of the Reclaimer’s lair. She sat with Twice, the refugee from Spider’s harem, and stared at a candle flame and discussed dark matters. Rhyme eventually managed to overcome her shock. She sold her machete, the one with which she had maimed Mice. She rid herself of the glass chimes that had been her symbol. She met with the Cygnet committee and told them that they would all be taking a new direction, exploring a wider range of ideas and beliefs. The subject of Amy, Mice’s sister came up in the context of the mysterious tattered King that Rhyme had seen in her visions. Rhyme forbade the Cygnet Committee and the Rocket Men from harming Amy, and placed the strange girl under Rhyme’s protection. Finally, she visited Mice in Cass’s clinic. The one-legged Have Rat was still feverish and unconscious, but Rhyme nevertheless gave him Reason, her trusty rifle. She asked Cass to alert her as soon as Mice might awaken.

During that week, Amy, the little sister of Mice, came to visit. Her seemingly mad ramblings gave Cass some pause, but her touch seemed to wake her brother from his coma as his fever broke. The girl was ushered into the care of the Cygnet committee and Rhyme was notified. They spoke of the events that gave rise to Mice’s amputated leg, and they seemed to reach an accord. Mice may even join the Cygnet Committee.

Firestone soon ran out of Silence fruit from the limited stash he found in the Wallingford raid. He had one berry left which he could not bear to eat, being overcome with a desire to plant it, cultivate it, and grow a personal stash. The only question was how to do so. Firestone was regularly distracted by his biker gang who seemed keen on renewing the aborted previous mission to the Green Mud Lake. Team Badass also now had two extra bikes, and some thought went toward recruiting. Firestone and a few of Team Badass took to hanging out in Mount Safeco’s arena, where differences were settled under the stern eye of the Ringmistress, a lithe and dangerous young woman who made sure that fights were fair, and never went to the death. One day, while watching the fights, two teenagers entered the arena. They were apparently the children of a scavenger who recently died, leaving a stash in his room in Mount Safeco. The two kids apparently came to blows over the stash, and were there to work out who would gain their father’s inheritance. They fought with a savage ferocity that impressed Firestone and the two bikers he had with him. The kids fought hard, and didn’t stop despite clear pain and increasing wounds. The Ringmistress was eventually forced to stop the fight before one of them killed the other. The two were rushed to Cass’s clinic, and Firestone followed with an intent to recruit.

There, Firestone and Rhyme met up once more. Rhyme’s new look and demeanor caused comment from Firestone, but Rhyme noticed something new about Firestone as well. Rhyme caught a brief vision of Firestone’s eyes, cancerous and oozing with infinite black serenity, utter nothingness that wipes away fear, pain, ambition, hope, desire… everything. This concerned Rhyme a great deal, and she tried to engage Firestone to find out what might be wrong.

While Rhyme and Firestone talked, Silver chatted up Absinthe, one of Firestone’s gang. Absinthe was a badass biker-chick, but there was something about the exotic-looking woman that plucked Silver’s instincts. Silver planted the seeds in Absinthe’s mind that perhaps settling down a bit and working for the Supper Club might be more to her liking. Absinthe seemed to enjoy the thrill of riding a “hog” into battle to be something she’d find hard to give up, and Silver didn’t push, but the suggestion was made.

Finally the time came for the trial of Carver. The denizens of Mount Safeco gathered in the arena where Mizz Stockton and the Angel presided. Each person who came was given a straw, and the 13 short straws became the jury. Carver was dragged out, bound and blindfolded, amidst great pomp and ceremony. Carver was accused of a list of crimes in ascending seriousness, topped at #2 with killing the Entertainer, and at #1 with sabotaging the holding’s hydroponics. Carver’s defense was near-mad babbling about trying to help, trying to reunite her parents with their old friends, and begging to have her blindfold removed. Mizz Stockton acquiesced. As soon as Carver could see, she pleaded with her parents to intercede, and suddenly many in the audience could see two ghostly forms, of a man and woman, looking at Carver with infinite parental love. A very few in the audience could see a fainter ghostly figure, the Entertainer, bound by the neck by a chain held in the ghostly hand of Carver’s father. The Ringmistress was once such individual. She leaped to the arena floor prepared to murder Carver right then and there, but Mizz Stockton put on her sternest voice and ordered Carver to be re-blindfolded.

The jury deliberated, and filed past the Angel, conveying to that magistrate their verdict. Carver was to be eviscerated and quartered. This satisfied the bloodlust of the crowd, but Rhyme, supported by the Cygnet Committee and the Rocket Men plead for mercy, and asked for Carver to be exiled instead. There was some debate amongst the assembled, but too many feared that a loose Carver might be a threat to all who came and went from Mount Safeco. Mizz Stockton then decreed that if the jury’s decision was to be carried out, that the people of Mount Safeco should be willing to step forward to do so. This mollified the bloodlust of many, but enough people pushed forward, including Rhyme and Cass for their own, less bloodthirsty reasons, that they had the requisite 13 people. They drew straws again to see which one of them would wield the knife while the remaining 12 pulled on the chains attached to Carver’s limbs. Cass drew the straw to hold the knife.

As the twelve strained, Cass worked the knife with her medical skill, bringing a quick and merciful death to Carver long before the evisceration and quartering could do so. Rhyme closed Carver’s lifeless eyes as the denizens of Mount Safeco somewhat quietly departed the arena. In Carver’s last moments, the more… sensitive… in the crowd once more caught a glimpse of Carver’s ghostly parents. Mizz Stockton in particular seemed to realize some… deeper potential.

With the trial out of the way, multiple missions outside the tower became imminent…

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Betrayal!

As Firestone and Rhyme prepared to journey forth on a recon mission to the Green Mud Lake, Firestone’s biker gang got restive. They wanted to come along, as it had been some time since they had last had an opportunity to raise hell, kill some people, and loot their stuff. Firestone, feeling the pressure, declared that any members of Team Badass who weren’t injured from arena matches with the Have Rats and others could come along.

This prompted Phoenix to rush off to the medical clinic that Cass had set up to try a “quick fix” for what was clearly a concussion. This resulted in Cass being roped in to provide “medical support” to the mission. Ultimately, Firestone, Rhyme, and Cass rode in Firestone’s tank while Team Badass fanned out to the front and sides, and a rather larger caravan of vehicles left Mount Safeco than had been originally intended.

Inside Mount Safeco, Jeanette rushed past Newton into Mizz Stockton’s office with urgent news: The Entertainer was dead! He had apparently keeled over in the middle of the market. Mizz Stockton hurried out, with straggling Have Rats belatedly attaching themselves to her for her protection. She arrived in the market to see a gathered crowd, kept at bay from disturbing the body by a couple of Have Rats. Mizz Stockton began to question the bystanders, but only Jamie, one of Spider’s girls who was manning his booze-booth, had any useful intelligence, and even that wasn’t much. She said that the Entertainer had been making his way through the market on the way to a sunset performance, talking to people, when suddenly he fell over. Jamie herself didn’t see it, she just heard the thud as he hit the ground, but he was bleeding out of all of his “face holes.” Sure enough, the Entertainer’s nose, tear ducts, and ears were trickling blood into a slowly expanding pool, but he had no other sign of injury. Mizz Stockton ordered the Reclaimer to take the body into quarantine. Her Have Rats were muttering conspiracy theories.

Mizz Stockton arrived in the Supper Club to make inquiries to Silver, who was even then being informed by Emmy of the goings-on in the Market. Silver promised to look into it, tapping her own mysterious shady sources to try to find why someone would want the Entertainer dead, and what poison, or other method may have been used. Mizz Stockton then spent a few hours poring over a cutting from the strange Silence Fruit bush growing in her hydroponics garden as she waited for the Regents to assemble.

The Regents were on edge. One of them had been killed, under very suspicious or mysterious circumstances. The Entertainer was a well-loved fixture of Mount Safeco, and none of them could conceive of a reason anyone would want him dead. They were all certain, however, that something needed to be done. If it got around that Regents could be killed without consequences, Mount Safeco might well collapse. Some of the Regents felt that the culprit was a supernatural curse of some sort. Most of them were of the opinion it was poison. Either way, they backed 100% Mizz Stockton’s desire to investigate. She handed bling and trade goods out to The Enforcer and The Marketman for bribes in pursuing the investigation.

Mizz Stockton then summoned Fleece to find out why Have Rats security had fallen lax…

Meanwhile, the convoy powered west through the ruins of the U District into the old Wallingford neighborhood. The rotted, bloated carcasses of houses and business lined the shattered roads, vines with bright colored flowers wrapped up stone structures while fungal blooms and moss slowly tore the wooden structures apart.

Soon, the caravan encountered a large ruined building. Perhaps it had once been a community center or a shopping center. Now, however, it was the home of a scavenging tribe, who were lurking behind the walls watching the caraven with some concern. Team Badass was excited. A tribe they could raid! Firestone was less excited. He wanted to get to the Green Mud Lake. He ordered the caravan to turn aside and skirt the tribe’s fortress. This sparked a confrontation with Farley, Firestone’s lieutenant. Farley exclaimed that ever since they joined up with Firestone he had been nothing but a coward and a wimp, and that maybe the bikers had been wrong about him. This rapidly escalated to violence, with Farley blasting Firestone’s windshield open with a 12-gauge shotgun. The glass shards sparkled in the sun as they lacerated Rhyme’s face, momentarily confusing her. Cass, on the other hand, managed to throw herself out of the vehicle and avoided all damage. Firestone, wounded with buckshot, and frothingly angry, unloaded most of the bullets from his .44 into Farley, who staggered back, discharging his second shotgun shell. The rest of Team Badass watched this contest for leadership and didn’t interfere, no thanks to Rhyme, who’s strange charisma failed her inexplicably.

As Farley coughed up blood and slowly began to expire, Firestone frothed at the rest of Team Badass, intimidating them into grudging quiescence, while Cass worked to keep Farley alive. She managed to stabilize him, then turned her attention to Firestone, patching him up as best she could, although realizing he had a serious laceration in his neck that might cause future problems if she didn’t keep a close eye on him. That’s when a sortie from the scavenging tribe poured out to assault them, led by a man with a cardboard burger king crown. Rhyme, along with Brain, the Rocket Man she had brought along to man Firestone’s machine gun, intimidated this crowd into retreating back within their fortress.

Firestone and Team Badass had a bit of a staredown. Finally Firestone shrugged and decided to let them attack the scavenging tribe, with Firestone fighting among them, much to Rhyme’s chagrin.

The scavenger tribe was defeated, and only two members of Team Badass died, Frost and Hurricane. The rest were re-invigorated, high on battle, and pleased at having saddlebags full of spoils. Slim Jim ended up with the cardboard crown. Firestone found amidst the spoils a handful of Silence Fruit, and decided that they needed to return to Mount Safeco to lick their wounds rather than continue on their original mission.

Back in Mount Safeco, Fleece and Mice arrived at Mizz Stockton’s office. Mizz Stockton gave a stern interview to Fleece to discover the state of Mount Safeco security and discovered that, apparently, with the influx of new fighters all resolving disputes in the arena, it had become a “thing” and that now the Have Rats, Rocket Men, and members of Team Badass were engaged in a tree-structure bloodsports tournament that was captivating the attention of most of the military forces of the tower. Mizz Stockton intimidated Fleece into being more vigilant, and then spoke with Mice, who clearly had a notion that he could replace Fleece if Mizz Stockton was sufficiently upset at her. Mizz Stockton informed Mice that she wanted to talk to the leaders of the Rocket Men and Team Badass to make sure that they got the same message that Fleece had received. Right then, the caravan returned to the tower containing Rhyme and Firestone, those self-same leaders. Mice went down to find them and bring them upstairs to meet with Mizz Stockton.

Meanwhile, Silver’s inquiries bore some fruit. Twice, the girl Silver had given haven to from Spider, was extremely nervous and upset. She seemed convinced that Spider could kill her if she told Silver this information, but she revealed it anyway. She told Silver that Spider had learned his distilling techniques “across the lake” to the south, from a group called The Refined who lived in the Needle. She told Silver that Shazzy had also come from there, and that’s how Spider and Shazzy had known each other and why they had started working together. Twice claimed that both Spider and Shazzy had… talents… sick, twisted ideas and occult claims. She claimed that Spider had taken a vial of her blood with the threat that he could kill her at any time, over any distance. She was certain that one or the other of them had been behind the Entertainer’s death.

Silver decided to go upstairs to meet with Mizz Stockon on this matter. Her employees seemed concerned that she would be going anywhere alone in these tense times, but she insisted she would be fine…

As she moved up into the stairwell leading up to Mizz Stockton’s office, however, that self-assurance began to waver. The lights in the stairwell suddenly went out. Silver took out her shears and made her way up the stairs in the dark, only to find the door to Mizz Stockton’s hallway closed and locked. This was strange, as this door is usually propped open, and there isn’t even a lock on it. Silver kicked at the door, but ended up losing her balance and falling back. She expected there to be a stairwell railing… there should have been a stairwell railing… instead she fell… and fell… and fell… into blackness, in a fall that didn’t end…

Mice found Rhyme and Firestone and told them Mizz Stockton wanted to see them. Cass tagged along to keep an eye on Firestone and his wound. As they headed up the brightly lit stairwell to Mizz Stockton’s office, they saw Silver, lying on the landing, unconscious and pale, gripping the blades of her shears in each hand with a white-knuckled grip. This was very odd. Cass moved to try to waken Silver while Firestone looked around for trouble. Firestone noticed wet footprints leading up the stairs to higher levels, moist water with a faint, gray, oily look like the rainwater that comes from the black rains, even though no such rain had come through in a few days. Cass managed to awaken Silver who, in a panic, accidentally stabbed Cass in the shoulder. The stimulands Cass had to give Silver had her flushed, with elevated heart-rate. Toledo suddenly walked into the hall, noticed everyone. Mice told her to fetch Mizz Stockton, which she rapidly did.

Firestone and Rhyme immediately began following the wet footprints up the stairs, although Rhyme engaged Firestone in conversation seeking to slow him down so the rest could catch up. Down below, Mizz Stockton was filled in, Toledo was sent downstairs to fetch more Have Rats, and they all headed up after Firestone and Rhyme.

They arrived at the landing for an upper level, one of the restricted levels where the hydroponics gardens and whatnot were to be found. This particular door should have been locked, but was not. This was the entrance to the Reclaimer’s lair, where he enacted his mysterious business converting the dead, and other matter, into fertilizer for the gardens. It was dark beyond the door, and the smell of rendering corpses was pungent. The footsteps entered there.

Rhyme concentrated on her dreams, and on the Madness, and felt sensations of mad glee, flashes of voyeuristic pleasure, presumably from the culprit they were chasing. Rhyme, Firestone, Cass, and Mice opted to go into the Reclaimer’s lair and continue tracking the culprit. Mizz Stockton and Silver opted to up one more level to some of the hydroponics gardens, and try to get around to the other stairwell and back down to cut the culprit off in case it was trying to flee through the Reclaimer’s lair.

Mizz Stockon and Silver were delayed by gardeners and other lackeys trying to talk to them, and the complications of navigating hydroponics gardens, but the others, moving through the gloom with only a flashlight to see by, soon reached a large vat of near-boiling sludge, with a human hand sticking out of it. As they peered at this disturbing sight, Mice’s eyes rolled back in his head and he pulled his AK-47 to bear on his companions. Cass and Firestone both dived out of the way, but Rhyme was frozen. Her faith in the Action Man had been shaking by events earlier in the day, and now, here, a friend was trying to kill her.

Mice opened fire, but not at Rhyme. He hit the vat of boiling sludge, which ruptured, burning Rhyme, and washing her off her feet to lie on her back, at Mice’s feet, looking up into the muzzle of his gun. Cass threw herself onto Mice’s back while Firestone opened up with his .44 seeking not to hurt Mice, but to crack and disable his gun. Both were successful, preventing Mice from shooting Rhyme in the face. Rhyme, however, desperate to escape, pulled Truth, her machete, and cut off Mice’s right leg just below the knee, getting Truth lodged in the bone of Mice’s left leg. Suddenly Mice’s eyes returned to normal as he fell, screaming, and gushing blood.

Mizz Stockton and Silver heard gunfire from down below and hurried their pace, Mizz Stockton outpaced Silver, who was still out of breath from the stimulants Cass had given her. Mizz Stockton arrived at the back door to the Reclaimer’s lair and entered it, in the gloom. She peered about at the shadowed tanks and tubes and her sharp eyes picked out a figure perched up on top of the tanks, looking down and away from Mizz Stockton, presumably toward the others who were rapidly trying to recover from their tense and horrible fight. Mizz Stockton recognized the figure as Carver. In a stern tone, she ordered Carver to come down and give herself up. Carver, instead, scuttled across the tanks seeking to escape.

Cass managed, through a heroic display of medical skill, to keep Mice from dying, although he was in a coma from blood loss and shock. Rhyme, also, was shaking and in shock from having nearly killed a friend. Firestone was trying to snap Rhyme out of her panic with evident concern for the girl. They all then heard Mizz Stockton’s voice boom out from further in the gloom, and a panicked scuttling from up above them. Suddenly Silver was there, moving quickly, trying to get Carver’s attention. Pipes burst, and scalding fluid started showering down. Cass threw herself over her patient, taking some serious burns to protect him while Rhyme, wild-eyed, pulled Reason, her rifle, and shot Carver solidly in the gut. Caver curled up like a spider and fell to the ground, weeping, blood gushing from its mouth. Before Rhyme could finish the twisted creature off, however, Silver stopped her, in the name of Mizz Stockton’s need for information. Rhyme instead opened her mind to the Madness and saw two people standing beside Carver, a gentle-faced man and woman, healthy, parental-looking, fondly watching over the twisted creature bleeding on the ground.

Mizz Stockton began asking some stern questions of Carver. In its mad babblings, it became clear that Carver had, somehow, utilizing whatever psychic abilities that it had used on Silver and Mice, killed the Entertainer. Carver’s motivation had been to reunite him with Carver’s “parents” who, it was clear to everyone, were dead but still making demands of the mad hoarder. It furthermore became clear to Mizz Stockton that Carver had the talents and knowledge of Mount Safeco’s crawlspaces to have sabotaged the rain catchers, and was likely the culprit behind many of Mount Safeco’s recent problems.

The wounded retreated to Cass’s clinic. Silver took Rhyme to the Supper Club to bathe the girl, comfort her, and hopefully bring her down from the internal crisis that was afflicting her. Mizz Stockton ordered the Have Rats that Toledo brought up from below to take Carver into custody for future trial.

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Lessons Learned

Life settled down a bit in Mount Safeco. The power stayed on and stayed steady, but suddenly, a mere few days after the last delivery to the Academics, a squall of black rain came in from the southwest and the rain-catching apparatus malfunctioned. Black rain got into the hydroponic gardens, killing or corrupting about half of the crop. Quality of food production dropped, and the Regents had to tighten their belts so as to provide food for everyone else. Mizz Stockton and the Regents investigated the matter and discovered signs of sabotage. An investigation was launched, but no clear suspect emerged immediately…

Meanwhile, down in the garage, Firestone and Rhyme continued to hang out. Rhyme remained oblivious to Chin’s clumsy flirtations, but did agree to go on a “date” with him to the Supper Club “sometime soon.” This led Firestone to attempt to have “the sex talk” with Rhyme, who steadfastly refused to understand what the point of sex was, and why she should care at all about it. One of Firestone’s new gang, Jackabacka, opined that if Rhyme needed a “real man” to “break her in” that he would be happy to oblige. Rhyme gave him a steady gaze and told him to go away. Something about Rhyme’s look, and her command, sparked some inner font of fury in Jackabacka who pulled out his shotgun and started to attack. Rhyme showed no mercy, turning Jackabacka’s head into an exploded shell while Firestone exerted his will on the rest of the gang to stand down.

There was a lot of grumbling, but none of Team Badass was inclined to test the young girl and her eerie facility with violence. Soon, The Reclaimer made its creepy, gas-masked way into the garage and dragged the corpse away…

An envoy from the Academics arrived. A young medical doctor named Cass and her small crew presented themselves to Mizz Stockton, along with a letter of introduction. It appears that the Academics, having considered Mizz Stockton’s words at their recent meeting, opted to attempt to placate her by sending one of their junior-most members to join up with the Mount Safeco crew, providing medical services, as Mount Safeco was “clearly going to be engaged in a number of military endeavors to the mutual benefit of us both.” There was a certain amount of initial suspicion about Cass, but the young doctor made it clear that her loyalties to the Academics were tenuous at best, and that she was glad to be a part of something less… eccentric and stuffy.

Cass met Missed, and managed to conceal her horror at his methods. They agreed on their respective “turfs”, with Missed focusing on the Have Rats and Cass focusing on… everyone else out of her clinic near the market. Rhyme came to Cass to have the superficial wound she received from Jackabacka looked at. Cass remembered Rhyme, who had helped Cass save some lives in the aftermath of the University Hospital battle. Cass patched Rhyme up and heard an earful from Madame BBQ about the Action Man.

Silver, meanwhile, sought to investigate the mysterious Shazzy a bit more, asking Mustang to look into the guy for her. Mustang returned to report merely that Shazzy was apparently setting up a room with exotic hangings, presumably his entertainment establishment, although it would be far smaller than the Supper Club. Shazzy was apparently also inquiring all over Mount Safeco about various items that cause mind-altering effects, working with Spider on strange liquors, talking to the hydroponics people about growing certain plants, and asking around about the strange “Silence Fruit”. He didn’t appear to be doing anything notably suspicious. Dustwich, however, reported to Silver that one of Dustwich’s clients had reported stumbling drunkenly into a room on the seventh floor of the tower, facing south, and finding Shazzy playing with a bare light bulb and a black cloth. He thought that perhaps Shazzy had been signalling out into the black night.

The subject of the Silence Fruit was on Firestone’s mind as well, as he had managed to run out of his own supply and was starting to… itch for more. In trying to find someone selling the stuff, he also ran into Shazzy who reported that the Ravine tribes were apparently involved in some sort of infighting, and so nobody could rely on a supply of Silence fruit from them… unless Firestone wanted to go raid the lake of green mud where they’re grown, and get some for himself. If so, Shazzy offered to pay Firestone handsomely for any fruit he brought back.

Firestone went and recruited Rhyme, who convinced him to go for a “scouting” trip first, before going in guns blazing. They prepared their trip…

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A Stronger Bargaining Position

While Mizz Stockton and her Have Rats thoroughly looted the blasted shell of the Lake Union Steam building, Rhyme preached the way of the Action Man to those remnants of the King’s Gang that had surrendered. At the crescendo of her speech, the black rain stopped, and the clouds began to break up. This was taken as a sign, and about a dozen of them opted to join her while the rest skulked off to the south. Rhyme named these new warriors to her cause the “Rocket Men” … she heard that name in a dream. Their commitment seemed shaky, and they seemed bemused and confused at the notion that one shouldn’t eat people or inflict violence on others just because you can, but they hesitatingly kept an open mind.

Meanwhile, Firestone went through his official initiation into his new biker gang, which involved running the gauntlet. Even though each of the bikers punched him square on the bullet-wound he received in the fight, he took it like a champion, and became the new leader of the newly-minted “Team Badass.” They swore they’d have to get Firestone a bike, although they seemed quite intrigued by his humvee.

Shortly, however, lookouts spotted a heavily-armed caravan of vehicles coming down the hill in their direction. The Toll had apparently heard the commotion and was coming to investigate. The collected gangs retreated north back to the safety of Mount Safeco, where the Rocket Men and Team Badass began the somewhat amusing process of integration into the community under Mizz Stockton’s rules. The bikers of Team Badass seemed especially keen to assert their dominance with assorted members of the Have Rats, and the arena saw a lot of use upon their return. The Rocket Men were more interested in the gruel line.

Firestone’s assistant, Fuse, noted that his boss’s shirt was soaked with blood. Concerned, she helped him off to see Missed to get patched up. Rhyme introduced the Rocket Men to the Cygnet Committee. Mizz Stockton began immediately arranging another sortie, this time to transport a shipment of fresh food to the Academics in the Suzallo Palace in hopes that they would stop toying with the electricity. As she did so, the renegade Academic Visage found her. Visage indicated that she was departing. Now that the rains had stopped, she would be accompanying some scavengers west. Before she departed, she wished to pay Mizz Stockton for her hospitality. She produced a small cardboard tube, capped at the ends. She then departed cordially.

Mizz Stockton retired to her office to examine the tube. It contained an old blueprint, the purpose of which was not immediately apparent. She summoned the Regents, who pored over it. They soon discerned that this was a blueprint of the fusion-reactor system for the old University of Washington experimental reactor, the source of the electricity the Suzallo Palace generates and exports to Mount Safeco. It became apparently looking over these blueprints that there were a few… weaknesses in the system that a knowledgeable person could use to shut the reactor down without having to invade the Suzallo Palace, namely gumming up the water-coolant system which utilizes both the old UW fountain, and some other seemingly decorative water features. Mizz Stockton and the Regents debated how to use this knowledge to renegotiate the terms of their arrangement with the Academics.

Meanwhile Silver needed to deal with the problem that was Spider. She went to the market and found the stall that Spider uses to sell some of his alcoholic wares to the community. One of his women, dead-eyed and twitchy, was manning the stall, and through conversation, sparked some hope in the girl and offered her protection in exchange for information. The girl, named Twice, entreated Silver to hide and protect her from Spider, whereupon she told Silver that Spider was seeking to undercut her by negotiating with a new fellow, named Shazzy, who was looking to start up a rival entertainment organization. Spider was offering to give Shazzy the preferred deal on alcohol, cutting out the Supper Club and punishing Silver for refusing to give him her waitress Foster. Silver took Twice back to the Supper Club and hid her, informing Dustwich and Fauna of their new guest. She also learned that Shazzy had been to the Supper Club, and had comported himself well, even going so far as to offer Fauna a “better job” at his new place once he got it up and running. Silver hinted that Fauna had a future in management at the Supper Club to keep her loyal. She then grabbed the muscular (but none-too-bright) Vega and went in search of the mysterious Shazzy.

She found him, ultimately, in the high market talking up one of Mizz Stockton’s food vendors. She engaged in the dance of social negotiation hoping to turn Shazzy so that he would deal with her and cut Spider out. Their initial talk seemed to go fairly well, and he seemed receptive to other offers, and the notion of solidarity to force Spider into lower prices and equitable sales. Silver learned that Shazzy’s idea of edgy was a sort of hypnosis-entertainment involving food, drugs, perhaps sex, and altered states of consciousness. She expressed to him her concern that his “entertainment” might draw accusations of manipulation and might run afoul of some of Mizz Stockton’s rules. He indicated he would keep things well in-bounds.

Mizz Stockton, with the aid of some Have Rates, Firestone and his humvee, Rhyme, and some members of the Cygnet Committee went to the underground fortress (once a parking garage) of the Academics, where they delivered the food. They met with two younger members of the gang, Princy and East Harrow, who were their usual smug selves, promising to “look into” the power fluctuations now that food had been delivered. Mizz Stockton dropped some hints that prompted them to fetch a superior, and shortly Professor Novell arrived. She spoke with Mizz Stockton from her usual position of smug superiority only to have that position thrown into question both by the fact that the force-of-arms that can now be fielded by Mount Safeco has doubled, and the strongly dropped hints that Mizz Stockton and her people could cripple the nuclear reactor at will. This caused Professor Novell some consternation, and the discussions ended with Mizz Stockton in a more equitable position, at least for now.

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Assault on the King

The black rains continued. The inhabitants of Mount Safeco started to get antsy without supplies of clean, fresh water. Oh how quickly some forget how close they are to drinking black rainwater all the time…

The gangs in the hardhold were fractious, itching for fights. Idle hands set to causing problems. To make matters worse, the power began flickering, the telltale sign of the Academics’ displeasure. Whether they were angry at the continued sanctuary given to Visage, or because they were running out of fresh fruit, none ventured forth to discover. It was up to Mizz Stockton to ascertain what might be done to not only help her pack of fucking hyenas settle down but also pacify her disgruntled patrons. To that end, she convened The Regents, the quasi-secret group of elders of the community who help keep Mount Safeco running. These venerables debated the matter and suggested that perhaps what the hold needed was a good war. After all, that recent raid on a King’s Gang caravan netted some serious hardware. The King’s Gang’s holdout in the old Lake Union Steam plant was bound to have even more goodies. By removing that threat from their southern border, the Academics would doubtless be pleased, and there would be less threat of raids on a subsequent delivery of fresh food to the Suzallo palace.

This plan coincided with the Cygnet Committee’s decision that Rhyme, the chosen spokeswoman for the Action Man, was not engaged in sufficient action. Madame BBQ, in her motherly way, informed Rhyme that to continue to be an inspiration for the hope and betterment of the wastes, she had to do more than sit around and wait for the rain to stop.

In the Supper Club, business was booming. The cooped up residents needed to be distracted, entertained, liquored up, and Silver’s establishment was the place to go. Firestone eventually arrived there, having noticed that he hadn’t seen much of his nominal girlfriend Fleece in a while. While he waited for her, he decided to start in on “the good stuff” and ended up shit-faced in short order. This, perhaps, helped him deal more readily with Fleece’s breakup than he otherwise might have. She let him know that he had been a mistake, that he wasn’t what she was looking for. For someone so gun-shy about being tied down, he objected surprisingly strenuously. Must have been the booze. By the time he staggered out of there, he had put so many drinks on his “tab” that he practically owed Silver one of his cars…

Mizz Stockton eventually put together a force of arms consisting of about half of her Have-Rats, Firestone in his tank, Rhyme, and even Silver, who decided to come along. They rolled south across the Roosevelt bridge, under the hanging shard of the fallen I-5 bridge, and toward the six white towers of the Lake Union Steam building. They scouted the vicinity and noted that the King’s Gang was entrenched, with heavy weapons on the third floor overlooking the entrances. Mizz Stockton decided that they would make their own door, and Firestone’s tank, supported by the small army, charged the wall of the building, blasting it with machine-gun fire, and crashing through it. As the Have-Rats poured into the building, venting their pent-up anger and frustration in the form of assault-weapon fire, the sound of a dozen motorcycles filled the air. Out of a seemingly abandoned garage poured the biker gang that Firestone and Rhyme had dealt with once before. This time, however, Firestone, supported by Jeanette on the machine-gun turret, intimidated the biker gang into submission. They seemed like they were already having second thoughts about their loyalties, and a tank with a machine gun helped them decide. They swore themselves to Firestone as their new “alpha.”

While these negotiations progressed, Mizz Stockton, the Have Rats, Rhyme, and Silver began fighting their way through the old building. They opted to take out the heavy weapons nests first, nearly taking a rocket for their troubles if not for a freakishly lucky shot from Rhyme, demonstrating the guiding hand of the Action Man no doubt. Silver revealed that for all her elegance and style, she’s a devil with bladed weapons. Mizz Stockton demonstrated her leadership skills over a pack of violent thugs. Eventually, they cornered the remainder of the King’s Gang holdouts on the roof, where a strange man with a yellow scarf was singing an a-harmonic song. Rhyme gunned him down while Mizz Stockton “persuaded” the rest of them to surrender.

It became apparent that something strange was going on far to the south, that the King’s Gang was working under some manner of patronage to the Yellow Brotherhood, or at least this splinter faction was. Reports from the captives indicated that the “new” King had thrown the gang behind the creepy cultists for reasons known only to him. Many of the gang members in the Lake Union Steam building were having second thoughts, thus the defection of the biker gang. Rhyme proselytized the Word of the Action Man to the survivors, many of whom seemed to think that perhaps her message of hope and justice was for real.

The Have Rats gathered weapons, supplies, ammunition, etc. while in the rain-slick streets below Firestone’s new biker gang set up firepits, drinking, and rough initiation ceremonies.

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Threats and Feelings

After nearly four months away, Mac finally returned to Mount Safeco with a harrowing tale of being captured by the cannibals in the Ravine. She claimed to have seen horrific sights and to have news for those in charge of the community. She spoke to Fleece, leader of the Have Rats, and in exchange for Fleece smoothing over Mac’s return to the fold, Mac promised to look into Fleece’s suspicions that perhaps Firestone wasn’t being entirely… faithful.

The reunion between Mac and Firestone was contentious, with liberal use of the phrase “fuck you.” Rhyme sought to mediate somewhat while simultaneously seeking Firestone’s aid in transporting her and a few of her followers, the “Cygnet Committee,” out to the old Gasworks Forest to speak with the mysterious cult leader Monk. Mac took her leave, finally gaining entrance to the Supper Club, where she told Silver of the blasphemous rites the cannibals engage in on nights of the new moon, the feasts, the fornication, and the half-seen shadowy… somethings… that emerge as a result. Silver called down Mizz Stockton, who heard it all, including the news that those savages who had started eating the Silence fruit were becoming more and more schismatic to the followers of “She” and that violence was brewing in the ranks of the cannibal clan in the Ravine. Once again, the enigmatic Academic, Visage, demonstrated mysterious knowledge by sending to Mizz Stockton a hand-drawn, reconstructed image of a page out of an old book, written in some other language, depicting a woodcut illustration of a scene of blasphemous cannibal rites before a dark cave containing a creature with four eyes peering out of the gloom.

Rhyme sought out Mice and solicited his potential aid to guard her and her followers in their dangerous mission. Chin confided in his boss, Firestone, that he had a teenage crush on Rhyme, and despite his inexperience, managed to not completely flub his attempts at smooth-talking, insofar as Rhyme was capable of even noticing such things. Mice sought permission from Mizz Stockton to take some Have Rats along on Rhyme’s escapade, and was surprised when Mizz Stockton herself came along to lead them, albeit in disguise, wearing an old leather jacket, beekeeper’s helmet, and wielding a wicked pair of gardening shears.

Five Have Rats, Mizz Stockton, Rhyme, four members of Rhyme’s Cygnet Committee, and Firestone prepared to depart for the Gasworks forest. Firestone and Rhyme jumped in Firestone’s Corvette while Mice drove the humvee tank. Sadly, Firestone’s attempts to find a way over and through the rubble of the I-5 bridge resulted in a broken axle on the Corvette. His subsequent attempts with the tank nearly took Rhyme’s head off on a concrete abutment. This led to strife between Firestone and the matronly leader of the Cygnet Committe, Madame BBQ. Mizz Stockton calmed tempers, and the party continued on to the gasworks.

The gasworks forest is a promontory jutting south into Lake Union. A tall hill overlooks what was once a grassy park, now overgrown with young trees and a truly impressive snarl of rampant blackberry bushes. Monk’s cult had apparently cut twisting, confusing paths through the brambled, guarded with false-blinds and hidden trenches for defense. The hill itself had a ring-fort of junked cars guarded by cultists with rifles. As the group entered the maze, cautiously, Rhyme held aloft the token given to her by Kettle while opening her mind to the Madness in hopes of discovering guidance from her patron, the Action Man. All she saw was the poison slowly leaching up from the earth, tainting the turgid blackberries upon the vine

Eventually, they were confronted by the woman they suspect heads Monk’s combat-capable followers, an auburn-haired otherwise nondescript woman named Exit. She led them through the maze to the clearing at the base of the rusting edifice in the center of the thicket. There they met Monk, a tall, gray-eyed man who invited them to climb the rusting pile where they looked out over the blackberries, over the lake, to the skeletal spires of the city to the south. There he revealed that the greatest threat to everyone resided in the Needle, a den of hubris, decadence and hedonism that, according to Monk, was a resurgence of all the sins that caused the hubris-filled society of the world to be cursed by the gods. He spoke at length with Rhyme, and they discovered they were not quite so different in philosophy as previously feared, although differences did remain. Rhyme learned a great deal about the Yellow Brothers from Monk, recognizing why the Action Man seems to oppose them. Rhyme promised alliance and aid when Monk should move against the Needle.

Meanwhile, back at Mount Safeco, Fleece entered the Supper Club where Mac and Silver were quietly conversing. Fleece asked Mac if he had learned anything about Firestone yet. Mac, rather pointedly, declared that Fleece could do better, that Firestone wasn’t interested in a relationship, and would put on and remove affections as if they were a hat… with Fleece as the hat. Her persuasions seemed to finally convince Fleece that she had made a mistake by pursuing Firestone, in accordance with similar advice received from Dustwich. She decided to pursue rebound-sex-for-hire with Kite, one of the pretty boy-toys working for Silver.

Upon returning to Mount Safeco, after nightfall, Firestone could stand it no longer. Hands slightly shaking, he took one of the Silence fruit from his hidden stash and ate it before sleeping. Once again, his slumber was blissfully free of dreams.

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Of Cults and Fruit

The next few days were relatively quiet. Visage, the rescued Academic, made herself discreetly at home in the Supper Club, effectively dodging various attempts to find out what it is, exactly, that makes her such a threat to her former organization, and where she planned to go next. She did, however, give Silver a glossy fashion magazine in exchange for an extremely rare “Butterfinger” candy bar that she ate with great nostalgia. Amy, the creepy girl, took to staring at Firestone and his crew as they repaired his vehicle, occasionally doing eerie little dances to melancholy humming.

Spider made it clear that he considered his contributions to Silver’s club to be so indispensable that he could demand that he be given Foster to be “his.” Silver demurred and deflected him once more. The object of his unfortunate affections brought to Silver’s attention a new fruit being sold in the market levels of Mount Safeco, an orangish-red version of a blueberry advertised to permit a person who eats it before bed a dreamless sleep, a commodity much to be desired. Silver investigated the fruit and discovered a savage-looking, emaciated man dressed in the skins of feral cats with human bones in his hair and beard selling the fruits, which he called “Silence-Fruit” from a blanket in the market. He was a member of a savage tribe living in “The Ravine,” a wooded area to the north of the Tower. Occasionally representatives would come to the market, but not often. Silver ascertained that the Ravine tribe had procured the fruit by raiding another tribe living around the Lake of Green Mud. This latter tribe apparently “worships the silence” and grows the bushes that produce the fruit. The Ravine tribe has taken to raiding these fields, and seeks now to trade some of the stolen fruit for more weapons with which to continue the raiding. The merchant insisted that they worked as advertised, waxing ecstatic on the subject. He had all the telltale signs of one who drinks the effluvia of the black rains with some frequency, and so it was unsurprising that his dreams might ordinarily be particularly horrible.

Silver brought a sample to Miss Stockton, who took it to her hydroponic gardens where she instructed one of her apprentices, Rice, to attempt to germinate the berry in isolation from the other food stocks. Miss Stockton then accompanied Silver back to the market where she also met with the emaciated merchant.

Meanwhile, Rhyme was proselytizing in the market, teaching the Way of Action Man, the Change that is coming, and the message of hope. In addition to those who seemed intrigued by her message, there was an older man who publicly debated with Rhyme, proposing instead the notion that the world was punished for the sins of their ancestors, and that mankind was ultimately doomed, but could fight for survival only through clear vision, not namby-pamby hope and fuzzy feelings. As Silver and Miss Stockton also engaged in the discussion, Rhyme and Silver noticed that some members of the crowd were acting with some coordination, moving so as to contain the debate for potentially nefarious purposes. It came about that these individuals, along with the debating man, were followers of a man named Monk who taught his followers from the overgrown Gasworks jutting into Lake Union. They were at the market to do their own proselytizing, encouraging those who wished to see the true power to fight mankind’s doom to attend Monk’s gathering. There was no violence. Rhyme and the man, named Kettle, headed to the Supper Club for a private conversation where Rhyme ascertained that this Monk apparently intended to move his growing cult against a threat he saw in his dreams that was south of the lake, and that he had no ill designs on Mount Safeco aside from preaching.

Firestone went to the market where he confronted Silver once more on how he could repay her for paying for his medical attention. Silver indicated that she works in a currency of favors owed, and he shouldn’t be so upset by it. He stalked off and ended up by the fruit seller, who gave him a berry as a free sample. As he browsed the market, Fleece came to him and grabbed his hand, indicating that she, and the Have Rats, needed his vehicle and his driving skills in a sudden raiding opportunity that had just presented itself. Apparently, after the raid on the hospital ruins, the Have Rats left Partridge to spy on the old Lake Union Power building south of the bridge to see what the King’s Gang’s next move might be. He saw a couple of vehicles loaded with weapons and supplies headed north guarded by a motley assortment. He rushed back to Mount Safeco and, with Miss Stockton’s permission, the gang mobilized to ambush the caravan and hopefully steal the supplies.

The raid did not go off without a hitch. Firestone’s tank was overburdened by Have Rats clinging to it, which made it unwieldy. They were not able to make it to the bridge before the King’s Gang could start hunkering down, but with an amazing display of driving and intimidating panache, they inflicted serious harm on their foes notwithstanding their bungling inexperience in fighting while clinging to a hurtling tank-vehicle. Eventually, however, enough of them spilled off onto solid ground and their superior equipment, and Firestone’s incredible vehicle-handling, made short work of the foe. They captured military-grade weaponry and two vehicles, much to Fleece’s delight.

Miss Stockton managed to entice Carver to give up an old military field-manual and began a schedule of training her gang in the use of their new weapons.

After patching up the minor wound Firestone received, Fleece took him to dinner at the Supper Club, and thence to her rooms, where she awkwardly enticed him to ravish her, which he awkwardly did. His post-sex conversation, being filled as it was with assertions that this was nothing serious, and there was no reason to make things complicated, was perhaps not the message she wanted to hear. She ended up back in the Supper Club watching Dustwich dance. Silver approached and sought to provide aid and pointers to the distraught gang-leader hoping to help teach her enough subtlety to help her keep her relationship with Firestone from melting down. Silver eventually got Dustwich to agree to help Fleece, a matter that seemed to fluster Fleece quite a lot.

Rhyme returned to the market where she spoke to the fruit-purveyor. She learned rather a lot about the cannibal-tribe in the Ravine, as well as some intriguing bits about the silence-worshipers by the lake. She learned that the Ravine tribe followed a leader they referred to merely as “Her” and that “She” could only be spoken with on the nights of the dark moon, and only after cutting one’s flesh in the right bloody patterns. “Rutting” usually resulted, as well, although what fate might befall a female like Rhyme seemed a bit unclear. Rhyme determined to someday visit “Her” and see what was there to be seen.

Firestone returned to the garage, lying down in his car. He ate the Silence-fruit he had been given and fell asleep. He woke with the disorienting impression that no time at all had passed, yet the sun was up. His slumber had been entirely dreamless for, likely, the first time in his life. Gone were the haunting, disturbing visions of the maelstrom. His slumber had been completely silent and timeless. He felt… really good. His first priority was to buy more fruit, although he had no barter goods. He hit up Fleece for some random knives, which she handed over without complaint. Firestone then traded the knives for fruit, which he hid among his possessions, knowing only that he wanted to feel this good again…

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