· By Michael Barker
TALES OF THE HARBINGER: HOLDOUT
We’re happy to present the first installment in a series of short narratives exploring the setting of Harbinger, our upcoming dark science fantasy ruleset for use with the basic rules of D&D 5E. You can read more about Harbinger here. This piece, entitled Holdout, illustrates the volatile nature of astra, and the true power of mancers.
The klaxons blared while Vintus bled.
He slumped against the bulkhead, grunting as the Slipstream heaved beneath him. Metal strained and groaned as the vessel hurtled through the void, attempting feebly to stabilize itself. Through the viewport, Vintus saw the glow of yellow astra spiraling around the ship, gaseous and golden against the black.
The Slipstream was bleeding too.
Vintus grimaced and glanced down. Blood flowed steadily from a deep laceration in his gut – the ragged cut from a skrug axe. The pain lanced hot and cold up and down his body as numbness crept into his fingers and toes. He pined for Gribly and his spheroids.
But Gribly was dead. Blown clean in half by a scattergun. And Saks not long after – his face ruined by a charging berserker.
The klaxons still blared – and outside, the stars wheeled. Vintus had to stabilize the Slipstream. Leaning his weight against the bulkhead, he slid towards the helm.
The specter sconce flared to life on the helm, manifesting as a blue-white flame. A vaguely human face appeared within the fire, and a wispy, feminine voice floated into the cockpit. “Vintus. The Slipstream is–”
“It’s in bad shape, I know.” Vintus pressed his hand into the tear in his abdomen, willing himself to stop bleeding – to no avail. “Ida, I need you to try and right the ship. We need to level out or we’re going to tear ourselves apart.”
The specter flickered, ruminating. “Portside stabilizers are inoperative. Firing at this time would only worsen our current spin.”
The ghostly face within the flames was placid – expressionless – typical for a specter. Ida was human – or at least, she had been, long ago. If she was afraid, it wasn’t evident. If she was concerned, she showed no urgency. Her hollow eyes studied Vintus from within the blue flame.
“Ida, just tell me what to do.”
“Portside stabilizers must be attuned to our astra core – please make your way to the stern of the Slipstream and access the sconce there.”
Vintus turned and limped towards the access tunnel. Then he hesitated.
“Ida. How many skrugs are still on-board?”
The flame flickered. “Uncertain.”
He moved through the spine of the ship. The Slipstream was a corvette, asymmetrical and hammerhead in shape, with a cluster of astra burners at its stern and a culverin cannon along its ventral. If they’d seen the skrug raidboat coming, they might have put a round through it before they’d been boarded. But the skrugs had come up suddenly and silently, and they’d wasted no time in catching the corvette with their boarding hooks.
The access tunnel ran from the helm at the bow to the engine room at the stern, with quarters on the starboard side and cargo bays on the port. It was an old heap, already a few centuries old when Saks “acquired” it from a careless Tharkestran in the Glimmer Ranges two decades past.
The Slipstream could sustain a crew of a dozen, but there was rarely more than the three of them aboard. Well – just one now, Vintus realized with no small amount of panic.
Vintus had lived and worked on this ship for most of his adult life. He knew every hatch, every ratway, every cold metal surface. He knew its smell – oil and ozone and body odor. And he knew its breath and its heartbeat – its hum and drone.
The sounds the Slipstream made now were not the ones he knew. These were the death knells of a ship – the dying breath of a steel leviathan, drifting through the void, hemorrhaging its golden lifeblood.
The Slipstream bucked. Vintus caught himself on a pylon, wincing as the skin around his wound pulled and tore with the exertion. He limped along, passing the galley and Gribly’s cluttered quarters, leaving spatters of fresh blood behind him. Twenty feet down the tunnel, the circular hatch for the engine room was pried open. Vintus took in a few labored breaths, sweat dripping from his face, and heaved himself towards it.
And then the skrug stepped into the tunnel.
Seven feet tall with mottled, patchy fur, the skrug was draped in rusted iron plates and lengths of stitched leather. Even slouched, the top of its misshapen head brushed the ceiling. A pair of massive, ape-like arms hung at its sides. It turned, and three sickly green eyes widened as they spotted Vintus. Its tusked mouth split into a wide sneer as it reached for the sawed-off scattergun stuffed into its belt.
Fresh blood dripped from those tusks. And around its neck, four bloody ears hung from a leather strip.
Vintus was afraid. And he hurt – by the Rings, did he hurt. But more than anything, Vintus was desperate.
And he was angry.
In an instant, his pistol was in his left hand. With his right, he pulled. Around him, the air glimmered yellow as he absorbed the astra into his body. That familiar, warm twinge filled his limbs as his hair stood on end. He visualized the energy entering through his fingers as he pulled, flowing red-hot in an instant through his blood and bone and sinew – scorching every nerve.
All comes from astra. All goes to astra.
Just as the astra began to consume him – just as the ecstasy of its power bordered on pain – Vintus released it in a flurry. And with the hand movements made second nature by years of training as a mancer, he made gravity his plaything, and lifted a 30-pound steel crate off the floor with his mind.
The skrug yanked the trigger on its scattergun, and a spread of steel pellets erupted from the sawed-off barrel. Vintus maneuvered the crate directly in front of him, ducked, and heard the shot embed themselves into the steel plating on the other side. In an instant, the skrug’s trio of putrid green eyes shifted from joy to shock.
Vintus pulled the trigger.
The handgun kicked again and again. Bullets ripped through the skrug’s thick hide, and crimson blood sprayed against the bulkhead behind the beast. The skrug staggered backwards, the scattergun loose in its meaty paw.
Then Vintus clenched his left hand, pulling more astra, and with a quick burst of energy, flung the crate across the tunnel. The crate adhered instantly and violently to the wall, and with a sickening, wet snap, crushed the skrug’s body.
A second skrug stepped out of the portside cargo bay, eyes blazing. It lifted a serrated war axe and brought it down on Vintus, slicing through the meat of his shoulder. Vintus’ knees buckled as warm blood flowed down his front. He pulled the trigger on his handgun, heard it click, and immediately pulled more astra. His body protested, his insides roiling. Pain shot through his limbs like lightning. And yet, the air glimmered – the astra always obeyed, even when it took more than it gave.
Vintus reached out, directing the energy towards the first skrug’s scattergun, laying in a pool of blood on the metal grating of the floor. The weapon flew towards Vintus, end-over-end. The mancer caught it, buried it in the skrug’s gut, and pulled the trigger. Blood painted the wall, and the second skrug toppled into a furry, wet heap.
The klaxons overhead still blared. Vintus winced and fell against the bulkhead, the axe still buried in his shoulder. His breath came in ragged gasps, and at his back, the Slipstream struggled to breathe too.
Smoke wafted from the barrel of his pistol. He rummaged for an extra mag, found it, and promptly dropped it to the deck with feeble fingers. He’d lost too much blood – and now he’d taken on too much astra. He tried to lift himself off the floor, but his body refused.
By the Rings, he just wanted to sleep. He wanted to sleep and never wake up.
In front of him, he saw the access ladder down into the bowels of the ship – down to the ventral cannon.
Down the tunnel, a sconce flared to life.
“Vintus. You are hurt.” The wraith–like face swiveled and looked upon the battered mancer with a cold, calculating gaze.
Vintus laughed, then coughed, blood flecking his lips. “Is the culverin still working?”
The flame flickered as Ida ruminated. “It is.”
“Reroute astra to the culverin. As much as we can manage.”
“Vintus, rerouting astra at this time would weaken our void barriers. The Slipstream would not last long without–”
“Ship’s dead, Ida. And so am I.” He groaned, heaving himself upwards. Blood dripped from his gut and shoulder. Pain coursed through him, and he caught himself on a pylon as he almost blacked out. “Do it.”
The specter fluttered like a flame in the wind. “Rerouting astra now.”
The Slipstream groaned. Vintus felt the ship shift as the void barriers outside flickered and died. Without them, the ship was exposed to open space.
“You have seconds, Vintus.”
Vintus caught the first rung of the ladder. “That’s all I need.”
Behind him, the sconce went cold.
Vintus didn’t climb down the ladder so much as he fell. In the lower deck, the control module for the culverin cannon glowed a vibrant red. A glass viewport displayed a wheeling starfield as the Slipstream careened. And there, hooked to the ship via steel lines – the skrug raidboat.
It was a cobbled ruin of a ship, indiscernible in both shape and function. But there, on the starboard side, a wide hatch was open, and a dozen or more skrugs stood behind shimmering void barriers, waiting to leap across to the Slipstream.
The raiders disembarked, flickering jumpjets carrying them across the gulf as they used the steel lines as guides.
“You can’t have it.” Vintus sank into the seat behind the culverin. He pulled a lever, disengaging the swivel lock on the massive cannon, and grabbed both yokes in his trembling, bloodstained hands. He yanked the culverin to the left, centered the raidboat in the sights, and breathed a long, shuddering sigh.
He pulled the trigger.
The shell, wreathed in red astra, was a streak of glistening, blood-red light. There was a moment of stillness, of supreme silence, and then the raidboat shattered. A dazzling explosion lit the black, the steel lines ripped free, and the ship disappeared in a fireball of crimson astra.
With no stabilizers, the culverin’s recoil threw the Slipstream into a dizzying spin. Vintus’s head swam. He fell forward against the control module, splattering the viewport with blood. He saw the stars, and the blue and green lights of distant moons. He saw skrugs, the ones who weren’t ruined by raidboat shrapnel kicking feebly in the void as their lines tore loose and their ship turned to ash at their backs.
Ida’s expressionless face flickered to life on the control module’s sconce. It showed no urgency. The klaxons blared once more, then died. The ship quieted. The mancer’s own dwindling heartbeat drummed an odd rhythm in his ears. Scorched wreckage drifted towards the out-of-control Slipstream, and Vintus let himself fall asleep.
All comes from astra. All goes to astra.
(Featured art by Adam Burn. See more of his work here.)