Project Aphelion Solo Play #025: Meanwhile, the Villain

The Villain gets his turn! Oh, what a delightful turn he took. Come and see how Aphelion’s mechanics procedurally steer the opposition in solo play. It’s a doozy. We also buy real estate, because roleplaying is all about wish-fulfillment fantasies.


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Faction Layer, 1 March 2056

Skill Learning

Last we left off, Tomorrow ran out of time and the others ran out of skills to raise. Hence, Tomorrow will start on March 1st and the rest on March 3rd, after the latest Scenario.
Tomorrow:
Tactics 1, 4v6=1, skill learned (by Mar 1st)
(Teaching, 3v4=3) Teaching 3, 3v5=3 (+2 previous), skill raised to 3 (by Mar 4th)
(Teaching+1, 3v3=3) Sorcery 5, 5v7=3 (+2 previous = 5), skill raised to 5 (by Mar 9th)
(Teaching+1, 3v3=2) Stealth 4, 5v7=3 /4 (by Mar 13th)
(Teaching+1, 3v3=3) Conjuring 4, 5v6=1 /4 (by Mar 17th)
I’ll stop here for the moment; we’ll see what happens in the game afterwards.

Chloe:
IT 4, 5v9=2 /4 (by Mar 6th)
Hacking 4, 6v9=0 /4 (by Mar 10th)


We’re Sorry, Your Sister is Nowhere to Be Found…

Green Bishops would have learned by now that Chloe is no longer with ALOHA and they have every reason to call and tell Tomorrow about it. Let’s set the date of that call as March 3rd – I’m giving all three characters a day off after the hard work. I don’t feel like writing the narrative, so let’s just assume that the conversation went well, they were told that Chloe is safe and sound, having been peacefully extracted by friendly forces – and there’s no need for Green Bishops to keep digging in her case. Especially as we don’t want anybody looking too closely at Best Western!

What will they do now? Well, they are an obsessive faction, keen to repeat their projects if possible. They cannot dig into the case anymore, so they’ll focus on their Faction growth, fading into background until something happens or we decide to hire them.


We’re Happy to Inform, Your Daughter is Alive

It’s been almost a month, and Chloe did not talk to her parents yet. She sent Tonight to Dallas with a short message of ‘I’m alive, communication channels not secure, will be in touch,’ but she avoided any further contact. Tomorrow’s vaguely unhappy about that and tries to convince her sister to at least have one conversation – even if Chloe cannot forgive her parents, she will at least be able to move forward, instead of prolonging the wait until the confrontation.

The call is hard – a halting, clipped conversation, full of hurt, relief, and resentment, mixed and matched. But it’s a start. If Tomorrow’s relationship with her parents is complicated, they at least like one another (Familiarity 8). Chloe left their house on much worse terms (Fam 4/5 – low neutral), and it will time and effort to fix it. Whether any side finds fixing the relationship a priority, we’ll see.


The Boys Are Back in Town

Over the next couple of days, the news arrive that the combat biking trainings are back in session, with the prodigal team coming home. Tomorrow is happy to hear that, but she does wonder what it means for the Hellhounds. This cannot be good news for Sal, and she likes the blood mage enough to care. Phase also mentions that the bug spirit activity is raising, regardless of her efforts, and she will probably need help down the line.


Take Down the Blood Mage

With Tomorrow, as always, flying left and right, doing research, handling gangs, and putting down fires, Tonight and Chloe are free to focus on slowly, painfully slowly taking down d’Venescu. If you remember, he’s a R5 Faction, and we need 50 Payouts to take him down a notch, to R4. I do not want to run the Scenarios for those 50 points – but Payouts are Payouts! The spirit and the hacker will be running projects in their spare time.

First, Chloe is running the False Flag again, to make sure what we’re about to do is not going to be connected with us. Again, we’re pretending it’s Aztechnology, which makes this a Payout 5 project, completed in 6 days (by March 9th).

We’ll also convince Zacualtipan to use her R3 Social Facility (Embassy) to help us run a slander campaign with Payout 10. To hire the Facility, we need to pay half its monthly Upkeep, meaning 375c. This means Zacualtipan is no longer providing us with free Focus for Social projects, but instead we’ll remove 10 points from the d’Venescu’s counter. Convincing Zacualtipan took Tonight 3 days, so the deed is done by March 6th, then it took the Embassy 4 days to finish this project (rolling 3v3=3+3+3+3=12/10 (by March 10th, with 2 net marks). This project also reduces Fam between d’Venescu and Aztechnology, at the same time raising the one between us and Zacualtipan to 8, as it’s mutually beneficial.

A project like that triggers the consequences roll: 3d10, picking mid = 6+2, a positive consequence with magnitude 10. Rolled an 8, so:

A person from a character’s backstory invites the player Crew to a Think Tank pushing that character’s background plot forward, with Payout equal to magnitude. Pick which player it entails.

Ah well – looks like we’re getting a freebie and Chloe will be busy taking down d’Venescu for the foreseeable future! Why not make it a nice Aztechnology think tank, with Raul Aranda at the helm of it? But as this only happens on March 11th, we’ll wait with the narrative and the resolution.


Did Anybody Say: Money?

Meanwhile, Tonight is free like a spirit on March 7th, meaning she has the time to do her tiny Income (2) Scenario, about which I honestly forgot last month. As a Faction agent, she can bring in 2 Payouts worth of cash to the Faction. She enjoys the Shadowmarket a lot, and negotiating and cutting deals is what she likes best. I’ll let her have her fun!

However, I cannot be bothered to run a Payout 2 Scenario, so I’ll just use the Quick Rules for that.

Run an Investigation as normal to determine the Threat Rating and Payout. The Scenario’s Threat Rating becomes the Project Challenge, and the Payout is the representation of the opposing forces. Assets assigned to deal with the Scenario use their Rating as a Dice Pool and the chosen Focus reduces the difficulty. The Defense uses the Payout as their Dice Pool, and the target Focus reduces the difficulty. Whoever scores the Challenge first, wins.

Payout: 2
Legwork: Diplomacy, 5v4=3, 1 net
Threat Rating: 2v5=2. TR=1-1, 0
Challenge: 0, but min. 1, so 1.

Offense Assets assigned to the Scenario: Tonight, Agent R1. As all default Actors have always at least R2, she gets 2 dice.
Defense: R2.

Offense: 2v5=2
Defense: 2v5=1

Offense ends the interval with 1 net mark, which is what the Challenge needed. Was it statistically risky to play that way? Yes. But: it took 2 minutes, it’s done, we got 2 Payouts worth of cash from it, and we can move on. Let’s roll for consequences, with 0 net marks: rolled a 7, nothing happens.


To the Ravencave!

So that was March 7th, leaving Tonight with 3 days to pull off something else. I think it’s high time to start spending money and investing in our Faction. Tonight will run a social project, trying to find a place to set up the base – we need to find and buy a Facility frame, ie. a building/office space/a flat in which we’ll be able to install facility modules. At the moment, we’re after R1 frame – it will cost 25,000c, but the process of finding one will not be complicated, requiring only 1 mark. Tonight is rolling 1v5=1 and has the perfect place found within 1 day (by March 8th). We spend 5 Payouts worth of cash (leaving us with 11), but we’re getting ourselves a R1 Facility frame, which allows us to install up to five modules/facilities, each up to R5.

The Ravencave (we’re not calling it that, but we are calling it that) is going to be Tomorrow’s flat in Pueblo Sector – she’s been renting it for a while and buying some more office space to add to that will make sense – especially as most of the use will be to support Tomorrow’s magic business.

Now, we’re a Scientific/Social/Technical Faction so far, because we have three characters, each from a different Focus. However, this is Tomorrow’s story and mostly her money – I also plan to run this campaign after the d’Venescu’s mess and embrace the arcane research angle. This is why we’ll be focusing on Scientific Facilities – we can always hire others as needed from Factions around us. What we want at the moment is a Field Lab, giving us access to the Field Research project (passive Intel Generation) and Prospecting project (setting up Prospecting Scenarios). Other Facilities we’ll also need are:

  • Ghostworks (Investigative, will let us run False Flags without Chloe spending all her time on it – and Moleworks, which finds an ongoing Project with the desired Payout, giving us a chance to mess up other people’s plans)
  • Think Tank (Scientific, giving access to an Interdisciplinary Studies: reworking one type of intel into another, and to Mind Mining: ‘borrowing’ other Factions’ Crews to work for us)

Finding a R1 Field Lab took Tonight 1 day (by March 9th), we paid 1 Payout for it. Then another day to find R1 Ghostworks (by March 10th), paying another 1 Payout. This leaves us with 9 Payouts worth of cash, but from now on our Faction looks like this:

RatingScientific FocusSocial FocusTechnical FocusInvestigative FocusOther
1Crew R1: Tomorrow
Facility R1: Field Lab (Field Research, Prospecting)
Crew R1: TonightCrew R1: ChloeFacility R1: Ghostworks (False Flag, Moleworks)R1 Facility Frame (2/5 slots)

Now, every rating of a Facility comes with 10 Extras. Because we’re not hiring anybody, we’re not talking real people. Extras, like Actors, can be anything. In case of our Field Lab they’re spells and elementals, and in case of Ghostworks, they’re Chloe’s bots, programs, and Matrix subroutines that will make sure that nobody will make a connection between our actions and us.

We’ll be upgrading out Facilities later on, when we have more time. For now, it’s March 10th and we’re moving to the last of our characters. It’s still March 3rd where she lives.


Hitting the Books

Tomorrow finally has the time to make some progress on her Advanced Action Card – rolling 1v (6 +2 known cards -3 Teaching skill = 5), by March 10th she scores the missing 5 marks and FINALLY gets her new spell. Now, what has proven most needed in Tomorrow’s case? She needs Clout.

Desperately. So, how about this: 

AAC Artificial Intelligence (M/S/Logic/Sorcery/NA). Marks provide Clout for Logic-based Tasks while sustained.

This should solve a lot of trouble with the mounting Resistance in the Finales, especially when Driven trait works against us.


Meanwhile, the Villain

We need to keep track of d’Venescu and his resources. (We wouldn’t have to, but I plan on bankrupting and destroying him, so we have to.)

As a R5 Faction, he came into the game with 50 Resources – but just like us, he has expenses! On March 1st, he needed to cover the expenses of his Faction. With two Crews, R3 and R2, he needed to pay 5,000c (1 Resource) for the basic Upkeep (49 left). Both of his Crews were running projects at the time: the R3 Crew was providing a R2 Crew with Clout (costing 1,500c, half the monthly Upkeep) and the R2 Crew was looking for Fayette (1,000c, half the monthly Upkeep). This leaves d’Venescu at 48 Resources and 2,500c cash.

Now, his R3 was keeping up their project (no further cost), but his R2 Crew was about to be given another assignment after failing the search for Fayette – however, we’ve removed the R2 Crew from the game board. This attack, for all intents and purposes performed by Aztechnology, should trigger two things:

  1. d’Venescu’s main behavior: exclusive defense in Social Focus.
  2. d’Venescu’s Faction trait: excessive, going for as high Payout as possible.

There isn’t that many exclusive/defense projects in the Social Focus – if anything, Social is all about Offense. The blood mage is unlikely to commit his sole remaining Asset to a retaliatory strike against Aztechnology. However, his Social Crew can provide a hired asset with Social Focus.

D’Venescu needs to protect himself, and he can only do that by trying to fix his relationship with Aztechnology. To do so, he needs to run a Social project. As d’Venescu wants to raise the Familiarity to the point of neutrality, this will cost him 3+2+1=6 Payouts. Worried about more attacks, he will hire a R2 Social Crew (spending 1 day, March 3rd, to find them), paying Rating times Payout = 12 Resources (straight-up hiring Crews is expensive!). This leaves him at 36 Resources and 2,500c.

The R2 Crew will roll 5 dice (Faction Rating) vs difficulty (10 – Familiarity – R2 Social Focus – 3 Focus provided by he R3 Crew) = 5v4, and they need to collect 6 marks, which they manage within two days (by March 5th), raising d’Venescu/Aztechnology Familiarity to 4. And then, five days later, our Slander Campaign lands, reducing it back to 3 and scraping off 10 points out of 50 to beat down d’Venescu’s Faction to R4.

Thinking that he has covered his bases on that front, d’Venescu isn’t likely to act against Aztechnology. But is he willing to use his sole Asset as an Offensive force? No, his basic behavior is still Exclusive Defense. He should go for the biggest Payout – and rules aside, what can have a higher importance for him than finding his daughter or Chloe (in effort to find his daughter)? The logical choice for him would be do acquire a new Asset, Investigative this time – it will give him a better chance of success.

To acquire a new Crew, d’Venescu would need a Hiring Board – he doesn’t have one, but his Social Crew can find one in a short project (costing him 1,500c; 36+1,000c left), finished within 1 day (March 6th) to find a R3 Hiring Board, capable of finding a R3 Investigative Crew. Hiring the board for the task costs 375c (36+625c left) – the Hiring Board runs a Challenge 3 project, scoring 3 marks in 3 days (by March 9th). Then the d’Venescu’s R3 Social Crew can negotiate hiring of the R3 Investigative Crew, which is not a problem, but it consumes another day (March 10th) and 3 Resources of paychecks (33+625c). This hires them as an Asset for the entire month – if d’Venescu wanted to have them forever, he’d have to pay ten times their Rating – but spending 30 Resources on a single Asset sounds like a lot, even for him.

This move changes d’Venescu’s Faction from Social/Creative into Social/Investigative and we’re drawing a new behavior for the Investigative Focus. Rolling 3d10 and picking mid, we’re landing on Hostile Growth! Looks like not only the Investigative Crew will be more mobile and willing to take risks, it also has the chance of taking over as the main Focus of the Faction (which is suboptimal for us).

At this moment, d’Venescu has no idea where Fayette or Chloe are, and I’ll let the dice decide which one he decides to focus on. Evens – so he actually goes after Chloe! Because finding Chloe is a campaign objective for d’Venescu and he has literally zero chance of knowing where she is at the moment, I’m setting the Challenge of this project at the Campaign Rating = 9. His Investigative team will be rolling 3 dice each day until they reach 9 marks in their Investigative project… Centered at Best Western… Where Crowley’s Covert Ops project provides us with 3 points of Defense against such projects, which means they will make exactly 0 progress, no matter how hard they try. They do not know about it, so it would be unfair of me to make them realize they’re being actively opposed. They will run this project until something happens to trigger a change or a new month rolls. In either case, this project costs d’Venescu half of the monthly Upkeep or a R3 Crew = 1,500c (leaving him at 32+4,125c).

Meanwhile, the R3 Social Crew should probably react to the fact that d’Venescu is again on unfriendly terms with Aztechnology after they ran a slander campaign against him. The message is clear: no matter how he tries, Aztechnology will always betray him and backstab him. Is the time for fixing the relationship over? It might be. When you look at all Faction behaviors at traits, you get:

16d’Venescu5Social (Exclusive Defense)
Crew R3
Investigative (Hostile Growth)
Crew R3
(Exclusive Defense)Excessive
add 2 priority to Projects already at the highest Payout.

Exclusive Defense is doubled, and it features both in the main Focus and in four ‘other.’ Exclusivity means that the Faction is striving for a monopoly, focusing on preventing other Factions from interacting with the same subject. After the destruction of R2 Creative Crew by ‘Aztechnology’, Defense (ie. protecting the safety of own Assets) might very well mean a hostile move against Aztechnology, trying to take down their R3 Crew of agents in retaliation – before Aztech hits his assets again! As Dzitbalchen’s support provides them with stealth deployment, I’ll assume Aztechnology has no way of knowing what’s coming their way.

The R3 Social Crew of d’Venescu needs to prepare a project with Challenge 15 (target’s Rating times 5) and then run a Scenario with Payout 6 to destroy a R3 Crew of Aztech. They are rolling 5v3, collecting 15 marks in 4 days. Their Project against Aztech is ready by March 14th, and on March 15th, they will make their move.

But on the side of our protagonists, it’s March 10th, and stuff is about to happen.


March 10th, 2056

Oh, how she loves this feeling. This amazing, beautiful clarity, when all the scattered symbols and unfinished equations just coalesce and combine into one beautiful thought, one precise spell. This one, she feels, will bring her a shitload of money – if and when she decides to share the formula with the public. Not yet.

Well done, praises her Raven, when she circles the final formula in her notebook. Raven’s voice is full of pride, and she’s proud too. Between all of the mess, she still managed to do some proper research, push the state of magic a tiny bit forward, exactly like Raven wanted. That’s the deal, after all – he grants her magic, and she makes sure the magic benefits from it. Raven never asked for anything else, never put any conditions or limitations – other than expecting her to focus on her work.

And yet, there’s a curious feeling at the back of her brain – a plea? a question? She takes a couple of controlled breaths to trigger her practiced meditative state and reaches towards the mystery presented to her mind.

Suddenly, the sky is white and the ground is red, and a giant raven – whose black feathers carry the sacred promise of all colors and all knowledge – stares right at her. The bird’s head turns right and left, as if trying to see her better, and then it’s everywhere, surrounding her from every angle. No matter where she looks, it’s black feathers and black eyes, looking at her with intensity she hasn’t experienced yet.

Tomorrow welcomes it. She has nothing to hide from Raven. She owes her magic, her sanity, and her life to him. He’s free to give and take as he pleases. But the feeling in her brain intensifies – not a plea, not a question. A request. One that she doesn’t even consider refusing.

Talk to the other, says the wind around her. You have taken. Prove you can give back.

She snaps back to reality, her breath still calm and practiced, grounding her quickly. Rolling her shoulders, she follows the standard procedure. The sun rays filtered through the crystals on the windowsill, casting rainbows on the walls. Her shampoo, fresh scent of ginger and lemon. The soft touch of the cotton shirt on her wrists. The aftertaste of coffee on her tongue. Chloe quietly tapping the keys of her deck in the other corner of the room.

Reality. Good.

Tomorrow picks up her commlink and browses the numbers, considering her options. It’s obvious what Raven has meant, there’s no question who The Other is. But she has no direct link to Caw-Caw and she doesn’t know how to breach the subject with Salazar, who will be in a difficult mood to begin with. He hates being in debt, and it looks like Hellhounds are just about to incur one. She needs to be delicate. If only she knew how.

Can you give me Caw-Caw’s number? I got some bird-related business with her. She sighs as she’s sending the message, wincing at the crude approach. Salazar doesn’t respond, but an incoming call from a local, unknown LTG is enough of an answer.

‘Hey, Tomorrow. Sal said to call you. How can I help you?’ Caw-Caw’s voice, pleasant and low, fits so well with her common politeness, it’s easy to forget the Raven shaman is a part of a generally violent gang.

‘Hi. Listen, it’s gonna sound weird and I get it if you won’t believe me, but…’ Tomorrow sends a quiet plea to her mentor, hoping that a straightforward approach works. ‘Raven asked me to help you. You know how it is. So, will you accept or do I have to try and help you behind your back?’

The silence on the other side is deafening. For a heartbeat, two, three… About the same amount of time it would take Tomorrow to ask within herself for a confirmation. ‘I accept. Can you come over? I’d rather not do it behind Sal’s back either. Even though he’s not in a social mood.’

‘Give me half an hour.’ As she disconnects the call, she catches Chloe’s curious glance. ‘I gotta do something with the Hellhounds. I got a debt to repay. Shouldn’t take long – a couple hours, maybe?’
Her sister rolls her eyes. ‘If you’re asking if I’ll be fine without you, I will. Hellhounds are that gang south of here? The one with the blood mage?’

Tomorrow nods. ‘They have a Raven shaman, too. We’re kinda… You know… Connected because of that? They’re in some trouble and Raven wants me to help them. Can’t really say no to that.’

‘You and your Raven.’ Chloe shakes her head with a smile. ‘You’re like mom and her saints, you know that, right? Go, have fun. Don’t get shot or something. I have a couple of calls to make too, and you being out sounds perfect.’

‘Ah.’ Tomorrow grins. ‘Say hi to Fayette and don’t do anything I wouldn’t.’ She laughs when Chloe sticks out her tongue in a childish answer. Tomorrow decides to take her sweet time at the Hellhounds’, too. It’s not often Chloe gets to be alone – after a month being cooped up in Tomorrow’s tiny flat, it must feel suffocating. Even if she’s not complaining, Chloe could probably use some fresh air. Maybe whatever Hellhounds are up too would be a good opportunity for her to stretch her legs.

She pops in for a quick chat into Wheeler’s office, checking if his opinion on the Hellhounds’ usefulness is still as it was before. They’ve already discussed the mishap with the biking team and analyzed how this affects Hellhounds’ standing in the neighborhood, and how their standing affects everything around them… And the way forward is clear: Hellhounds must stand. There’s no better protection for the southern border and no better guarantee of peace. Cutters would even be willing to lend a hand to their allies if it was necessary. Within reason, of course.

Half an hour later, Tomorrow finds Caw-Caw waiting for her outside the Hellhounds’ HQ; the shaman’s crow-adorned hat barely stays on her head in the strong wind, threatening to join Tomorrow on the raven wings. Tomorrow considers for a moment how this must look to Caw-Caw: staring into the wind until she spots the black shape of a bird she values so much. She hopes she can fulfil the unspoken promise and help – while she could fail Caw-Caw or Sal, she cannot fail Raven.
And she’s sure Caw-Caw knows that.

The school is quiet and almost empty when they walk down the corridor – no surprise, there’s barely twelve people left in the gang. They’re still important – the four Awakened between them are a force all of its own and anybody attacking the HQ, would probably get burned by Sal’s fire elementals way before they managed to cross the lawn. But Tomorrow knows that Hellhounds are vulnerable. She has breached their HQ once, snatched their boss without a single casualty – on her side.

Her stomach still turns at the memory of Chuy, that violent, irresponsible guy with a shotgun whom she hired for protection, shooting point-blank at the Hounds trying to stop them. If not for Caw-Caw and her healing spells, there would be more dead bodies – and she would not be able to treat the gang as allies months later. They could forgive one death she didn’t personally caused, but she doubted they’d forgive another.

Tomorrow expects to go straight into Sal’s room, the unofficial command room of the HQ, but Caw-Caw leads her in a different direction, through empty hallways and up the stairs. She finally stops once they reach the roof entrance, sits down on the stairs and stretches out her legs covered in a long, black skirt and red combat boots. Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, she says: ‘So he decided to finally respond? I’ve been asking for ages.’

The cautious, tired stare of brown eyes surrounded in dark make-up follows Tomorrow’s every move as she shrugs and sits down next to the shaman. ‘It’s not like I have a fast line to him either. I was told to come and help, so I’m here. Tell me what you need.’

‘I need Salazar to stop being a little bitch,’ mutters Caw-Caw, lighting the cigarette with her fingers. She takes a deep inhale and lets out a cloud of pleasant, herbal smoke, cooling and calming. ‘Life’s expensive and unless you make people feel they’re family, they won’t stay around when the times are tough. And you don’t build a family in a week. Anything of worth requires time and effort, you know?’

Tomorrow nods, surprised to hear so many words from the usually quiet woman, just a couple years her senior. They were never friends but they were always friendly – which seemed Caw-Caw’s default mode of interacting with the world. But she’s one of the Raven’s children – it was always obvious there’s more to her personality than just that outer layer.

Caw-Caw sighs. ‘Listen, Tomorrow. I know we don’t really know each other that well, but crap, we’re in a bad way, and the guys are being unreasonable. You know that Sal thinks you’re Wheeler’s spy and anything he tells you goes straight there, right? He’s never going to ask for help, and he’s letting his pride stand in the way of our survival. We already went through this hell once, in Chicago. We’ve barely rebuilt some of the gang before the war here decimated us again. We’re hemorrhaging money, turf, and most importantly, people. We need a win. Desperately.’ Another cloud of smoke brings pause before her next words, much quieter. ‘I can’t lose my family again.’

This isn’t what she expected, not by a long run. Tomorrow doesn’t know how to respond to this absolute honesty she can hear in the shaman’s distraught voice, so she reaches for the one thing that’s always at hand: professional efficiency.

‘Do you have a plan for that win?’

Caw-Caw winces. ‘We have an objective. But there’s no chance we can pull it off with our current forces. It’s a suicide mission. I tried to convince Sal, but he won’t listen.’

‘Which means you need to bring in more forces to even out the scales. That I can help you with.’

‘Don’t promise until you hear the whole story.’ Caw-Caw flicks the cigarette butt on the floor, letting it extinguish itself on the dirty concrete. ‘Come on, I can’t stall too long or the prick-in-chief will get suspicious. If he’s not spying on us right now. But if he is, he better pretend he wasn’t.’ There’s a fair warning in her voice, and Tomorrow cannot help but wonder just how poorly the Hellhounds are faring.

They find Salazar in his room, as expected, with his boots on the desk and an angry glare pointed at the falling twilight behind the window as if the oncoming darkness personally offended him. He barely looks in their direction when they enter, but Gargoyle greets them with a friendly wave and puts down his book. Without much surprise, Tomorrow notices it’s a college-level course book on marine engineering – Gargoyle’s range of interest seemed to cover everything from sailboats to sea-serpent lore, even if he doesn’t have the need to ever discuss it.

‘I’m not here for you,’ states Tomorrow, interrupting Salazar in the middle of explaining why he doesn’t need her help. ‘I don’t expect you to understand – but Caw-Caw does. I need to do what Raven asks of me, and you can either take advantage of it or lead your people into a deathtrap without any support. Just tell me how I can help.’

Even the black tattoos on the blood mage’s face seem angry, when he finally turns around to look at Tomorrow. ‘You expect me to believe you’re here because your mentor spirit told you to help us. Get lost, Tomorrow. I got enough problems without you.’

‘I’m technically here to help Caw-Caw,’ she corrects coldly. ‘Raven only cares about his people. You happen to be the person she cares about. Incidentally, I like you, you absolute pancake, and I don’t want you dead either.’

Gargoyle chuckles and the sounds seems to break whatever wall Salazar her built. ‘Zero loyalty,’ complains the blood mage, throwing a tiny ball of fire at his boyfriend’s head. Gargoyle calmly raises his hand and lets the magic fizzle against his skin, not even warmed up.

‘You know what I think,’ he responds and picks up his book again.

‘Fine.’ Salazar throws his hands in the air. ‘Fine. Fuck’s sake, soon every devil rat in the ‘hood will come tell me how to run my gang. You want to be useful? Be useful.’

The mage spreads his fingers, throwing an illusion in the middle of the room. A bird’s view of the Warrens, more to the south than Tomorrow’s usual routes, but not entirely unknown. The view zooms in and focuses on a single building – a dilapidated ruin of an old community center. The red silhouettes walking around move on clear patrol routes, and while the details are impossible to tell, it’s obvious they’re sentries. And there is many of them.

‘Dead Eyes,’ explains Salazar. ‘They hold the most turf right to the south of us and they’ve been trying to eat us for the last couple of months. We’ve tried talking – we lost two people there. They owe us twenty.’ His cold stare proves he’s not joking. ‘They got what we need. Guns, bikes, supplies. All we need to start recruiting properly. We just need to go and take it, and make sure they won’t come to take it back.’

‘Lots of people to kill,’ points out Tomorrow absent-mindedly, observing the terrain and looking for entryways.

‘They ate them,’ says quietly Caw-Caw. ‘They ate Josh and Greenie. They’re ghouls, Tomorrow.’

‘You want to attack a fucking ghoul lair? Are you mad?’

Gargoyle’s pointed look is the most obvious I told you Tomorrow has ever seen. Salazar waves a hand and dismisses the illusion. ‘What, am I supposed to let it slide? They fucking killed and ate two of my people. And they’re moving north. Should I just sit on my ass and wait for them to surround us in the middle of the night and kill or infect us all? Do you want to have a gang of ghouls on your border?’ His voice is vicious and dripping with venom. ‘Well, I didn’t think so. They’re armed, organized, highly infectious cannibals. We’ll hit them during the day, when they’re weakest. If you have a better plan than killing them, looting, and burning that whole place to the ground, I am fucking listening.’

Tomorrow bites her lip. Caw-Caw was right. It was a suicide mission. Sal could raze a city block to the ground, but if he wanted to take over their resources, that wasn’t an option – there would be nothing left afterwards. If he succeeded. If he survived.

‘Not at the moment,’ she admits. ‘But my offer stands, Sal. I’m here to help.’

‘I still don’t trust you, you know.’

‘Tough luck. I trust you.’ She quickly weighs pros and cons and makes the call. ‘You helped me get my sister back. I couldn’t have found her without you. I trusted you with my life and now I trust you with this. We’re friends, whether you admit this or not.’

‘You got Chloe back?’ asks Gargoyle while Salazar looks at her with an unreadable expression. ‘Congrats! Come visit one day, I’d love to meet her.’

Tomorrow smiles and nods, then crosses her arms, looking at Salazar. ‘So? Trust me enough to stop bitching and start planning?’

‘I hate you so much sometimes. Sit down, we gotta talk.’


In the Next Episode

We need to generate and play a Payout 7 Scenario – the hardest one yet! Oh, this is going to be deadly. I cannot wait.

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