Hi guys, as promised, I am happy to present my second Ostium guide for your viewing pleasure:
As with his compadre, I’ve continued to go for the woodsy, lo-tech look with a mix of the technological with the medieval. Thinking about it, this guy is more medieval than not, with only his autopistol to suggest any technological advancement. Again, I kept the palate muted, with mostly natural tones and just a few brighter spot colours here and there. The shield was great for freehand, and I hope that the family crest makes a bit more sense for the viewer at a bigger scale? The small shield that secures the sacred scripts to his belt, (2nd photo), has the quartered black and white Guild colours – not as prominent as I would like, but it is there :-) Here he is with his buddy:
Now, I did promise you a short story to go with these guys… it gives a few hints as to my take on the Albino Woods, but the woods are a big place so this shouldn’t impinge on or limit anyone else’s vision. I don’t think I’ll be troubling the literary professionals any time soon, but I’ve been nibbling away at it as I have been working on the minis, and I had fun… I hope it gives some enjoyment to you guys too. So, with apologies to Scott Snyder, let’s join a pair of Ostium Guides for a little wander through the Albino Woods:
Adask looked sidelong at the guides. Both were old, dishevelled looking, but they moved through the forest with a grace and assurance that came with a lifetime of woodland living. In contrast, he and his group blundered and cursed their way through the undergrowth. Not for the first time, Adask wondered what the hell he was doing on this gods-forsaken planet, and how signing up to be hired muscle for a foppish trader had seemed like such a good idea… Adask and his pal Dranos had been in the PDF together, and had pulled the same shift in the space docks once they left the force. It was Dranos who first introduced him to Olbax the trader back on the Heston orbital trading station, and it was Dranos who was most in favour of taking a short interplanetary job. ‘It’ll be fun’ he said – ‘Easy money!’… “Fucking Dranos” he muttered under his breath. Adask knew full well that Dranos was only looking to get off-base to get away from his gambling debts. He wouldn’t say that out loud though, Dranos was a big fucker, and had a mean temper on him. But even so, being stuck in a shitty forest on a shitty world, and looking after Olbax was really starting to wear Adask’s patience. Olbax was a real lying piece of shit – he had claimed that he had need of an escort to a nice little fringe world… easy job, nice pay, all equipment & weapons provided and all expenses covered. Well, he hadn’t said anything about not paying them until after the job, he did not mention that the world was in the Segmentum Obscurus, and he definitely did not tell them that the gig involved a three day hike through some spooky fucking forest just to visit something called ‘The Chapel’. Adask was orbital station born and bred and had never even seen a real tree before, so a forest was about as far out of his comfort zone as it was possible to get, especially when it looked like it was made out of twisted bones. Why they couldn’t just fly to their destination was beyond Adask’s ability to comprehend – Olbax said something about a no-fly Inquisitorial edict, or something like that… The end result was having to hire guides at the outskirts, and ‘doing it the old fashioned way’.
Olbax had handled the negotiations for the guides, and paid every single credit that he had with him in advance. He claimed that the he had information that was worth a fortune to those who resided in The Chapel – more than enough to pay Adask and Dranos, cover the guide fees for the return trip, and presumably to leave a handsome profit for the trader. Olbax justified the exorbitant guide fees by making it clear that the best way to get through the forest safely was to hire guild-registered ‘Ostium Guides’ rather than risking it with a cheaper freelancer. He said that he wasn’t taking any chances, that the forest was dangerous, and that the guilders were for protection as much as for guidance. Adask wasn’t so sure – the two old boys weren’t much to look at… other than some crappy old sidearms and some bizarre double-chronometers that they both wore, they might as well have been feral-worlders. One of the pair was armed with a huge double-bladed thing that looked to be more dangerous to the user than it would be for any adversary, while the other had a primitive spiked ball on the end of some thick cord and a shield… a fucking shield for thrones’ sake! And what was with the mask that the blade-carrier wore? Some metal and leather cage that engulfed the man’s head, it looked more like a torture device than any kind of reasonable headwear… If there was a way to take it off, then Adask couldn’t see it, and the man certainly never removed it… he even poked his food through the gaps in the mask when it was chow time, and he never spoke. Adask had never seen the like. Dranos had tried to take the piss a bit when they first got under way, suggesting that there couldn’t be nought much worse than a rabbit in this forest if those pistols were anything to go by… Dranos was inordinately pleased with the combat shotgun that he carried, and he told the guides that he would handle anything that was too big for their little slug-shooters. The ‘talkative’ guide, (the one without the mask), just looked at him calmly and said “The guns ain’t for the forest son…” That shut Dranos right up and no mistake – he might be a hard bastard, but he was as much out of his depth as Adask was… there was something about these men that spoke of pragmatic and dangerous competence, and both Adask and Dranos were pretty certain that their lives were entirely in the hands of these Ostium Guides.
Three days later, the group were still making their way through the forest, and the sense of oppression was becoming almost unbearable. For someone used to spaceport living, Adask was fine with confined spaces, but the Albino Forest was something else. Apart from the occasional clearing, the trees and undergrowth pressed close, and at times, seemed certain to envelop and suffocate them. How the hell the guides knew where they were going was a bafflement – they had no maps, no instruments, and they scarcely even saw the sky to navigate by. Adask couldn’t see how they could be doing it by memory either because everything looked the bloody same. For all he knew, the guides were just walking them round in circles! No breath of air stirred, but the creaking of the bone-white trees was a constant companion, setting Adask’s teeth on edge. He was pretty sure that forests were supposed to have animals in them – birds and the like, but he hadn’t seen or heard a single living thing. Nothing… not even bugs. Adask knew that Dranos and Olbax were feeling it too… they had both become so withdrawn that barely a word was spoken between them, even during rest times. The guides weren’t much better – Adask could swear that they hadn’t said a word to each other or to their clients for days. There was something about this place that killed laughter, sapped conversation, numbed senses. The nights were worse – sleep was a nightmare filled affair, and each morning saw the group more tired than they were the night before. Their whole existence had become one endless creaking trudge through an unchanging world of bone that rarely extended beyond an outstretched arm. He felt like a rat scurrying through some giant demented ossuary.
To Adask’s relief, they came across a small clearing about half way through the day, and the shield-bearing guide indicated they should stop for food. He broke his silence and told them that they should be at the Chapel by nightfall. Adask scarcely heard, he so wrapped up in his own private little world of misery. He had just sat down and began to eat from a ration pack, when suddenly, the masked guide stood up and turned a full circle to pan around the clearing, his gloved hand creaked as his grip tightened on the handle of his ever-present blade. Adask noticed that a light on the twin-chronometers that hung around his neck was flashing – the hands of one of the clock faces were lurching around in the correct direction, while the hands on the other clock were racing backward. The other guide stood up and checked his own chronometer – Adask noticed that it too was acting erratically. The guide indicated that they should stand, and Adask did so, slowly drawing his shotgun from his pack. Dranos and Olbax were slow to get up, there was no fear or panic, and no particular sense of urgency. Dranos was frowning, like he’d forgotten something, while Olbax just looked sleepily at the ration bar he was still holding. The incessant creaking of the forest grew dim, and time itself slowed to a crawl. At some instinctive level, Adask knew that something was very wrong. A sharp slap across the face brought Dranos back to his senses – the ‘talkative’ guide was hissing at him to snap out of it, while the masked guide was unsuccessfully trying to slap and shake some sense into Olbax. “What the fuck is going on? What’s happening?” demanded Dranos. His tongue sounded awkward in his mouth, and his voice cracked from lack of use. The guide indicated to be quiet, and whispered in urgent tones. “You boys had better get your heads clear – Dranos, you were falling into the dream of this place, but you need to switch on and gun up… we’re getting’ company” Adask worked the mechanism of his shotgun and chambered a shell, and was relieved to see Dranos looking more alert, drawing his own gun and doing the same. He noticed that the guides kept their pistols holstered, but held their hand weapons ready. The masked guide had apparently given up on Olbax, and the man had already slumped back to the floor. The four men formed an outwards facing ring around the still-dreaming trader, and prepared to face whatever threat the guides had detected.
The stillness was uncanny – the usual creaking noises had all but stopped. Adask thought he saw a flash of movement deep in the forest away to his left, but it was gone before he could be sure. He sensed Dranos grow tense, and figured he had spotted something as well. The guides remained still and watchful – if they had seen anything, they didn’t let on. Suddenly, Dranos gave a strangled yell and fired a shot into the trees. Adask spun around, while Dranos was yelling “A face! A saw a fucking face! It was just there, just staring at us – a fucking face in the trees I tell you!” Dranos made as if to advance into the forest, and the masked guide went to put his hand on Dranos’ shoulder to stop him, but the big man shook the hand off and advanced towards the edge of the clearing, gun held level. “Get back you fool!” hissed the talkative guide, but Dranos didn’t listen. “I’m telling you, I saw that face, and I shot at it fair and square. Whatever it is, I shot it good!” he said as he neared the treeline. As he drew close, the forest seemed to come alive – Adask had only a vague impression of a large humanoid shape that appeared as a rushing surge of branches, and of a grotesquely leering skull. Dranos screamed and fired again, and Adask was certain that he saw splinters fly as the shotgun shell slammed into the creature, but it didn’t even slow. It lanced into Dranos, long finger-like appendages that were as sharp as spears punched through the flak vest that covered his chest as if it were paper, before exiting his back and hooking around his body. The creature lifted Dranos from the floor, and shook him like a space dock ratter might shake vermin, smashing him into the ground again and again. Adask saw the big man’s limbs flailing around wildly and heard the snapping of bones before Dranos was thrown aside to land bonelessly on the hard ground. The creature turned its gaze on the rest of the group, and Adask caught his first proper look at the monster.
It stood about eight feet tall, an impossible creature of living wood. Its arms finished in long writhing fingers, and the legs had twisted root-like structures where toes might have been. Its gaunt body was covered in bark that matched the forest perfectly, and various branches and twigs grew from the torso, some of which even had blood-red buds growing from them, just as Adask had seen growing elsewhere in the forest. The appearance of being a tree would have been perfect, were it not for the clearly human skull in the place where a head would have been on a normal creature. The skull still had a thin layer of parchment-like skin stretched over its features, empty eye sockets, and hair-like tendrils that ran down the creatures back. Branches and twigs seemed to clasp the head tightly, much as if they had grown around it – some even penetrated into the skull itself, like roots seeking nutrients. The empty gaze of the creature seemed to lock on to Adask, the horror of it mesmerised him as it began to advance across the clearing. A faint whiff of damp and decay preceded it, and an ageless sense of evil gripped his heart with dread. Adask knew with fatalistic certainty that he was going to die, but terror rendered him powerless to do anything about it.
The trance was suddenly broken as the guides roughly shouldered Adask aside, and took up position between him and the advancing monstrosity. The talkative guide stood to the fore, shield extended and his spiked ball held low and ready, while the masked swordsman took up position behind and to his right, his lance-like blade held over the rim of the other man’s shield and aimed at the creature’s torso. The creature came on, the skeletal jaw extended wide in a silent shriek of rage. It lashed out wildly, long fingers raking across the shield with a squealing sound, as the masked guide lunged forward to bury the point of his blade in the wooden body. The monster didn’t even register the blow, but the blade stuck and allowed the swordsman to push back at the creature while staying out of its reach. He stepped forward and right to give the shield bearer enough space to manoeuvre. The lead guide caught more blows on his shield as he broke left, and when he spotted a gap, he brought his spiked ball arcing down in an overhanded blow. The skull of the creature was crushed with a wet sound – fragments of bone exploded outwards, leaving nothing but a gore soaked mass of spongy root-like fibres where the brain case had been. The monster ceased moving, its feet were rooted to the ground, limbs gently swaying where they had been in furious motion only a moment before. The masked swordsman braced his foot against the now-stationary trunk and levered his blade up and down until it came free, leaving a runnel of sap to ooze slowly from the cut.
The entire encounter had taken seconds, and Adask was left baffled by the speed of the attack and the brutal efficiency with which it had been met. He looked across the clearing and saw that Dranos lay where he had been thrown, body pierced, limbs and neck broken and twisted into sickening positions. He was very obviously dead. Olbax was sitting where he had been left, completely oblivious to events around him, mindlessly chewing at his ration bar. The two guides remained vigilant, the shield bearer peering around the treeline while the masked one checking his chronometer closely. Adask noticed that the flashing light had now stopped, and that both clocks were running correctly. After a few tense minutes the pair appeared satisfied that there was no imminent danger, and the shield bearer walked to Adask. “You ok?” he asked in a gruff voice. Adask nodded that he was, and then asked “What the hell was that thing?” The guide thought for a moment, and responded “Well son, we don’t rightly know what they are. Tree Devils we call ‘em, but they used to be human… or leastways their heads were. Sometimes we see ‘em wearing the face of someone we knew, you see? Folks go into the forest, don’t come back out, and then months later you might see some tree-devil a-wearin’ their face. Can’t talk to ‘em though, there ain’t nothing left o’ the person… just a head and a ‘nimated tree fer a body. Tough buggers… no good shootin’ and hackin’ at the wood – might as well be hittin’ a log. Only way to take ‘em down quick is to smash the head”. Adask looked at the corpse of the creature, rooted to the spot and looking for all the world like a strangely shaped tree, indistinguishable from millions of similar sized trees they had passed on their journey. He felt a creeping horror as he looked around the surrounding forest. “How many of these tree-devils are there? Where do they come from?” The guide answered slowly, “We don’t know how many are out there… Could be thousands for all we know. We don’t see ‘em often, but then we stick to the paths, barely scratchin’ the surface o’ this old forest. There’s hundreds o’ miles of forest that haven’t never been seen by righteous folk. We hear stories though, folks from other villages what go lookin’ for adventure, younglings mostly. Few come back, and them that do are half starved and mad. I saw me one once – a returner, over at Jurham market. Chained up in the local pokey ‘e was, raving about the woods, talking about dark villages with dark folks what take heads for tribute, an’ wytches in the woods. ‘Pledged is pledged’ e’ kept sayin’, over and over, ‘Pledged is pledged’… I heard he was found dead in his cell the next day, head missin’, door still locked an’ no one knowin’ how it was done.” Adask shuddered. “But these are just stories right? Faery tales? There’s no wytches out there really, are there?” The guide looked long at Adask. “Tell you what I reckon son…. The stuff that returner was raving about? I reckon that’s not even the half of it. There surely are bad men out there that take the heads of what folks they can to pledge them up for the wytches… Oh yes, I reckon the wytches are real all right, an’ that they use these heads to somehow make these tree-devils to do their bidding… makes sense if you think about it – the bloody ‘perium been doin’ it forever, only they stick heads into machines instead o’ trees. It’s all dead men walking at the end of the day. Thing is, no one knows what these wytches are, or what they want… Throne, I don’t even know of anyone ever seein’ a wytch! But you mark my words, they’re out there, and I reckon they’re something to do with the Chapel. Don’t ask me what that might be mind, I might know where the Chapel is, but I don’t know what it is or why it’s there… Don’t want to know neither, that place ain’t right. There’s magic in these woods, see? And The Chapel is at the heart of it all. Just look at your trader friend! He’s got the enchantment on him all right, he’ll never wake up properly now… this place gets some folks that way, puts them in a waking trance that they never recover from. There’s nought but the mind of a simpleton in there now.”
Adask was about to ask more, but the conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a throat being cleared. He and the talkative guide turned to see the masked guide stood over the body of Dranos, the tip of his blade resting on the ground near the big man’s head. The lenses of his headgear were fixed on the talkative guide, almost in expectation. The talker sighed, and hefted his spiked ball as he approached the body. “You might want to look away for this bit” he said over his shoulder – Adask caught his meaning and turned, though his imagination provided an all too clear image to accompany the unmistakable crunch of skull. He didn’t particularly like Dranos, but they had served and worked together for years, and he couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness at such an ignominious fate. Adask heard a rustle, and when he turned back he saw that the talkative guide was pulling some scrub from the edge of the clearing to cover the body as best he could. Adask caught a glimpse of crushed skull before the scrub was dragged into place, the blood and brain matter shockingly bright against the dark earth. The talkative guide looked almost apologetic as he said “It was necessary… can’t go leave any heads lying ‘round, lest they end up on a devil”. Adask shuddered as he nodded his understanding.
The guides moved swiftly to drag the still-dreaming Olbax to his feet, and the talker said “come on, let’s get movin’, we’ll be there in half a day”, and indicated the direction they would travel. Adask pointed at Olbax and replied, “What’s the point? He doesn’t care where we go anymore, why don’t we just head back?” The guide gave Adask a hard look. “Son, we’re guild – we always fulfil the contract, and the contract is to get you and the trader to The Chapel” Adask felt panic rising within him. “Wait, hang on, what about getting back? How am I going to get back?” The guide replied, “Well, that’ll be a new contract see? New contract and new payment.” Adask looked at the guide in horror, “But I don’t have any credits! You know that! Olbax paid your guild officer everything he has before we left – he’s expecting payment for information at The Chapel to cover the return… but… well, look at him! He’s a dribbling idiot! How’s he going to give anyone anything worth paying for? No money, no fee, so how the fuck am I going to get back?”
Adask was shocked out of his panic as the masked guide cocked his pistol and spoke for the first time, his voice cracked and hollow behind his mask – “That’s your problem boy, not ours. You’re going to The Chapel, as per the contract – whether you like it or not. What you do after that is none of our concern. You can stay there or you can try the woods yourself, but you don’t come a’followin’ us. Our ways are secret, and only them what pays gets to follow. Let me make this easy for you boy, if you give us any trouble on the way, we kill you. If we catch you tryin’ to follow us back, we kill you. If you take on the woods on your own then that’s on you, but the chances are that something will kill you… Do the smart thing, get moving and accept whatever fate has in store for you at The Chapel, or I’ll end you here and now. Your call…” Adask briefly considered using his gun to threaten the guides, to force them to take him back, but the masked man still had his piece cocked and ready – he knew he’d be dead before he could even raise the barrel. The memory of the sound of Dranos’ skull being smashed made him queasy at the thought of what would come next. His head bowed as the futility of his position became clear, and he sighed with resignation as he dropped the shotgun at the masked guide’s feet. He had no choice… he would take his chances at The Chapel, and may the Emperor have mercy on his soul.