Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spotlight on HMS Constant

The first character profile for Hellstrom Voyage has been posted in the new forums, focusing on the novel's silent character: HMS Constant.

Announcement #3

Chapter 8 got temporarily delayed on the isle of the Near-Men during the shenanigans that were recently announced. Tune in next week for the exciting continuation.

Announcement #2

Coming soon from Empty Room Studios: Voyage of Discovery d20!

Empty Room Studios and Charles Rice have teamed up to bring his popular web-novel, the Hellstrom Voyage, to life as a d20 RPG.

This setting will detail the devastating war of the Mad Emperor in his bid to conquer the world, a war waged on land and sea, as well as the nations who struggle for freedom against an unstoppable military machine.

Chuck says, "Hellstrom Voyage is a project I'm particularly passionate about and one I have a lot of plans for, as a novel, comic and game setting. Empty Room seemed uniquely suited to help develop the line in each of those areas, so I couldn't be happier about partnering with them on this project."

Setting information will include the former nations of the Continental Kingdoms, now ruled by the Mad Emperor as the Mandelieu Empire, as well as the Island Kingdom, the lone free nation left to stand against tyranny, protected by the wooden wall of her navy.

"I've had a chance to work on Steampunk Musha with Chuck, and can't wait to start really turning out work on this setting. I've been reading the Hellstrom Voyage web novel since the first post, and honestly get more excited about this project with every post and discussion," said Rick.

In addition to the setting, the core book will include new character classes, rules for naval warfare, mass combat and an all-new magic system. Future supplements will include adventure locations and battle scenarios.

Announcement #1

The Hellstrom Voyage has moved to its new home on the web, here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 7, The Battle

Before Broughton could say another word, the Captain was gone, circling around the edge of the camp like some terrible ghost, motioning for Broughton to go the other way with a curt wave of his hand.

Instantly Broughton saw their goal: Sergeant Castillo and the small contingent of marines he had sent to escort the lubbers. Unlike the Doctor and the Cartographer, these men weren’t in the center of the camp but were tied in a clump near the edge. Probably too tough to make a good meal right away, Broughton mused.

They moved quickly, the din of the orgiastic feasting drums and the darkness all the cover they could need. As they got closer, Broughton saw the men’s guns were strewn on the ground near them. The brutes had no idea what they were or the danger they possessed.

If they could get his marines free, they might stand a chance after all. Thankfully the Captain’s reason never fully left him, even in the grip of his worst madness. That, plus a little luck and they might be able make their escape.

The marines stiffened as they felt their crude ropes being cut from behind but made no sound. They knew their lives depended on not drawing the savages’ attention for a few seconds more. At a silent gesture from the major, they picked up their rifles and slipped back into the night, melting unseen from view.

The Captain’s orders were frighteningly specific, “You men will remain outside the light of the campfire while the Major and I free our guests. Guerilla sniping is the order of the day, gentlemen. You are to fire, then change position and reload. That should draw their attention. If I am killed, you are to make your way back to the beachhead and then to the ship.”

And with that he was gone, circling back around toward the edge of the camp closest to Doctor Argonis and the Royal Cartographer. The two stood in perfect silence, their muscles tense, like runners about to begin the race of their lives.

At the crack of the guns they moved, racing to the grisly preparation tables to cut their shipmates free. At first all was confusion, with the Near-Men not even realizing what was causing their companions to fall. At the sight of blood however, everything changed and the chaos turned to carnage.

Some ran right in the direction of the gunners, only to be cut down by a withering hail of fire. Others, however, went right for the Captain and the Major, almost instantly grasping from dozens of raids by rival tribes on their food what was happening.

The Cartographer said nothing as he ran from the camp at a gesture from Major Broughton, sending him into the protection of Sergeant Castillo and the marines. The Doctor though, a dedicated man of sterner stuff, headed straight for a small hut at the center of the camp.

The Captain grabbed his arm, shouting, “Are you mad, man?!? We have to leave! Now!”

Even as he spoke, he punched a charging brute in the face with the basket-hilt of his saber, then cut the creature from collarbone to waist as he tried to rise from the ground.

The Doctor shook free shouting, “My supplies! We found what we needed right before they captured us!”

The Major joined the Captain in the center of the camp, fixing a Near-Man on his bayonet and firing right into his chest at point blank range, kicking the brute free before he began to reload, his hands a blur as they went through motions practiced thousands of times to reload the muzzle-loader.

The Doctor quickly emerged from the shaman’s hut and the three were off, leaving a nightmare of blood and death behind them. What followed was something out of nightmare, a mad chase through the dense jungle, the Major leading the way, everyone trusting in his sense of direction.

Finally, they came into the clearing, the relief at seeing that their companions hadn’t abandoned them almost palpable. The line parted for them as they dashed through, the Major turning toward the jungle, knowing with the fear of a hunted animal that the Near-Men were seconds behind.

“On my mark!”

He watched with satisfaction as the marines moved like well-oiled cogs in a wheel. The ones he had left behind were loaded for bear and raised their rifles immediately, while Sergeant Castillo’s men knelt behind the line, furiously reloading their rifles.

The Captain moved with the Doctor, watching him quickly crush whatever herbs he had found with a mortar and pestle. The old hedge surgeon looked up at him as he applied the foul-smelling concoction to one of Miss Medeirra’s open wounds, “It will take effect quicker in the blood, but probably not quick enough.”


The mass of creatures emerging from the tree line fell as the rifles cracked. Sergeant Castillo’s men handed their rifles to the marines on the firing line, taking the weapons they had just fired to begin reloading them as the creatures came on, driven mad with bloodlust, heedless of their fallen companions.

The Captain watched his first officer as one accustomed to searching for the slightest hint of hope, like a man staring at a black spot on the horizon, praying for land. Her breathing had become more relaxed, slowly but surely, the pain and fear and rage slipping away as the Doctor’s concoction took effect.

At that moment, the creatures reached the line, charging right onto the marines’ bayonets. The line faltered, threatening to break under sheer weight of numbers as Castillo’s men in the rear swung around to the side, cutting another group down with gunfire before engaging with their bayonets.

Suddenly there was a wrenching sound of bending, perhaps even breaking wood. Even the Near-Men stopped for moment to watch in amazement as the Constant surged forward deep into the harbor, much too deep for a ship of her size, before swinging around.

Time seemed to stand still as the ship disappeared in a cloud of beautiful white smoke. Captain Hellstrom reacted first, shouting, “Incoming!” He then dove into the sand of the beach. His men instinctively followed suit, leaving the savages to stare dumfounded at the sight of the tall ship so close in the harbor, a technological wonder nothing in their lives had prepared them for.
Then they were screaming, and dying, as the cannon shot ripped through them with terrible effect. The rifles, though unknown to them, inflicted injuries they could fathom from a lifetime of hunting savagery. This new weapon though, was something they were not prepared for, as it ripped Near-Men apart, spraying his blood and entrails over his companions.

It was then that Broughton’s brigade rose from the sand, like men clawing their way from a grave. At a yell from the Major they charged the Near-Men, despite the fact that they were massively outnumbered. This, combined with the terrible cannon shot that rang still in their ears, was too much for the dumb brutes.
Almost at once, as if a silent order had been given, they broke and ran. The marines chased as far as the tree line then turned back, raising their rifles in the air, letting out lusty screams of triumph in the direction of Constant, their home and today, not for the last time, their salvation.

Except for the major, who stared in silent relief, thanking the Mother as he saw the Doctor covering the body of his beloved Miranda, human once again. He ran to the Captain, looking down at her, “Does she-”

The Doctor snarled, waving him back, “She does, for now. But don’t celebrate yet, and get out of my light!”

The Captain smiled at his friend, startled only for a moment as the enormous man dropped his rifle and hugged him.

The marines were still cheering as the boats arrived from Constant, their shouts of, “All hail the conquering Lieutenant!” and “Castor drinks my ration for the next week!” echoing through the harbor as they made their way back to the ship.

Eventually, only the Captain and the Major were left on the beach, watching the sun sink behind their beloved ship. The Major clapped him on the back and laughed, “You know, she’s beached now and I can’t wait to see how we’re getting that ship out of this lagoon.”

The Captain laughed for only a moment, then frowned as he joined his laughing friend in the last boat off the hell forsaken island, thinking to himself, “How were they going to get the ship out of the harbor?”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 6: Isle of the Near-Men

Hellstrom followed Broughton at a run, the two men pausing only occasionally to ensure that they hadn’t lost the trail.

Broughton skidded to a stop, chest heaving as he leaned against a tree to catch his breath, “Must have been the easiest hunt these things ever had. They’re leaving a trail my grandmother could follow.”

Hellstrom nodded, then suddenly pushed the Major to the ground as a small dart buried itself in the tree above his head. In one motion he knelt and threw the dagger from his boot, killing the savage creature and pinning it upright against a tree, “We must be closer than we thought.”

Both men approached the creature, its features just human enough to increase the revulsion they felt at their first sight of the dreaded proto-human. It would have been tall if it could stand up all the way but was clearly more suited to a four-legged gait like a gorilla, walking on heavy knuckles. It was almost naked, wearing nothing but a loin cloth, and a small strap to carry the blowgun and darts it used to hunt prey of any kind. Its brow was heavy and its bones and muscles were massive.

“By the Mother, I think if my dagger had been a little more to the center it would have bounced off this thing’s breast bone,” Hellstrom remarked in quiet wonder.

Broughton moved closer until his face was only inches away from the creatures, “My grandfather told me stories about them but I never imagined. It’s horrible.”

Then he carefully took a dart from the creature’s pouch and smelled it, recoiling as if he’d gotten too close to a fire, “Poison, probably paralytic. They like fresh game.”

Hellstrom nodded as he heard the drums in the distance. He had always imagined the Near-men as animals in his mind but the reality was far worse. This was different than a lion hunting a man. These things might not be human, but they weren’t animals either. They had weapons, clothes, music and no compunction about hunting other men.

“Come on, it’s not far, we have to hurry,” and with that the two men began to move again. This time much slower and with greater stealth.

Ariel took a small step back, eyes narrowing as the group of conscripted sailors suddenly turned on her in a mob.

“You said this place was inhabited by Near-men? Well you can stay and be something’s dinner but we’re leaving.”

She had known it was a mistake the moment she’d said it, if nothing else based on the looks Corporal Windmere and Mr. Sawyer had given her. Once the things had shown up, the men would be too concerned with the fight to think about running but now, with time to consider their options, the Constant, floating gracefully in the lagoon so close at hand seemed like a heaven to them.

A different man from the first found his voice as they continued to slowly advance on the small girl, “I’m a carpenter. Bad enough I get roped into some sea voyage by being knocked on the head, but now you’re telling me I’m supposed to stand here and wait for those things to find us? The Captain’s already dead. We should go back to the ship. Maybe have a vote about what we do from there.”

Ariel took another tiny step back and felt the incoming tide splash against her ankle, she was running out of beach.

The sound of the drums had gotten louder and louder as the men slowly made their way to within sight of the Near-men’s camp. It was now felt more than heard, building to a crescendo, to a conclusion both men instinctively knew would mean the horrible deaths of their shipmates.

Suddenly they could see it. The sun had gone down and the camp was alive with activity. Women (if indeed that was the appropriate term) hunched over a table topless, working to prepare a grisly feast. Nearby, some of the younger Near-men were stretching the skin of what had once been a man on a rack, so that when the sun rose tomorrow it could be tanned and turned into clothing.

One of the women turned toward the large pot in the center of the camp, where the hunters danced in orgiastic glee, parting for her to put the leg of a men, severed at the hip, into a fire. Other women continued their work at the table, cutting the skinned man apart.

The two men watched stunned for a moment before finally registering what was happening. They were witnessing the death of the naturalist, Doctor Greeland. He had been staked out, naked and spread-eagle on a table. He had been skinned and now he was being carved up like a Christmas ham.

Suddenly their reverie was broken by a scream. It was the Royal Cartographer, releasing all the pent-up horror of what he had witnessed into the night.

The Major lightly touched the Captain’s shoulder, whispering, “I think the good Doctor will keep them tonight. We should wait until they settle down with a full belly and slip in.”

But he recognized the look on the Captain’s face, he had been taken by one of his rages and Broughton knew nothing could reach his heart when it turned to stone, “I’ll be damned if I’ll sit here and watch them feast, taking the chance that no one else will die. Damn them. Damn us all. We are going to attack.”

After moments of indecision that felt like hours, it was instinct that ultimately decided the tense standoff on the beach.

One of the men, the filthy carpenter, had reached out and touched Ariel as he made his comment about a “vote” deciding what would happen on the ship next. She wasn’t a fool. She knew what would happen to her, one of only two women on board (and likely the only one to survive the mutiny) if order was broken and cowardly scum like these men took control.

Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck the ground out of the overcast sky, turning the beach beside the men to glass. They recoiled for a moment, then surged forward. Someone yelled, “Get her!”

Before they heard the second thunderclap, the carpenter was on the ground, convulsing terribly before dying, covered in terrible burns, most of his hair gone and what remained standing at weird angles.

Suddenly a terrible wind swept in from the sea, knocking several of the mutinous conscripts off their feet. They hadn’t been afraid of her before. A tiny slip of a young girl. Now they looked on her as a terrible goddess, the men she’d knocked down with her wind not even trying to rise to their feet.

Her voice cracked with anger, “Mr. Sawyer, burn those boats. No one leaves until Captain Hellstrom returns and rescinds his last order. Corporal Windmere, put these wags in the line but put a row of your men behind each block of them. They can either fight the Near-men if they come and die like men, or run back onto your bayonets and die like cowards. It makes no difference to me.”

For a moment the two men stood stunned but only a moment. They were actually relieved. For experienced seamen, there was nothing more terrifying than being under a weak command, one that let the mob have their way. Now that she had proved her strength, they were like an old bay, comforted by their harness as they pulled a carriage.

As the Corporal put the stunned sailors into position, Ariel looked down at the small pouch of trinkets and snarled, picking it up and hurling it into the sea. She had thought it helped her, the chalk, the magic circles, the thaumaturgy she’d learned at university. Now she knew that her power was as primal, in its own way, as Miss Medeirra’s that her anger, her rage, gave her more power than she ever dreamed possible.

Turning her back on the mass of men, on the island, she stared into the flickering light as Mr. Sawyer fired the boats, clenching her fists to stop her hands from shaking, inwardly terrified at the force within her she had tapped.

In the distance, a thunderclap pealed in answer to the rage and fear inside her.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 5

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter 5, Beached

Several hours later, Captain Hellstrom was asleep in his bed, one of only two such luxuries allowed on the ship, the other being in the Royal Cartographer’s quarters, when a call from the deck sent him instantly awake.

He walked quickly to the door, taking his uniform jacket off the hook, noting how thoroughly Fournier had cleaned it. How he removed the blood was anyone’s guess and he probably wouldn’t share any of his “trade secrets” anyway.

Within moments the Captain was on deck, squinting into the distance. Lt. Castor had regained enough health to return to duty and limped over to him, “Good morning, Lieutenant, how’s the foot?”

The young man nodded formally, not wishing to show any pain or discomfort here on deck, “It’s healing nicely, Sir, whatever the Doctor did to me it seems to be working.”

The Captain nodded, again looking into the distance, “Report.”

“We’ve found her, Captain, she swam into that sheltered lagoon up ahead. She’s beached, Sir.”

The Captain frowned, turning to his Windmaster, Miss Theodorra, the closest thing he had to an expert on such matters, “I don’t understand, why is she still in her animal form. Unconsciousness usually reverts her to her natural state.”

The small girl looked up at him, eyes bright with tears, that’s all he needed was an emotional girl on board, “It’s the pain, Sir. Pain is primal. As long as she’s in pain, she will stay in the form and mentality of that creature. And washed ashore, her pain will only be increasing. She won’t last long.”

The Captain simply nodded, as if he’d received a report on the weather, “Lieutenant, bring the good Doctor up on deck, and that naturalist who got us all into this, I believe we have need of his talents now as well. Mr. Sawyer, I believe we can bring Constant into that lagoon. Mr. Star, check depth and call it out, just to be sure.”

Looking up almost directly into the sun, he called, “Mr. Ansel, keep watch on the horizon for sails. We still have a Mandelieu raider out there, unfortunately.”

The Royal Cartographer came up from behind him, eyes bright at the sight of an unknown shore, “Captain, if it please you, I would request permission to join the landing party as well, if nothing else in order to claim this land for Her Majesty.”

The Captain nodded, realizing Mr. Manfred was positively desperate to make a landing on an undiscovered land, perhaps a practice run in case their voyage, against all odds, was indeed a success.

In less than an hour, they were on the beach, dwarfed by the enormous leviathan they were there, somehow, to save. As the Cartographer claimed the island for Her Majesty, Hellstrom stepped ashore, not seeing anything to separate this island from a thousand others, except for the excellent depth and shelter afforded her lagoon.

Such a lagoon, on an unknown shore, would make an excellent place for a wounded privateer to run after encountering one of Her Majesty’s finest frigates, which is why the Captain had Mr. Ansel scrutinizing the horizon so intently.

Other than the strange, clump-like bushes that dotted the shore, this island could be any other he’d visited in his travels. Of course, it seemed much more interesting to the Doctor, Naturalist and Cartographer he’d brought along, all of whom were new to the sea.

He turned to his guests, watching as the second boat arrived, carrying Major Broughton and a dozen of his marines. It never hurt to be cautious.

“Doctor, this leviathan is your patient. You don’t have time to heal her, so we’ll need to put your knowledge of herbalism to use, hopefully you and the good Mr. Greeland, our esteemed naturalist can find some herbs on this island to deaden her pain and allow our First Officer to return to us.”

He noted the growing question on the Doctor’s face and cut him off, “Your stores on board Constant are not an option. We’re not going to exhaust our medical supplies this early in the voyage for a single shipmate. I’m afraid this island is our only hope. Miss Theodorra, give us some cloud cover and a light rain if you will please, that will give us more time.”

He looked over at the massive bulk beside him; already her breathing was becoming labored, as the leviathan was crushed under her own weight.

The Captain and Major Broughton stayed behind with their shipmate, her massive bulk rising and falling almost peacefully, even as the sound of her breathing took on a wheezing quality.
This close to Miss Medeirra, on this dreary island, made even more dreary by the dry sky and light rain summoned by Miss Theodorra, the first cracks in Major Broughton’s professionalism began to show through as he stared into the leviathan’s eyes.

The Captain, more as his oldest friend than his commander, put a hand on his shoulder, “She’ll be all right, Andrew. Somehow, I can just feel it. We’ll get her back.”

The Major looked at him, eyes cloudy, “You can’t know that. Her fate is in the hands of those lubbers, idiots the lot of them. Three very educated idiots. I even sent Sergeant Castillo with them to make sure they found their way back. Like to get lost and starve to death on this tiny island. And when she- if we lose her, she’ll die in this form won’t she. I won’t even have her back then. We won’t be able to end her suffering. A bullet to the brain wouldn’t even make a dent. And she’s so huge, we’d never be able to bury her. We’re just going to sail off on our Children’s Crusade, our last hope, while the sea gulls pick at my Castilian beauty.”

Suddenly his friend was gone, and his Captain addressed him, “Major, I have every sympathy. But do not speak as if hope is lost. The Mad Emperor might control the continent, but the fleet will protect the Island Kingdom. Their army will never set foot there.”

Broughton looked at him sharply, face taking on a sinister aspect as the water ran freely down the metallic side of his face, “Yes, the fleet will protect us. Like you protected-”

For a moment Captain Hellstrom thought they would come to blows, his friend was on the verge of saying something that could not be unsaid. Not only about his decisions in this most recent action but also the service to which he belonged.

Instead, a curious expression crossed the Major’s face and he pushed past him, walking over to one of the curious clumps of bushes the Captain had noted earlier. He suddenly reached up with both massive hands and pulled downward, revealing the stone underneath.
The Captain watched in growing horror as he pulled again and again, finally revealing a massive stone head, buried in the sand, snarling at the sea and whispered “By the Gods of the Righteous.”

The two men looked at one another. The sight of the statue shocking them out of their depressed state with the clarity of cannon shot from out of the fog across the bow. The young marines watching in stunned silence as both men stripped their heavy uniform shirts off, removing the buckles from their shoes, anything that might make noise or slow them down.

The Major approached Corporal Windmere, the third in seniority of his marines, “Corporal, form a firing line, two ranks deep. You will fix bayonets and hold this line in front of our First Officer no matter what happens. No matter what. Is that understood. You are to fight to the last man. No retreat, no withdrawal. Repeat my last order.”

The young man stuttered for a moment, distracted as the Captain pulled a small mirror out of his watch pocket and began signaling the ship but a quick shake from the Major brought him back to full attention, “I- I am to fix bayonets. Form a firing line. Hold to the last man.”

The Major nodded, as the Captain approached, turning the stunned young man to face him, “I’ve just signaled the ship. Mr. Sawyer is coming with two dozen hands to supplement your ranks.”

The Captain then turned to Miss Theodorra, shaking her physically to bring her out of the reverie she had slipped into, “Men from the ship are coming to help the marines defend this position. You are in command here on the beach. You are to fight to the last and hold this position. If we lose this position, I’ve ordered Lieutenant Castor to take command and bring the Constant home to the Island Kingdom. The Major and I are going inland to retrieve our charges. Hopefully it will not come to that.”

The young woman just stared him, as stunned as if he had just renounced Queen and country, “I, Sir, in command? But I’m not- I’ve never, Sir, what’s happening?”

The Captain checked his pistols, shifting his saber from its accustomed position on his hips to his back. He had tucked an extremely wicked-looking knife she had never noticed he carried before into his boot. He seemed a different man, more pirate than the staid authority figure of the ship. He had already headed off at a run to join Major Broughton, who stood impatiently at the edge of the thick, oppressive jungle.

“Near-men. And for God’s sake woman, stop that infernal rain. The men’s powder must stay dry.”

And with that they were gone, her attention fixed on the statue the Major had uncovered. Even the marines stopped momentarily in their controlled chaos to stare at it as the truth slowly dawned on them.

Near-men. Evolutionary throwbacks. Savage cannibals who had finally been driven out of the civilized lands over a century ago, in a war that had finally united all the true folk to put aside their petty political differences in a war of survival.

The true reality of the situation was still dawning on her as two more boats arrived from the ship, carrying Mr. Sawyer and the most level-headed of this conscript crew. The ebony giant walked up to the tiny girl and deferentially asked, “Your orders, Miss?”

She stared up at him for a moment, mouth working as though she were speaking but not a sound came from her lips. She noticed that the Corporal and his marines had turned to her as well.

Her orders?