Federation-Apocalypse Session 28: Earthward Bound

   There was a player shortage for this session, so, while Marty amused himself drinking his way around the town, the Mirage worked on reconstructing the bar it had accidently wrecked, and Jarvian spent some time with Jaiden, Kevin opportunisticly took advantage of a minor Gate to return to Core Earth. He had some business there, and it looked like the others would be busy for a couple of days.

   The bloody gate came out on a remote mountaintop in Tibet. Kevin should have expected that. Seemed to be a reserved climbing peak; cold, windy, and low on oxygen. Not critically, but they might need to kick in the supplemental oxygen if they got into heavy exertion.

   The slopes looked kind of inviting – OK, suicidally steep and reckless – to all of them, and the local system said there were no climbers to upset, so Kevin blew a bit of magic on creating some skis for everybody. After all, as long as the Thralls got more cautious when their power started running low they’d be fine – and if they didn’t, well, that would probably be self-correcting.

   Everybody recklessly shoved off and headed downhill at speed. Gerald tried going over a cliff and free-diving several hundred feet before using telekinesis to soften the impact – but got more cautious after that. Daniel and Bard were playing games of “chicken” with trees to see who could dodge the latest: neither of them hit, although in some realms the trees would have been trying to escape… Oh well; they were tough enough to come through a few collisions if it came to that. Kevin went in for long jumps and acrobatic tricks to take full advantage of his actual skills.

   At the bottom there was a frozen river valley. Nothing to be heard but the howling of the wind and the occasional cracking of ice as the coming spring slowly warmed things up. Safe enough: the computers weren’t reporting any avalanche risk… They all had a running snowball fight – and Kevin tuned out the disapproving lecture from the computers as to his responsibility to make the Kids behave sensibly rather than skiing recklessly down a mountain – as they headed down the valley. They hit the long-abandoned remains of a small village after a few miles – and Kevin decided to check how far out from an a current population center they were. 73.2 miles by the shortest route up and down the mountains. That could be fun – but they’d miss dinner and it would take awhile. Well, there was an hour or two of daylight left; Kevin set up a pickup for nightfall and settled down to play with the kids. He offered to let them play while he ran errands, but they preferred to come along.

   Gerald had saved enough power to throughly pummel Daniel and Bard with snowballs. There was laughter, snowballs, wrestling, jumping, tumbling, snow angels, ice skating, and other winter sports.

   All in all, a nice break.

   Kevin picked up the Thralls he’d sent to head to Earth at one of the commercial gates to Crusader. It was still one of the best-connected off-core realms around and headed off to London. He had some new recruits to deliver to M…

   Fortunately, things were relatively calm on Core Earth at the moment. They had to wait a bit since M was in a meeting with some ambassadors at the moment – but everyone was hungry after all that exercise anyway. The computers knew that: it wasn’t like anywhere on earth was actually off the net.

   The ambassadors – some people in 20th/21st century clothing – left shortly. M was happy to see Kevin and the Thralls (who spent some time curiously looking over M’s strange memorabilia while Kevin filled in extra details on the Baelaria mess and advised M that he’d probably be hearing from some Baelarian diplomats shortly. He also presented M with his new recruits: since Davis (the kid he’d left for evaluation and a communications link) had turned out to be quite satisfactory, M had requested some. Kevin informed him that they were from Baelaria, but that they’d had a good briefing on Core and should be at the service of the House for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the computers were used to quick briefings on life in Core.

   M was quite pleased: the ability to use supernatural abilities in Core was rare, as were Gatekeepers. There were always applications.

   He also wanted to know what Kevin was looking for in potential recruits – which was actually pretty simple. The power-infusion would repair any physical, and most mental, defects, and enhanced weaker abilities to minimum levels while leaving any stronger ones unaffected. They simply had to be young enough to accept the bond – and they had to truly want the abilities, to be of service, the link, and the deep bond/contract that came with it. That was why he had to spend so much time explaining the costs, benefits, and terms. If they didn’t want those things, wanted life to stay quiet and the same, or rebelled against the bond, Kevin couldn’t empower them. Until they finished growing into their powers they did belong to him, and he was free to use them. He could theoretically abuse them as well – the link that let resurrect them also made them vulnerable to that – but the telepathic link meant that he’d have to be pretty masochistic to want to. Besides, if he did, they’d just work harder on self-development, which would cut down on their term of service anyway. It would be self-defeating and it would make it hard to replace them as they went free. They were usually pretty happy with the bargain.

   That pretty much agreed with the House’s analysis. M had just wanted to hear Kevin say it – and with it openly stated, he thought that the house could use more such agents.

   Kevin did have a lot of projects, and had been considering helping out the Skywatch people by assigning a few to them (M thought that that would be a good idea) – but could certainly send a few along when he found more recruits.

   M wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help.

   Kevin had been hoping for that.

   “Well, the easiest thing to do would be to list the possibility among potential jobs: I imagine you must get occasional applicants who mean well and want to help but are too young for most other positions. This way they can help out without being at nearly as much risk.”

   The House got quite a few of those. They’d have to be discreet about disclosing the details until the interview of course: contracts like Kevin’s had a bit of a stigma – until now, well deserved. The recent events surrounding Vekxin were a case in point. Many parents and organizations wouldn’t even be willing to consider the idea – and convincing the computers to actively recruit for it might be difficult. The House would probably have to act as an intermediary for the time being.

   Well, Kevin didn’t approve of Vekxin either – he was’t being at all honest – but, unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to locate him and only a small percentage of Vekxin’s recruits had been willing to give up on his “quest”. Personally, he’d like to see it established in the law that the person in charge in such relationships was responsible for both the well-being and the actions of those under his or her command whether they were bound by a link, a pact, a contract, telepathy, or technological means.

   M thought that sounded like a good idea – but noted that it would take time to have the necessary meetings and to submit a Resolution of Intent to the computers. Patience would be required.

   He also felt that the group deserved a rest, so he was putting the team on standby status for the moment: they should feel free to pursue whatever they willed. Kevin noted that he felt a need to track down the Hellstorm and Vekxin if he could extract everyone else from Samurai Jack world: neither seemed to be inclined to wait. The Hellstorm might be formidable, but it should be another eleven subjective months – measured by Kevin’s timescale – before he had to worry about it.

   M did warn him not to trifle with Merlin: he was very powerful in his own realm and formidable outside it. Fortunately, Kevin hadn’t really been considering it.

   Setting up Marty’s Core Earth London offices was pretty simple – and then it was off to Washington to visit the Skywatch Public Offices and the Department of Mysteries. Fortunately, an offer of bringing them some Gatekeepers was enough to get them an appointment at the Office of Special Activities for 9 AM tomorrow – about fourteen hours from now.

   That left Kevin with enough time to visit check up on his recruiting operations. There were a dozen Thralls recruiting in Core, new slaves in the Roman Imperium to recruit among (and old ones who might have decided to sign up), new and old slaves and potential recruits in the English Fantasy Zone, the prospects and slave markets in Faerun and Old Star Wars, and even a couple of prospects in the Dragonworlds. Kevin had the various Thrall groups ship them all to the English Fantasy Zone and went and made his pitch… There were ninety prospects in all, as well as a dozen who were far too young and needed to be returned home to “enhance his reputation”. Since most of them were preselected by Thralls, a total of 64 elected to sign up – including all the non-slaves – while the other 26 decided to work for their freedom. More Thralls than he’d ever gotten to sign up at once before; even the first year he’d recruited at Hogwarts (and had gotten several years worth of Slythern’s) hadn’t been that good. It left him feeling so good that he didn’t even bother insisting that the slave-kids from Core work off their prices-with-interest before being released: he returned them to Core – after a bit of memory-blurring since he was still on the QT – on IOU’s (which the computers promptly honored, putting the kids on reduced luxury-credit allowances to pay off their debts). The remaining dozen got a free choice of where they’d be put to work to pay off their debts, with – once again – basic information provided on the advantages and disadvantages, including difficulty of escape, for each. The ones who wanted to try sending to someone for buy-out funds got to send some messages with some of the new Thralls and were sent to their assignments; if there were any useful responses, they’d be told in the next few days.

   Kevin’s pitch was the usual nicely-presented but extremely through explanation of costs and benefits, noting that the benefits include curse removal, regeneration, and fixing other problems – a fact often relevant to the kids purchased from slave markets, if rarely to the ones attached by Thralls showing off and general job-offers. Given his ever-increasing oratorical skills (he got a 78 this time after stacking on his bonuses), it was a good thing that he was trying to soothe and inform, not work them into an irrational decision. Kevin wanted a well-reasoned “is this for me?” decision, not anything irrational – and just kept refining his pitch to overcome irrational objections.

   And then headed off to see the Department of Mysteries – albeit only with the initial four that he’d already been going to take. Assignments for the new kids would have to wait until after their orientations and basic training.

   At the Department of Mysteries the lobby was full of manifolders – cyborgs, elves, dwarves, sci-fi aliens, someone who looked like Genghis Khan, and numerous other oddities. Fortunately, there were several Core soldiers and several men in robes emblazoned with the Core Military logo to keep an eye on things. Also fortunately, they were expected, or they might have been thrown out for looking too normal. They got directed to some seats and spent some time listening to an alien informing them of their impending destruction should they not submit to the might of Grodd.

   “Is this the Good Grodd, the By Grodd, or the Grodd Damned?”

   “It is the Good Grodd, by Grodd, or else you’ll be Grodd damned! The Trinity of Grodd!:

   “Oh my Grodd! That’s Grodd Awful!”

   They had sandwiches – a tribute which the Servant of Grodd accepted with pleasure. Somehow, Kevin suspected that he was otherwise doomed to disappointment.

   Eventually they got called into Colonel Knightley’s office. He was in charge of the recruitment of Manifold agents. He was a bit startled to be informed that his four (really four) potential Gatekeeper recruits also had shapeshifting, core-functional psychic abilities, minor spellcasting, enhanced physical abilities, the ability to be recalled if killed, and various other minor abilities which varied between them. His apparently-independent eyebrows were most expressive – although Kevin kept waiting for them to escape under his hat as his head exploded. Somehow he just gave a toon-like impression of exasperation with the world. Of course, the mess in the lobby – and the similar mess every day for several years now – was probably ample justification.

   The good Colonel admitted that all of that would indeed be very useful, but wanted to know what the conditions of assigning the to the department would be (since Kevin was so obviously in charge). That it would be essentially free on Kevin’s part for a few years, just because they were having trouble evacuating ahead of the nova wavefront, sent his eyebrows off again – as did the offer of arranging a few extra gates if they needed them. They might be kids, but most dangers were considerably less pressing when they could return from the dead. Otherwise they would be expecting the usual job benefits and regular access to the educational programs; their educations were not up to standard as yet. (One got an “aw, lessons…” look – whereupon Kevin shook a finger at him; “Education is important! You’re not getting out of it just because you’ve gotten some special talents!”

   Evidently it was the first productive interview the Colonel had had in awhile. The computers couldn’t effectively sort out real threats from the lesser ones; that evidently required a human mind with a good understand of core physics versus manifold physics – and those were rare to start with and could put their abilities to more profitable use out in the Manifold.

   The Department took the recruits under evaluation. The supernova wavefront was becoming a real annoyance; they had an inhabited world about three years from the wave front and one due to be hit in three months that should be evacuated by now – although a few stragglers (not just the two Thralls running Kevin’s test) had insisted on “riding it out.”

   Kevin included himself in on the initial thrall evaluations, if only to let them know what they could test – and to find out if they wanted to test the resurrection ability. They did, at least if one of the candidates was willing. They have a rezzer on hand to fill in if Kevin’s claims proved false – and a lot of forms to fill out first. Kevin let the Thralls do that.

   Interesting: their resurrector must be a soul-anchor. His pay was very high.

   Vorix – the boy who’d winced about lessons – volunteered without prompting. Evidently he saw it as a sort of a dare. Kevin asked them to ensure that it would be quick and not especially painful – and advised them that unusual force would probably be required. Apparently that wouldn’t be a problem: they had lots of special weapons.

   Their testing center was an old underground (WAY underground) bunker that dated back to the “Cold War”. Apparently the computers had been maintaining it for centuries before anyone noticed.

   Kevin – no historian, and used to the manifold – spent a few moments trying to recall whether the weapons they used back then were “photon torpedoes” or “icebeams”. He was pretty sure it was “icebeams” – maybe because, as he vaguely recalled, they went across the polar caps to attack people (who knew why). There had been lots of destruction – wait, it MUST have been “Icebeams”: people had worried a lot about something called “Global Winter” when the weapons were used. He wasn’t sure how that would work, but honestly, he’d studied quantum realities, magic theory, and fey lore during his time at Hogwarts, not physics.

   Anyway, they were ready to blow up Vorix. They gave him some soft of disk to hold and ducked behind a blast shield. He was pretty throughly vaporized – so Kevin drew the ritual circle, lit up a couple of candles, and noted that they had to use his name: he could teach someone else the rite, but somebody would have to do it – and most people would probably find it easier in a world that had more magic. It would take about 20 minutes. (Meanwhile, on the astral level, Vorix got a pat and some positive reinforcement).

   “Basically, we need an focusing point and enough magic available for the body-construction effect to work; after you get the summons going, it takes 15-25 minutes to build up enough energy to rebuild his body around his spirit.”

   “I suppose that makes some sense.”

   “And… Here we are. Welcome back Vorix. Perhaps fortunately, being blown to bits is never so exciting the second time around.”

   “Alright, I am sold. How many are you offering again son?”

   Kevin could offer them four at the moment, and cold probably find them a few more shortly… The computers could handle the rest of the paperwork.

   That was kind of glossing over the fact that Kevin hadn’t asked for anything – but he was pretty sure that the questions would come up shortly after the labs tested the kids other abilities – which was coming up next. After all, matched sets of four Gatekeepers with near-identical allotments of the most useful possible powers were pretty hard to find. Kevin explained that he imbued them with lesser versions of his own powers via the same link he used to resurrect them – although he informed the lab guys that he’d appreciate it if they treated the part about him as need-to-know.

   They’d never heard of such a power before, but didn’t see any more likely explanations.

   Kevin estimated about week in the labs, since they’ve been given the power list. Simultaneously, about three days to route the preliminary report through to the right people and for them to evaluate it, another two to review the backfiles on him – from his school records from fifty years ago up to the snowball fight – two more days to discuss the preliminary lab results, and a contact attempt shortly after the final report in a week – the nature of the attempt depending on what they decided he was.

   As for other matters:

  • The Firestorm Meme was still semi-contained as a background problem thanks to computer-nanny-filtering – although there was an arms race going on between the computers and whoever was releasing the memes. The computers filtered them out, the memes were adapted to bypass the filters, the computers adapted the filters, and back and forth. Kevin had rather expected that; it could be worse, and at least it was giving the Core a huge database on human neurology and function to draw on.
  • The House was still evaluating Hutchins of course: four days was not nearly enough time for a full psychological study.
  • The only other thing he had to do at the moment was to have the Thralls on the Dragonworlds cross-reference the dragonworld records and his offrealm backups, looking for young dragons who had simply appeared with properties, records, and so on. Those would be the ones who had simply dropped into draconic identities. If there were any, he wanted evaluations and a check on which ones came and went on their own versus which ones only traveled with a group. Dropping into a draconic ID without plenty of personal power was just asking for it – and better to be picked up by him that by most of the other dragons.
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The Nightmares of the Clans

   Since the characters are now operating at the levels where such opponents may routinely come into play, here is some information on their current major opponents – the Nightmares of the Clans.

   Fu Leng has little access to the realms of dream. Nevertheless, his power is great, he has observed the dream-magic of the Nezumi for centuries, and he is not without occult skills. Fusing the fears of the clans with spirits of dark dreams and the power of Jigoku, he has called up the Nightmares of the Clans. Some are old indeed: the Nightmare of the Crab is said to have walked the Shadowlands before the first Day of Thunder – while Nightmare of the Mantis is virtually newborn.

   All share one terrible power: They may steal the bodies and souls of those they slay who are vulnerable to them, incorporating them into their own being and drawing on their power. Without a human body they are little more than wisps of corrupted dream. Fortunately, all of them are limited by their Taint Rank in the number of souls they may absorb – and there is always some way to release souls from their grasp.

   In general, you can safely assume that a Nightmare has

  • Rings of 5+
  • a Taint Rank of 6-9
  • a Fear Score of 6+
  • Carapace 6 (not versus Crystal, Jade, or Dream Weapons)
  • +1 Bonus Attack
  • a full School of it’s own and – probably – a couple of personal techniques.
  • at least some degree of Magic Resistance.

and may:

  • broadcast an emotion (the Vortex of Dream). This may be focused on an opponent, overwhelming them with the emotion in question if they fail an opposed trait check, or broadcast to affect all those nearby – although in this case the difficulty to resist is only 20 or so.
  • distribute wounds between themselves and the spirits within them as they will. If a spirit is “slain” in this fashion, it passes on into the appropriate afterlife.
  • Divert mental attacks, probes, and individually-targeted spells to one of the spirits within them as they will.
  • draw on the Void Points of the spirits within themselves.
  • draw on some quality or ability of the spirits within themselves
  • sense and travel through all nearby passages to and from Jigoku and the realms of Dream.
  • be resummoned by Fu Leng, or by a complex ritual, within a few months of their “deaths”. Otherwise they have to wait for several years.

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   The Nightmare of the Crab can steal the souls of those who have committed dishonorable acts of cowardice, and can draw on speed of the souls within it, using both their movement and actions. Fortunately, it seems to be limited to one attack action against any single target in a round – and souls can be released if they are stirred to resist by mighty acts of courage in the vicinity. Secondarily, it can radiate Terror (raising it’s Fear rating to 10 and allowing it’s basic rating to affect even those normally immune. If it uses this as an intentional attack, it can wield fear as a weapon; if those affected fail their checks three times in a row, they will die of fear). As a minor power, it can summon lesser creatures the shadowlands – ogres, small groups of goblins, and so on.

   It normally wears heavy armor and wields a terrible Nemuranai, the Hammer of the Underworld – a Nemuranai Mace said to come from beyond Rokugan – which causes terrible bleeding wounds, smashes barriers, and is apparently indestructible. Personally, it seems to draw on the realm of dreams for battle-skills, acting as if it’s weapons existed only when it so chooses.

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   The Nightmare of the Crane can steal the souls of those who have committed dishonorable acts out of selfish desire, and can draw on both the skills and appearances of those souls it has imprisoned. Such souls can be released by acts of great selflessness in the vicinity, inspiring them to renounce the desires that bind them. It can radiate an aura of lust, forcing its victims to succumb to their passions and to do whatever it takes to fulfill them. As a minor power, it can sprout claws and wings and fly with great speed and maneuverability, striking from above and blending into the darkness that none may trace its comings and goings.

   The Nightmare rarely wears more than light armor, although it usually carries an intricately carved staff which can apparently summon and command great cats, possibly in mockery of the Lion Clan. It possesses considerably skill as a Shugenja and Maho-wielder.

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   The Nightmare of the Dragon can steal the souls of those who have refused aid to the helpless and starving, or have added to their burdens, and may draw on the supernatural powers of those who have done so – thus corrupt and selfish monks and priests are its favored prey. Such souls can be released by great acts of charity nearby, but such opportunities are rare in battle. It wields the power of regret, allowing it to overcome victims with remorse and preventing them from calling on their inner resources for a considerable period. As a minor power it can shatter blades and armor.

   The Nightmare normally wears a Kimono which protects its blackened, scarified, and tattoo-covered flesh as if it was the heaviest of armor, and carries a dai-sho of minor potency. Physical combat is, however, secondary to its considerable skills at supernaturally-augmented unarmed combat and ability to both sense its opponents intentions and duplicate their abilities.

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   The Nightmare of the Lion is a primal, brutal, horror that can take the souls of those who fall to dishonorable rage and lust for destruction, although such souls can be freed by great acts of forgiveness in the vicinity or by the forgiveness of those they wronged by such behavior. It can use its imprisoned souls to possess those in the vicinity, granting them great strength, endurance, weapons skills, and lust for destruction, but rarely allows any innocents in the vicinity to survive long enough to put this power to use. It wields the power of hatred, and can force those in the vicinity to turn on each other, striking back mercilessly at anyone who has ever offended them – although, as a forced action, this does not ready those souls for it’s harvesting. As a minor power it can sprout (in fact, it rarely withdraws) teeth and claws more lethal than almost any mere weapon and heal its own wounds when it inflicts damage with them.

   The Nightmare normally wears battered and bloodstained armor, but uses no other weapons or tools. It is usually accompanied – or, in its destructive madness, directed by, a group of lesser horrors. Its school seems to focus exclusively on tearing its opponents into pieces.

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   The Nightmare of the Mantis can take the souls of those who have dishonored themselves through greed and larceny, although such souls can be stolen away by those with appropriate skills or spells. It can project the strength of its imprisoned souls into masses of inanimate matter, creating lesser duplicates of itself, albeit of whatever form suits its needs at the moment. Regardless of where they are sent, such duplicates remain linked to the Nightmare, providing it with a method of negotiating from safety. Sadly, such duplicates have only the vitality of the spirit imbued in them. It wields the emotion of avarice, and can force those affected to pursue whatever he or she perceives as desirable, considering nothing but how he or she can come to possess it. Unlike most such effects, this obsession becomes stronger with time; unless it is rejected swiftly, it will become a permanent part of the victims personality. As a minor power it can spend a 1/2/3 Void Points to produce items and supplies worth up to 20/100/500 Koku or any single suit of armor or weapon of Fine/Excellent/Legendary quality.

   The Nightmare usually wears the finest of weapons, clothing, and armor, whether in person or as a duplicate. Unlike most of the Nightmares, the Nightmare of the Mantis appears to focus on social techniques.

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   The Nightmare of the Phoenix can take the souls of blasphemers and those who misuse the powers granted by others – including by the Kami – and channel their deaths against it’s foes. It may thus radiate an aura of death, destroy lives, structures and magic with little more than its gaze, and blunt or negate many forces. More subtly, it can perceive possible deaths, and make those more likely, learn the secrets of the dead, and raise up spirits from Jigoku, granting them the names of its imprisoned souls. Fortunately, those souls can be stripped away whenever someone nearby acts selflessly (albeit not by dying) to beat back death and save the life of another. It’s aura of despair is a constant drag on the activities of those about it, and – as a minor power – it possesses formidable telekinetic powers.

   The Nightmare of the Phoenix is a powerful spellcaster and master of Maho. Oddly enough, most of its techniques are defensive – focused on simply buying enough time for its aura of inescapable doom to destroy every living creature in the vicinity. It usually dresses in a blood-drenched robe, infused by maho with the blood of dozens of sacrifices. It rarely uses a personal weapon other than its deadly touch, preferring instead to rely on its guardian oni.

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   The Nightmare of the Scorpion can take the souls of those who have betrayed their comrades, lords, or blood relatives, and can use their attacks in addition to its own – allowing it to annihilate the strongest of opponents in a flurry of blows from all directions. Such souls can be freed by great acts of loyalty, such as sacrificing yourself for another – an effect which has led to countless defeats for the Nightmare, as loyal guards, parents, and even peasants have thrown themselves between its blades and those they sought to protect. It originally radiated an aura of betrayal, but this proved more damaging to the hordes of the shadowlands than to it’s foes, and so it has been stripped of that power – an act it has taken as betrayal by Fu Leng himself. As a minor power it can secrete poisons, infusing them into anything it touches. Unfortunately for it, even the denizens of the Shadowlands do not trust the Nightmare of the Scorpion, leaving it utterly bereft of allies and comrades-in-arms.

   The Nightmare usually wields several weapons at once, often in many arms, and wears heavy armor. Sadly, his gear is rarely exceptional in any way: he keeps losing it and having to scrounge for replacements.

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   The Nightmare of the Unicorn can take the souls of those who opt to ignore major crimes and the misdeeds of others. While the nightmare gains no known benefit from the souls it imprisons beyond those benefits common to all Nightmares, there is equally no known way of depriving it of those souls save through the infliction of massive damage. It radiates confusion and madness; while the effects are brief, few Samurai are so mighty as to not lose much of the time that they might be fighting the Nightmare to shaking off the effects of its aura. As a minor power, it can raise considerable numbers of skeletal horses and warriors to serve it, allowing it to tirelessly pursue its victims.

   The Nightmare of the Unicorn wears armor of stark bone and wields a blade of corruption, which poisons and taints all it touches. It adorns itself with the skulls of its enemies, and often seems to invoke destructive magic through them. It is a skillful archer and swordsman, and the wounds inflicted by its arrows always fester and usually kill.