By Michele Ivo Polacco

In the northern continent of Severus, a number of villages and mining facilities have been hit by massive ascorbite raids.

In the northern continent of Severus, a number of villages and mining facilities have been hit by massive ascorbite raids. Losses of life and property have been quite heavy. The Duke is moving house troops, including some cossack detachments, to restore the situation. In many of the other settlements, ascorbites residing in the towns have disappeared, heading for the deep woods. At first, the inhabitants tought it was some sort of ascorbite "festivity" which happen from time to time, and that the bugs would have returned in a week or so, but so far this has not happened.

Meanwhile, all around the planet, a number of Avestites have disappeared. They seem to have simply left whatever place they were residing in, possibly by their own free will, as nowhere there are signs of violence.

The players get involved by being hired and/or ordered by the Decados or the Church to look into their respective troubles.

If they start with the Avestites, they dicover that many of them have simply packed and moved. Some people in seaports remember that many of them bought passages on tramp steamers or other boats for the northern continent. No reason has been given for the move. Inspection in some of the disappeared Avestites' quarters may discover propaganda from one "Adeptus Pius". It seem to advocate the creation of secluded communities in the forests, where to conduct a life of ascetic contemplation, and from where to convert the native inhabitants, seen as "pure, not yet corrupted by the church's simony". Technically, this borders on heresy, altough the doctrine has never been officially declared such.

In the northern continent, there seem not to be any obivious reason for the ascorbites' attacks. The settlements razed were all at least a century old, and none of them were expanded in recent time or used ascorbite slave labor. The pattern of attack was constant: with absolutely no warning, hordes of the bugs erupted from the woods, and, after overwhelming the defenses, slaughtered all living things. All the attacked communities are located around an area of uncharted, hilly jungle approximately 200km in diameter. Some of the inhabitants of the remaining villages remember small groups or single Avestites heading for the deep jungle in the months preceding the outburst of attacks.

Interestingly, there is a small monastery, about 25km inside the area, which has not been bothered. It is also said that it has some commerce with the bugs. It is run by Amaltheans and Eskatonics.

If the PCs decide to go to the monastery, possibly to try to establish some contact with the ascorbites, they must travel by a single, unimproved road (unless they can requisition an helicopter). Along the road, they will be attacked by a band of Ascorbites, about three times the size of the party. The bugs do not have "advanced" weaponry, beside a couple of old shotguns and, interestingly, a flamegun of Avestite design. The bugs will fight to the death. Even the fatally wounded will still try to get at the PCs. Any prisoner taken (and it will prove exceptionally difficult to take anyone alive) will not cooperate with the PCs in any way.

At the monastery, they will discover that the monks do indeed have some trade with the natives. they barter herbs and other local lifeforms (which they then classify and study) with a limited number of manufacts, and with some medical aid for the insects' wounded. In fact, they will insist to cure any prisoner the PCs have taken in the previous encounter (and will also cure any wounded PC, of course). Their attitude is that they will provide medical help for anyone in need. Some weeks ago, an Avestite reached the monastery, and immediately tried to preach to some bartering Ascorbites. When they would not hear him, he threatened them, at first with words and then with the flamegun. At that point the natives disembowelled him before the monks were able to do anything.

The monks have heard of the attacks, but have not been bothered so far, and barter has been going on as usual. Currently, they have two Ascorbite patients, both of them injured during a hunting expedition (one of the local animals poisoned them). They will not co-operate with the PCs and the monks will strongly resent any attempt to coerce the natives.

However, the inhabitants of the Monastery can contact the Ascorbites of a nearby village, which will, maybe, explain some things to the PCs, or even lead them inside the jungle to search for the missing Avestites. If they accept, in a couple of days a group of five ascorbites, led by an albino one show up (BTW, the monks will refuse to explain exactly how they contact the natives, but no priest leaves the monastery). One of the insects speaks an heavily accented Urtish, and presents itself as an "interpreter". The Albino one is presented as a "wise" (or is that "wizard"?), the others are warriors. The Ascorbites have no autority to speak to the PCs, but will explain that, since they were asked by the monks, they will lead the humans to the "high chief", who will then decide.

If the players accept, the Ascorbites insist that they leave here any energy shield they have. If asked to explain, they will say that there is a local lifeform (a hornet-like insect) that is disturbed by the shield's "speak" and will swarm if one comes within several hundred meters of a nest. The monks can not confirm or deny this. They do not know of such a species, but they have no shields (in fact, they have no implements of war) and they certainly do not know all of the local lifeforms. The characters can hide their shields, and the Ascorbites will not search them, but, if they ever use them in the jungle (even on stand-by status), they discover that the tale is true. And the "hornet like" thing, has in fact a wingspan of 16 inches (about 40cm). And a nest comprises several hundred of them. Ouch.

Anyway, the characters are finally led, by a circuitous route, to a clearing in the jungle which is packed full of Ascorbites. There are, apparently, several thousands of them. A number of temporary structures of wood have been erected. There is also a large sinkhole in the area, which leads to a cave complex. The PCs are emphatically forbidden to explore it. They are escorted by some armed (shotgun-like weapons) insects to a small hut, which the interpreter describes as "guest house" or something like that. In fact, guards are posted outside.

After several hours, they are escorted to the center of the clearing, where a number of albino Ascorbites are gathered. One of them, speaking a heavily accented urtish, asks their "name and clan". The PCs are free to lie, as the Ascorbites have difficulty "reading" human body language. If anyone of them gives their clan as "Decados" (even something like "we work for house Decados"), he is immediately surrounded by an hostile mob, after which a heated argument flares up between the albinos (in their native language). No explanation is given for that. If any PC draws a weapon, he is immediately assaulted by the full force of the gathering (and probably killed). Non-threatening PCs are ignored. If anyone activates an energy shield, there is a general fugue, with some hints of panic, and, after a couple minutes, several large swarms of the "hornet-like" things attack.

After a few minutes, however, if nobody starts a fight, the albinos seem to reach an agreement. Two of them break up the mob, simply touching the leaders on the hands, which seems to have an instant calming effect on them. One of them, however, refuses to calm down and begins to argue with the albino. After a further thirty or so seconds, the albino approaches the "Decados" PC and explains that the arguing warrior is exercising his right to fight, and has challenged the PC. If he (the PC) has any melee weapon, they fight with that (the Ascorbite has a crystal sword and a steel knife), otherwise with bare hand. If the PC refuse to fight, he is killed by the assailant. If he draws a missile (or energy) weapon and kills the enemy at range, it is fine for the others (as long as he does not harm anyone else).

If the PCs say that they work for the "rulers of the planet" or something like it, they are (politely) reminded that the ascorbites are the rulers of the planet, and they do not work for them.

If any of them gives his clan as "Avestite" or "Templum Avesti" he is killed by the bugs. Messily.

If any character says he is an Amalthean cleric, he is approached by an albno who asks her to give help, because they have a problem. If he accepts, he is blindfolded, and led away by two albinos (and surrounded by several warriors). If he tries to use psychic or theurgic powers to "feel" his position, he is asked not to. If he insists, he feels a small bite on his arm, and passes out (a sedative, not a poison).

The other PCs can see the amalthean escorted to the sinkhole described before, but are prevented from following it. The other albinos reassure them that no harm will befall their friend. If he is sedated, others are allowed to examine his body to see that he was not poisoned.

The Amalthean, conscious or not, is led down an inclined ramp, and then for several minutes in a winding route. He can imagine that the area is underground because the air is noticeably colder, and the floor is stone instead of earth. At the end of the journey, the blindfold is removed, and he finds himself in a secluded area, inside a cavern. There is an area "walled" off by a sticky web. Inside there are a couple dozen human childs, aged one to three, almost cathatonic with fear. They are quite dirty and, apparently, have not eaten for several days.

The Ascorbites will explain that they are "hostages", but they seem sick, because they do not eat, and one of them has died. On the floor of the cell there are a couple of bluish-green stains, which emanate an umpleasant acidic smell. Examination of them reveals traces of acid, and remains of animal tissue.

The insects will explain that they have tried to give the childs the same food that they give to _their_ young: pre-digested meat. Unfortunately, and the bugs do not know this, the Ascorbites' digestive juices are very strong, so, when one of the childs tried to eat the evil-smelling goo he poisoned himself, and died in a few hours, with a lot of suffering.

The others have after that refused to touch any food, even when the insects have given them freshly-killed animals, so they are starving. The Ascorbites, not realizing it, have concluded that they are sick. Since they want to keep them alive, they asked the Amalthean (which they automatically assume is a healer) to help. Otherwise, the prisoners would be given to the pupae, and others would have to be captured.

After the interlude, our(?) heroes (?!?) are brought before a single ascorbite, of the "normal" coulor, surrounded by white ones. He has a bad wound on the chitinous shell which appears to be slowly healing. He is presented as the "chieftain" of the "war party". He (she? Ascorbites have no apparent sexual differences) again asks the PCs who they are and what they are doing here. If asked about the raids (or about any human crossing their territory), he explains that they are retaliations for what the red humans (Avestite vestments are, IIRC, red) have done. They assaulted a village when the hunters were outside, and captured the young. They then opened a path with fire, endangering the territory, to one of the sacred caves, and settled in there after killing the "wise" that resided there.

The warriors of the raided village then assaulted the cave, but the humans' fires killed many. The "wise" then convened a council of the villages, to "elect" (in fact, as any ascorbite can explain if asked, the "election is by combat: all pretendents are placed in a staked-out area of the jungle and the last survivor is the chieftain) an high chief to deal with the humans.

The new high chief (the PC's interlocutor at the moment) ordered another assault by a much larger force, with about the same results, also because the Avestites had time to emplace minefields around the cave entrance.

With the new failure, he decided to switch tactic. He ordered assaults on many villages to capture hostages (the children in the cave) to exchange with the Ascorbites' youngs. He now wants the PCs to go to the place and make his offer known to the Avestites.

Assuming the characters accept, they are led by an Ascorbite group (a dozen or so individuals) deeper into the forest, to a large hill covered by vegetation. There, the group's chief shows them, from a safe distance, the entrance of a cave. From their vantage position they can see that the vegetation around for about a hundred yards or so has been cleared with fire, and an enclosure of barbed wire erected. Two red-robed priests (Avestites) stand guard inside the cave entrance, manning two MGs.

If the PCs approach without first identifying themselves, they are gunned down and, if they manage to reach the wire alive, they discover that it is trapped with hand grenades. BOOM!.

Supposing they do not do anything stupid, the two guards ask them to wait near the forest limit while they call for a superior officer. The man arrives after five or so minutes, with two more Avestites armed with flameguns. He asks the PCs their allegiance and rank. If the PCs tell they are emissaries of the Ascorbites, the people in the cave ask if they are there to announce the bugs' readiness to convert to the "true faith", otherwise they have nothing to say to the "heaten pagans".

If told that the Ascorbites have captured human children and desire to exchange them for their young, they are explained that the Avestites have no interest in such an exchange. The human children, after all, would die a martyr's death and, having been killed for (and in) the true faith, would surely ascend to the empyrean. The Ascorbite young, instead, would be kept to raise them in the one true faith so that they may one day be missionaries among their own kind.

If a priest is among the PCs, the Avestite leader tells him to confess the children, and after that to return there to join the faithful in their righteous quest. If they refuse, or try to use theological arguments to move the Avestites, they are told to leave, because they are corrupted by the Church's simony, and they can not stand in the company of the pure ones. If they insist, the Avestites open fire.

If the PCs lose their nerves and attack the Avestites or insult them openly, a battle ensues, which the PCs have little chance of winning, because they must cross the barbed wire enclosure (and the minefield inside it) to get at the enemy, which is also heavily superior in numbers.

After the failure of the "diplomatic" mission, the PCs are returned to the Ascorbites' main camp.

There, the insects'chief decides to launch an all-out attack into the caves, using a "secret technique" to divert the guards. Once inside, they will wipe out any human they find.

Also, since the human hostages are no longer useful, the chief orders to feed them to the pupae. The PCs are likely to jump at this. If they ask for mercy, or something like it, they are in for a surprise: the concept is completely alien to the Ascorbites, who haven't such a concept in their mind-set (or a like-word in their tongue). They are in for an upsetting, disturbing and frustrating time explaining it to the aliens. The insects' reaction is something along the lines of: ah, now I get it: leaving someone alive and unharmed when he is in your hands and sending it free? Yes, we have such a concept: it is called stupidity.

After some discussion there is, however a consensus among the ascorbites'"wise": it is the guest's privilege (and the PCs are guests) to lead the raid and (assuming he survives) get the first choice of the loot. Supposing the PCs are willing to lead the horde in, and they are able to free the young ascorbites, the chief is willing to make an exchange. Of course, this means that the PCs will be among the first to charge caross a machinegun-beaten clearing and into a maze of claustrophobic caves.

The ascorbites' secret weapon is, in fact, a captured energy shield. They plan to activate it and then have some brave soul throw it into the cave mouth, so that the swarms will attack the guards, and make the crossing of the beaten area considerably easier. They explain the plan to the PCs and then ask for volunteers. In fact, they insist that it is the guest's privilege to do this.

The "volunteer" will have to make a dash for about sixty to seventy metres into clear terrain (under whatever fire support his companions can muster, plus half a dozen ascorbites with captured automatic weapons), activate the shield and then throw it with reasonable accuracy.

Some sort of alternative plan might be devised. Mounting the thing (it is a small shield) on the point of a heavy crossbow quarrel (or a spear) _might_ work if the PCs can use one such thing, but has the considerable disadvantage of having to activate the shield, and _then_ loading the crossbow. Better hope that there is no nest really close.

Anyway, the trick works, and the PCs can make the crossing without being harassed by fire (but they must remember to be careful for traps. I suggest giving them a "warning" of some sort, for example an ascorbite explodes on a mine. If they still do not check, begin rolling for claymore tripwires or "conventional" mines, say 1-7 on a d20).

When they reach the cave entrance, they must cross an area of several cubic meters which is taking the full brunt of the swarms' fury. The best option is to cross the area in full run, because this will minimize the insects' chance of attack (make all of them do one dodge roll, if they fail they take 4d damage, ignoring armor except completely sealed one). They can not make the crossing with care, because of the Ascorbite horde pushing behind them.

The interior of the cave is left to the evil imagination of the DM. Inside there are about fifty avestites, most armed with flameguns, a few with hand weapons. A couple have blast guns. They will be scattered is small groups inside the complex, three to five at most. Five of them will have minor theurgic powers.

The Ascorbite horde numbers several thousands, but only a few will be able to assist the PCs in each engagement.

The battle should be run as a claustrophbic search in a little-illuminated maze, with the constant risk of traps and friendly fire. Sounds will proe difficult to pinpoint, and half-seen shapes should appear from time to time to heighten paranoia.

The most important part of the maze is closed by a steel door, behind which are kept several hundred little ascorbites. The problem will be that they will attack anything in sight, including other bugs. If the character are the first to open the door, they will be in for a very rough time, mostly because they can not kill them (they must be exchanged for the human childs, remember?). After a few turns an ascorbite will appear and will begin to produce an disturbing buzzing sound, which seems to calm the young. There is still the little problem of carrying them outside dodging pockets of resistance (and ascorbite "friendly fire").

Anyway, most of the deed is done. The PCs are escorted back to the insects' camp, where they must "officially" present the rescued young to the chief. In exchange, they will be given the human childs.

The ascorbites will then proceed to slaughter all the rescued insects. If the characters appear shocked or ask just why, they will be explained that the young were tainted by outside contact, and were, hence, "useless". The insects will then politely ask the PCs if they need any help in killing theirs. Supposing the humans try to explain that they do not do such a thing, they will be asked how they mantain the purity then. Anyway, human behaviour will be defined by the Ascorbites as "alien uses impossibile to understand by rational people".

In the end, they will be escorted back to the monastery, to receive their just reward.