(The Man in Black; "The Grand Admiral" by Juha Arvid Helminen.)
Last night was the first session of the new Oubliette campaign! I'm very excited, I'm trying to keep this campaign moving & lively. Forget subtly! That is part of my thought rhythms on this campaign; don't just hint at the strange; full on embrace it! & try, whenever possible, to get to the meat of the matter, the marrow of the bone. I have a tendency, as a Narrator, to let things meander-- I want to run a sandbox, but sometimes I need to take a firmer hand at the tiller. My "iron fist" is still pretty likely to leave plenty of room for wanderlust, anyhow. So, since the original Sun's day date had been canceled, here on the Day of Thor we gathered ourselves at Sam & Tracey's, ready! Bright-eyed & bushy tailed. I gave the players some miniatures to choose from: James took "Snaketongue Cultist," Tom took (after some arguing!) the "Orc Wolf Shaman," Tracey took the "Shadowdancer," & Sam took the "Elf Arcane Archer," on account of how he's holding lightning. Thus equipped with tiny figures in a vast expanse, the stage was set! For...stage setting. Food was breads & cheese & meat from James, & beverages were Six Points Barleywine from James & me & red wine from Sam & Tracey. James also brought a root beer for Tom; very thoughtful!
We begin our tale in the country of Anise; the Duchy of Saltwater; the County of Cinnamon. Cinnamon County is a land of red clay & artificial hills terraces with wide paddies. Lugging muddy clay to keep these wide, staircase like features is one of the core of the serfs of County Cinnamon. The drier parts of the terraces are used to produce coca; cocaine being one of the county's exports. Abandoned or orchard hills are given over to cinnamon trees, if dry; banyan trees, if wet. Most of the tiers are, however, kept flooded-- aritificial ponds for rice & cranberry growth; for fish & shrimp agriculture. The shrimp beds in particular are where you can find some of County Cinnamon's most notorious fauna: giant flamingos. Twenty feet fall, bright pink with black legs. It is in County Cinnamon where our heroes find themselves-- set on the path to the Ghost Pagoda! The Ghost Pagoda is a three story structure, each with sweeping steepled eaves, made of fragrant wood, marble & amber. The plinth at the top is adorned with a hyacinth trellis, & as our intrepid adventurer's approach in a light rain, they see a stroke of lightning dance along it, followed by a low rumble of thunder. The Margrave of the Ghost Pagoda is missing; currently the dwelling is occupied by Count Cinnamon; Lord Holy Fruit Stains the Fingers. Count Cinnamon is slightly taller than the average male Alpha at 7'2," & is dressed in a sort of kimono made of a fabric halfway between rubber & plastic, latex & leather, with a collar all the way up his throat. His forehead is branded with his symbol, the Flying O; his destriar mount is Who Hides the Secret, a megatherium-like creature, a giant sloth with baboon like colouring in its face.
(Interior of the Ghost Pagoda & Count Cinnamon, Holy Fruit Stains the Fingers; Russian Barocco & "Dune Portrait" by Jordan Lamarre-Wan.)
We get to it with a little pre-game, a little arranging of the details just so. I wanted it to be more of a snapshot, so tried not to let people wander off too far afield. "This is what you are doing." "Well then can I..." "No, you can't, you aren't playing him yet." It worked, I think, though I was confusing with a lot of it. The threads were too over-lapping, too non-sequential. Something to remember. Duke Saltwater, His Grace Slumber Heart Dwells on Hill & his newly acquired bodyguard Long Cleaver of 1000 Helms are on the trail of The Man In Black. Slumberheart's castle is a ruin-- foundations & tumbled walls. It never the less overlooks the sea & out of the sea; out of the Abaia Mind Control Zone, game a figure seen only faintly, all in black. Now, on the trail of this mysterious interloper, the Duke & his man-at-arms have followed a trail of mysterious deaths (corpses buried with garlic & wolfsbane & salt & cold iron filings, just to be safe) to the Ghost Pagoda. Meanwhile Blue Glory on Dark Water has absconded from her father's, the Licorice Duke because her brother the heir has been getting on her nerves. Making a social call on Count Cinnamon, she also keeps her eyes peeled, knowing that Duke Saltwater is a sometimes rival of her father's; as a half-human Beta she has a certain freedom to move within the Gentry's social circles without entanglement. Curie Firstlight has come to Anise in search of patrons, in search of funding, in search of collaborators-- in search of a new toe hold for his research into anabarics. Curie rides with the Count to take up residence at the Ghost Pagoda. Notably, along the way of their trip Slumberheart & Long Cleaver as well as Curie see a strange pink-ish wil o' wisp light dancing along in the distance. Long Cleaver follows for a time, but soon returns to his master, & the players all reach the Pagoda.
After introductions are made, Count Holy Fruit offers the guests the chance to have whatever dinner they like-- his chef Sing Tongue is a master at cuisine mimicry & can produce any meal requested. Slumber heart asks for bread-- pressed he says "fresh bread. & cheese." Blue Glory has shrimp & rice (if a blonde person were to eat a lot of the shrimp, their hair would turn pink). Long Cleaver asks for horse meat; not tartar but a steak. Curie asks for whatever the Count is having; the count eats fruit paste, bean paste, almond paste, & three bumps of cocaine-- all of which Curie ingests as well. Snort! They eat in silence mostly, apart from the occasionally jittery Curie; he's not a mess, he keeps it together, & the Counts habit seems under control, if copious. After dinner the servants bring digestifs-- a green liquid in very tall flutes, something like absinthe but cinnamon instead of anise, salt instead of sugar. The count proposes a parlor game-- a way of telling their tales without clumsily telling their tales; "Epitaph of Twilight," he says. They light candles & when one story is done, the storyteller blows it out. Curie tells a tale of the Gleaners, the armor-covered delvers who go deep, deep into the mines below Aubade-- a story of a lost miner who follows a Gleaner to safety, only to have the Gleaner fall apart when the miner shakes his hand-- it was an empty suit all along! Blue Glory tells of a doll, a ragged antique, that screams & wakes the family when their home is on fire...& wouldn't you know it, the great-great-gran who made the doll died in a fire! Long Cleaver tells a story of soldiers camping in a haunted house rather than the commons, & the curses that befall the men who did so. Slumberheart's story is a clever retelling of Astro City's The Nearness of You which works doubly well for me because I wasn't sure if it was Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore & then re-discovered that it was actually a Vertigo pastiche. Count Cinnamon's story is a retelling of Botan Dōrō: the Peony Lantern.
A young Margrave named Original Silver Grass falls in love with a beautiful woman named Crimson Maple Leaves, the daughter of his master the Count’s best friend, Margrave Lucky Star. They meet secretly, & promise to be married. But Original Silver Grass falls ill, & is unable to see Maple for a long time. Later, when Silver Grass recovers & goes to see his love, he is told that Maple has died. He prays for her spirit during the Day of the Dead festival, & is surprised to hear the approaching footsteps of two women. When he sees them, they look remarkably like Maple & her maid. It is revealed that her aunt, who opposed the marriage, spread the rumor that Maple had died & told Maple in turn that Silver Grass had died. The two lovers, reunited, begin their relationship again in secret. Each night Maple, accompanied by her maid who carries a peony lantern, spends the night with Original Silver.
This continues blissfully until one night a servant peeks through a hole in the wall in Silver Grass's bedroom, & sees him having sex with a decaying skeleton, while another skeleton sits in the doorway holding a peony lantern. He reports this to the Margrave’s butler, who locates the graves of Maple & her maid. Taking Silver Grass there, he convinces him of the truth, & agrees to help Silver Grass guard his house against the spirits. They draw salt lines over the doorways & recite spells from paper scrolls. The plan works, & Crimson Maple Leaves & her maid are unable to enter, although they come every night & call out their love to Silver Grass. Pining for his sweetheart, Silver Grass goes out to greet the girls, & vanishes. Later, much later, Maple’s tomb is opened & among her bones they find another skeleton, wrapped together with hers in an embrace, the skull split in a smile of pure joy.
Of late, you can still see the Peony lantern from the road sometimes, as the maid wanders now, without a mistress to serve. The Margrave's butler has not been seen since.
Then the Duke Slumberheart goes on the speak to the room about the Man in Black, & his pursuit. Curie displays his wind-up anabaric lamp & calls forth the lightning from his elaborate pod-shaped weapon, blasting a fencing dummy with a flare of jagged light. Calling for another toot of white powder, the Count is caught up in the excitement. There is a mystery upstairs that he wishes to examine. He had intended to wait until morning, but with all the back & forth, all the commotion & storytelling, why wait! Going up in the dark is the way to be. Entering the top floor is done via a folding stair in the ceiling of the Margrave's rooms; that is, of Count Cinnamon's rooms, now, until some heir of the Margrave's is found. Long Cleaver goes first, his massive Nodachi held before him, his way lit by Curie's lantern-staff. The stairwell runs through the center of the Pagoda, but the top floor has in the middle a large white-walled room, with the hall running against the exterior. The walls of the room seem to be rice paper screens, but when touched are cold & hard, like porcelin. Trying to slide the screen reveals that they are well & truly stuck. Locked, more accurately. Luckily, Blue Glory has sort of a knack with this kind of thing; she borrows some of Curie Firstlight's tools, activates a pressure sensor with her knee, & after a few terse moments slides the wall silently open in its track. Long Cleaver goes in, followed by the rest. The room smells of copper...no, iron...no, blood! There are two tall tables at either end & a low table in the center set for a tea service. Investigating the tea, they see...bloody residue in one of the cups, & thrown to the side, the body of the Margrave's butler. So to, yes, the tea pot is full of blood, somehow uncoagulated. They talk among themselves & with the Count, who has accompanied them with his tall arquebus at the ready. Curie, meanwhile, goes to the table & examines what he finds there.
(the fossils; "Belle Marie" & "Felis Catus" by Justin Chase Black.)
A black figure (pictured above, The Man in Black) springs suddenly into being in the room! There is a moment of shock, & disarray until Curie calms the other's down-- it is just a projected image! On the tables at either end of the room are fossilized synthetic creatures; or mostly fossilized, anyway. Applying anabaric current from his PAC emitter, Curie stoked the "cat" into action, which they surmise allowed it to project an image of the recent past-- The Man in Black was here! Using the same principals, Curie & the others go to the artificial humanoid & coax it into life, but only after seeing that someone else also recently did the same. It speaks, in a loop:
Ye be present for system apocalypse…thou hast been judged…cycle 29B hex. Intercessor codes as ye shall see. Intercessor messiah state present locally in most holy crown state. Ye shalt know it in the self-reinforcing metaculture of hierarchal organization. Forged in the fires of the world ye be judge; so shalt ye be. Representative arcana required for thou to be found not guilty are as follows…error…Zzzzzkkzzzz k k error unit unclean zzzzlll THE SIN & THE FRUIT zzzzkkxxxkxkkxx error rebooting…let there be light… Ye be present for system apocalypse…thou hast been judged…cycle 29B hex. Intercessor codes as ye shall see. Intercessor messiah state present locally in most holy crown state. Ye shalt know it in the self-reinforcing metaculture of hierarchal organization. Forged in the fires of the world ye be judge; so shalt ye be. Representative arcana required for thou to be found not guilty are as follows…error…Zzzzzkkzzzz k k error unit unclean zzzzkkk THE SIN & THE FRUIT zzzzkkxxxkxkkxx error rebooting…let there be light…