(Fen Dweller of the Terror Wolf Mob; "Epiderme" by Stéphane Blanquet.)
My Oubliette campaign continues apace! I'm continuing to try to keep up with an episodic pacing-- using in media res & interludes to keep the story going forward. I might be a little more sandbox than any of my players...which is probably why I am a Narrator. Anyhow, also, once they dwell in the story a little bit longer, they will probably feel more comfortable kicking over ant-hills & messing around in the plot. For now, the frame sequence of chasing The Man in Black is working really well, I think. Besides which-- as I reiterate every update, I have been working on my timing, & it has been coming together in a big way. No meandering stories! I'm keeping it high & tight. This was another "one-off" session, & though there was a second where I thought I'd need to close things up early, it turned out that I had just enough time to power through. The evening was great; I picked up a bottle of wine at Juice Box after a kind of crappy & sardine-tin commute, & we roused Tracey from a grump & dived right into it without any further ado!
After last session, the Hungry Templar Long Cleaver of One Thousand Helms was badly injured in his fight with the Sugar Cane Killer-- his body broken, irradiated, cancer stricken, & then operated on. I began this session with a little "healing montage." A sterile shrine; a friendly blacksmith who exchanged knowing nods with Long Cleaver; Blue Glory on Dark Waters calling semi-domestic hawks with her special whistling technique; Curie First-Light intensely at work on gadgets & inventions; Duke of Saltwater, Slumber Heart Dwells on Hill going off on crying jags. When that drew to a close after two & half weeks of downtime with no word on the Man In Black & no mysterious deaths. The players-- who are by no means living on the fringe, being enfranchised members of the nation of Anise-- have put out feelers through their various networks. Consulting their families, their subordinates, their fraternal orders for information on the events at hand. Their old friend Count Cinnamon is the first to get back to them: his message comes with a bottle of wine (as we uncork the real bottle) along with personalized gifts-- an amber owl in a box of cocaine for Curie, hair dye for Blue Glory (?), a diamond-grind blade sharpener for Long Cleaver, & for the pauper duke who eschews mundane possessions, a piece of incredibly finely powdered cinnamon candy, which the Duke consumes with all due pomp.
(The Red Mist in Blackberry Vale; "Sawmill Sink on Abaco" by Wes Skiles.)
The note is brief, & to the point. The Man in Black has been seen entering the red Mist in the Blackberry Vale. Blackberry Vale is a County in The Licorice Duchy-- technically outside of Slumberheart's domain & arguably outside of his jurisdiction but just as arguably not outside of his obligation. The Duke understands the brevrity in Count Cinnamon's note. He doesn't name sources because he, the Count, takes responsibility for the information. He is personally accountable. He doesn't elaborate or speculate because that isn't his place. He presents the facts to the party, as he can vouch for them. So the players mount their destriars (the fearsome Heracles Vagabond, the invincible Great Thunder on the Plains, the mysterious White Bodhisattva...& Curie's rented horse) & they are off! The Blackberry Vale is a plain of scrub & grass-- empty but for the extraordinary amount of prickered & thorned blackberry bushes in waves of brush. Some of the berries seem to look at them-- ah-ha! Small, fat bodied chameleons, hanging by their tales, eating merrily away safe in nests of nettles. Some searching on the player's behalf of the bigger fields of blackberry bushes (the bulk of the reptilian & rhinocerosarian Great Thunder pushing the branches mostly aside) they find a large hole hidden as though through an optical illusion. The chasm is big enough for their destriars but filled with a thick red Mist. Some testing reveals the mist is not flammable...& in fact made up of extraordinarily tiny creatures, too small to see with the naked eye (but detectable to the ground glass of Curie's goggles). The party puts on masks & after some coaxing of their mounts-- & each other-- heads into the thick crimson soup.
There are moments of distortion; the party shakes & trembles & the lights go out-- or well, they realize, swallowing the panic, that they blacked out. (The players roll Composure plus: Curie rolls Theosophy, as he's thought hard on the nature of the mist; Long Cleaver rolls Persuasion, pushing himself forward; Slumberheart rolls Politics, dwelling on the nature of his duties here; Blue Glory rolls Academics, remembering what she's heard of noble gases) They look around, take stock in the state of their bellies & their bowels, & figure that they may be missing time. There is some absence of memory, or of perception & selfhood...there are scatterings of wondering if maybe they should go back. Long Cleaver goes to the wall & with a maul starts carving a cross in to show they'd been there-- when they do, Blue Glory spots similar glyphs elsewhere in the wall. At knee height. The ground of heroes sits in the soup of the red fog, lit only by their anabaric lantern & a fluttering torch Long Cleave has lit. Continuing on, they exit the tunnel-- or rather, more like a riverbed of scarlet mist-- into a wide open space, full flush with the rich red hue of the air. Realizing that the dead bodies of the micro-organisms must lay heavy on the floor (their skeleton-shells interlocking, like moon-dust) they search the place for prints...& find some! Moving not like a man-- you can tell a lot from foot prints, you know. If a horse is galloping, trotting, walking. If a man is running, or walking, or shuffling his feet. These trudging footprints look like a man's tracks, but don't move in any human fashion. They are just...off. The mist, the players have noted, moves in slow almost imperceptible spirals-- & the tracks are perpendicular to that. Off they go, riding their mounts on through the cavern.
(The Tree Root Labyrinth through the glacial rock; "Chintamani" by Robh Ruppel.)
In the vast chamber (whose dimensions they can't guess at, being lit only in their bulbs of red-filtered light-- for a moment the torch goes out! but all is well-- they find the sink hole that the mist is drifting towards, the drain it is circling. A hole as big as the one they entered sits in the floor, choked with enormous tree roots; roots tens of feet in circumference, massive as roads. This is where the tracks, which they presume were left by the Man in Black, lead. So; downward ho, press on, farther in & deeper down. The roots soon abolish the red Mist but with biting cold air; & whats worse, they seem to be knit together in a maze, a tangle. Most roots lead up, to rock roof, frigid stone & numb noses. Or they lead to other roots, roots that lead to other roots, that lead to...a thick wooden root heading upward. All the while, freezing in their heavy autumnal clothes. After a little while, with Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on Hill's understanding of the moods of roots, they move from the top tangle into deeper snarls headed down but no less confusing or crookedwise, all the while the cold sinking into their bones-- hypothermia is setting in. (They roll Intelligence or Wits plus: Curie rolls Theosophy again, parsing the riddle of growth; Long Cleaver uses Animal Ken to coax his mount downward; Slumberheart's Empathy check scores many successes; Blue Glory's Climb is one of her strengths) Eventually, through Curie's treatment of the party's slow decline (his first concern), they rededicate themselves for one last push, & make it down. (Another Intelligence or Wits roll plus: Curie's Medicine roll, which nets the most successes with Willpower; Long Cleaver makes another roll of self-Persuasion; Slumberheart rolls Crafts, since we'd talked about his cultivation of bonsai trees; Blue Glory forgoes her attributes & rolls Mount plus Animal Ken, letting Heracles Vagabond take the lead).
(The Terror Wolf Mob's Red, Pig & Rock; Knitware by Sandra Blacklund, photos by Denise Grünstein.)
The chamber supports a single large-- but not vast-- tree, coming up through a hole again just as big as the one they entered with the red Mist & the one they rode their destriars (& lone horse) down the roots into. They climb down roots which entwine the pillars (not pictures above) & enter the chamber, starting to get a feel for it-- when Long Cleaver spots three very tiny figures at the mouth of the chamber. They stare at him creepily, & when he goes back to the party to have them look, they are gone. The knee-high marks above already let the players think that perhaps the Demi, the Little People, lived in this place. When he tells the others & looks back...they are gone! Gone! Isn't it...spooky? Then, when they call out greetings...one of the three comes forward, & then backs away. Blue Glory on her hippofelis destriar climbs up into the branches..to see wolves sneaking around them! A trap! Of a basic animal kind-- more wolves come out of the shadows, & the other Little Ones, jumping onto Long Cleaver & savaging him with glowing cat o' nine tails (all in rainbow colours!) that clench his teeth & spasm his muscles, that shake him with tremors. The Neural Whip! Long Cleaver cuts at wolves, tears the Little Ones off of the Duke, who draws his broken sword & joins the fray! Curie tries a last appeal to the Little One at the door-- who runs off at a sprint! Then Curie zaps a wolf, as Blue Glory, from her mount's perch on the wall, coaches her cat-like pet to last out (roar rawr!) with its paw, bating wolves around & intimidating them. Then two more huge wolves, their fur bristling with...teeth? enter the door, snarling & spooky as hell, fangs saber-toothed-- & another! A little girl with a black bug-like tattoo (pictured top), wearing almost nothing! A fearsome array!
(The Terror Wolf Mob, in miniature form; photo by Mordicai.)
The little girl-- who isn't a little girl at all of course, but a fully grown woman of the Demi species-- holds up her hands, & the wolves all come to heel, but still bristle with menace. The party, certainly cautious of the savage beasts before them, parlay-- Curie, who the Duke had called his Herald a moment before-- cedes to His Grace Slumber Heart of Salt Water. The diminutive woman is Fen Dweller, & these are the Terror Wolf Mob-- those three are Pig, Rock, & Red-- what is the party doing here? Well, they are chasing the Man in Black. "Do you seek to do harm to him?" The Duke says it is likely, but he can't tell the future. Wise! Well-- well indeed! For the Man in Black is still here, has violated the "creche"! They keep using that word, creche. They attacked the players, since-- well, their sanctum is invaded, their charge violated. They don't know that the players are up to any good-- but Fen Dweller's instinctive understanding of pack dynamics & Slumberheart's insights into the emotional core-- lead them to trust each other. The Terror Wolf Mob claims to keep the creche on behalf of the long-absent Pearl Queen; "come, we will show you where we believe the one you call Man in Black has gone to." & off they go, the dire wolves stalking along & three other Little Ones disseminating into...the purple fungi, the biolumenescent forest of mushrooms as tall as trees that the players are led into.
(Fungal Bloom & Blue Necrosis Cenote; "Zangarmarsh" from World of Warcraft, "DEU" by Uwe Lein)
Along the way, Fen Dweller speaks some exposition. She brings the players up to speed on some details they may or may not know (in & out of character, both). When the Pearl Queen ruled, she had a much larger Kingdom than the modest nation of Anise-- they "Chaos Princes & Soul Stealers" of Arioch were part of it, & the "Little Bigs & Buggers" of The Enclave as well, along with "The God Emperors & Jihaduelists" of Triumph & the "Recluse Saints of Killers" called the Peacock Lamas. She ruled all them before her disappearance. As for the Man in Black-- they believe he is a Hemophage, from "over the sea," whom this creche she believes was precisely hidden from. You see, Fen Dweller explains, if you go one way on the world, you will reach the BLACK HORIZON & if you go another you will reach the BLUE SUN but if you go "the other way" you will come to the land across the sea, where the Hemophages control access on to & off the world.
They come at last to another hole, again mirroring the size of the three entrances they have already past through. This is sat in the ground as well, & glows an evil blue light. The blue that is the colour of violence, the blue the colour of a house. "Don't touch it," Fen Dweller cautions. It is the Blue Necrotic Gate. None can pass it...at least, none living. Curie experiments with it-- a very dangerous maneuver! He seeks to sample the streams of colour, of light, of dust, of gas, of fire, of death-- whatever they are. (I roll a die behind the screen-- as Sam declares he is spending a point of Willpower! A wise move-- I had rolled a 1 on the chance die, for a dramatic failure! Prevented, but this close.) Further caution is urged; Fen Dweller thinking on how she can't understand the gate, explaining it. You see-- life dies, withers, rots, is instantly destroyed by the gate. Non-living things-- even dead animals!-- pass unharmed, falling into the deep gulf. Why would the Pearl Queen make such a thing? Curie is still thinking on how he might sample & examine the hateful blue glow; what about how he ran anabaric lightning through those machine men at the Haunted Pagoda? "Explain this word, 'automata'," asks Fen Dweller...& a theory starts dawning. What if those mechanical people predate the world? What if they put the gate here, for their own purposes? It would let them pass, but not the panhumans...while they must, there is a pressure change, & a faint sound...a whoosh, whoosh, a faint noise that would be soundless but for the speed involved....whoosh whoosh...as a platform flies from indescribable depths up, hurdling with doppler shifted sounds...whoosh whoosh...so far & then suddenly there! & On the platform, up through the blue-- a figure, perched astride a strange machine! A figure...all in Black!
(The Black Biker; by Joon Ahn Hyung.)