(The Black Pilgrim; "AntiPaladin" by Eric Belisle.)
Well! Last night's session turned out very unexpectedly! This is the fun of being the Narrator of a story-- no matter how much you plan or what you think the players will do, sometimes they surprise the heck out of you. Sometimes it is the little thing, outside the box approaches to conflict & problem solving...& sometimes it is the bigger things. The left-turn that twists the story into a new direction, jumps the train off the rails & just keeps going. Last night turned out to be one of those, & I am very excited about it. I think the Players are excited about it as well; we're presented with an opportunity! Which I'll get into later. Suffice to say, this episode of the campaign was the "season finale," & I didn't even know that going in. I always say I want a character driven story, & this session they definitely gave it to me. I showed up to Tracey & Sam's at six, met Tom on the stoop, & toughlad showed up soon after with Thai food in hand. The session's music was mostly Scorn, with a little Fantômas-- the music went from being very appropriate to occasionally annoying & droning. Everything was lit only by candle-light, which I think really does help the mood. We brought the table in but didn't use it-- I don't want bringing in the table to signify "there is a fight today!" so I was happy about that. The only distraction was the occasional phone call to Sam, but he's in the middle of negotiations that could benefit the game (& I guess his life, whatever) so I didn't mind. All in all, the stage was set for an exceptional evening of gaming.
The session started closing off some loose ends from the last time we played, before jumping ahead. I am finding that a coda to the last session makes a decent prequel. Blue Glory on Dark Water's destriar Herakles Vagabond had saved the life of Ribbons on the Wind, one of the retainers of Countess Yellow Knife on Stone Table, who described a "naked, wrinkled old man" attacking her at incredible speed. Curie First-Light meanwhile passes out exhausted in the rooms prepared for him & Blue Glory. Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms is a long campaigner; a few nights of forced riding & no sleep are nothing to him. Concerned for Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on the Hill, however, the Countess has tea prepared with opium in it. A soporific! The Duke stumbles about, cutting himself & smearing blood all over the Countess' bare torso. He is good guest at fancy dinner parties. There was a two day interlude, then, while our heroes licked their wounds & had a wagon outfitted for them-- barred windows, fold-down bunks, the works. Blue Glory had traveled with Margrave Iron Head Crab & her braves, & discovered the direction The Man in Black had taken. Without any further ado, the party set out on his trail.
(Honey Locust Country; "Kuelap" by travellingserialkiller; "Lena's Pillars" by A. Butorin.)
The Man in Black's damaged hovering device had bled its strange orange-green goo out into the direction of Honey Locust county, one of the border domains of Anise. Technically one of the counties in the Spice Drop duchy, it is of much more renown as one of the bastions of the Hungry Templars, the elite crytospiritual military sect. Even the county itself was like a fortress-- the boundary of the territory was a stone wall so old that the rest of the county was on top of it-- the wall became the impromptu edge of a plateau of buried fortifications. Suspiciously, the chestnut mare & the appaloosa gelding pulling the wagon had started to shed some of their coats, turning black & white, respectively. They soon met five armed guards, soldiers on patrol-- Long Cleaver spoke to them & they escorted the wagon & destriar-mounted characters, calling for back-up along the way. First five more soldiers, then ten, till a compliment of twenty Templars led the way. They took them to the inner reaches of the county, crossing a ford in a river-- a moat?-- & then into a maze of naturally standing stones. They saw commoners (humans) working as well, going about their day: walking with boars, digging up huge truffles. The pigs, on closer inspection, were more like tapirs, with a trunk rather than a snout-- & seeing the party pass, one stood up on two legs, like a bear. Its black eyes & tusks gave it the impression of a guard, & the humans its domesticated pets, rather than vice-versa.
(The Fortress of the Magnus Locus; Bulgarian Socialist monument by Linda Ferrari.)
The party is led into the Fortress of the Magnus Locus, the Cadre of the Hungry Templars who are dominant here. Out front, they see the signs of warring bees & locusts; fields of flowering clover beneath a tree covered in honey comb, surrounded by black stumps stripped of leaves, dust fields empty of grass. They are taken into the Fortress, under a vast press of stone & darkness. They are left in a room that seems at first to be scalloped with baffles, like the ridges in a concert hall-- which they soon discern to be slits for archers. In fact the whole room is filled with them, a panopticon...or a kill jar. A place where death is always close. Only two figures are in the room; a hideous man in black armor & a terrifying man in red armor. The Black Pilgrim & the Red Pilgrim. High ranking figures who have given up their names, desires, & identities to the cause of the Templars. The Red Pilgrim speaks while the Black Pilgrim is silent-- both the Red Pilgrim, whose face is obscured but for his mouth, & the Black Pilgrim who smiles like the Joker, are largely inspired by The Mouth of Sauron. Smiles & grisly rasping voices. Long Cleaver comes forward & kneels. There are some character revelations-- he was disgraced because of "treason against the Alphas," as he puts it. The Duke is revealed as...well, The Duke, his anonymous persona as Nobody not valid here. & Blue Glory, in her domino mask, is recognized as her father's daughter-- her father being the Duke & Regent. The Red Pilgrim recognizes that they wish to pursue the Man in Black-- how do they wish to proceed? Will the request disguises? Will they leave their destriars behind? Do they intend to charge across the Bridge of Dust into Antiphon & start a war? Curie stalls for time-- asks to be shown a place to refresh themselves, to eat & drink. The Pilgrims are happy to accommodate.
(The Red Pilgrim; artist unknown.)
The players are taken to one of the wings of the Fortress, & locked away-- you know, just to keep them out of trouble. A harmless precaution, really. The whole wing is empty except for them, & the decor is very much "what if someone in Europe during the Middle Ages designed a fallout shelter?" Here we have some tense characterization: Blue Glory on Dark Waters says she will not go to Antiphon. Under no circumstances. Antiphon is Anise's neighbor, & well renown as a terrible place-- think "what if a country was ruled by the Spanish Inquisition, but instead of Catholics, they were Satanists?" Something like that-- full of skyscraper-like cathedral cities, partially abandoned, as the population soars ten time bigger than its neighbors...then is decimated by plagues. Or wars. Or ethnic cleansing. Antiphon! Curie doesn't want to go, that is for sure, but he wavers. Duke Slumberheart & Long Cleaver are resolute; they will chase the Man in Black at all costs. While they are considering, there is a knock at the door. The Black Pilgrim! He sets a bowl of maggots on the table; the white worms are said to eat secrets, or so an occult roll tells the players. He says that of course, the Templar's can't be seen to be acting in concert with the Players. That would condone their actions, which could lead to censure from the Licorice Duke, or even war with Antiphon. So of course, he can't help them. It would be a shame, however, if someone were to steal the Key of the Solomonari. The magical Key that would let them cross the curses & hexes laid on the Bridge between Anise & Antiphon. That would be impossible, of course-- the Key is in the vault, beneath the Pit, beyond the Pendulum & past the Tell-Tale Heart. If they did somehow manage to get the Key, their destriars would be unguarded. Totally as an aside, of course. With those none too subtle hints, he leaves.
Long Cleaver stays in the room. He is no sneak, & he can't in good conscience act against the Templars-- even the "wink wink, nudge nudge" is beyond him. Already once disgraced, he won't besmirch his honor further. Slumberheart goes, & Curie follows with him. Blue Glory shadows them in the background, hidden. They come to the door locking them into the Guest Wing...& stop. Slumberheart is befuddled. Doors? Do aristocrats open their own doors? Don't servants do that? Handles are involved-- he is sure of that! Meanwhile the gears in Curie's mind are turning. He might not know from picking locks, but maybe he can take the face plate off, then...which is when Blue Glory coughs, startling them, & deftly pops the tumblers. & they are off! The Pit is a deep chasm, a well long abandoned, still slick with moss, seemingly bottomless. They climb down to find a trompe-l'œil illusion at the bottom, & a hidden door. Which leads them into a hallway...& the predicted pendulums. They are fast, dangerous; the Duke's iaijutsu training keeps him safe, while Blue Glory sprints to the end of the corridor & Curie coaches her through the gets of the trap, finally disabling it. Then-- the Heart! A red glow! An eye attached by nerves to an unbeating lump of cardiac tissue, suspended above! Dreams of another world-- Blue Glory is Descartes, living free; Curie & his father laugh, forever; Hilldweller's heart slumbers no more, as the consort of the Pearl Queen. Meanwhile, back in his room; Long Cleaver has been cutting himself, spilling his blood on his armor, whispering in fell tongues. There is a wind, & a sound of foul murmurings, & the heart pulls into the ceiling like an octopus retreating from view. At last, the treasure room! Armor for a man with four arms, the shell of an automaton stripped to be worn by a man, sword-like weapons the colour of blood & gold, a window that hangs with no support or frame like a whole in the world, & a Key: brass, marked with the star-sigil of Antiphon. They grab it & go.
(The Key of the Solomonari; artist unknown.)
The players meet up, & again discuss their fates. Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on the Hill will go to Antiphon. His heart was broken when the Pearl Queen went missing (he has the scar to prove it!) & chasing the Man in Black makes him feel whole, again. Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms will go; though he expects the trip to be one way. He does not expect to return, but having once been accused of treason he now sees a chance to die with honor, to find glory in fulfilling his duty. Blue Glory on Dark Water is not going. She said so, & she does not change her mind. She belongs in Anise, she doesn't have the burning need to chase the Man in Black. He is beyond the bounds of her concern. Her mind was made up long before this; she had said back in the Baobab Palace that if the Man in Black had crossed the Bridge of Dust, then she was done. She keeps her promises to herself. Curie First-Light is the most conflicted. He has discovered much traveling with the others. His father, however, languishes back in Aubade, the nation below Anise. He is dying, & Curie just gets further away. The Black Pilgrim, however, has intimated that the [Black Element] that Curie uses in his anabaric studies is the Philosopher's Stone-- & that the alchemy of Antiphon can make them. He does not wish to die trying to discover whether or not it is true. It all comes down to this, in the end: when Curie was drowning during the pursuit of the Man in Black, Slumberheart rode on without stopping, & Long Cleaver with him; Blue Glory stopped & saved his life. So-- the party splits! Half will go on to Antiphon, & half will not! I'm very excited. I don't know what will happen, what will come of this. James suggested "One Year Later..." but I'm not so sure; I think maybe we'll create new PCs; two new character involved with Antiphon to adventure with Long Cleaver & Slumberheart; two new characters to adventure with Curie & Blue Glory. Fun! Mystery! Surprises!