(Dame of the Inquisitors of the Buzzing Lie; "The Chocolate Donut" by Fred Einaudi.)
I met up with Sam before my game yesterday; he was in the neighborhood picking up a mattress & I helped him haul it into a taxi & then back out when we reached his & Tracey's apartment. Brr indeed! It was cold outside, & I like the cold. Bring on the chill, the fimbulwinter! It suits me. Dark expanses of black ice. Give it to me. I thought Sam & I might be a little late, but we were right on time; first, in fact, followed by toughlad & Radarless. Hey, hey, the gang is all here! James brought a bottle of wine, a blood orange & some pears; Tracey had some pomegranate seeds, & eventually we ordered sushi & sake. Not a bad spread. Tracey was in a bad mood when we got there, but some coffee & some time eased her out of it. Radarless was in a bad mood in the middle of it, thanks to his telephone, but he didn't let it drag him down. Sam & Tracey went all out, getting into costume-- eye make-up, ninja pants, see-through sleeves, the whole kit & caboodle. Alright! We were all set to get into the game. I put on some Gregorian chant & organ music, & we dove right in.
We started off with a quick flashback. James-- & thus his character, Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on the Hill-- missed the last session, so I brought him in. I knew in my head what I thought had happened, so I just narrated through it pretty quickly, & James went along with it. We started with him crossing the Bridge of Dust, & recognizing a relationship between the orange Dust & the red Mist of the Terror Wolf Mob's creche. Going across the Bridge, Slumberheart encountered the demon-haunted, howling, whispering, chattering, creaking groaning Sigils, the Seals laid by the witch-priests of Antiphon. Slumberheart bore the Key of the Solomanari, gotten with the aid of The Black Pilgrim. He walked through in a haze, lost in the Dust...imagining he wandered for days, his will sapped...until at last, he crossed, & was over. Only to find himself alone, separated from his man-at-arms, (& Radarless' character) Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms & his faithful & holy destriar White Bodhisattva Anointed by Rose Water. & suddenly surrounded, pinned on each side by six of the masked & mime-like Vanitas Vichey. They brawl-- a quick melee, swords ringing-- until a word from Carkoon, Adept of the Dog stops them. He has a dozen hunting hounds with him, & claims to have Rosewater captive, & offers to take Slumberheart captive & then offers him his parole on his word as a gentlemen. They are nobility, you see. Carkoon has a sledge pulled by dogs, & lets Slumberheart come aboard, & off they go to the Antipater. Carkoon tempts him with casual vices-- & I ask James to describe a few vignettes-- & at last they come to the city, hung over with a green Fog of similar character to the Dust & the Mist. In to the Towers Twin in the heart of the city...to re-unite with the party!
Which brings us to right where we left off last time, with the inhuman Carkoon, Adept of the Order of the Dog, entering with Duke Slumberheart, while Long Cleaver & his new found allies Tif'eret Herald & Rapheal Herald hold truck with Jadis Aeon over the Book of Flesh. Carkoon is, they learn, is one of the Demon Princes of Arioch, the aristocratic country to the West, beyond the map. Jadis refers to "The Civilized World"-- meaning Anise, Antiphon & Aubade-- in contrast to the "Decadent World" where Carkoon's country of Arioch lies, along with the lands Vajraratni of Nilashaila from Clan Naga came from, presumably. Carkoon is here to read from the Book of Flesh, for some reason...a reason soon to be revealed. Tif'eret is gifted-- or damned-- with prophecy, & Jadis lets her attempt to decipher to runes of the Book of Flesh, the flayed human skins hung up around the room. The Book of Flesh is formed of the skins of a "undesirable ethnicity," a persecuted tribe of people who retain their culture on their bodies in scars, brands, & woad. They have been hunted almost to the point of genocide, & then carefully skinned, & the result? The "Book." Tif'eret takes skins from hooks, rolls them aside when a new one is ready. & what do Jadis & Tif'eret read in the Book of Flesh? Well, simply this: there is an heir to the Pearl Queen. Duke Slumberheart is dumbstruck. Adept Carkoon, on the other hand, expects this-- & where is she? She was taken to the Innocent Youth Convent. Carkoon offers to ransom Slumberheart for his help in finding the heir-- his "bride to be"-- & invites Tif'eret & Raphael along, since they have an interest in the Duke (based on Tif'eret's dreams, & omens they have seen. Long Cleaver of course comes along as a body guard to the Duke.
(Inquisitors of the Buzzing Lie; four female nurses at Scott Field, IL, 1942; photo by me.)
If only it was that easy. Jadis remains behind while Carkoon attempts to lead them out-- Tif'eret's raven-shaped demon familiar & Slumberheart both know the path, but keep it to themselves-- only to run into a mezzanine with a woman in a gas mask sitting on the throne with two piglets on a leash (above, top). An Inquisitor! You'll remember that there are many different forces struggling for control of Antiphon, a variety of factions-- the pragmatic but satanic Pharisees, the mysterious & infernal Scholomance, the hidden cults of the Ethnarchs...& the power-hungry diabolical zealots of the Inquisition. The instant the party realizes they are surrounded-- Raphael fires an arrow! The battle is joined! There are four other Inquisitors, but one flees-- presumably to fetch help, but Raphael brings her down. There are also hideous pig-like creatures. Two boar-sized creatures in armor who vomit swarms of flies & attack with hatchets held in the hands they have instead of hooves...& a creature the size of a Shetland pony, with tusks like an elephant, that rears up on its hind legs like a bear & pukes forth animated shapes comprised of maggots-- yeah, truly charming. Long Cleaver, still wounded from his encounter with the Vanitas Vichey, charges into the fray with a devastating blows, but between an Inquisitor & a roaming pile of maggots crawling in his boots, he tumbles to the ground, badly hurt. Tif'eret cuts a pig's throat & glories in its slaughter. Slumberheart fights defensively, allowing Raphael to cull the herd. He thinks about leaving the fight-- not to flee but rather simply to pursue his own agenda. Instead, he goes for the fallen Long Cleaver. Carkoon hyperventilates & then goes into a Warp Frenzy, swinging his Cloud Strife sized sword around him like a dervish. Their enemies fall, & the woman on the throne never rises. Carkoon strikes her with his giant blade...& she flickers as it passes right through her. A hologram! The great thing about Weird Fantasy is that you can just say "hologram!" & everyone gets it. I worry I'm a soft touch-- I don't ever kill Player Characters-- but I was prepared to. If Slumberheart hadn't gone back for Long Cleaver, I wouldn't have had any choice but to kill him. I was braced to do it. Don't think I won't!
(Pazzuzu; "Nils and Morten" by Sergey "Peleng" Kolesov.)
We had a travel montage next-- they had to cut from Antipater, on the border with Anise, all the way up to the coast, then through the mountains to the city of Ithica, or near enough to it. Rather than drag that out, I had the players go around describing what they did-- be it blood rituals, or Iaijatsu stare-downs, or eating the bloodsoaked alveoli of a human's lungs, or killing a lone sentry. Do they sound like bad people? They are bad people. Long Cleaver & Slumberheart think of themselves as hard cases, & they are. Slumberheart acts from a place of malice even when he behaves nobly (I'm quite familiar with that). Long Cleaver is a bad customer. Tif'eret & Raphael are...monsters. Chaotic Evil. Nightmare people. At long last they come to the mountain pass-- the Pass of Pazzuzu, Tif'eret recalls it is named. Once, when she was younger, they tried to take her to the demonic academy of Scholomance up in the mountains, & she heard it called that, then. Here, I have them make a skill challenge-- any Finesse or Resistence attribute, plus Athletics, Stealth, Survival, or anything else they can convince me is appropriate. Slumberheart rolls Wits + Mount, saying that he helps Rosewater pick the best path through the roughly shambling pass, four four successes. Long Cleaver roles Stamina + Athletics, pushing himself through, but rolls no successes-- while they have traveled for two weeks & Tif'eret has tended to his wounds, he is still weak. Raphael rolls Composure + Athletics, as his sister clings to his back like a baby monkey-- & Tif'eret rolls Resolve + Stealth to try to stay still & out of his way. They each get two successes. I admit I am cheered! I set a threshold of ten successes for them to travel the pass without incident, & they came up short-- which means they catch the attention of Pazzuzu, a hideous little man that rides astride a giant vulture, taking pot-shots with his rifle.
(Pazzuzu's Tower; art from the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.)
There is a second skill test-- this time, I say, you must use a new attribute & a new skill. Slumberheart ties a scarf to his sword scabbard, acting as a spotter for their archer, Raphael, & rols Dexterity + Subterfuge for four successes. Long Cleaver throws himself against the cliff face, scrambling for cover with a Dexterity + Brawl for two successes. Tif'eret asks her familiar to claw at the eyes of the vulture, rolling Wits + Familiar, for four successes. Raphael lets fly a few well placed shafts with Dexterity + Ranged, for six successes. Sixteen successes? None too shabby at all! I had set the threshold here at ten plus however many they failed by in the previous challenge, & was going to distribute gunshot damage based on two per sucess under, but it turned out that I didn't need to. They avoided & frustrated Pazzuzu, & made their way out of the pass & beyond Pazzuzu's Tower, nestled in the foothills of the mountains. Beyond is the many-coloured tiered ziggurat of Ithica! James later said that sort of thing was a hallmark of Oubliette, guys like Pazzuzu-- clearly there is something up with that guy, & if they wanted to they could go find out, but that there were many, many "loose ends" in Oubliette, too many to follow up on. Good! I do that on purpose, trying to present an organic tapestry. Good to know I've succeeded!
(The Innocent Youth Convent & Mother Superior Gremory Grigori; arist unknown; "Head Mother" by Jordan Lamarre-Wan.)
The Youth Convent! Asking about, looking for signs-- a pitchfork tree with a gnarled branch!-- they found their way. A towering edifice, half cathedral, half skyscraper, shrouded in fog & ravens. It is worth mentioning again-- Antiphon is a nation of population booms & plagues, soaring numbers & war. One decade, half a million strong...the next, dwindled to fifty thousand. This place is part of that legacy. Largely abandoned, windows smashed, except where they aren't. The Mother Superior of the Youth Convent (Youth Convents, I invented them) comes out, dressed in flowing robes as expected. She has the voice of an ancient woman, decrepit, but the body of a much younger one. She asks them to come in, calling them "my children," & gets them warm camel's milk. Carkoon has gone on ahead, & behind, to sneak into the Youth Convent while the rest of them enter openly. They quiz her-- there is some confusion at first. Was the daughter of the Queen brought here twenty years ago? Oh, she thought that she meant Glasiya, but Glasiya left twenty years ago. Oh, yes-- the Players are confused, that makes sense. She would have come her more like seventy years ago? Hm. Could be Glasiya.
(Hallucinagenic feathers; "Feathers" by Louise Richardson.)
Glasiya, eh? Mother Superior Gremory Grigori leads them into a room to see "Glasiya's feathers." It is a hall, long, filled with shelves & boxes. Like Ollivander's Wand Shop, in hell. The Mother Superior goes to a card catalog, rummages around, then to a step ladder, & pulls out a long box, whose contents she lays out on a tarnished silver tray with a white napkin on top. Feathers! The players roll well & can tell that they are gummed with some illicit chemicals-- drugs of various stripes. Dipped in heroin, soaked in lysergic acid, dusted with cocaine & tranquilizers. A cocktail written like a symphony, where the high notes are uppers, & the low notes are downers. Where the aria's are precisely coordinated hallucinagenic trips, the solos are alchemically balanced euphorics playing along your spine, your muscles sagging with the Mezzo-soprano, your heart pounding basso profondo. Mother Superior Gremory Grigori lays them out, & gestures for the players to take them into their mouth...& they do. The feathers give them clips, flashes, drug addled delusions, the certainty of the stoned...& they happen to be right.
(Young Glasiya Innocent; "Blind Pioneer" by Antanas Sutkus.)
Tif'eret is first, putting the feather with the stern woman in black into her mouth. It is fifty years ago, give or take. There are voices: "You are touched by the Authority..." & then later "...will you go fetch me one of the other children?" coupled back to back with "...no? Then the switch is for you!" Tif'eret comes out of it, feeling the betrayal of innocent Glasiya, the co-dependent relationship with the Sister that would go on the become Mother Superior. Earlier, Tif'eret had (somehow) made a Humanity roll in response to Slumberheart's musing about whether he was "worthy," & there was a glimpse of the girl she might have been were she not tainted by the demonic & otherworldly patron that has chosen her for her Herald. That feeling is echoed, in her druged state.
(Mister Kettle, the Man in Black; From "Suvi & Tyler" by Chadwick Tyler.)
Duke Slumberheard of Nothing was next, taking the feather suggested by Tif'eret-- he considers taking another feather just to spite her, but chooses the short feather with the boy in shadows, accepting her guidance. A wise choice. There is a dark face, in the dark-- a presence that has come to Glasiya. It is twenty years ago, & the voice is inhuman, broken. An echo, a computer, a bellows. "Do you want to go to Scholomance?" it asks, & too: "We control her. We control almost everyone." & he draws a picture in that unholy voice, "I am lost. I just want to go home. Would you like to help me?" & he ends it with a statement of fact-- since James rolled an Exceptional Success-- saying: "My name is Mister Kettle."
(The Pearl Queen & Noam; "FamilyCircus" for the December 2010 W; Photo by Paolo Roversi.)
Rapheal downs the next feather, choosing the smallish one with the laughing woman in white, those Rahael (or Sam anyway, & thus Raphael) thinks it is a fat man with a mustache laughing. The drug is quick in his veins, bringing a picture of a beautiful woman-- the only woman he might say is more beautiful than his sister-- holding a child with white hair. It is seventy years ago, & the angelic queen is saying "This is your sister," & "her name is Noam," & that "if I fail, it will be up to one of you." Raphael stumbles out of the dream of the drug, babbling, going on about angels. He's not entirely mistaken.
(Sister Gremory & Glasiya; "The Foundling" by David Müller.)
(Glasiya & Noam playing in the Innocents Youth Convent; artist unknown.)
Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms decides to do something bold, & goes for an overdose, taking both the remaining feathers-- the stubby one that is all shadow & blur on top of the one of a smiling child. The pictures blur, the facts intermingle, the voices become one. Long Cleaver's body slumps, close to a coma, health filling up with bashing. It is seventy years ago (is it?) & the voices say "I hate it here hide her she is my heir her name is Glasiya you know your father I cannot appease the trumps she is our last hope," all running together-- who is it about? Noam? Glasiya? Who can say. The Mother Superior tucks them all into cots, covers them with scratchy camel hair blankets, & they all dream the same soup, sharing images, pictures, thoughts, intuitions...& I call the game there. I'm pleased with myself-- the game was well paced, which is always the hardest. Everyone had fun, I didn't loose anyone, the fight didn't drag, the vignettes worked, the skill challenges worked, the exposition wasn't clumsy, the Players got a chance to role-play & their characters got a chance to grow...yes. Good job, Mordicai Narrator.