(The Bride in Black;"Bloody" by Jenn Violetta.)
Sunday was the season finale for my Oubliette campaign, & it was a humdinger of a time. It was tricky to schedule-- Sam had surgery, for one thing-- & even with trying to be flexible, we still lost Radarless at the last moment. It was a shame, because the party had been split up-- we did the finale for Curie & Blue Glory, & this was the finale for his character Long Cleaver & toughlad"s character Duke Slumberheart, in theory-- with the sociopathic & incestuous twins Tif'eret Herald & Raphael Herald along for the ride. It has been a long time since we did a Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms & Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on the Hill storyline, & we've wrapped up the alternate storyline, so in order to move forward, we had to have the finale. Since Radarless didn't make it, I was thrown pretty substantially off-kilter; I had a lot of stuff prepared for him & some stuff that required him, so I had to rejigger it on the fly. I never really recovered, actually-- I was an anxious mess the rest of the evening, & had some frustrating set becks that got under my skin more than they should. I think everyone had fun, so it was a successful evening, but I think I made a lot of mistakes & there were some attempts at imaginative rule use that fell flat. I shook it off thanks to the encouragement of my Players, so know big deal, but there was a cloud! A death cloud.
In the last session of their story arc, Long Cleaver doubled up on the hallucinogenic Vurt inspired feathers-- twice the incredibly copious amount of psychoactives-- so I decided the easiest way of dealing with Radarless' absence was to have his character's overdose stick around a bit. His system was fried, his alchemical humors drastically out of balance! He was close to a coma when we'd last left him, so it wasn't much of a stretch to put him out of action. That way we were able to sort of put him to the side right from the outset without trying to juggle where he was, what he was doing. So, exit Long Cleaver by means of enforced bed rest at the Innocent Youth Convent. Alright...time to put your thoughts in order, Mordicai, you are the Narrator! Luckily I have a chance to stall for time-- Slumberheart decides to put Mother Superior Gremory Grigori to the question. He has her lay her hands on the table & the puts his atop hers...& rolls four successes on his Manipulation plus Intimidate. Meanwhile, Raphael sits by the window, looking down to see if anyone approaches, while Tif'eret & Carkoon, the Adept of Arioch they met a few sessions ago & who holds Slumberheart's parole, watch on.
(Jadis Aeon; "Necromancer" by Keith Thompson.)
When Slumberheart questions Gremory about who left Glasiya, the girl who they believe to be the heir of the Pearl Queen, her eyes become bloodshot. Slumberheart presses, & the capillaries burst...then blood begins to drip from her nose, & ultimately her ears. Slumberheart tries to justify his "enhanced interrogation" by asking of Mother Gremory has abused the children, & no doubt she has! Tif & Raph are more concerned that she invokes the name of The Authority, the infernal deity of the Church of Antiphon. As diabolist heretics themselves, they hate that. The Players & I laugh about it, summarizing it as a bunch of Cthulhu worshipers getting their rage on about a bunch of Satan worshipers. Slumberheart sends Gremory into shock, her brain shutting down, as Raphael spots a woman, mounted, with a riderless horse & a donkey in tow. It is Jadis Aeon, the woman they met when they first crossed the border from Anise into Antiphon, in the city of Antipater. The one who introduced them to Carkoon, in fact. Carkoon goes down to let her in, & up she comes to speak with our protagonists.
(Gate of Purgatory guarded by the Indulgent Few; illustration by James Paick.)
Jadis coaxes them to come with her to Scholomance-- the school in the mountains run by The Devil. The actual Devil, that is. They take ten students a year, who study for a decade...& then nine graduate. Tif'eret was selected to go, once, & she stole away with her brother Raphael, on the run ever since. Slumberheart leaves the office of the Mother Superior with Jadis & Carkoon while Raphael takes the opportunity to shoot Mother Gremory in the gut with an arrow, transfixing her to the wall. He guarantees her a slow death while drawing runes on her face in her own blood. Charming. Slumberheart grabs the oldest postulant at the Youth Convent-- one of the eleven year olds-- & gives them a thousand yard stare while instructing him to change Long Cleaver's bed pans. Does it seem like the Antiphon game is about some Lawful Evil characters & some Chaotic Evil characters going on an adventure? It sure seems that way to me! Off they go-- but first, at the feet of the mountains, they must pass through the Gate of Purgatory. Jadis says she can get them through, as long as they can avoid calling attention to themselves or crying out for vengeance when someone mentions a religion they don't like. They agree, make some Manipulation plus Stealth or Wits plus Subterfuge checks, & they are through. Not before sharing the symbolic hospitality gift of the Indulgent Few-- crucifixion wine! That is, wine passed through the body of a crucified person, passed through the spear wound after their death. Bitter with kidney bile! Also of note, James described the helms of the Indulgent Few as "war mitres."
(Inquisitor of the Hand that Injures; photo by Daniel Valdez.)
On they go; Raphael & Tif'eret mutter among themselves, sickened by the sacrament of the wine but cheered by its morbid origins. Slumberheart walks alongside his supernatural mount, White Bodhisattva Anointed by Rosewater, the albino elk with a human face. She won't consent to carry Slumberheart as he descends into the nadir of wickedness. Raphael rides the spare horse-- Jadis mentions off-hand that its rider was killed by Pazuzu, who shot at the party earlier in the week. Tif'eret rides the donkey, which turns to bite her-- it can sense the corruption in her heart, but she whispers to it & soothes it. Jadis Aeon leads the way & Carkoon brings up the rear, in his sledge pulled by a team of dogs. Suddenly the incredibly acute senses everyone-- Raphael's woodscraft, Tif'eret's sixth sense & Slumberheart's iaidō make them all basically un-ambushable. If a tree falls in the forest, & no one is around to hear it-- Slumberheart, Tif'eret & Raphael probably hear it anyway.
(Inquisitor of the Hand that Injures; Artist unknown.)
A tree does fall; as the party are dismounted, leading their mounts across a cliff edge bordered by a forest, a massive tree trunk crashes down, separating Carkoon's sledge & dogs from the rest of the group. Tif'eret sends her raven familiar into the trees-- he flaps above a place & Raphael starts raining a hail of arrows down on it. Out of the trees come two other figures, dressed in waistcoats & with knives for hands. Judging from their demeanor-- & some successful Empathy rolls-- they are Inquisitors, & were manning a checkpoint. The fantastic equivalent of a drunk driving stop. Too late now, blood is on the ground! They speak in Baal-- which most of the party doesn't understand-- & it is sort of a blood bath. Oh sure, they cut the party up a little, but the one Raphael was shooting at runs away, as does one of the other two. The third is not so lucky & ends up dead. I used a few Freddy Kreuger minis-- they were paired with the Jason minis I'd used before. I had a few neat mechanics-- the Inquisitors only dealt one point of damage at a time but rolled any extra successes as a second attack with no Defense-- which would have worked well if I'd outnumbered the party. I didn't though-- I had adjusted the balance of the fight since Long Cleaver wasn't there but I think I might have over-tipped towards "too easy." Still, I think we all enjoyed ourselves, & it is fun when Player Characters get to be total bad-asses.
(The Ruined Ruined Sinagogue; art by Robh Ruppel.)
After Raphael's horse freaks out & runs over the side of the cliff, on account of all the blood, the party moves on. They come across a building nestled in the mountains-- a "Sinagogue," because they are in the devil-worshipper country & I have no shame when it comes to puns. I think Gary Gygax taught us that there is nothing wrong with a little wordplay! The structures are all linked by skybridges-- rope bridges with the occasional slat of wood, the occasional guideline to lean against-- so the players make Resolve plus Athletics checks to clambor about. It isn't that bad, they find-- once you get used to the height & the bridges. If Blue Glory on Dark Water was with them, she'd be climbing all over the place! The party also discovers that the Sinagogue has been ransacked, & is now a total ruin. But why? It is recent, as well; someone cut key structural support, tore through like a tornado, just in the past few days. They investigate, with Slumberheart & Raphael turning up...loads & loads of paperwork about...vampires?
(Illuminated manuscript; "Dante & Virgil in Hell" by William Adolphe Bouguereau.)
…at first we welcomed the Hemophages, for the helped stem the Tide of Iron, & for a great while that was what we valued most highly. We paid for our freedom in blood, but it seemed better to be bled little by little by hungry teeth in the night then all at once, bowels spilling across the chainblades of an automata. What little remained from the technocrats who had come before us should have warned us—they called them the Anticulture—but we accepted them, invited them in to our homes, because we were so eager to be rid of the yoke of Iron. And I would pay the weregild again, if I had to. When…
53: Eye contact? Bad idea.
Q: Why is that?
53: The eyes are the window to the soul. Missus Candle is nothing but a pure soul.
Q: Why do you always say “missus”?
53: That is the way they talk. They show proper respect.
Q: So it is all Mister & Missus?
53: No, stupid. Only the old ones are Mister & Missus.
Q: What are the young ones, then?
53: Miss & Master. Are you a fucking moron?
Q: Master sounds better than Mister.
53: You are an idiot. I’m going to eat your fucking face.
The vampire’s anatomy is not a simple matter. Indeed, as time wears on them, though they may or may not reOain human to the eye, internally it is another matter entirely. As you might exOect, the organs shrivel from disuse—but the changes are far more widespread than that. In tOme, even the skeleton of the creature dissolves. The infection in the heart OOreads through the veins, turning thOm fibrous & hard. Like a starfish, the vampire operates by means of a vascular system—the tubes whichOhold its blood are its skeleton & its muscles & its nervous system. In fact, the heart acts lOke a second brain, & in fact maO be the primary seat of conciousness.
The Alphas have driven them back, to four strong holds. Of course the leeches adapted to them—freakishly so. The bloodsuckers just flocked to the most inhospitable locations they could find. What do those clammy bastards care? One of them is a volcano, another is the abandoned starport, one is in the middle of the Inner Sea, & the last is a cave complex on the edge of the Fractals. The Alphas are responding by starving them out. The people being displaced from their homes don’t like it, but it seems to be working. Damned if I know what will happen.
Xix, Lord Sun, we pray to you for relief. We have sacrificed the horse & anointed the child, but we have no succor! You have hidden your face from us for a fortnight & they have not left us, lord Xix! Xviii is black as well, her face hidden & it is not her wolves who run among us, reaving. It is Death & Death’s Children. Xix come again, for they do not walk on two legs or four when you are in the sky! We have no more horses & no more children, for the nightwalkers have taken them all. Only we are left, here, & they will come for us soon, if you do not rise.
(Charts on the nature of Vampires; "Daemon" by Weyer.)
Thym said it was a crypt, but I think Ydon is right—it was a den. I spoke truth when I called the man a berserker; like a bear he slept. He must have slept for ages. Luwke doesn’t look like he will make it through the day; he is pale and the leeches of the witch doctor won’t feed from him. If the berserker returns, he will have earned Luwke’s oar, but I fear he might mean to take Ydon’s place as captain. I will not stand against the Sleeper. I saw what he did to Luwke and to Cef with his bare hands & bear teeth.
Reproduction is [ ]ot entirely clear to me. A simple bite won’t transmit the inf[ ]ction, not if the victim dies, not if the victim lives. Nor does a transfer of fluids in the opposite direction necess[ ]rily doom the victim, though there does seem to be a bond of some kind. No, I suspect that a curse is inv[ ]lved. From what I can tell from Case Study 53, there seems to be an aspect to the infection that is psychological in nature, ur[ ]ing the prospective vampire to su[ ]cide & to new heights of wickedness. A voice, comp[ ]lling them—though 53 i[ ]sists it is his own voice, his “shadow.” Despite this “Shadow,” 53 remains unaffected by the tr[ ]ditional banes of sunlight, garlic & silver.
“The vampire knew things. Remembered things.” He slid his chair over. “Things from the Olden Times, from before there were Kings among us.” I knew he was lying then. I knew old things myself, things that I had read on the stone table, heard from the golden cenotaph. I let him keep talking. “In the age before the Kings walked among the Sheep, there was a world of Clockwork.” I nodded to let him keep talking. I could tell he wanted my sex & braggadocio made him talkative. “They have tools, caches. They can go to the places where the living cannot. Places where the Hands of the Gods could only go.” He was on to something there—you remember the fossils we discovered—so I let him slip his hand down my shirt. “Down in the belly of the ground, they find the secrets meant for no Man & no King. They have taken them for their own. Because they are so old, their past is not our history—it is our future.” I knew I had him then, so I drew him close to my lips.
…Symbiosis? No…perhaps a kind of symnecrosis. It is important not to be distracted from the anatomical changes—the fiends are not alive, are not a part of nature. Not a nature of any world, for they are no alien creature. They are against nature, as undead as the folk tales would imply…
(Bishop of the Hand that Injures; Sam Archer as "Edward Scissorhands.")
Clearly, the Sinagogue was some kind of library, or a storage site for files, or something-- a monastery of scribes, who can say? No one can, because eerily, there are no bodies to be found. While recently destroyed, it was almost just as recently occupied...so where did everyone go? Eerie. Slumberheart wonders that their pursuit of the Man in Black-- a hemophage, so they say-- brought them to a library of vampiric lore. Carkoon points out that if you were a vampire, you'd be more likely to show up at a place that had something to do with vampires than a place that didn't, neh? Tif'eret's raven caws out to her-- in the bird-tongue that only she understands-- that it has found "bad smelling iron," & Tif'eret goes over to check it out. I have her make a Intelligence plus Mechanics (& everyone else, eventually) but no one can puzzle it out. Makes you wish you had Curie with you, but he's off in Aubade. It is a metal tube, with handles on each end, painted red. There is dramatic tension here-- it clearly is a bomb, the Players realize it is a bomb, but the Characters don't. We all grit our teeth as Tif'eret shakes it (roll a chance die...) & kicks it (roll a chance die...) out of frustration. Eventually Jadis comes over to look at it-- & start backing away very, very slowly, informing the rest of them that it is an "incendiary device." In fact, when the horrible giant with scissorhands comes in through the back, she doesn't even look at him, keeping her sauce-wide eyes on the bomb.
(Inquisitors of the Hand that Injures, Moloch & the Bishop of the Hand that Injures.)
The Sinagogue straddles two sides of a mountain pass-- the doors at one end lead out onto one slope, & the doors out the other side lead down the opposite slope. The windows are fairly big-- about twice the size of the ones in Sam & Tracey's apartment, I point out. The only way across is through the Sinagogue. The monstrous figure has come through the set of doors that the party did not come through-- & he is enormous. All Alphas are tall-- Duke Slumberheart is a cool seven & a half feet-- but some are enormous. This Alphas is probably shy of nine feet, but just, & unlike Slumberheart, he's no beanpole. His hands too are sets of knives, & he walks around in a crouch, almost on all fours. He starts right off asking careful questions-- looking from face to face-- putting things together. It is the mentant training! "Cavalier of Anise...an Alpha...that must be the black sheep Duke, Slumberheart...Demon Prince of Arioch, that must be Carkoon, Adept of the Order of the Dog...ah, that would make these the Herald twins, the terrors of The Traveler...& you must be Jadis Aeon of Antipater...on the road to Scholomance?" oh he's certainly piercing things together-- he is the Bishop of the Hand that Injures, the superior of the Inquisitors met on the road. "We can't let him escape," whispers Jadis to Tif'eret.
(Moloch's face in the window; artist unknown.)
& they don't! They fall upon him. The Bishop, meanwhile, keeps peeking out the windows behind them. Raphael lets fly with arrows, Carkoon sics his pack of mastiffs on him, Slumberheart swords him & Tif'eret pins his arm with a whip. I had a few mechanics in play that I was trying out-- I gave him armor that soaked some of the damage automatically, as I'd talked about, as well as a could other tweaks. Notably, the wounds he left bled for a point every round, which is a pretty substantial thing in the World of Darkness, & he had multiple attacks, including the ability to attack every enemy adjacent to him. Tracey, playing Tif'eret, decided to get her whip around his arm, & that really changed the fight-- I figured that hey, using multiple attacks wouldn't make sense. She had a winning strategy & it really impacted things. Good job, teamwork! Slumberheart eventually cuts off his other hand-- chopping at the wrist again & again-- & the Bishop tries to fall on his fingerblades, but to no avail. Carkoon has been psyching himself up into his berserker Warp Frenzy, & he sprints forward, dervishing about him with his enormous buster sword. He cleaves the Bishop in two & then his dogs descend on the body. Slumberheart feels something shrivel & die within him-- finally, a failed Humanity check! He holds his head, mumbling...which is when they notice. The thing in the window. The picture, you'll note, is framed; I explain to them that it is to scale, that the thing in the window is a giant with those signature knives for hands. That is when I put down the giant Troll Blood Reaver mini, & they all decide to run! Eff whoever that is! Run for it!
(Phlegethon Falls; "Horsetail Falls" by Rob Kroenert.)
They flee (Jadis has already gone with the better part of valor) & in fleeing Curie fires an arrow at the "incendiary device." He rolls a fairly tremendous amount of damage, & besides which the wounds he deals are infused with the hate & malice of The Traveler, so yeah, I'm going to let that work. The bomb erupts with greater force than I think the players expected-- I wasn't fooling around! It spews out white phosphorus, a plume of fire & doom, burning burning! Balefire, the very air igniting. Jadis is clear, since she ran earlier-- & took Rosewater with her. An odd pairing, since Jadis apparently ran the extermination camp back in the city of Antipater & Rosewater is...well, an almost holy sort of white hart. They all are hit by the blaze, but Raphael worst of all; he's hurt, badly. Tif'eret sees to his wounds, & so in a fit of charity I let her reduce his hurt to three aggravated points of damage. I had to think about it, & have Sam go "what!" when I tried to leave him with a bunch of lethal on top of that. He was right to speak up; his character would basically be out of commission for the rest of the session, but this way he's terribly injured but still able to have agency. After resting up, they head onward, & come to the Phlegethon Falls, where Jadis Aeon assures them they will find the entrance to Scholomance. First-- after a hard night & morning of hiking-- they will stop at the Sinagogue of the Last Supper, where they expect that others on the quest to enter Scholomance will be waiting. Here Carkoon parts ways with them again; they were surrounded on two fronts at the last sinagogue but his circling around at the Innocent Youth Convent worked well, so he'll try that tactic again. He reminds Slumberheart of his oath, & then departs.
(Sinagogue of the Last Supper; Mount Athos, photograph unknown.)
As they enter the Sinagogue of the Last Supper, an ominous silence greets them, much as it did in the ruined Sinagogue. They are no fools; Tif'eret & Slumbering Heart Dwells on the Hill wait outside while Raphael goes into scout. "Maybe I should come with you?" asks Duke Slumberheart, but Raphael scoffs, knowing he is the sneakiest one by far-- don't you wish Blue Glory was here? Jadis is standing far in the rear; she's not about to stick her neck out. Raphael canvases the first floor-- a common eating hall with four different kitchens. Must be like a food court, with different selections from cuisines. He prowls up the stairs, finding that the second floor is a sort of "ski lodge" area, replete with bearskin rugs & mounted furs-- even one from a wooly mammoth! Sunlight streams in the windows as he stealthily explores the four towers that were kitchens below; they are temporary living spaces, subdivided by folding screens. There is another floor up top, a creaking third story, unexplored. Meanwhile, downstairs Tif'eret & Slumberheart put their heads together to think-- what is going on here? It seems like the Last Supper Sinagogue has just recently been abandoned-- within a day, within hours-- but again, where is everyone? & it occurs them both, suddenly-- they never checked the basement in the last Sinagogue...
(The Man in Black;still from Tron: Legacy.)
Cue the Man in Black slithering up from the stairwell, followed by his counterpart the Bride in Black. The Man in Black--who they have heard called "Kettle" before-- is still in the science-fiction garb he got at the Terror Wolf Mob creche, but the Bride in Black is in quasi-military garb, as the Man in Black was when they first saw him & when they pursued him after Lookout Lake. The Bride in Black is certainly Glasiya; they can recognize her from her feather flashbacks; like when they saw her at the Baobab Palace, she bears grievous wounds-- but different wounds--on her face. The emerge as Raphael comes back downstairs, & as Slumberheart & Tif'eret rush in-- Jadis isn't about to risk her life, & Carkoon is nowhere to be found. There is a stare down! & this was really frustrating to me. kingtycoon has spoken at length about Legend of the Five Rings' use of the "raise" system, so I tried to port it over, sort of like the bidding phase of a game of poker. Tumble weed blowing across, fingers flinching over sword hilts, Ennio Morricone playing, eyes squinted & staring. Since World of Darkness has a success based system, I think it would work in concept...but I really didn't have a coherent plan. I thought I did, & I figured it would all come together, but...it really didn't. It ended up being kind of a mess, but both Raphael & Slumberheart rolled exceptionally well, & Tif'eret met her "bid" so I wanted to give them something. It was an "arrgh" moment until I just decided to give Duke Slumberheart & Raphael Herald all their Willpower back, & Tif'eret a single point back. It did not go as planned, but next time I try something like that I need to know what I'm doing. Learning moment! With that sorted out, the Man in Black tossed out his murder ball & he & the Bride in Black fled back into the stairwell.
(The Man in Black & the Bride in Black; photo by Mordicai.)
The group make short work of the murder ball-- Tif'eret whips it ("I want it!") & while the murder ball's buzzing saw blades shred through the leather, she holds it in place long enough for Raphael to clip it with an arrow, knocking it spinning & grinding into a wooden support beam, where it lodges by way of the prodruding blades, well & truly stuck. Slumberheart pursues up one flight of stairs; Raphael goes with him, followed eventually by Tif'eret, who is warned by her raven familiar that the basement has more "fire-irons." Up top, The Man in Black sees them & rushes forward. The mammoth & bear skins have been hung in front of the windows, & blocking the sun. Raphael shoots an arrow at the Man in Black, while Slumberheart stands before him on the defensive-- the Man in Black has a sword of yellowed bone that flickers & moves impossibly fast, everywhere at once, an electron cloud of blades-- a Possible Sword, that just happens to be the same colour as the broken shard of a sword that Slumberheart bears. The Man in Black strikes, pushing past Slumberheart & Rapheal, then back, dragging Tif'eret with him-- he darts forward, grabs her by the hair, & then pulling her to the center of the room. Well, Tif'eret doesn't like that & Raphael doesn't like it much either-- he puts an arrow into the Man in Black as Tif'eret Herald twists & cuts her hair, wrenching free & to the opposite side of the room. With that, the Man in Black holds up a slim tube in his hand, & presses a button. BOOM! The same incendiary devices as were at the ruins are her!
The floor of the second story collapses, erupting with flame. Whoosh! I cover the four corners of the maps with fire-- spreading out from the cellars below the four kitchens, & increasing them by a hex every turn. I also start counting down on my checklist to smoke inhalation! Things are tense-- the Man in Black has taken some punishment from the group, but is still standing. Given his undead physiology, who can say how he is doing? Raphael has been aiming for his heart-- that is his take away from the notes at the ruined Sinogogue. That isn't his concern now, as he is separated from his beloved sister Tif'eret by gouts of flame! The Man in Black snakes his way downstairs, almost liquid, but Slumberheart follows, meeting him in the center of the room. They stare at each other, Slumberheart deep in an iaidō trance of No-Thought, the Man in Black inscrutable behind his black visor. They lunge at each other in unison-- Duke Slumbering Heart Dwells on the hill buries the Broken Sword up to its hilt, shattering the helmet like safety glass-- & the Man in Black just grabs Slumberheart's mirror mask, throwing it to the floor & smashing it to pieces.
Upstairs, Raphael & Tif'eret are rolling chance dice-- & Tif's comes up a 1. The floor collapses! She falls, under beams, choking in the smoke. Raphael jumps down after her, running through the fire, heedless of the horrid burns being added to his already fire-scarred body. The mask broken, The Man in Black is back at the stairwell, & headed down now, into the inferno-- & upstairs, Slumberheart hears the Bride in Black call for "help." He is torn between chasing after the Man in Black or rescuing the heir of the Pearl Queen. Just for one agonizing second. Raphael is not cursed with such doubt, covering Tif'eret in the mammoth leather & preparing to throw her through the window. He knows the back draft will be fatal, but he will leap through it, tossing his sister's coughing form, praying to the Traveler for the best. At the last minute, however, Tif'eret twists, pushing him out-- saving him but damning herself. Up on the second floor, Slumberheart asks The Bride in Black "do you trust me?" & when she says yes he asks her "do you forgive me?" & with that, he switches from Thorned-- given over to his Vices-- to Petaled. & win's Rosewater's aid-- when he & Glasiya go to the window, his mount White Bodhisattva Anointed with Rosewater is there-- almost a unicorn. They get out safely...while on the other side, the terminal Tif'eret says her final goodbyes to her lover-brother Raphael. When she perishes at last, Raphael uses the final dregs of his unholy strength to walk over to Slumberheart & say to him-- "You did this."
(Map of Antiphon to date; by Mordicai.)