(A Dream Half Remembered; Sculpture by Kohei Nawa.)
After meeting with the loathsome Black Jaguar on Golden Scales & following him across the Marchlands to the Black Palace & then escaping from the supernaturally oppressive labyrinth the party finally made it to the Heart of Anise, the secret-most throne room of the Licorice Duke. Each through their own path, a unique way, but all meeting here in the center of the Underpalace. Where, upon his black chair, the Duke Regent, Black Bear on Black Cedar, sits brooding. A profound aura of menace & nobless oblige coming off him in waves. The players make their rolls to approach the throne-- social power is a very real thing in my campaign-- with grace & panache, some coming as dutiful subjects, some as dutiful daughters--cowed by the potent presence of the Licorice Duke-- & one of them coming off an equal, but still feeling the judgement of the Licorice Duke on him like a great lidless eye.
(The Licorice Duke brooding; Thor concept art.)
The Licorice Duke has changed his mask from his pharoah's mask to a more feral, more menacing visage, though still made in the same motif, of the same collapsable, malleable material. Now the Players-- & their Characters-- present themselves to the self-styled Regent, a formal announcement of how they view themselves in the social hierarchy. Curie Firstlight of the Stormstruck Tower announces himself as Gleaner, as subject of Anise, & finds himself very well received. Blue Glory the Nightmare Lotus announces herself as his daughter, & the Winter Champion-- a title honestly come by, unlike her half-brother's airs-- & is greeted by a somewhat icy, but accepting nod. Slumbering Heart Dwells in the Blue House declares himself Duke of No-Where, ambassador to the heir to the Pearl Queen, Miss Glass. The Licorice Duke doesn't quibble or argue, but nor is he impressed by Slumberheart-- he is impassive, but the proper formalities observed (you never know, between Players & dice) he lowers his mask, granting audience.
(Mask of the Licorice Duke; Sekhmet "Stargate Tribute" by Wen JR.)
Revealed, the party can at last take stock of his mood, which seems surprisingly calm; he has made his offer to Slumberheart & Miss Glass, already. He will accept, as proof of her right to the throne of the great domain of the Kingdom, only her ability to appoint him as king of Anise. No other evidence will suffice. That...& it seems like he has an Ace up his sleeve. The Licorice Duke has his wife-- the Spice Drop Duchess Danse Ballet Macabre-- & his heir-- the Sugar Plum Duke Black Jaguar on Golden Scales-- serve the players absinthe, & then he begins to negotiate with Slumberheart. The Licorice Duke is Black Bear on Black Cedars now, talking to Slumberheart who was once his bound companion. Black Bear says that while he always thought they were the Knight & the Courtier, to Slumberheart it was always the Queen & the Champion. They are Honor versus Passion, Loyalty versus Duty, & in each case, they have chosen the opposite.
Vajraratni of Nilashaila from Clan Naga was a samurai of the Peacock Lamas, a pilgrim from the Decadant World, who passed through Anise & was at the Black Palace at the same time Blue Glory & Curie were last here. He traveled with a bag of hands-- panhuman hands-- & said he was on a hejira to find The Angel. The Licorice Duke so impressed him that he said he would return to the Black Palace after he found The Angel, & he would ask The Angel if he should declare the Licorice Duke to be Shogun & spread his rule in the lands to the West. Black Bear relates to his party that Vajraratni of the Blue Mountain returned to the Black Palace recently-- horribly changed by his enlightenment-- & said that the Duke would not be Shogun, but would be Daimyo. He also brought one hand with him, saying that he would meet the traveler on the road whom it was for-- & Curie thinks of the dungeon below the ruined bell tower, & how his created golem Tesla had operated doors that needed an organic hand. Slumberheart speaks then, of the crimes he & Black Bear have committed-- "aristocrats don't have the luxury of guilt or innocence," replies the Licorice Duke-- & speaks of his suspicions that he Licorice Duke's ambition will never be sated. What sort of monarch is a Queen whose territories are governed by petty kings? Black Bear replies by asking Curie-- "when I made you a subject, I promised not to interfere with the Gods or Guilds of Aubade, did I not?"-- & Curie replies that no he hasn't, that the conquest of Aubade has been largely through political coup & is a relatively peaceful annexation.
(Black Bear on Black Cedars, the Licorice Duke; Jason Isaacs in El Escorial Conspiracy.)
Slumberheart is not satisfied. Cannot be satisfied. No compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise. & so the Licorice Duke plays his hand. A hunt, & a game! "The Peacock's Dilemma," Black Bear on Black Cedars calls it, though the Players may recognize it as a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Quite simply, though peacocks are rare in the Marchlands, they are present-- & Black Bear proposes that he & Slumberheart go hunting for them with their individual retinues. After they heal, of course-- Blue Glory, Curie & Slumberheart are all patchwork of stitches & half-healed wounds, some deeper than others. There is no hurry; a week, a fortnight. & when they find the peacock-- the first peacock they find!-- they take it, either alive or dead. & then that determines the wager. If both bring back dead peacocks, then that is it. Slumberheart is exiled & branded a traitor & the Licorice Duke declares war on Miss Glass-- war with his Thorned Paladins, his airships & lightning guns, his Hungry Templars against whatever the (now) False Heir has. If one brings back a live peacock while the other brings back a dead one, then so much the more fool, he! In that case, the one with the dead bird reaps the extreme of their desire-- if Licorice has killed his bird but Slumberheart's is alive, then not only will Miss Glass declare the Licorice Duke as king of Anise, but she will consent to marry his son Black Jaguar; if Slumberheart has killed his bird but Licorice's peacock is alive, then per Slumberheart's decision, they will both abdicate their ducal positions & stand trial for their decade old crimes. If somehow both bring back living birds, then both get a compromised result-- Miss Glass will declare Licorice as king of Anise, but then he will declare her Empress of the World, & will dedicate himself to helping her conquer it. A modest proposal.
(Eight Moons of Delight; Aimee Mullins, photograph by Nick Knight.)
The Licorice Duke is gracious & patient. He's waited for decades; he will gladly wait weeks, while Slumberheart & the rest regain their strength. While that occurs off camera, we shift to Curie Firstlight-- lost amidst the generational aristocratic struggle that Blue Glory & Slumberheart are at the center of-- who is monomaniacally focused on his research & pressing forward with his Cronenberg-esque body-modification. On the way to his Stormstruck Tower-- one of the four pinnacles at each corner of the Black Palace, each of which the Licorice has leased to a savant of some kind-- he is confronted by Eight Moons of Delight. You remember her, the strange cybernetic surgeon from the Lookout Lake Commune. She's one of the geniuses in the Licorice Duke's stable-- a defeated Sugar Plum Baroness-- & she is one of Curie's collegues. Before he can go up to his tower, she starts excitedly in on him, babbling about the Sugarcane Killer, & the other sewn-together homunculi spawned by the tumors of the cancerous Ultra-- well, & the blasphemous theosophy of Maze Strange Kills & Eight Moons of Delight. She remembers how the Sugarcane Killer became sentient, how the stitched parts-- the creatures were made from the amputated limbs of commune dwellers, animated by the diseased & spreading growth of the tumors-- integrated. (Something the Players hadn't gotten, on that adventure, through the vagaries of bad dice rolls.) It was lightning, lightning striking the Sugarcane Killer, burning through the pathways of its body parts, accentuated by the nerve tissue fibers from the biopsied clump of the Ultra's tumors. The incredible energy of the storm's anabaric force-- to use Curie's now accepted terms-- was translated into vitabaric energy-- more of Curie's jargon-- making the body into a sort of capacitor. The power condensed & changed the creature!
(Hubris of the Hanged Man; "Transfer Lighting" by Father of God.)
To Curie, who has been hitting a plateau in his self-surgery investigations, this is a revelation. Not only has he been looking for a breakthrough, but he's been stymied by both his body's immune system rejecting organs & by a sort of anabaric threshold, an inability to overclock his augmented body so to speak. In game terms, Sam has been troubled by the "one Willpower a turn" rule, since activating & using many of his prosthetic-based Powers costs Willpower, which means he can't use Willpower on the roll. A fair point! & so, after healing, after working with Eight Moons of Delight's prototype, after all his preparations have been completed, Curie waits-- & the sky obliges him. & one night, he climbs to the top of the mountain of metal-- the Stormstruck Tower, so called due to its attractive properties since Curie moved his research into it-- & there he is crucified, put out on the Y-shaped cross, a man in the shape of the flux capacitor, & he does not have long to wait. CRACKA BOOM! The Tower is hit by a bolt of lightning, fire from the sky, coursing through Curie's body. Curie rolls to resist dying-- a very real threat-- & comes off singed. The strike goes through him, in one arm & out the other, melting the old him away as it goes, transmuting him into something new. As the eye of the storm hits, in the eerie calm he sees for miles around him, the whole world lit by anabaric light! & then I offer him a choice. Curie had followed the Trump called the Chariot, but his link to it is weak now, the physical manifestation in the form of his white & black draft horses killed. Now, as he hangs on the skeleton of metal & lightning, I offer him the choice to change to The Hanged Man, if he wants, & Sam says yes, & so like that, tetelestai.
(Peacock's nest; lava tube cave, photo by Ansel Adams.)
Then, after a fortnight, the storm passes. Wounds healed, stomachs full, the dirt of the road washed off, our protagonists are ready. They meet with the Licorice Duke, who is there with his destriar A Dream Half Remembered, a white heart covered in bubbles of glass, an oddly beautiful & asymmetrical creature. The Licorice Duke asks Slumberheart who he will be taking as his hunting party, saying that he hoped to take his children, Black Jaguar on Golden Scales & Blue Glory the Nightmare Lotus, along with him. Slumberheart, remembering his crop circle commune with The Moon-- ...let the Sister go to the Father...-- doesn't make Blue Glory choose, but rather takes Lovelace Vespers with him as his second, along with the now almost luminous & alien Curie Firstlight. Blue Glory makes a gift of one of Herakles Vagabond's kittens, now grown-- Herakles Vagabond was her former destriar, & Herakles Nightmare's sire. Guinevere Bellerophon is her name, a hippofelis with stag's antlers, & Lovelace is suitably thankful & impressed. & so the hunt begins! & so, the Wild Hunt begins, the Peacock's Dilemma. It was late in the evening & I decided to run the two sections in abstract & in parallel-- that is, rather than send James into one room to play Slumberheart & Lovelace's hunt & then come back to the room with Tracey to play Blue Glory's hunt with the Licorice Duke & Black Jaguar, I ran it like it would be on television, cutting back & forth between the two. The stakes are, just to be clear, as per the below.
|Licorice lets it live||Licorice kills the bird|
|Slumberheart lets it live||The Licorice King & Empress of the World||The Licorice King & Black Jaguar marries the Heir|
|Slumberheart kills the bird||Both Dukes abdicate & are tried||Slumberheart is exiled & there is war|
(The white peacock & the dark peacock; photographer unknown.)
The first test was a Mental test, a feat of woodscraft to find a Peacock-- Survival, Investigation, that sort of thing. Both groups succeed, despite the peacock's rolls-- I rolled for them, as they are story archetypes in play-- & Slumberheart's group tracked them to a nest in what looks like a collapsed lava flow. Then, a Social test, as Blue Glory saw in her half-brother's eye a gleam, accompanied by the sudden flash of insight that he intended to kill the peacock, resolving the Licorice Duke's answer for him. Slumberheart too succeeds, realizing that Lovelace wants to kill the bird-- if only so she doesn't need to marry Black Jaguar, whose cruelties Blue Glory has warned her of. Instead, Duke Slumberheart & Curie convince her to help capture it alive. & so, the Physical test! Slumberheart, Lovelace & Curie come across two peacocks, fighting-- a nacreous albino peacock & a dark peacock possessed of brilliant, hidden colours. I ask Slumberheart to pick, & he chooses the black bird. An important symbolic moment, as I inform James-- the white bird symbolizing the Pearl Queen, of course, & the black bird symbolizing Miss Glass. A meaningful dousing of the torch Slumberheart has carried for the Pearl Queen, a passing of that flame to Miss Glas. Harder, of course, to take the bird alive than to take it dead. Well, for Slumberheart, it isn't so hard; Curie's necrolectrical research has given him the ability to sap the vital life force of a creature, without killing it, which he does to the peacock; a horrid draining that leaves it alive but empty of the will to resist. Which leaves, of course, the hunt of the Licorice Duke. It is, quite frankly, in the hands of Black Bear's children. I leave it in their hands; a roll off. If Blue Glory wins, with her tip off of Black Jaguar's motives, she can choose to stop his attempt to kill it...or let him, if she so desires. If Black Jaguar wins the contested roll...then his javelin will fly true, & end the bird. The dice rattle, & roll...& Blue Glory the Nightmare Lotus wins, coaxing Black Jaguar's destriar to toss him off before he can throw his projectile. & so, the verdict: two living birds! Black Bear on Black Cedars will be King of Anise, & Miss Glass will be Empress of the World!