(Miss Glass; photo by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison.)
After a very long hiatus, we played my Oubliette campaign on Sunday & had quite an invigorating time. Three months is a long time to have between sessions, but between schedules & stress & the D&D Next playtest that was how long it took to regroup the wagons & continue on our journey on the Oregon Trail. Proverbially speaking, of course; last session saw them still in Arioch, having uncovered a THRONE in a weird place of bio-organic tentacles & necro-electric ghosts. Touching it, James' character Slumbering Heart Dwells in the Blue House's pricked his hand & developed a case of what I can only call Kirby thumb, the fallout of which remains to be seen. I brought a bottle of sparkling red-- there is this Australian sparkling Shiraz that I really like to take to people's apartments, as it is a great novelty-- & given the insane heat & humidity, we popped it as soon as it was done chilling in the freezer. We started out with an experience point recap, giving them a chance to spend what they've earned so far. Everyone is just under a hundred & fifty experience, which is...a pretty massive amount. Tracey bought Nightmare O for Blue Glory; tapping into the supernatural & biological connection between herself & her destriar Herakles Nightmare & giving her the ability to make her enemies flee in primal fear. Sam bought Curie First-Light his third dot of Medicine, & James is saving up to buy Slumberheart his fifth dot of Resolve.
(Carkoon, Order of the Dog & Demon Prince; art by Guangjian Huang.)
They'd also rescued Carkoon, Adept of the Order of the Dog, last session. He had been entranced by a black ring in the nest of curling wire & tubes, until Blue Glory the Nightmare Lotus smashed it, after a bit of Kabuki dream-theater. Carkoon has been a great deuteragonist since we first met him in Antiphon, then he became officially Duke Slumberheart's rival during the decade downtime between seasons. Now he seems (according to rumors spread by his brother) to be killing the other members of his family-- for along with being a member of the Adeptus, he's also a Demon Price, a noble of Arioch, & seventh in line for the throne. Or he was seventh, until his siblings started dying off; now he's second in line, after the aforementioned brother, Kaldane. Now Carkoon is the only one who knows where Miss Glass-- the heir to the throne & would-be empress-- is hiding.
(Basillica of Usury & Ransom; "Black Sepulcher " by Kekai Kotakai.)
Since there had been a bit of a caesura between games, I started with Carkoon taking the party to a hidden bunker, an underground hiding place. They rested up-- Slumberheart & Curie were both wounded & everyone was (literally) drained & exhausted-- & I asked everyone to clarify their relationship with Carkoon. Slumberheart summed it up succinctly as "frenemy," Curie felt a little "jealous" of Carkoon's good looks, though found him too pretty for his personal taste & Blue Glory surprisingly felt "attraction." Since she is a sacred virgin, this is interesting information, & it surprised both me & Tracey equally. A fun twist. Carkoon took them from his hidden bomb shelter across odd landscapes-- the temperature in Arioch is warm & humid, in part because of the BLUE SUN sitting fat on the horizon. Even during the night it glows a strange twilight hue of azure. The foliage here is green, yes, but with a significant minority of it red or black-- other photopigments-- all curled & brambled. Crossing this, they come to The Basillica of Usury & Ransom, an abandoned cathedral with a massive telescope, surrounded by...corpses. Slaves are not usually given a proper resting place, but the now-empty church let them bring their dead & erect the heads on stakes so that they could have some recognition, leaving the body to rot below. The grisly scene is made something worse by Curie stumbling in his massive exoskeleton & tumbling into a pile of decaying flesh.
(Grand Pardoner Eldil; "Mikaeusby" by Chris Rahn.)
The Basilica of Usury & Ransom has been left to the elements & it has aged hard; the walls are broken open in many places, though the giant angelic statues guarding it still loom, reminding all of Vajraratni of Nilashaila from Clan Naga & his tales of the archangels of love, judgement & temperance. Out of one of those gaps comes an Alpha with blue skin, dressed in robes of blue with a golden tricorn hat & a smashed crozier-- A Grand Pardoner of the Hierarchy, the cryptocult of Arioch. Grand Pardoner Eldil beckons them in, & sits them in pews. He has Praetorians there with him acting as guards, all in heavy armor painted blue. Slumberheart's increasingly cruel mount, The White Bodhisattva Anointed in Rose Water, waits outside, refusing to enter the cathedral. Curie escorts his mount, the canine cyborg Fenrir Stormstruck, to the stables, & then cleans the gore off his armor in a spare trough. When they come back, the Grand Pardoner meets them in the main chamber of the church-- roughly the size of Madison Square Garden-- & asks them point blank why they think they are worthy of serving the princess, Miss Glass. Curie says that he has discovered The Philosopher's Stone & created life...which is...a really good answer. Carkoon says that he has murdered his family & intends to make her his bride. Blue Glory is the ambassador from Anise, & personally, when pressed, she'd like to meet the future ruler.
(Treasonous Tinidril; "Inner Demons" by Jerry Bennet, Manchester & Alex London.)
Duke Slumberheart on the other hand is in no mood; he tries to walk past the Grand Pardoner but loses a staredown. Loses a staredown! It is important to note that Slumberheart is built in the grand tradition of the ijatsu duelist. Not just in sword play, but in honor psyche out, too. Slumberheart brings big handfuls of dice to his staredown challenge. The Grand Pardoner, however, is no joke either; you don't get to be one of the leaders of a weird & decadant church without knowing a thing or two about psychology. Instead Slumberheart sulks off. It was actually a really great Joss Whedon moment, for me, very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, very "Refusal of the Call." I like that there was an emotional obstacle that had to be overcome. & then, when Slumberheart turns the corner, trying to find out where Miss Glass is in this stadium-sized ruin, he runs into Tinidril, his former lover & ally, member of the Ordo Equus.
(Vampiric Tinidril; "Inner Demons" by Jerry Bennet, Manchester & Alex London.)
Or does he? During the Kabuki dream-theater last session, Slumberheart got wrapped up deeply in the psychodrama, & James rolled a dramatic failure, leaving him with a touch of what I can only describe as "Head Six" from Battlestar Galactica. The "white Tinidril" (played by Sam) counsels him to abandon everyone, to kill Carkoon or set out on his own; she's interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the party, who came looking for him, like friends would. ("Do you think your character is friends with Slumberheart?" I ask the players, when James is out of the room). They return to Grand Pardoner Eldil, when the "black Tinidril" (played by Tracey) takes control of Slumberheart's hand & draws his sword. What is this! Slumberheart pulls it off as "drawing his sword to salute" however, so there are no dire consequences, besides everyone thinking he's crazy...but then, he's an Alpha, they are all crazy. He shows the Grand Pardoner his burned hand-- he strips off the cybernetic vambrace on his arm-- & shows the scars from the burns he gained rescuing Miss Glass from the fire in Antiphon, saying he would have let it all burn to save her.
(Xat & Zode & Zode & Xat; photos by Manuel Albarran.)
& who should come to take them to the Heir but...the twins, Xat & Zode! &...Zode & Xat? Not just twins, but quadruplets? Wait, remember the Xat & Zode that didn't remember Slumberheart? Yes, indeed, the Zodes & Xats confirm that they are in fact clones. Xat & Zode are some of Slumberheart's old friends from his day's as a gladiator here in the fallen world, along with Carkoon, Tinidril, Pardoner Hnakra & Doktor Ghek. With incredible, inhuman alacrity, they tear up a brick section of the floor-- pulling out huge mortar stones with ease-- revealing a secret tunnel descending downward. Curie, ever the archeologist Gleaner, figures that this catacomb dates to an older church, predating The Basilica of Usury & Ransom, & they zig-zag down about four stories before ending up in sections that remind the of the excavated tunnels of Aubade, only instead of rediscovered, these chambers seem to have been preserved, shored up with the crumbling technology of increasingly primitive architecture styles, putting on layers of history.
(Cloning & hypersleep tanks; art by Daniel Ljunggren.)
Xat & Zode (& Zode & Xat) provide a nice piece of comic relief, as well as a window into how the people of Arioch view Slumberheart-- as a barbarian-- & his friends. Blue Glory they see as a sort of idealized savage, as well; a cross between a hunter & a shaman. Curie is a strange case; he knows a lot about how the weird stuff that the people of the Decadent World take for granted, but at the same time, they aren't all that curious about how the weird devices & thaumaturgies they use actually work. The Xats & Zodes do mention that their accelerated physical speed comes at the cost of accelerated physical aging; they take the group through a room filled with metal tanks adorned with strange spines, twitching, & say those are both the cloning tanks & "hypersleep" chambers, where they rest in-between missions. The tanks are finnicky & not every clone is viable, nor is every cryosleep safe, though Curie wonders if he can't get the rate of malfunction lower. Besides, they sell off some of "themselves" as slaves, waiting till the time is right to "reactivate" them, which explains Kaldane's bodyguards. Slumberheart asks if the original Xat & Zode are still around & the foursome shrug nonchalantly & say that they dedicated all of their organic material to the process. The memories of the first pair seem to be shuffled around between clones, as well, as a sort of redundancy. The pair of duos bring our heroes to a massive blast door & depart, saying they haven't earned the right to meet the princess, but look forward to having a chance to do so.
(Levée of Miss Glass; photo by Emmanuelle Brisson.)
& at long last, Miss Glass, vampiric princess & heir of the Pearl Queen, comes on stage. First seen veiled, with The Man in Black, it wasn't until several sessions later that she battled with the party who believed she was there as an assassin, & called her "The Pale Bride." When Slumberheart & the Hungry Templar Long Cleaver of a Thousand Helms traveled the demon-haunted land of Antiphon with the incestuous Herald twins, they experienced some of her childhood growing up in a convent, & ultimately Slumberheart rescued her & fled with her to Arioch, seeing her only again in the prophetic dreams of the Crystal Cave. Now incarnate in the narrative for the first time, she sits on one of three long black boxes in front of a heavily fortified window, with dozens of butterflies drinking her perspiration like nectar (pictured above). She asks the party to help her get ready-- for Blue Glory to help he slip into a shift, for Curie to help her with her slippers, for Carkoon & Slumberheart to help wash her with sponges-- & it is clear that she isn't helpless but rather establishing intimacy with them, as Charlemagne & Louis XIV did, through the ablution. The ceremony of the levée.
(Miss Glass, Grand Pardoner Eldil & Praetorians, Master Lace; photo by me.)
In direct counterpoint to what the Grand Pardoner asked, Miss Glass asks them all what she could do to be worthy of being queen. "Empress," corrects Blue Glory, & she & Slumberheart tell the details of The Peacock's Dilemma, & the plan negotiated by Duke Slumberheart & the Licorice Duke-- that the Licorice Duke would recognize her authority only if she used it to king him, but that then he would support her as empress & help conquer the world. She accepts this ambitious proposal-- a flicker of envy in the eyes of Carkoon-- & Slumberheart was much relieved, since as James said, if she had refused he would have been expected to commit seppuku. Miss Glass only hints at her plans-- she makes it clear that the three boxes in her room are vampires, slumbering during the daylight-- but she says she doesn't intend to let the world fall into darkness, but rather to bring a beautiful twilight, dusk & dawn. She speaks of the vampires as being like wolves, & mentions that wolves were turned into dogs by the hands of panhumans. Curie tells Miss Glass of the THRONE & the strange portents spoken by the fossil automata from the first session & the one kept by the Untergraf, as well as the cryptic mutterings of the Ultra below Lookout Lake & the automata in Noam's dreams. "My sister is alive?" says Miss Glass, very much surprised, going on to say that their mother The Pearl Queen set them up with one raised by Automata & the other aligned with the Haemophages. That was the basis of the legendary War of Iron; the machines kept the people like cattle, & the people invited in the vampires to defeat them, in the year of the 666th king. "Cycle 29B hex..." whispers Curie.
(Eunuch Berserker, Heresiarchs & Mamluks; photo by me.)
Which is when they are interrupted; Curie stepped out to find the water closet & was stopped by a Xat & Zode team frantically telling them that there are about a hundred soldiers coming across the plain to attack the Basilica. Gathering the rest of the group & the princess, they meet with the four Xats & Zodes, the Grand Pardoner & his Praetorians. The enemies are Heresiarchs, members of the Hierarchy who have discovered the secret loyalty of some of the religious leaders to Miss Glass & oppose them. See, the Grand Pardoner has blue robes & a gold tricorn hat; you can tell the Heresiarchs are enemies because they have red robes & black tricorn hats! The force is split into three groups; one seeks to encircle & lay siege to the cathedral, one is going behind to scale the cliffs & attempt a rear assault & another is composed of sappers who intend to smash their way in. The group decides to confront the sappers & to let the Xats & Zodes deal with the main force, while the Praetorians fight off the backdoor attack; Miss Glass elects to stay with the group. They gather their mounts-- fell Herakles, brave Fenrir & murderous Rosewater-- & sabotage the sappers attempts to undermine the walls, dropping rocks & masonry on the slave-soldier Mamluks that come through first.
(Eunuch Berserker; art by Nicola Samori.)
The battle is short-- the Heresiarchs have muskets but between Curie's ancient power-armor, Blue Glory's exceptional reflexes & Slumberheart's repulsor gauntlet, the bullets are mostly deflected. Blue Glory the Nightmare Lotus bears her teeth, gathers darkness together & growls & the officer flees; in the back a huge eunuch in a frenzy shoves past everyone, lumbering slowly toward Miss Glass as Curie Firstlight lays agonizing lightning bolts into him. Tracey is having terrible luck with her dice, but the battle is easily theirs. As the party murders the soldiers who don't flee-- Mamluk & Heresiarch alike, they are literally lopping off heads-- the berserker gets to Miss Glass, though her body seems resistant to the blows. She is lashing out with the edge of her hand, fingernails sharp like knives, & eventually everyone rains down blows on the eunuch. Eventually, like the cave troll in Moria, he stupidly topples & died. Finally nightfall, Miss Glass asks everyone to look at her & take a deep breath before panicking. They are confused before she has them turn around & meet Master Silk, the vampire...
(Master Silk; art by Takato Yamamoto.