Changelings of the Outer West Part 6

Part 6: The Summer of Blood Part 3

And welcome back imaginary readers! I know its been a while since our last installment, but given these events transpired about a year and a half ago now I figure my memory isn’t getting any worse. So here I am diving back into my haphazard little notes to bring you our tales from 1970s Cootamundra. For those of you just joining us, see here for our Rogues Gallery, Setting Summary, Hedge Summary, and the Summer of Blood Part 1 and Part 2.

Our heroes, as always, are Anais the Fairest Dancer and Blaize the Fireheart Elemental, former servants of the Lord of the Maze, and Father Callahan, an escapee from the Witch of the Wilds’ bio-luminescent forest. We left our heroes fleeing from the wrath of Father Damian Crowley, who they had tried to rob on behalf of a local Korean Demonologist and restranteusse they had met a few days earlier.

The motley limp home as the sun is rising and collapse into their respective haphazard nests. The days wear on, and the motley ponders the mess they’ve gotten into.

Anais begins to leaf through the classifieds of a discarded newspaper in search of a job, while Father Callahan grills Christine, a younger woman doing volunteer cleaning at a church that serves more tourists than worshipers. Blaize, finding her hunting talents largely uncalled for in the town, wanders a while before seeking out Solomon at the library, having formed a curious fascination around the old academic. The others find their way in as the day moves on.

Solomon, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to offer in terms of job advice, but he does decide that now is the time to call in a favour. Reminding them of his help in their first stuttering days, he asks them to look into something for him.

A few nights previous, a couple of young drug enthusiasts met in the graveyard and were attacked by the Devil.

The paper man hopes that it was nothing. The gnawed wounds on one of the young men’s legs could have been a dog, and the Devil they saw little more than a shared hallucination. But he doesn’t want to discount the possibility that something more problematic is active, and would prefer that the problem were resolved without drawing too much mortal attention; by the time monster hunters have taken notice, chances are the more worrying focus of the True is already incoming. As the librarian is already occupied with maintaining the local peace as he puts it, and rather forcefully requests that the motley investigate and report back to him when they have more information.

Anais asks what Solomon knows about Black Hill, and the strange sickness hovering over the town. Solomon thinks for a moment, before recounting that perhaps seven years earlier there had been a great furore when a star had fallen to Earth near Black Hill. There had been a brief flurry of scientific interest, until the heat of the meteor had caused it to fall into the old tin mines beneath the town. Since then, there have been fewer visitors from the outlying hamlet. The old fae agrees to look into it while the motley checks the graveyard.

The motley returns home.

Blaize takes a brief detour, wandering the streets near the house. Drawn by a collection of curiously twisted night sounds, she finds a beige envelope on a doorstep. A voice from the deepening shadows warns her to leave it be, and she beats a cautious retreat.

As the night grows deeper, Owl flutters in through Blaize’s window.

“There’s someone on top of the nest.”

“What was that little guy?

“Someone’s on top of the nest. They gave me jerky.”

A panic grips Blaize’s heart. With the weight of a promise already on her mind, she doesn’t want to consider what the Mirrorbirds might do if something happened to the egg they were caring for. Shoving Owl under her arm, she leaps out the window and sprints for the tree. Clambering to the top, she finds the nest she built… and the Hedge-bird’s egg remains, safe and undisturbed.

“Owl… what happened?”

“Like I said. There was jerky.”

“You said there was someone on top of the nest…”

“Yeah.”

“Where are they?”

“Not this nest, silly.”

“Then what nest?”

“Our nest.”

Cursing loudly, the Fireheart leaps from the branches, letting Owl fly off as she tucks and rolls on the ground. She runs back to the house.

Clambering onto the roof, she finds a hunched figure sitting over the gutter, a crawling pall of shadow surrounding her.

“Your little friend is a pretty crappy messenger. Ate all my jerky too.”

Blaize approaches cautiously, and the figure rises to her full height, the shadows slipping from her skin like silken sheets. Her dark skin in a tapestry of burn scars, her eyes empty pits like the night sky. A loose bun of dreadlocks twitches like a mass of worms.

The stranger introduces herself as Half Penny, and says that she had come to check on the newcomers Solomon mentioned. Given the recent surge in Cuckoo activity, and the disappearance of a number of resident Cootamundra fae, she made it clear that she intended to find out for herself if these events and the arrival of the newcomers formed anything more than coincidence.

Nodding slowly along at the barely veiled threat, Blaize asked if the Tunnelgrub wanted to come inside.

Blaize climbed down, while the newcomer slithered down the wall ahead of her, and was waiting when the Elemental moved to open the door. The dark fell behind as the ropy young woman strode into the house, interrupting Father Callahan’s painstaking sorting and sampling of his most recent Hedge-berry harvest. There was a brief but cagey conversation; where the motley had come from, what they intended to do in town, and a number of reasons why they should consider the area around the Cold Hill Slaughterhouse off limits. Anais brings forth a new concoction, a glamour rich tea, and the meeting begins to settle. Soon, Half Penny makes to leave.

“You guys are either the best liars…” she mutters from the door, “… or the worst Cuckoos I have ever seen. You’ll be hearing from me.”

And with that the night swallows her again.

A little worried by the local denizens, the motley opts to settle in for the night. Upon awakening Callahan finds a surprising amount of loose change in his socks, and smiles at the idea that maybe their luck is changing. Bouyed by this, the trio head into town once more, trying to source what they’ll need for the coming troubles. Anais dials a number she finds in the classifieds of a discarded paper, responding to the request for new exotic dancers at Lady May’s Adult Entertainment company. The voice who answers sounds tired, but after a short chat agrees to meet.

Blaize wanders into a record store to find a collapsed, aging hippy face down on the counter, with a couple of others hidden away under the shelves and a pile of discarded pizza boxes. Waking Petey, the counter dwelling proprietor, she strikes an agreement to clean the place once a week in exchange for David Bowie postcards. She catches a wisp of glamour from the agreement, the crackling voice of the fire within surging into activity.

Father Callahan takes some time to study the book he took from Crowley’s Black Hill Church, and notes that despite the references to Antebellum America, the print plate the book keeps falling open on is out of place; over the chain gang stands a man in a British Colonial Officer’s uniform, and the plants in the background suggest an Australian scene. The chained man in the foreground is a tall and muscular African, but the print does not belong in the book. Holding his crucifix close, the Father closes the book, and decides that its time to go to the library.

He spends the afternoon amongst the books, and eventually begins turns up a name to go with the figure.

Cesar.

The former slave turned convict enjoyed a brief bout of fame after having delivered a knockout punch to the Aboriginal war leader Pemulwuy, a man of no small reputation for toughness, while the latter was leading a raid. Tracking the name through records over the next few days, he found that both Cesar and, later, his son were buried in the area that would later be Cootamundra. Any haunting that old had no choice but to be entrenched and resilient. The Father, it seemed, was going to need extra supplies.

Christine did indeed know where to find some priests’ vestments. The former priest had left a set with the church, saying they belonged to it and not to him, and she knew exactly where they were. She was also entirely willing to trust Father Callahan when he said that he was a priest. What took a bit of convincing was why exactly he needed a set immediately. In the end he spun some tale of a wedding on a tight turnaround, as it were, and made off leaving behind a promise to have the Catholic paraphernalia back in good condition.

He’d figured she probably wouldn’t believe he was going to exorcise a ghost in the church of the next town over.

Having stowed his new acquisitions, the trio meet up to discuss a potential solution to the Devil in the graveyard. The place has no history of unnatural trouble that they can find, but the night tourists’ statement made the local papers, and has circulated to the local rumour mill with a chuckle ever since. Figuring there’s not much they can do without a bit more information, they decide that they should take a closer look. Better to get at least one favour owed out of the way.

They make their way across town, and do a brief reconnoiter around the edge of the cemetery, figuring that a quick clamber over a lower section of the eastern wall is their best option. Sneaking through the long shadows of funerary gardens and being careful to avoid the lone nightwatchman, they pick their way through the dark towards the old mausoleums where the incident took place. As the  graves grow taller around the paths, an unseasonal mist and chill begins to well up around them.

Anais steps into the clearing first, and she sees a name carven upon a gravestone in the dark that she recognises as her own, even if she can’t truly remember it. She falls to her knees, and starts digging at the ground with her fingernails. In an instant, Anais is gone.

The others notice her disappearance, and try to fan out and search for her. The shadows of the tombs crawl with malice, writhing forward to snatch more of the feeble light from their torches. Then, they see a tombstone too, with the name “Anais” dripping darkness on the face. Blaize lays into the earth with her shovel as they scramble to open the grave in time.

Meanwhile, their friend is cold. She can see her motley scrabbling away, mere meters before her, but her arms feel constricted by an iron grip, and when she raises her voice to scream the breath is snatched from her lungs before it can make a sound. As she struggles, she feels consciousness ebbing away, and makes one last desperate push…

The huntress’ shovel cracks a slab of stone, and the dancer falls wheezing out of the air.

While Blaize and Callahan struggle to get Anais back on her feet, a vicious neck wound bleeding into her dress, and fear itself steps forth from the shadows.

Blaize and Anais see the Lord of the Maze strut forth from between the tombstones, while Father Callahan sees his own Keeper limp forth from the shadows. The old priest slumps to the ground shaking.

Blaize raises her shovel and, interposing herself between her friends and her once Keeper, screams out for the interloper to back off. The Maze Lord’s face snarls back for them to leave the cemetary before it gets angry, but there is a creeping baritone in its voice that seems unfamiliar. Blaize scents the illusion; there’s none of the Maze Lord’s wisps of perfume or debauchery here. The thing before her reeks only of worms and cold, dark places, and it is in their heads.

When she refuses to back down, the thing leaps forward. Caught in its shadow, Callahan’s mind plummets back to an image of his Keeper’s son, the Wilting Waxen Woodsman, beating him bloody with the haft of his axe. The old priest screams and runs with the devil’s own speed. The nightmare surges on towards Blaize and Anais.

The Elemental snaps her lighter, and drives the flickering flame into the skin of her arm. The flesh singes, and in response the Wyrd honours her contract; the fire within her surges out, flashing and coruscating in a raging shroud around her. The thing wearing the Maze Lord’s face falters and takes a cautious step back, like a cornered wolf.

“Not so cocky now, huh? Who the hell are you?” the Fireheart snaps.

“Nobody you’d want to get close to,” the figure replies in its sepulchral tones, before single handedly wrenching a gravestone out of the earth and pitching it like a discus at the furious fae. Blaize tried to dive out of the way, but the massive stone caught her under the arm, and she felt at least two ribs break as she falls with the slab on top of her. Through the veil of pain, the illusion around her crumbles, the night in the graveyard returning to the crisp mugginess of the Western summer. Anais struggles with the heavy stone before managing to lever it off Blaize’s chest with the haft of the shovel, and the younger fae drags in a wheezing, painful breath. Seeing that her friend is stable for now, she briefly follows the footprints of their assailant; finding the door of a mausoleum thrown open and a flight of steps beyond; she spies an incense burner flickering dimly in a small alcove below, but no sign of their attacker, and figures it wiser to avoid any further confrontation at this stage. She slips back to Blaize, and manages to help her friend to her feet as they both stagger away from the mausoleum.

They find Callahan cowering in the shadow of the outer wall. Coaxing him out of his near catatonia, he feeds some of his Hecate’s Eye extract to Blaize; not enough to heal the broken ribs, but sufficient to stop the injury getting any worse while they head home. They drop down over the wall and limp back through the midnight streets.

They are relieved at least that in the morning they will be able to tell Solomon that whatever is in the graveyard is no True Fae; after all, fear of flames and crushing people with tombstones never really were the Maze Lord’s style. They are also reassured that whatever it was seemed to wish more for privacy than expansion. And they are at least ninety nine percent sure that it was definitely not the Devil, which is probably another plus.

What is  worrying is that they don’t really know what it was at all.

And I think we’ll leave it there for this week folks, nice little bit of a mystery for you. I’m afraid competition for the historical figure guessing game are now closed in light of Father Callahan’s revelations, but  phone ins from my dear imaginary readers are always welcome. As ever, feel free to use any of the ideas you like in your own games, though I guess if you publish it refer to my usual CC-A-SA-NC spiel. That is, throwing me a mention would be appreciated. Anywho, have a good week everybody.

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Changelings of the Outer West Part 5

Part 5: The Summer of Blood Part 2

And here we have it, another installment for Changelings of the Outer West. I was able to find one of my old notebooks from when we ran this, so my report may be marginally more accurate than it would have been with just me memory! Yay! For those of you just joining us, the previous installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

As a refresher, our protagonists are Anais, a Fairest Dancer and escapee from the Maze, Blaize, a Fireheart Elemental also fleeing the Maze Lord’s diabolical clutches, and Father Callahan, a Wizened Brewer and former slave-alchemist in the Witch of the Wilds’ Midnight Forest.

Having secured their new transport the motley set out to fill their side of the agreement with Mama Park. Pedaling their bicycles through the early twilight, they reach the outlying town of Black Hill as the sun is fading away into nothingness. The place is eerily quiet; most of the buildings on the outskirts looking to be either abandoned or in a state of disrepair bordering on collapse. As they move towards the center the signs of habitation grow thicker, but without the vivacity that normally comes with a town center. It doesn’t take an expert to see that Black Hill is dying, but Anais struggles to understand why anyone would stay at all.

As they lock up their bikes, they notice a group of kids throwing pebbles at the windows of a house. The kids scatter when Callahan calls out, but Blaize smells something off. She ruffles Owl’s feathers, and lets him fly off into the night (he’d been riding in the bicycle basket up to this point), but not before her eyes have grown reflective and sensitive like the little bird’s (through the use of her Contract of Fang and Talon). Using her night vision, she picks out that the little stones are oddly shaped, and one picking on up sees that it is a human tooth.

There is a flash in her memory, the old forest and the pack.The tear of human flesh between once human teeth.

She shakes off the haze, and glances at the windows. Signalling for her comrades to wait in the alley behind, she creeps up to the open window and slips through. The house inside is dusty and almost forgotten, but the fire sprite can hear someone in a side room. She moves as quietly as she can between stacks of newspapers and meticulously stacked garbage, and sees a hunched, wheezing figure in the front room, shrouded and leaning heavily on the window frame. Between laboured gasps, Blaize can hear the figure whimpering out a prayer. She leaves them in peace.

On returning to her motley, they come to the conclusion that there is something much worse at play here than a recession. They ascend the last streets to the old town center, and see the church and its cemetery on the other side of the green. A number of large black carrion birds lurk in the bare trees of the park, taking wing as the characters approach. All Blaize gets from their caws is “poison”.

They follow the path of darkness to the side door of the church, and quietly spring the lock. The church seems normal in most ways. It has pews and a heavy altar in the Catholic style, but it also has an odd set of banner strung along a ceiling that seems lower than it should, and grates in the floor that even Blaize’s owl-eyes struggle to see far beyond. The Father follows his instincts, and locates the hidden staircase at the back of the vestry in short order. The three changelings began to ascend, and found themselves in a long room with a loft at the other end, a lamp glowing on a desk. They fanned out and began to make their across the silent room.

Callahan moved to the bookshelves, and in the low light of his smothered torch saw an occult library fit to make the eyes bleed. As he passed, a book feel from the shelf. He turned, and the old leather bound book on the floor has fallen open on a print: I white man gesturing over kneeling slaves. The priest notes the title page: “Superstition Among Antebellum Slave-Peoples”, and puts it back in its place. When he turns his back, he hears it fall again. Its around this point that Anais screams.

She had been moving towards the lamp, across an open stretch of floor. One moment she was there, the next she was falling. The Fairest tumbled, and managed to catch a banner rail before the floor four meters below had the chance to break her legs. She hung maybe a meter beneath a gap she had thought was solid wood. She called to her compatriots, and together they managed to haul her back up through the gap; it took a moment, but eventually their fae-selves were able to to reconcile the illusion for what it was. As they did so, Blaize heard a giggling, and looked up to see a scrawny figure scramble on all fours toward the stairway. She immediately gave chase.

Sensing they were out of their depth, Anais made a careful break for the loft, hoping the book they were looking for would be in one of the cases up there. Callahan moved to the table, only to have the chairs hurled at him by an unseen hand. He dove for cover between the bookshelves, and pulled the fallen tome into his satchel; it had opened on the same page once again.

Blaize ran after the spindly gremlin, down the step and through the vestry. The creature darted through a door, and Blaize made to barge through after it… and promptly knocked herself into near unconsciousness against the heavy wood of the locked door. She fell, her vision swimming. Anais scrambled up the steep steps to the loft, and saw a book that looked very much like the one Mama Park had described under the lamp. She raced to the reading bench, when a freak gust blew out the old lamp flame. Running her hands over the table, all she could feel were old, heavy chains. A ray of moonlight fell across her face, and across the face of a tall, heavily muscled African man, his neck in an iron collar, and his eyes weeping liquid darkness. A whisper cuts through the dusty night air.

“Would you die without a name?”

A moment later, the Fairest crashes into the railing of the loft, and before she can cry out she is airborne.

Father Callahan heard Anais hit the floorboards hard, clutched the silver cross around his neck and muttered something that doesn’t bear printing. Bracing himself, he makes a run across the open floor, only just ducking under the table as it is hurled after him. He grabs the unconscious dancer’s collar in his skinny fingers, and drags her frantically back towards the stairwell. The broken furniture rattles ominously, and he sees a hugely muscled silhouette against the moonlight for just a moment before he reaches the stairs and slams the door behind them.

Blaize manages to drag herself to her feet, and found a conspicuous note on the desk, obvious enough that it seemed strange they hadn’t noticed before. Written in what looked like spilled ink, it simply read “Forgotten”. Callahan slumped down the stairs with a barely responsive Anais in his arms, informed Blaize that this was no time to practice her reading and that his noodle arms weren’t going to cut it on this one.

Together they began moving their unconscious friend towards the exit…

And the air reverberated as the main doors were pushed open by none other than Father Damian Crowley. The hatchet faced old man, with a number of people behind him, strode down the aisle of the church, switching on lights as they went. The motley backed rapidly into the vestry and Callahan, hoping he wasn’t making a big mistake, put a hand on the arch of the stairway, called up his Glamour, and asked it to Let Him In.

The Hedge Gate shimmered open, and the motley didn’t wait to see if anybody was following them. Dragging their fallen friend through, Blaize and Callahan fell into a sucking mire of mud and creeping thorns, with little in the way of leaf cover or trees. The Gate closed again behind them, with no normals having had a chance to look through, the arch standing like a tombstone in the mire. Blaize kept watch in the moonlight while Callahan managed to coax Anais into drinking a concoction he’d distilled from the Hecate’s Eye fruit that grow in the Mirrorbird’s Grove. Soon enough, she was back on her feet, and the gang began trooping off in what they hoped was the direction of the River.

After a few hours of scrambling over the morbid quagmire that Black Hill’s Hedge had devolved into, Blaize took a tumble down a ridge and landed in rich garden bed of ripe hedge fruit. As she picked herself up there was a frantic rattling from inside the corrugated iron shack rigged up under the spindly trees around the grove. With a shout, a half clad man with an akubra hat, a beard made of long insect legs, and a shotgun burst out, and an ominous rustling rose in the trees behind her. Glancing over her shoulder to see the six foot tall redback spider that had flanked her, she made a show of dropping her knife and told the others to come out slowly.

Things went better after the Skitterskulk, who introduced himself as the Wrangler and his enourmous arachnid pet as Scuttles, was convinced that these still badly injured strangers weren’t here to kidnap him, and mentioned that there had been some Cuckoo trouble in the area recently. When questioned as to what a Cuckoo was in this context, he responded;

“Er, right… slaver types. Folks like us who’d sell folks like us back to… folks like Them.”

On this, they settled in around the Wrangler’s campfire, and he fed them some Baconbloom (a furry, meaty, occasionally chatty tuber) that he’d grown in his garden. When asked about the taint in the Hedge near Black Hill, he mentioned that he’d noticed it, but it hadn’t found its way over the ridge yet. He also asked if they were coming to Market on Saturday.

Given our gang are clueless new escapees with only Solomon’s word (totally trustworthy) to go on as to what they are, they had no clue what the Goblin Market was, so the Wrangler took time to explain. Given the strange crossroads that seemed to form in the Cootamundra Hedge, the monthly Roped Lake market was probably one of the biggest gatherings of fae and hobgoblins in the region, all bent on engaging in their own twisted version of capitalism. He also made a point that they tended not to take cheques or cash, so bringing something to barter was probably their best option.

They talked a few hours more, until the sun began to rise. Then their new pal pointed them on their way down the River and described the Colonial stone bridge that acted as a Gate back into town, then said to give him a shout if they needed him. He didn’t often leave the Hedge, so he knew his way around pretty well. They picked their way downstream, strange figures of smoke and heat haze watching them from the other bank. When they reached the bridge, they sloshed out into the waist deep water and stepped  into the dry bed that lay on the other side.

They began their long walk home, only now realizing that they’d left their bicycles in Black Hill.

I think that’s a pretty good place to leave our hapless heroes. More Changelings of the Outer West will surface soon, and if anybody wants to sling comments to guess which famous Australian figure the ghost in the church is based on, you’ll get a prize. Since I’m poor, the prize will probably be one of my trademark surreal compliments, maybe arranged as a jaunty e-card. No, my players cannot participate, cause they already know and get plenty of compliments anyway. Have a good one folks.

Changelings of the Outer West Part 3

Part 3

And They All Went Mad Together: Origins

Hello again dear imaginary readers, and welcome to another installment regarding Talking to a Stranger, our Changeling the Lost chronicle from last year. Part 1 is our Rogues Gallery, available here, with Part 2 giving a setting rundown here. Today, you get a writeup of how the story began for our zany heroes.

So here we are, and I’m trying to reconstruct the introductions for about a year’s worth of weekly game sessions from memory. But I wanted to get the characters started with memories, to give them a life to lose before they are whisked off to their respective supernatural prisons. Arcadia took each of them,but before that we had a person, and the tragedy of the story is that our escapees never got the chance to live as that person.

As a refresher, our three escapees are:

Anais; formerly Gail Kelly, now a Fairest Dancer escaping the Maze.

Blaize; formerly Rose Anderson, now a Fireheart Elemental also fleeing the Lord of the Maze.

Father Callahan, formerly John Callahan, escaped Wizened slave-alchemist of the Witch in the Wilds.

The Beginning

It begins in memory, as these things so often do. Each changeling’s past is experienced as flashes of a past no longer there.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the drive.

Anias remembers the last dance class. She and her friends are working on a musical, big song and dance pieces set to knock an audience’s socks off. They wrap up for the night, and she says goodbye to the other chorus girls. Her boyfriend, Louis, is waiting with his car and offers to drive her home. After a little while on the road, it becomes clear that they are going the wrong way. They drive out to one of the hills outside of town, and Louis asks for her hand in marriage.

The night sky is beautiful and cold.

She turns him down.

He takes it pretty well, pockets the ring. They begin to drive home. In the short view of the headlights, he sees… something on the road. He swerves, and the car rolls.

A pair of strong arms breaks the window and pulls her through.

The window that was lying against the asphalt.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the picnic.

Blaize is on a hill that tapers down to a creek. Her father calls for her to go and find her sister Belle, the sun is setting. Its time to go home.

She wanders, looking for her older sister, but all she can find is her clothing, folded neatly by the side of the creek. In a panic, she begins calling out for her.

She sees a hand sticking out of the water.

She jumps into the muddy creek, paddling out towards the hand, ducking under a fallen branch that makes an arch over her. She seizes the fingers, fearing her sister has drowned. But all that comes to the surface is a handful of twigs.

It’s then that she realizes that she can’t see the way back.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the service.

Father Callahan delivers the final lines of his sermon, and the churchgoers begin to file out like any other Sunday. An old widow approaches him, saying that despite all her prayers the ghost of her husband still haunts her house at night. The priest listens, and agrees to come to her home and try and exorcise the spirit.

On an afterthought, he puts his copy of the Fourth Key of Solomon into his satchel.

He arrives at the widow’s house, and sets up a chair in the living room where the ghost was last seen. She brings him a cup of tea. The sun goes down.

The night wears on, and the priest begins to nod off.

He wakes up in the early hours of the morning, and there is a smoky, vaguely humanoid figure with eyes like burning coals in the room before him. He pulls himself out of his chair, scrambles for his chalk, and begins to scrawl a binding circle on the floor.

But of course, there comes a voice over his shoulder. The forces from this point can trap someone in the circle. Like so…

A hag cackles as he is dragged by thorny boughs through the floor.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the ballroom.

She has been dancing as long as she can remember, surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful things. The night outside the windows in never ending, as is the revelry.

This is what the Lord of the Maze desires. The band plays on, wearing their porcelain fingers to dust.

She cannot remember the last time she slept.

Others slept, and they were quietly dragged away by the goblin porters who maintain the ballroom. Others are gathered to replace them.

The dance does not end, for that is what the Lord of the Maze desires, the dance and beauty and the insomnia and the midnight blood spilled in the space between breaths and stanzas drag on.

She cannot remember her name.

The dance pauses for breath as the porcelain band theatrically shuffle their sheets. She looks out the window into the starless darkness, and she sees a crack in the glass. And the crack spreads.

The world falls apart, and she falls with it.

She cannot remember her name.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the oubliette.

A little girl cries alone in the dark.

She has hunted through the maze for her big sister.

She has run from terrors, clambered over obstacles, and tried countless doors.

But she is here now, and there is no space to run, no holds to climb, and no doors to push through. She is here; she is forgotten. Alone with nought but a slowly burning lamp flame for company.

She doesn’t know how long it is before the flame starts to bargain. He says that he can teach her his magic, the way that fire can crawl and surge and consume, and that she can use that magic to break free through cracks so thin she can’t even see them. The little girl agrees, and she gives her fingers to the flame. It takes her hand, then her arm, her body and her screams, and together they crawl from their earthen cage in a surge of fire.

Time passes, and the girl grows up with others like her.

Blaize tends her campfire idly while her companion Lightstalker gnaws on a leg of meat. The forest is dark, but the sun should rise soon. Owl flutters down, and gets some of the meal for his trouble. Lightstalker complains that the runners barely give any sport at all any more.

Blaize cannot shake the idea that somehow, the little pink shoe on the end of Lightstalker’s meal is important. She says she’s going to take a look around.

Something makes her fold the discarded clothes outside of their camp neatly, the clothes of those who tried to get away. She is so close to remembering something, but she can’t quite place what it is.

She hears the Maze Lord’s hounds baying in the Goblin City. She climbs to the top of the wall, Owl fluttering ahead and giving commentary that she really needs to learn to fly better.

Someone is trying to get away.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the forest.

They don’t come every day.

For all that day means anymore. Father Callahan wakes in his lean-to under the incessant glow of the mushrooms that crawl up the dank tree trunks, or grow to the size of trees themselves. He wakes, methodically checks the lists that the Witch left for him, then gathers his things and presses out into the underbrush.

He hunts the mushrooms with a sling. That’s how he knocks down the ones that move. Then he takes the ingredients he needs from their strange gullets. Sometimes they beg. They usually don’t.

He mixes the ingredients with the tubes and alembics he has cobbled together next to his lean-to. He stirs his drops and powders in the half light, knowing that if they are not perfect he will be punished.

The giants by the hills have been giving him trouble again. He mixes a potion of his own, the strongest sleeping draught he can. If he can slip it into their food maybe they’ll leave him alone to do his work.

The hut lumbers out of the woods on its jointed, rusty legs. It lowers itself to the ground like an immense farm bird, and the Wilting Waxen Woodsman gestures the frail alchemist inside with his axe, saying that his mother is awaiting her delivery.

Callahan pockets the sleeping draught almost without thinking, and shoulders his bag, the weight of his Bible and the Key of Solomon a comforting memory even as he faces the Witch of the Wilds.

It feels like a long time ago, but you remember the run.

The dancer’s world shatters like a glass ornament dropped from a height, and she finds herself hiding in the halls of a strange castle. The goblins are dragging the dancers… somewhere. She overhears that the Lord of the Maze has grown tired of these playthings, and would like to see them repurposed.

She tries to sneak out the door, but is confronted by an immense troll of a man that she recognises. Gruf had once helped with repairs in the ballroom, and today he is wearing a strange ring.

The dancer remembers a late night drive, and the young man who had given her that ring. She trades the ogre a kiss for the trinket, and wipes his tears when he laments that he’ll never see the beautiful dancers again. When they hear goblins approaching, he lets her through the door and says that he will try to slow them down.

Blaize watches from the top of the wall as a woman leaps out of the side door of the castle and begins to run across the courtyard. Her skirt billows about her, and the fire sprite remembers the skirts of her mother and sister that were just the same on windy days, and she remembers her father calling to her.

Its time to go home.

With a crash the side door gives out, and the two women see Gruf with the teeth of one of the Lord’s hounds buried in his forearm, a dozen more of the dog-men surging towards and over him. Blaize reaches down and hauls the stranger over the gatehouse, and they leap down the other side of the wall together.

Father Callahan’s vision swims as he looks at her, and the Witch chuckles away as she gorges on the last of he raw meat platter. She takes the potions she ordered from him, and takes them to her cabinet. While her back is turned, and the Woodsman looks out the window through his melting locks, the old priest slips his sleeping draught into the Witch’s meal.

She ties another spider silk list to his arm, cutting deep enough to bleed. She gulps down another slab of bloody meat, and makes to say something more. Before the words can fly, she collapses onto the table. The Woodsman thinks his mother dead, and flies after the old priest axe in hand.

They sprint through the dark of the forest, crashing through undergrowth and diving through spore clouds. Callahan runs until he thinks his lungs will explode.

Its then that he dives under an arch of boughs and falls into the light.

The light flickers, and the old priest finds himself in an unfamiliar bathroom, having just stepped out of the mirror. He clutches his satchel and tries to staunch the bleeding in his nose, but turns to see nobody following.

The man who throws him out of the hotel room was clearly both surprised and irritated that this tattered clergyman interrupted his intimate time with his partner, and Callahan has a vague memory of replacing the Bible in that hotel room, a long time ago. He walks until he finds a burned out wreck of a car. Half asleep, he guts the radio, assembling it into a device that rings a bell, but he can’t think why. After repairing the engine with mud and twigs, he begins to follow the ringing to a park he doesn’t recognise.

The hounds are snapping at their heels, but Blaize thinks she knows where she is going. They surge over the crest of the hill, and on the other side of a stretch of brambles they see a river. They plow into the layer of cutting leaf litter and wade under the arch made by the fallen branch.

Father Callahan’s strange device rings out frantically as two young women burst out of the near dry creek bed, pursued by a gaggle of hairy, fanged, human-like creatures. Blaize pushes her companion ahead, and lashes out at the pursuing hounds, grounding the first couple with furious kicks and elbows. Right as the mob looks set to overwhelm her, Callahan drives his scavenged vehicle into the middle of the pack, and the wounded fire sprite dives into the back seat as they speed away from their pursuers.

When they reach the centre of town, the newspapers are welcoming people to the New Year. 1972. The old librarian is among the first people they meet, and he tempts them in with the promise of explanations, even as indecipherable words crawl across his paper skin. The dancer takes the name Anais from the spine of a book she remembers.

It is New Years Day, high summer in Cootamundra in 1972. And three changelings begin their first day free.

Eat your heart out, Labyrinth fan fiction writers. Hope y’all enjoyed that, I’ll get on to a summary of the mismatched motley’s various adventures in the next post. This went on a lot longer than I expected… but it is a lot easier to say things than to write them. During the introduction I found the rotating use of ritual phrases (It feels like a long time ago, but…) very effective, especially in the twisted fairytale context of Changeling: The Lost. A great game in the World of Darkness line that I would highly recommend.

Any similarities to David Bowie or the works of Jim Henson in this work are, of course, entirely coincidental (cackles maniacally). I own none of the rights… but fiction has a strange life of its own…

In Which we Play Australia Day: RPG Actual Play

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Massaman Curry. As is tradition.

Well, we got around to it eventually. And just because we didn’t play my little roleplaying game, Australia Day, on Australia Day, doesn’t make its first flight any less majestic. If you wish to get a copy of your very own, scroll down my homepage to “My Australia Day Special“. In preparation, we ate Massaman Curry (as we would if we were in Australia…), gathered our nugs (dice) and Mugshots (character sheets), and I donned the High Poobah’s hat. This led to Queenie being unable to look me in the eye for most of the game, despite it being “bizzarely fetching”.

So we had our two players; Queenie started playing Stabitha the Dropbear, and Flock was running Fredamine the Caffiend. I was operating as High Poobah, a role usually referred to as “Game Master” or “Dungeon Master” in more sensible iterations of these kinds of games. This was certainly not one of those iterations. May have had something to do with the Scotch, but I would hesitate to blame Laphroaig entirely.

So, our heroes weirdos drive out of the salt flats bordering the Drop Bear Republic in their battered Holden hatchback, struggling to escape the murderous horde of Emu Bikers hot on their heels.

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Though the insta-rice was less than cooperative.

This led to about five minutes of garbled laughter and questioning of my sanity.

Having realized that he was dead out of coffee, Fredamine staggered into the general store/fish and chip emporium that they had found on the dry, dusty crossroads of the town they started from, Waldongle. He encountered Steve behind the counter, his moustache waxed to hold a cigarette so that he can smoke without his hands. He was, unfortunately, fresh out of coffee, so Fredamine began rummaging through the bags of lima beans, hoping some of them were coffee. Stabitha then strode Dropbearfully into the shop, and hurled a bag of coffee sweets into his face, which he then chewed through the packaging.

A discussion ensued as to how to make my High Poobah’s outfit even more incongruous. I played a plastic battle axe as a ukelele for a while.

“So guys,” Steve rasped, “Haven’t seen you in a while. Things not go so well… down the Republic?”

The question of Merchant Republic or Banana Republic is raised. Eucalyptus I guess.

“Things are pretty lonesome out this way though. Wanda mentioned she might have an assignment for you…”

“Does she have coffee?” muttered Fredamine.

“In the chip shop…”

They turned around to see Wanda, their spirit animal, behind the fish and chip counter. It was established that currently she looked like a middle aged Mediterranean aunty.

Queenie: Why do I have a spirit animal? I’m a drop bear!

Flock: … but you’re not a spirit.

They debate turning the deep fryer oil into fuel. They figured they had enough to reach Wangdangle either way. They would have petrol there.

Wanda: Oh hey guys. Your coats looking good Stabitha. Washed in the blood of your foes again?

(Flock: I knew it. It would have alliterated if she were a wombat, so she isn’t…)

Stabitha: Don’t you know it…

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The High Poobah hat of the night.

She passes out some fish and chips.

“Might have a little assignment for you wandering types. There’s been a string of disappearances of orphans and cattle all along the north side of town. I’ve not been able to find any clues… so maybe you can help. If you do, I’ve got the bag of magical reagents for you” She holds up a bag of possibly illegal plant matter.

Stabitha listens quietly, eating her chips. A brief discussion ensues as to whether, in our collective minds eye, Stabitha is a CGI Koala or a poorly disguised puppeteer with a glove puppet.

Eyeing the baggy, Fredamine responds “Alright.”

Before they leave, she warns them that it is rumoured to Henry the Magical Platypus may be stalking the north side of town (Stabitha: “Ah fuck that guy”), and that Anh at the Post Office may have more information. When asked for petrol, she starts scooping deep fryer oil into the thermos, and stagger out to their car, now a rust red Dolorian. They hammer the thermos into its fuel port.

Fredamine: The car only runs because one day it’ll kill me.

They head into Waldongle to see Anh, Stabitha hijacking a busboy so that she has the same stride as Fredamine. They arrive at the Post Office.

Anh: Oh hey guys. You’re back in town. How’d the republic go?

Stabitha: Don’t ask.

Anh: That bad huh?

Fredamine: So much eucalyptus…

Anh: Ah brutal.

Fredamine: So few bandages.

Anh: Well, always preferred menthol myself, but each to their own.

He takes a belt of Scotch and adjusts his aviator sunglasses.

Stabitha: Wanda sent us by.

Anh: Right, you’re here about the mystery? Right.

Stabitha: Yeah, the dissapearing cattle and orphans.

Anh: Yeah, well, someone’s been stealing cattle and orphans. North side of town. That way.

Stabitha: Yeah, she also mentioned Henry.

Fredamine: Damn centaur enthusiasts.

Anh: Centaur enthusiasts? Ah brutal… wait. Well, centaurs right I guess. Orphanataur.

(Queenie: Wouldn’t they have to steal horses for that? Flock: I said enthusiasts, not professionals)

Anh: Well, a lot of folks seem to think its Henry up to his old tricks again. But I don’t think it fits with his usual Modus Operandi.

Fredamine: No, udderly different.

Anh: He’s just up there in the river systems and billabongs… well, I can give you the full briefing. Would you care to step through into the Room Full of Guns?

Stabitha: …No…

Anh: Well I can’t do the slideshow out here.

Fredamine: Eh… alright.

Anh pushes open one of the walls into a room with gun racks on every wall, and sets up an old overhead projector.

Stabitha: Which government are we under at the moment?

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The surface

Anh: Well, on the way through we passed through Egypt, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and, well… now we’re in Queensland. Anyway, Henry as a creature tends to operate under the assumption that there is a weird sense of humour under his weird and inhuman acts. But basically, no one’s been delivered the punchline yet, so Henry’s out of the running.

Anh goes on to explain, using his overhead slides, that he has discerned a pattern, a rough line of strange incidents. First the collapse of the community rec center, then damage to religious sites of both indigenous and late arrival’s significance, then the squatters in the old rock quarry were driven away.

Anh: Pretty wild country out there. You guys get along with the emu bikers right?

There were some uncomfortable looks, and the characters agreed to take a look at the collapsed Community Rec Centre before heading north to the quarry. They leave the Room Full of Guns.

On reaching the Rec Centre, they encounter their first Villain of the game, an abstract one called “The Mystery”, with a Horribleness Rating of 2.

Attempting to locate and catch a guinea pig and use it as a divining rod, but suffers his first Terminal Blunder as he fails the Jerk roll and tumbles into the crater that was once the Community Rec Center.

Stabitha: Do you see anything?

Fredamine: (muffled) Lots of gravel.

Stabitha leaps down on the cackling guinea pigs, blocking out the sun in her silent descent and seizing hold of one before tying it to the divining rod. The others scatter, realising the trouble their in given that Stabitha is taller than they are, and thus above them (a Dropbear’s primary axis of attack). She then throws the rod to Fredamine, who begins scrying for anything the guinea pig is more afraid of than he and Stabitha. He finds his way to a square cut shaft on one side of the crater. Stabitha heads in first, with Fredamine following more slowly behind. Deploying her DEATH FROM ABOVE!!! crazy skill, Stabitha leaps, claws raking the sides of the shaft, her koalavision zeroing in on the terrified heartbeat of something below her, and immediately snaps its neck on reflex. She drags the corpse into the narrow light from above, and reveals the logo of Holecorp, the evil mining megacorporation, on his overalls. Fredamine arrives several minutes later shimmying down the steel cable.

Turns out the hole doesn’t go anywhere, they just left him down there to dig.

Stabitha: He’s better off this way…

Its at this point that Queenie was alarmed by the revelation that in my Poobah hat I looked unnervingly like Don Burke from Burke’s Backyard. I’d have sung the song if I remembered it. Strange reminiscences of childhood viewing of gardening programs followed.

Me: So you found a guy in a Holecorp uniform.

Queenie: And I kill him!!!

Me: You kill him to death!

Queenie: Didn’t exactly mean to.

Me: DEATH FROM ABOVE!!!

Queenie: (laughs) What the hell are we doing!

Fredamine arrives, pokes the dead Holecorp guy with the guinea pig stick, then rifles the pockets of his presumably throroughly soiled overalls.

Me: Yep… looks like he’s been digging for weeks.

Flock: In all that time, he never thought to dig a hole…

Me: Oh he did. You’re in it.

Fredamine wonders where the dirt from the shaft went. Stabitha worries that he hasn’t had enough coffee today.

Stabitha mentions that she probably didn’t need to kill that guy, and Fredamine replies that he could totally see her looking mildly disappointed as she wrenched his jaw out of his face and used it to stab him repeatedly before he’d hit the ground.

Flock: Bend it a little bit, stab it through both eyes.

Me: I kind of imagine it as a sort of wishbone snap to double slash maneuver.

Flock: God, The Downunderbite.

Me: Cheers, sir, you get a producer credit.

Stabitha attempts a koala mind meld with the guinea pig, and is assailed by terrible visions of what she just did, but manages to wind it back far enough to see a pair of white dickshits in suits high fiving as the community centre collapses and the guinea pigs escape their cages. The Stick-pig then gets added to her inventory.

They climb out of the shaft, and wander through town to find houses of worship, Aboriginal sacred sites and many other sites all with holes and sometimes trenches dug through them. It is assumed that the trenches are dug by Holecorp miners suspended sideways from cranes, as it is easier than teaching them to dig anywhere but down. Deciding to look further into this, they head to the Holecorp Beach Shack Kiosk out by the dry, empty salt flats, quinkins frolicking in the distance, always just out of reach.

Fredamine manages to convince the kiosk guy that he’s looking for work, and the guy points him out to the executive picnic at the quarry to the north. The execs would show him “where to dig holes for money”, because “the way of the future, the past and now is holes.” They jump into the Dolorian and head north with the strains of Icehouse echoing across the empty space.

Until it is drowned out by the roar of motorcycle engines coming rapidly closer. The Mob of Emu bikers bears down on them, and Fredamine scrambles under his seat and finally earns a magic bean. The car is rapidly surrounded, and Fredamine loses control of the car, crashing into a roadside rock. The impact and the airbag hurls Stabitha skywards, and she launches DEATH FROM ABOVE as Fredamine bleeds into his airbag. Emu screams rend the air, and Fredamine looks to finish the job by crippling their self esteem. He climbs out the sunroof, and to the sounds of Emu bike radio Black Sabbath he tries to Ozzy the head off the guinea pig. Which promptly jumps down his throat and kills him.

OH GOD, THE TERRIBLE INEVITABILITY! NOOOOO!

With Fredamine dead, Flock picks up a new character sheet.

“At last!” comes the roar from the Dolorian’s engine block, “I got him!” And a mechanical creature lurches forth from the cars mangled frame. It seems oddly friendly towards Stabitha. Lori the Dolorian used the Invention Mugshot. He lashes out with his piston fists, but the fight is still going against them.

Realising they probably can’t fight their way out of this, Lori decides that its time to use his Keep Inventing! crazy skill. Using his hatred of Fredamine to crack physics, he rips open his former owner and uses his mastery of haruspexy to create a dimensional wormhole. They plummet through an industrial nightmare, and burst through a shadowy door in a surreal factory complex into the night of an unknown desert oasis. They spy a shadowy figure in a broad hat strung with corks, his bill gleaming in the moonlight, waist deep in the billabong.

After a string of cryptic exchanges, the scene ends with Lori carrying Henry the Magical Platypus to Tity and Dong’s, a nearby family run bordello that appears to be a one room tin shack, and in exchange he kicks open a gate back to their reality with his poison spurred cowboy boot.

Back in their own dimension, they crest the top of the quarry after heating some canned beans for a group of lonely looking emu bikers who ride off into the night. Below them a number of Holecorp executives continue their junket, drinking champagne, punting orphans into a chasm for laughs, and sacrificing cattle to an effigy of Ayn Rand.

Flock: I know I’m just a car engine block, this isn’t really my fight.

Queenie: But you are a Master of Human Studies.

Me: You can get inside their minds.

Flock: Sometimes figuratively.

Suddenly, Stabitha and Lori are ambushed by a Holecorp Supersoldier, burying his shovel in the back of Lori’s head. As Lori winds up to attack, he falls apart into a pile of scrap, his hatred of Fredamine exhausted. Flock was… well, his rolling was spectacularly bad this session.

Stabitha was faced with a choice: battle the supersoldier on the plateau, or leap down onto the executives below. She goes with her instincts.

As she leaps down to do horrible murder amongst the executives, a familiar figure is being dragged towards the crevasse of punting. Wanda Rerring, the gang’s spirit animal, had never known her real parents, and was about to be punted into a chasm for it. Struggling for an escape route, she spied a hunched, woolen shadow on the wall of the quarry, and reached out to it in hope of an escape. As she was drop kicked into the abyss, the Beardaclava leapt onto her head, and the two became one deadly creature; the Beardblade.

Her deadly woolen follicles carry her back to the edge of the chasm, and she unleashes a Beardblast against the assembled executives, killing the last of them. Flock was happy to have finally succeeded at a combat roll. Bad news for Stabitha, however, as the raging follicles launched her into the crevasse. She was afraid, for a moment, until she realised that she was falling. She roared “DEATH FROM ABOVE!!!” as she plummeted into the unknown depths.

Queenie decides to make it a full house, and chooses the Showstopper so that each of the Mugshots gets a chance to shine. Apparently warned about this situation by those migrating emu bikers, Myrcy the Showstopper and her gaggle of activists surge over the horizon chanting “Don’t punt Orphans!”

Down in the quarry, Wanda is confronted by a final terrible foe.

“I er… don’t appreciate what you’ve er… been doing here. Rather ruined some er… investments for some er… friends of mine. I don’t don’t think that’s er… appropriate.”

From the shadows of a cavern, a Mad Monk strides into view, his waist length cassock tucked into his obscenely tight speedos.

“I don’t appreciate you non voting types, or your ideas on gender, so I suppose I’m gonna have to kill you in some horrible waaaaaaaaaaay…”

One wanker amongst the activists attempts the rhyme, “Don’t punt orphans, find better endorphins”, but it doesn’t really catch on.

Confronted with the fascist glory of the mad monk, Wanda launches herself at him and attempts to garrotte him with her beard. She sinks the choke, but somehow her enemy keeps spouting inanities about how she doesn’t have rich parents and thus doesn’t deserve the vote.

There is some discussion as to what Myrcy and her followers are defending for her to get the bonuses from her Peaceful Protest crazy skill, with examples in the current situation being the remaining un-punted orphans, animal protection laws, and ideas of sensible desert attire excluding speedos. She and her followers surge down into the quarry, but the roll doesn’t quite make it.

“Oh no, protestors!” the Mad Monk shouts, raising his hands, “It’s ok! I’ll stop the boats!”

Myrcy’s followers stall, and glance at each other, trying to figure out what the hell that is suppose to mean. There are no boats in the desert.

“What do we do Myrcy? Where are the boats?”

Myrcy: There are no boats.

“Where’s the water?”

Myrcy: There is no… it’s a trap!

As the protesters stall, with a thunderous sounds surging closer, Wanda’s crushing follicles close in further on her nemesis.

Wanda:There once was a Mad Monk that couldn’t be killed. But he had a fucking beard.

She then drove her beard into the Mad Monks chest, trying to Temple of Doom his heart out. She strikes true, and the Mad Monk nearly topples, though she finds he has no heart at all.

“What do we do Myrcy? The waters coming! Run!”

Myrcy: Protestors! With me! Don’t punt orphans!

They rush forward, only to have an immense amount of water wash into the quarry from an unknown source (possibly Queensland). They are carried away, confused, and the Mad Monk and Beardblade wrestle to a jagged rock in the midst of the chaos. Myrcy struggles to bodyboard on her placard towards them, and her followers begin to chant “Kiss of death! Kiss of death!”

Wanda pushes the mad monk down towards the waves, and brains him on Myrcy’s current driven placard. Her bloody beard turns to meet the early morning sunlight, and she says

“You were never popular with the boaters.” Because this is how democracy in Australia works.

The weirdos spend their day fishing orphans and cattle out of the unexpected flood-zone, then head back to Waldongle with Wanda carrying a fish under her beard-arm. They arrive at the fish and chip shop, and Wanda congratulates herself in the mirror, fist bumping her spirit animal, taking the bag of magical reagents for saving the orphans and cattle.

In the end I had really bad hat hair, and then we kind of narrated the evening to the tune of Down Under. And that was more or less that.

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There may have been some left

Things I learned: OK. I’m the first to admit that I designed Australia Day poorly. I may have done so in a haze of Kahlua. But there were a few things I noted down.

First, Villains don’t stack well. If you want your weirdos fighting a lot of Villains, just call it a Mob of What Have You, a Mob of Emu Bikers for example. Add one or maybe two to the Horribleness Meter for numbers, and that keeps things nice and smooth.

Second, when the Beardblade uses Beardblast any friendly players need to roll more Squibs than the Beardblade did to escape it. The Beardblast becomes a hazard with a Horribleness of the Beardblades successes. That wasn’t made super clear either. There might be an errata. I promise nothing.