As the vislae agonized, the quiet, percussive sounds of nighttime gradually provided accompaniment. The chirping of insects harmonized with other less identifiable Satyrine strangeness in an almost hypnotic, rhythmic beat, which in turn was slowly overpowered by a dull roar of rushing air and fierce steam. The beat persisted in the form of a harsh metallic background staccato: metal on metal thumping like a drum…
And then the night itself was gone into daylight like a conjurer’s trick, flooding the… train that Enkidu and Zerah were now riding. The conductor called out a final stop of the Cemetery of Dead Roads line of Indigo Rail in Strangeglass, transitioning to Satyrine Rail.
Zerah awoke: to see himself, seated before him. He knew he was dreaming, but lucid, and not having an uncommon out of body experience at all. He attempted to piece together the missing memories that led him here, something often easier to do without a body: a glance at a discarded Indigo Gazetteer alerted him to the fact that a full day and a half had passed since the evening’s events before Ember’s Leap and that this was now the morning after the morning after. He noted Enkidu across the train in another car, but before he could reach out to his companion, the other vislae, unable to see him, departed the train.
Enkidu’s personal cambionette slid smoothly up to the station ramp to fetch him: a black and yellow rounded Stude-like, a design that had echoed into the Gray Sun as ‘1920’s’. It slid away toward the looming edge of the Abstraction, ferrying him clanking and complaining to his home….
When he cautiously unlocked his small den in the great dark brick fortress of his home, he was greeted by the scent of Earl Grey tea and honey oats. It did not take him long to intuit that the house was… annoyed with its owner(?)’s absence, but pleased by something else. Enkidu mechanically filed a report on the Ember’s Leap events and had barely slid it under the door to the office before it was sucked in impatiently. Without a moment’s pause, a postcard was spat back out, hitting Enkidu squarely in the chest.
Enkidu lit up a Red cigar, quickly filling the room with the aroma of brimstone, as he sat down to scan the card. The front featured three squids toasting the viewer with the exuberant text, “Wish you were here!” written above them. On the back, in pen, the message read:
“Sorry to have missed you at the party. Was really looking forward to seeing you again. Find me at the Boarbeak Drew. – Valomeer”
Writing New Nightmares
Zerah made his way back to The Reinvention the long edge of morning: on foot. Taking his ingress through the Star’s Birth Arena, he descended into the lower levels before stopping short at the sound of a heated (on one side, in any case) discussion:
Inferno, the fearsome gladiator and soon-to-be former champion, snorted in impatient contempt at Odysseus, the blind trainer. The much larger, monstrous figure turned away with a parting offer: “Look me up when you’re not too much of a pussy to let me solve the problem.” He scarcely deemed Zerah worthy of a scornful glance as he passed by.
Impassive, blind Odysseus seemed almost to be waiting for Zerah as the vislae rounded the corner to greet him. The two shared greetings before Odysseus confided that Naranth had returned the last night, but that his arrival had coincided with certain… abnormalities. Dangerous abnormalities. The hall to Naranth’s cell was barricaded as if against a siege with gathered furniture, racks, and unused tools and weapons. Understanding that his recent companion was likely still in great danger (and clearly an unwitting source of danger as well), Zerah cautiously moved forward.
He made his way between the racks and mattresses, noting the long scratchings and burn marks on the walls and ceiling. Invoking a kind of Blue Tape Worm he held in in his soul, Zerah worked a Dream Intrusion, slithering into Naranth’s fringes of the Blue Sun….
Disoriented, he stumbled into a grey office full of grey furniture, with an unfriendly rubber tree filling one corner and reaching out into the room, like the shadow of dark times to come.
He moved across the office to a brass plaque where a door slightly ajar emitted a disturbing murmur or siren or scream. Zerah ran his fingers across the letters of the plaque… Michal Wojnicz… his own name in the cocoon of lies that are the Gray Sun. The door slid quietly open, and the first thing he saw was himself (too many times in one day for this sort of thing; a second self-encounter was ill-omened).
He was withered, with his mouth open in a silent wail. In partial profile, he saw a version of Naranth but weatherbeaten and poorly kempt, and showing many small injuries. The patter of his tale was still battering Dream-Wojnicz, his nightmares draining the life from the false image of the Apostate. Meanwhile, the shadows of nightmares crawled away under the desk, and through the windowsill, and out of the angles of the door.
Zerah reached out his hands and grasped the firmament of the dream, intent on turning the space itself out of the illusion, of waking Naranth back into the Indigo Sun. Like a bullfighter, he leaned into the momentum of the dream in an effort to escape the gravity of the Gray around it; with one hand, he pulled himself into the space where the false Wojnicz stood, and with the other he grasped the corners of the room to draw back the curtains of the illusion. Though he had never met Naranth in the Gray, he could feel his memories of shadow shifting and breaking and reforming against the waves of the Actuality.
But the dream, the nightmare, or Naranth, fought back. Zerah lost his grip, and the Gray began turning the turner deeper into itself, drawing him toward the mummified body with the mummy as the man and the sorcerer as the shadow. He felt himself sliding away. He called out, reaching out to Naranth in a reversed position of helplessness. Naranth, through bloodshot eyes, saw Zerah, shocked, and reached back…
Slumming it in Luxury
The Boarbeak Drew was in the “classic, populist style”: Green lawn, big windows, charming sign. Barback with a bad non-posh accent. The sort of place the gentry would boast in tittering whispers of having “slummed” in, which in turn might bring in the ambitious sort of upward climber trying to scratch off a little prestige in the rubbing of shoulders. In other words, it was exactly the kind of place where Enkidu might find new clients.
Outside the pub, Enkidu was surprised by the glass-bound apparition of a statuesque, broad-shouldered Viking of a woman who spoke with a voice as familiar as her image was not. Zerah’s voice came forth from her open lips, updating him on Naranth’s return and requesting a meeting once more at Zero’s Bar.
With practiced reserve, Enkidu absorbed the message and continued with his business inside.
Ordering a shepherd’s pie (as frustratingly delicious as it was inauthentic) and a stout, he settled in, patiently hoping to suss out his pen-pal contact. He amused himself by picking the pockets of a bad-tempered, “genteel” lady throwing an entitled fit. Perhaps daring fate in a moment of pique, he left his own business card in her purse, in place of her own. Perhaps Philippina Galás would pay him a visit?
Eventually, Enkidu’s attention narrowed to the snooker table in the adjoining room, where a lacuna was busy hustling and complaining to “Vink,” an old man who barely communicated in response as he doggedly attempted to “complete” a jigsaw puzzle of The Alone, even if his determined and unorthodox methods promised a different outcome than the box. The lacuna’s transparent, portal-like body outlined a distant sandy beach, a disorienting display as the view perspective defiantly remained unchanging, even as the outline shifted with his movements.
After some guarded back-and-forth, the lacuna confirmed his identity as Valomeer, the postcard writer, and asked Enkidu why he hadn’t shown up at Imbir’s party. Enkidu briefly explained the curse they had discovered that evening. Unfortunately, Val had little information to offer as he “wasn’t there when things went sideways.” Apparently Imbir had sensed something was wrong and had sent him outside to look for Enkidu’s group. After that, chaos had ensued. Val’s details were vague but ominous: there was fighting in the room he had left… someone had fallen into the river… Invillino’ar , the envoy of the Red Sun (whose presence at the party alone was a strangeness worth noting), was somehow discorporated…
Lastly, and most unsettling, Val offered his opinion that after the events of the evening, that Imbir was not his usual self. The lord had asked Val to go home “for his own safety,” a suggestion that struck him as odd in both manner and word.
Before parting ways, Val offered Enkidu a final gift, a lead on a job “working for the wrong side.”
Apparently a Thah captain by name of Aclanix was very keen on talking to Imbir, who now doesn’t seem to be talking to anyone after the incident. However, as Val noted, “he’d talk to you…”
After making sure Naranth was safe and collected (and having briefly updated him on the last night he remembered), Zerah visited the Valkyrie’s shop. He paid a fair price for a sending to Enkidu, asking the other vislae to meet him and Naranth at Zero’s. The Valkyrie also gave him a lead on where to procure a magical item that might make such communications easier in the future.
Zerah dutifully followed the directions given him by the Valkyrie, even as they took him farther and farther from the more traveled and elaborate vendors of the glittering bazaar. He had nearly missed it entirely before he noticed the sign of the “fortune teller” the Valkyrie had warned him about. Across the street was a barely noticeable ramshackle hut, standing alone. As he drew near, a waft of strong amber floated out from the dark interior to greet him.
Inside was a peculiar sight, even for Satyrine. A girl of about 18 with milk white skin and raven hair, sat at a spinning wheel, spinning her own beautiful hair into thread. Her arms were adorned with silver bracelets of elaborate and varied designs and styles, packed so closely together, they resembled a bracer; her right hand was adorned with many silver rings. Her eyes were so blue and pale, they appeared violet in the low light inside the hut. She scarcely acknowledged Zerah as he entered, occupied as she was in her work.
To the right, another woman, middle-aged with a round face and apple cheeks, sat in a chair before a crystal ball. She wore a peasant’s dress, and her hair was done up in a utilitarian double bun. Across from her a tall man seated on an ottoman held out his hands, his skin the sheen and consistency of whalebone. He wore a tungsten black skullcap upon his bald head and a black fur cloak fell weightily over his shoulders. His arms, bared to the elbow, were covered with dozens of cuts.
Zerah almost immediately recognized the man, even though his face was turned away: Dilliger Quine, the man who had mentored him as a Vance; also the man who had been responsible for his expulsion from the Order.
When the woman looked up at Zerah, Dilliger turned around, and the cuts covering his body opened, every one, into a searching eye, focused on the newcomer. The exchange between them was terse, but cordial. Dilliger, on his way out the door, brought forth an image of one of the Secret Souls, chilling Zerah to the core. But instead of threat, Dilliger offer Zerah with mixed pathos, his assistance, if he should ever need it, and told him to find him at the Desideratum, where he was now stationed.
Once the tall spectre of the past had left, Zerah consulted with the middle-aged woman. She gave her name as Verdani, which Zerah recognized as meaning “That Which Is Coming Into Being.” In the corner of the room, the third, the oldest, was named Urd (“What Was”) and the youngest, still spinning her hair, was named Skuld (“What Will Be”). Zerah eventually came to what had brought him here: a hope to find some magical item that might allow communication when his companions were separated. To his great surprise, she had already prepared this exact boon for him, three gobstopper candies, wrapped in a linen bag, paid for in advance… by the now absent Dilliger Quine.
Greetings from the Charnel Heart
As the Star’s Birth Arena crowd cheered in violent anticipatory ecstasy, Naranth bent down to pick up the rose thrown by Rota, his Weaver friend, unmistakable in the throng by the absurdly broad-brimmed hat she wore. He attached it to his battle-worn trousers by the thorns, on the opposite side of the rose he already wore from the lady who kept his heart.
He did not expect a serious challenge in the arena that day, but today’s challenger was an unknown. The announcer’s booming voice heralded “Belladonna Bellanoir” a lithe female fighter equipped with blades and whatever else beneath her vampish costume.
Between them ran darkly streaked streets of pale granite, hugged by darkly shaded buildings and walls in an urban chiaroscuro.
The fight was intense, but brief. Porting in behind her and avoiding Belladonna’s initial smoke bomb gambit, Naranth whispered dark, unwelcome secrets to his opponent as he connected with his fists, literally terrifying with the nightmares he magically imparted from his own wretched memories.
She surrendered after several impressive blows, but as he reached down afterwards to graciously offer her a hand, she betrayed his courtesy and drew blood with a pricking ring, hissing, “Greetings from the Charnel Heart.”
Naranth tried to hold on to her, but she escaped his clasp as he lost consciousness. Some time later, he awoke in one of the VIP booths of the arena, Rota and his old friend and announcer of the arena, Riley Tarn, standing over him. Through their efforts they had managed to stop the poison from killing him outright, but it clearly had yet to run its course, as blue veins streaked up his arms, blurring Naranth’s many tattoos as they crossed them. Attempts to discern the poison’s exact nature only led to shocking collateral damage as Naranth discovered that his magic had increased in potency at the cost of control.
Having had enough of the arena for the day, Naranth left to meet with his companions at Zero’s Bar as they had planned earlier.
That Which Is Family Is Not Always Familiar
The meeting at Zero’s Bar was brief. Each of the Circle offered what little insight they could. Enkidu relayed what he had heard from Valomeer. Naranth witnessed a waking vision of an armored man in a tiara and burnished armor turning to dust. Zerah filled in details in the abbreviated story of what had happened to the group on their travel to Ember’s Leap.
After conferring, they agreed that they should make seeing Imbir a priority, but Zerah was most concerned that the curse he had seen written on the angel was still upon them. They decided to see a “reputable witch.” Given the choice between consulting with the Vances or visiting Enkidu’s aunt, who herself was a practitioner, Zerah vetoed the Vances on the grounds of his difficult history with them.
… The first indicator that this visit would be strange even by Satyrine standards was when the door knocker barked instead of knocking with each rap on the door. They were granted entry and a welcoming voice urged them to make themselves comfortable. Large, friendly animals came bounding into the living room, shaped oddly in ways and for reasons that eventually became apparent: they were the happy furniture. Zerah settled comfortably into a fluffy chair of angora rabbit, his feet propped up on a dachshund footstool. Enkidu resignedly partook of and recommended the animated cookies that seemed just a little… too eager to be eaten (though they were, in fact, delicious). Naranth… for the most part, tried not to touch anything or lose his lunch to the surrounding strangeness.
Aunt Crystal herself turned out to be a cloud of cicadas and moths, gathered together into a humanoid shape. Despite her bizarre and unsettling appearance, she was happy to have guests and willing to help. Bringing out a large serving tray of strange liquids, she produced before them a potent concoction. The taste was FOUL to an almost unbearable degree, and it had… side effects, but it showed Zerah and Enkidu to be clear of any lingering curse.
Naranth on the other hand… his veins turned blue, and the shadowy image of a tree marked his tongue. Aunt Crystal, after some study and divination, told them what she could: the curse would almost certainly kill Naranth in time, if the branches of the tree-like blue veins reached his heart. However, the curse could be undone if they killed the maker of the poison first. Though it was doubtful that the assassin that had inflicted Naranth was also the maker, they knew that she was their first and only lead.
Zerah took the opportunity to step forward and utter an incantation of lasting power calling forth a terrible test of his intent and will. Though he did not remember their shared history, he knew that their future destinies were yet intertwined: he pledged to protect the reunited Circle: Enkidu, Naranth, Reln, and Eru. His blood turned to literal fire, glowing within his veins. He cried out in terrible anguish… and then passed out.
TL; DR Highlights
- Enkidu and Zerah awake on a train, a full day and a half after the evening they traveled towards Ember’s Leap
- Enkidu goes home; is contacted by Valmir, a lacuna associate from before
- Zerah heads home; finds out from Odysseus that Naranth has returned, but it still asleep and a physical source of wild magic and danger; Zerah enters dreams and helps bring Naranth fully back into Actuality
- Enkidu heads to the faux-lower-class-pub, the Boarbeak Drew; he lifts the goods of Philistine Galás, leaving his card with her
- Enkidu meets Valmir at the Boarbeak Drew, finds out that Ember has not been acting himself and receives a lead on a job: getting an audience for a Thah captain who wishes to speak to Ember, who hasn’t spoken to anyone else since the night
- Zerah encounters his old mentor and the man responsible for his expulsion from the Order of Vances Dilliger Quine at the home of three curious women; Dilliger cryptically offers his assistance and has paid for a helpful magical item days in advance of Zerah’s need of it
- Naranth duels an unscheduled newcomer “Belladonna Bellanoir” in the arena; he defeats her, but as she surrenders, she poisons him and gives him “greetings from the Charnel Heart”
- Naranth awakes, alive, with the aid of Riley Tarn, his friend and arena announcer, and Rota, his Weaver teacher; the poison has turned the veins in his arms blue, blurred his tattoos where the veins cross them, and has strengthened but made his magic more difficult to control
- The three meet at Zero’s and decide to find a witch to find out more about the curse Zerah and Enkidu (and Reln, not present) were afflicted with, as well as to find out more about Naranth’s affliction; Enkidu suggests his Aunt Crystal
- The three meet Aunt Crystal, who establishes that the curse will eventually kill Naranth, and that it feeds off his magic; the more he uses magic, the faster it will kill him, but he will also be stronger
- Zerah, using a powerful, but painful and terrifying incantation that lights his own veins on fire, pledges his resolve to the Circle and to aiding his new (and old) companions