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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


Lost, child? Don't be afraid. You can navigate by using the side bar to the right, under the picture of that curious fellow. Read about what has been written, and what is being written, by looking over the Blog Archive or "Things Lurking in the Dark." Be sure to check out the novella, "Unquiet Slumbers," posted in its entirety.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

PROGENY, PART THIRTEEN

Read Part Twelve Here

KATSUYAMA


By the time he left Geneva, I knew three things about this Draegonne guy.  I knew he was drama I didn't need fucking up my life, I knew running after Harrow was going to get him killed (or destroyed, or whatever you call it when Bleeders get offed), and I knew I was already into him in a big way.  Any of those was reason enough not to follow him to the States...especially the last one.  I don't mind hooking up now and again to scratch an itch, but relationships are not my thing.  I like simplicity.  Maybe it came with my Japanese blood.

So it bothered me that I couldn't stop thinking about him.  Not in a school-girl crush way, heart all pitter-patter, but more like wondering if he had been totally possessed by this ancient vamp yet.  I had seen it up close and personal.  That night in die Nachtpalast did something to him...messed with his head.  He was different immediately after it.  To be blunt it gave me the fucking creeps.  I know I had just met the guy, but I read people pretty damn well.  Always have.  And there were moments on the way back to Geneva that it sounded like someone else was talking through the guy.  Especially the bit back at the hotel.  I mean, yeah...alright.  I did give him a bit of a brush off, but I had also done this guy a solid saving his boy toy blood doll like that.  I don't think I deserved the attitude blast he hit me with.

And yeah, it bothered me how much that bothered me.

Screw him, I told myself.  I decided to put him out of my mind the old fashioned way; get over a guy by getting under another one.

I had a friend DJing at Avalon that night, so I put on this new school boy uniform I had been aching to take for a spin, and made sure it was just untucked and tussled enough to look less prep and more punk.  I put on extra eye-liner shook my hair out into a lion's mane.  Kitteh was on the hunt tonight.

The place was predictably packed, a sea of half-naked bodies writhing in the pit.  Bathed in red and yellow laser-light, the music throbbing, it reminded me of something out of Dante's Inferno.  As I descended the stairs into the crowds, a new remix of the old Lords of Acid "Show Me Your Pussay" launched from the speakers.  The timing really couldn't have been more perfect.

It didn't take me long, really.  It never does.  He was this red-haired Danish boy, snuck in the door on a doctored ID and flying high on E.  He had the cutest dusting of freckles over his cheekbones and bridge of his nose.  Ginger.  Kitteh likes himself some ginger.  Without saying a word I went straight up to him, pressed my pelvis to his, and started sucking on his tongue.  We were grinding together on the floor about half an hour before the action moved outside.

Neither of us much minded the cold.  We found an alley about half a block from the club, and he was down on his knees with my cock in his mouth.  Which is when they appeared.

I cursed.  Another minute of two of ginger working my tool and I might have unloaded.  That wasn't going to happen now.

Nikolea.

The boy saw them but it was clear he didn't know the score.  I think what must have gone through the poor bastard's head was that these toughs were gay-bashers.  He got up on his feet, wiping his mouth while I put my dick back in my pants, thinking this was going to get messy.  He held his hands up and told them he didn't want any trouble.

Jesus those fuckers are fast.  Three of them were on the kid, lifting him off his feet and against the wall.  It was a fucking fang-bang.  Two of them had their teeth in his throat, stifling his agonised screams with a fist jammed into his mouth.  A third was sucking at his wrist.  I am no body's freaking hero, but the look of terror and pain in that sweet kid's face brought a snarl to my face.  I would've tried to help him if I didn't have four others to deal with.

They stood between me and him as he slowly stopped thrashing and the light went out in his eyes.  

"I caught your scent," the big one said.  He looked Arab to me, North African, fangs at least three inches long.  Despite the cold he was wearing a flimsy T, muscles rippling underneath it.  "I tracked you.  You some vampire's bitch, boy?  You got the stink of the Tenebrati on you."

Fuck, I thought, glancing a final time at Ginger.  His dead eyes seemed to stare back at me.  This wasn't random.  And I got him killed.

Quietly, I drew the knife I kept in my boot.  I didn't think I could win, but I wasn't going down without drawing my own share of vamp blood.  "I do?  And here I thought I had showered him off."

The Outcasts closed in, slower.  I don't think the knife intimidated them, they just wanted to make me squirm.  Then the one that looked like a snake--seriously, no hair or eyebrows and pale skin that looked like he'd stolen it from a boa constrictor--grabbed the big one's arm.  "No.  Wait.  Wait!"

The big one growled, clearly hot for my blood.  This made the snake even squirmier.  He raised his voice.  "No!  I know who this is!  He's the one who went to die Nachtpalast.  He was with the Draegonne!"

My eyes flicked to the big one's face, and it looked like something big and scary had just reached out and squeezed his balls to pulp.  He staggered back a step.

And before I could make a smart alec remark--and I can spit those fuckers out like machine-gun fire--the whole pack of them vanished, racing off into the night.

I swallowed, trying to coax my heart back into my chest from where it felt lodged in my throat.  Then I went over to Ginger.  

Too late for him.

My hands balled into fists, and my eyes went back to the mouth of the alleyway.  He doesn't just scare the Dragons, he scares the fucking Nikolea as well.

"America, here I come," I whispered.










  






    




   







Friday, December 19, 2014

NUMENERA IDEAS VOLUME 1: THE EIDOLON



The Eidolon is an optional element for Numenera campaigns, best suited for groups whose games lean towards medieval fantasy or quasi-feudal science fiction like Herbert's Dune.  It gives the quasi-religious Order of Truth (p. 222) something it didn't have before.  A god.  The degree to which this new element changes the Order is left entirely up to you.

One is the Eidolon and
One is Its Emissary,
One is the Path of Ascension.
One is Reality and
One is Truth,
One is the Mind which seeks it.

- from "The Litany of Truth"


What is it?

When Calaval entered the Amber Monolith (pp. 6-10) he found himself transported to an orbital station the Order now refers to as "the Throne."  He was not alone there.  Housed with the Throne was a powerful sentience field, a disembodied intelligence that immediately began trying to communicate with him by linking its consciousness with his.  The two minds were so alien to one another that communication seemed impossible.  In order to fulfill its function and establish contact, this intelligence had to completely rewrite its mental structure...and Calaval's as well.  The man Calaval was obliterated that day, as was the sentience he stumbled upon.  What emerged from the Joining were two entirely new beings; the Eidolon and the Amber Pope, each a mixture of the other's "programming."

Whatever the Eidolon's original function had been, it was now driven by a single purpose ripped from Calaval's extinct personality; Humanity must be bettered.  It returned the Amber Pope to the Ninth World, a human vessel that was now little more than an avatar of Itself.  Through this instrument It formulated and spread the teachings that eventually became The Way of Truth, a massive compendium of philosophy, language, and psycho-physical exercises meant to perfect the human organism.  Around these doctrines, the Amber Pope built his Aeon Priesthood and Order of Truth, and the movement spread like wildfire through the Nine Rival Kingdoms, uniting them through a common tongue and belief system.  And all the while, the Eidolon had Its Order scour the land for any numenera that could serve and improve the species.

The Eidolon recalled the Amber Pope at the end of his lifespan, operating now through the Priesthood and the Pope's successors.  For four hundred years it has pursued its goals down a variety of experimental avenues, including cybernetic, biomechanical, and genetic modification (The Cyrosian Circle), yogic and dietary practices (The Brotherhood of Rhun), and eugenics (The Miscegenites).  And, of course, throughout the Steadfast the instructions in The Way of Truth have provided an effective program of self-improvement and development for those who fully embrace them.  Regardless of its methodology, the Eidolon and the Order have always been consistently focused on finding ways to advance humanity.

In recent years, however, the Order of Truth has been taking an increasingly religious tone.  There are stories from the Beyond--apocryphal surely--of Aeon Priests leading villages in worship ceremonies, praying for abundant crops, fertility, and protection from disease.  There are even some stories of sacrifice, both animal and human.  In the Steadfast, meanwhile, Pope Durranet VI has instituted weekly Masses where Aeon Priests deliver sermons and lead the congregation in recitation of the Litany (part of The Way of Truth originally recited alone by devotees, at dawn and dusk, as a prelude to meditation). Further, the Amber Pope has founded a new organization, the Order of True Observance (also known as "Inquisitors"), charged with making sure the teachings of the Aeon Priests are being correctly followed.

All of this, along with the Holy War the Pope has called against the animistic Gaian sect, suggests a radical shift in the Amber Papacy's priorities.  Compliance, obedience, and uniformity seem to be replacing the search for truth and the collective betterment of humanity.  Is this the Order straying from the Eidolon, or has the Eidolon itself begun to regard itself as a god?

Who knows about it?

One of the first things a Gamemaster needs to decide before incorporating the Eidolon into a Numenera campaign is how widespread knowledge of the Eidolon's existence is.  Consider the following options;

Only the Amber Popes know.  The first Amber Pope had the "Throne  Portal" moved from the Amber Monolith to the Papal palace at the Durkhal.  Those in the Aeon Priesthood who know of its existence, and have seen it, have no idea what its function is since it is keyed to the Amber Popes alone.  Upon anointing his successor, the first Amber Pope secretly brought the Pope Elect through the portal with him, where his personality was reconfigured and slaved to the Eidolon just as his predecessor.  This has been done with each Amber Pope, making each and everyone of them an extension of the Eidolon.  However, because it is a two-way exchange, the personality of the Eidolon has mutated as well, its function and purpose altering over the centuries. As it acquires more and more human weaknesses, it is becoming increasingly paranoid, power-hungry, and jealous.

The Aeon Priesthood knows.  Part of the investiture of priesthood in the Order of Truth is revelation of the Eidolon's existence.  It is revealed as an incredibly ancient and immensely powerful sentience guiding the human race.  But the revelation comes with an oath of silence on the issue.  Most Aeon Priests regard the Eidolon as little more than a symbol; after all, an "eidolon" is by definition "an unsubstantial image or phantom; an ideal."  Those at the highest levels, especially within the Durkhal, know it is something more.  There is even a cabal, or conspiracy, that fears this alien being has too much influence over the Papacy and plots to do something about it.

The Aeon Priests are part of It.  As above, but investiture with priesthood opens a low-level link with the Eidolon.  The Aeon Priests are not, as their Popes are, avatars of the Eidolon, but this being is able to scan their thoughts and memories or use their eyes and ears to see what is in their vicinity.  This gives the Eidolon--if not omniscience--a kind of multiscience.  Further, the Eidolon may be able to implant ideas and suggestions into their heads.  Priests may even be able to manifest the Presence (see below).

Everyone knows.  This option is probably only viable for new campaigns, and not for GMs dropping the Eidolon into pre-existing ones.  In short, everyone knows about the Eidolon.  It is part of the Litany.  It's name is used to swear oaths ("By the Eidolon above!"), curses ("Eidolon turn its sight from you!"), and in greetings ("Eidolon be with you.").  It is universally acknowledged as the source of Steadfast language, law, and civilization.  This does not necessarily mean It is actually believed in; many seen the Eidolon as nothing more than the "ethos" of the Order.  Nor does it mean It is worshipped.  The degree to which It is worshipped and feared may depend on how you use the Presence (see below).

What can it do?

How powerful is the Eidolon?  What is it capable of? Here are a few options.

Manipulate.  With this option, the Eidolon is an incredibly powerful consciousness, able to think and plan at a level far beyond human comprehension, and it controls the leader of the Ninth World's largest socio-political organization.  Though the Eidolon wields no direct power, through the Order of Truth's immense influence it drives Ninth World humanity to accomplish its goals for it.

Empower.  Aside from being an incredibly powerful consciousness, able to think and plan at a level far beyond human comprehension, the Eidolon is able to focus its Presence around its followers.  Depending on your choices above, only the Amber Pope can manifest the Presence, or the Pope and the Priesthood can, or anyone in the Order of Truth can.

The Presence is nothing less than a local manifestation of the Eidolon itself, focused through Its conduit.  The Presence is always accompanied by a build-up of static electricity in the air, the scent of ozone, and an eerie sound just on the very edge of audibility that sounds like thousands of voices whispering, humming, or singing.  Enemies of the Order have reported the voices gibbering and screaming instead.  People describe a sense of awe and a pricking of the skin.

With the Presence comes the ability to perform miracles.  The most common sorts come from Foci like Bears a Halo of Fire, Focuses Mind over Matter, Rides the Lightning, or Works Miracles.  Others are possible.  NPCs can essentially manifest any Focus abilities up to a Tier equal to their Level - 1; for example, a Level 4 Aeon Priest could manifest Tier 1, 2, or 3 abilities.  It is important to note they cannot just do this whenever they like; they must call upon the Eidolon, have a desperate need, and must be using the power to further the Eidolon and the Order's interests.  In game terms, any invocation of the Presence and use of its miracles is a GM Intrusion.

Player characters can only call upon the Presence with the GM's permission (she is, in essence, playing the role of the Eidolon).  Depending on who can call upon the Presence in the GM's campaign, if the character is an Aeon Priest, or a faithful follower of the Eidolon, he can invoke the Presence with an Intellect roll against the level of the miracle he wants to invoke.  If successful, he may use the ability at double the pool cost.

For example, Hadrik is a Mystical Glaive Who Works Miracles, a sort of paladin loyal to the Order of the Truth.  On a mission for an Aeon Priest, he needs to use the Tier 4 "Flameblade" ability from the Foci Bears a Halo of Fire.  To do so he must roll Intellect 12 and spend 8 Intellect points from his pool (double the standard cost).

Smite.  The Eidolon is an Old Testament god.  Aside from the powers and abilities presented in the two options above, the Eidolon has access to powerful numenera--orbital satellites, nanomachine swarms, psionic talents, etc--that allow it to affect the weather, unleash plagues, or rain fire from the sky.  For whatever reasons It cannot do these things often, and relies on human agents most of the time, but when necessary the Eidolon can bring these powers to bear.

How can I use this?

There are several ways to use the Eidolon.  Here are some ideas for the different "flavors" of Numenera.

Post-Apocalyptic.  The planet should be dead.  One of the previous Worlds designed and built the Eidolon to maintain it, an intelligence overseeing swarms of nanomachines monitoring the ph of the soil, controlling weather satellites to ensure rains, keeping the planetary core active, etc.  But now the Eidolon has been reconfigured after joining with Calaval, ignorant of its previous duties, and one by one the control systems are failing.  Droughts are becoming more common as artificially verdant land changes back into desert, crops fail and wither.  Can the Eidolon be rebooted?  How can the planet be saved?

Quasi-Medieval.  The Eidolon has come to believe Itself to be a god.  Slowly it is retasking the Order of Truth into a true church, making certain the peoples of the Ninth World will obey and worship It.  The crusade against the heretic Gaians, and the Inquisition of the Order of True Observance, are just the start.  It has spent centuries infiltrating the Datasphere, weather control systems, the great machines at the planet's core, and now can unleash horrific disasters if not obeyed.  On the other hand, it does watch over and care for those who kneel before it.

Weird Horror.  The Eidolon is not what it seems.  How long this ultrarerrestrial has been imprisoned in the Throne, and by whom, none can say.  Perhaps millions of years.  It wants nothing more than to be freed.  The Amber Popes are merely mindless husks, their consciousness devoured...a fate that awaits the planet if It escapes.  It uses them as extensions of Itself, leading the Order to scour the world for the numenera that will unlock its cell.

Hopeful New World.  The Eidolon is essentially all that it seems.  It truly is obsessed with the betterment of humanity, and has been amassing knowledge of the numenera to help mankind survive.  Orders like the Miscegenites (aka the White Sisterhood) keep careful track of human bloodlines, arranging marriages to breed better and better people.  Meanwhile the Cyrosian Circle uses numenera to make people stronger, healthier, and more enduring.  These groups might even be close to producing a true Messiah, the first of a line of supermen who will ensure the destiny of the race.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

PROGENY, PART TWELVE

Read Part Eleven here.

The Motel 8 was new.  Growing up, McCarthy's "Farm Fresh" produce stand had stood where the parking lot now was.  Long gone and paved over, the plot was now lit by halide lights, a bright island in a dark sea of rolling hills and dairy pastures.  On the opposite side of the interstate, reached by a new overpass, was a Subway sandwich shop and a convenience store.  There was nothing else for miles around.

Pulling into the motel I tried to remember the taste of the sweet corn my mother and I used to buy from McCarthy's.  It was the highlight of every summer.  We'd search through the bins for just the ripest ears, heaping them in the little bushel baskets.  I loved that corn, and even after I had grown up and moved away, the memory of it made my mouth water.  Now the hunger for it--like the hunger for sex or scotch--was gone.  It had died with my mortal body.  I felt every bit as soulless and lifeless as the parking lot itself.

Stefan helped me get the bags from the trunk, and I glanced around the lot.  There were only three other vehicles parked here.  I knew there was a Best Western further into town, but had consciously decided against checking in there.  Damien Draegonne was missing, possibly even presumed dead considering his medical condition.  Re-appearing in my hometown, alive and well, called for explanations I didn't feel like giving.  It was better to avoid the chance of running into familiar faces by staying on the outskirts.  My new passport, license, and credit cards all read "Alasdair Vaughn."  The plan was to get the lay of the land and confront Harrow as under the radar as possible.

The girl at the reception desk looked equal parts young, bored, and sleepy.  I thought she might be one of the Ag and Tech students earning tuition money.  Her bleached blonde hair was cropped short and shaggy, and she wore enough eye make-up to be a cross between Avril Lavigne and a raccoon.  But she made the effort to give us a bland smile when she stood and welcomed us, more effort than I expected from a clerk at 1 AM.  I gave her my card and asked for a pair of twin beds.

She started her spiel about check-out times and complimentary continental breakfasts, but I paid little attention.  I caught sight of the novel she had been reading when we came in, now partially tucked under the counter, and suppressed a smile.  It was one of those Charlaine Harris books, the ones that inspired True Blood.  Distracted, I barely noticed that she had stopped speaking, her voice trailing off mid-sentence.  When I looked back up at her she was staring at me.

"Is something wrong?"  I asked her.

She blinked a few times and then shook her head.  "No.  I mean, no.  Sorry.  Just me.  I'm real spacey sometimes."  She cleared her throat and handed me the room keys.  "Enjoy your stay."

I glanced at Stefan and nodded to him, and collecting our bags we headed out to the room.

Neither of us noticed the mirror on the wall opposite the reception desk.

The room was bland and boxlike after the one in Lake Geneva, white walls and cream colors with generic, uninteresting art.  It smelled faintly of lemon polish and plastic.  Tossing my bags on the bed, I glanced around.  First, I checked the bathroom, more out of habit than need, and then the locks on the door.  They seemed sturdy.  The drapes looked heavy enough to block out the sunlight, and the sprinkler system was modern and in good repair.  Though I could endure sunlight, fire could still easily destroy me.  It was extraordinarily difficult to rouse myself during day sleep, and I didn't much like the idea of being cremated in my rest. Sprinklers were important.  Satisfied the room would serve for a night or two, I started to help Stefan unpack.

The dull, constant throbbing in my veins was strong tonight, like fine wires throughout my body being pulled taut.  My entire body was starting to ache with need.  I still hadn't Fed from Stefan since his attack, and the Hunger was becoming a constant companion.  I realized I was staring at him right then, watching the artery pulse in his throat.  He was looking back at me with a curious mix of terror and longing in his eyes.

"You should Feed, Damien.  I am strong enough now."

I could tell he wanted to mean it...that he was addicted to the Feeding nearly as much as I was.  But his hands had balled into white knuckled fists, and there was a slight tremor in his body.  It wasn't desire this time, it was terror.  The attack was still fresh in his mind, overpowering his own cravings.  I shook my head and used the same excuse I had been practicing since we left Switzerland.  "Not yet, Stefan.  You still look pale to me."  He knew I was making an excuse, and let me do it with a nod.

Besides, I had other options.

I thought, briefly, of the clerk downstairs.  An image--a surprisingly vivid image--of slamming her against the wall, tearing open her blouse, and fondling her breasts while I tore open her throat played in my head.  Coming to myself, I quickly submerged it, shocked by how my entire body hungered for that.  I couldn't deny it...this was the farthest gone I had ever been.  It had been five days since I last Fed, the longest time since my Embrace.  I knew, from what Athena had assured me, I was strong enough to go another week at least before Dusk took me and I slid into vampiric dreaming death.  The thought didn't comfort me...it terrified me.  A dull, aching Hunger radiated from the centre of my chest, the cavity where my heart used to beat.  It was a fucking black hole.  I could barely think of anything else than tearing flesh and trying to appease it with the wet rush of hot blood.  If this was five days...what on earth would I be like in a week?

I went to the window, allowing my senses to reach out and scour the dark.  The clerk was one option, but she was risky.  She was awake and alert, manning the front desk.  Now, feeling the tremors in the air, I sensed at least five other heartbeats, all in the slow rhythm of deep sleep.

Much easier prey.

"I am going out," I whispered, partly to myself and partly to my Familiar.  In the window glass he looked up at me, staring.  I could see the worry in his reflection, even though my reflection, which should have been just inches from my face, was nowhere to be seen.

Before he could protest I let myself out, pulling the door closed behind me.  My hand was shaking, and I closed it into a fist to stop the tremors.  Just like a fucking junkie.

The night air felt cool against my face.  I felt it brush across my skin.  It was chilly enough that I should have been cold, if my body felt cold any longer.  But cold was now my base state, and it was the heat of the sun and fire I had to fear.  Cold could do nothing to me.

Grabbing the rail I hopped over it, and fell 20 feet to the ground.  I landed without sound on the sidewalk below.  The highest concentration of heartbeats, calling out to me like taiko drumming in the dark, was down here.  For some reason--maybe being home again--my condition was never more clear to me as it was then.  I was a dead thing...my flesh was dead, my skin, my eyes...and the only thing that kept me up and ambulatory was the stolen life oozing through my veins.  This was me.  This was me for all of eternity.

And it didn't matter.  I was too hungry to think about it.

I went to the first door.  Quietly, I gripped the handle and turned it.  Locked.  No matter, my plan was to try the doors of the occupied rooms and see if any had been left open.  This idea seems absurd to you, gentle reader, who grew up in the city, but from where I was raised, most people left their doors unlocked.  All I needed was one in five.

I moved to the next.

They say the third time is the charm, and in this case it proved true.  I turned the knob and it turned easily, unlocked.  A smile crept over my face.  I tried to remain calm even though the Hunger in my veins was screaming EAT RIP TEAR BLEED DRINK in my brain.  

I entered the room.

She was sleeping just a few yards away.  I could tell from her pulse she was a woman, possibly in her late fifties.  I would have to feed gently so as not to kill her.  I might have preferred younger prey, but hers was the open door.  She had all but invited me in.

I moved silently across the carpet, my fangs sliding slowly from their sheaths.  My entire body trembled with need for her...it was like being sixteen and needing to fuck so badly you mind was hijacked with it.  It was being so hungry that your friend across the room started to look like meat.  It was...

Well.  You get the picture.

I pulled the blankets from her, and slowly rolled her over.

Then I leapt back, as if I had just touched hot coals.  My entire mind froze.

She seemed to sense it, sitting up suddenly, looking around as sleep fell from her eyes.

On pure instinct I crept backwards, straight into the wall.  On the bed, my mother looked around the room, blind in the dark.

Sleep now, the voice purred. It came from the dark across the room.  Immediately, in response, my mother collapsed back into the pillows and began to snore.

My eyes must have bulged so wide they could fall from their sockets.  I stared into the shadow as it stepped from the corner and took on the proportions of a tall, spindly man.

Young Master Draegonne.  At last.   






Friday, December 5, 2014

BLOOD AND SMOKE: THE STRIX CHRONICLE (VAMPIRE: THE REQUIEM), A REVIEW

As a literary genre, "Gothic" emerged from the Enlightenment.  This makes perfect sense.  Like its descendent, "Horror," the Gothic works by preying on the fears and uncertainties of its audience.  During the Enlightenment, or "Age of Reason," Western civilisation pivoted from medieval religion and superstition towards science, philosophy, and humanism.  The world stopped being a shadowy place populated by gods and monsters, and became instead something that observation and reason could make understood.  The Gothic, however, suggested the horrible possibility that the Enlightenment got it wrong.  At its core, the Gothic is about the Old World invading the New. It suggests that maybe the dark world of monsters wasn't banished...it just went into hiding.  Pull back the curtain and the demons are still there.

The Vampire has always been the epitome of Gothic, representing all those things the Enlightenment tried to leave behind.  Bundle up all the neuroses and stereotypes of the Middle Ages--the Aristocracy preying on the common classes, brooding castles, the mysterious scourge of the Black Death--and voila!  We have the Vampire.  Like the ruined abbeys and battered fortresses he likes to haunt, he is a medieval relic, vulnerable not to science, but only to the power of superstition and religion itself.  

Because he is the perfect vehicle for the Gothic aesthetic, the Vampire shows up over and over again.  From the 19th century forward, fiction has been swarming with vampire stories.  The 20th century alone gave birth to thousands of novels, films, television programs, and games about the Undead. When Dracula came out in 1897, the idea of girls mysteriously losing blood might have been terrifying, but these days anyone over the age of eight knows it's time to pull out the garlic and crucifixes at the first sign of puncture wounds to the throat.  Let's face it; the Vampire has been done to (un)death.

But every now and again, someone figures out how to revive him.  Mark Rein-Hagen did this in a big way back in 1991, when White Wolf published Vampire: The Masquerade.

His secret ingredient?  Cyberpunk.

Because, really, "cyberpunk" was the "gothic" of the late 80s and early 90s.  Gothic preyed on the fear of the past, while Cyberpunk showed us our fear of the future.  It envisioned a sort of new Middle Ages, where the megacorporate aristocracy ruled over an indentured worker class.  "Science isn't going to save us," it whispered, "it's going to enslave us." Cyberpunk fed into the millennialism at the end of the 20th century, the fear of Y2K, the idea that the world was coming to an end.  And at its steel and chrome heart, Cyberpunk and the Vampire had something in common...a fear of losing our humanity.  

Rein-Hagen's Masquerade was an explosive cocktail of these two genres, a blend he dubbed "gothic punk."  And it was a staggering success.  Not only did Masquerade spawn sourcebooks and new editions, it launched eight sister games, and its influence over the broader vampire genre was immense.  The elements it introduced into vampire mythology suddenly started turning up everywhere.  Corporate vampires secretly pulling the strings of the world, rival vampire clans, vampires at war with lycans (werewolves), and terms like Sire and Embrace cropped up in Blade, Underworld, and Buffy.  Everyone seemed to what a piece of it, making Masquerade one of the most successful RPGs of all time.

Nothing lasts forever.  By 2004, a lot of what gave Masquerade its bite was passé.  The year 2000 came and went without the Last Judgement, Jesus returning, or massive systems failure.  The terrifying possibility of megacorporations running the planet was now a terrifying reality.  Cyberpunk has lost some of its punch, and the gothic punk World of Darkness was looking a bit old.  So publisher White Wolf decided to shut the whole thing down and reboot.  There would be a new World of Darkness, with new vampires, werewolves and mages, and all that Cyberpunk stuff was going to be gone.  

Vampire: The Requiem was the result.  It was, essentially, Masquerade with the "punk" removed.  White Wolf yanked out the millennialism Gehenna bits, the "vampire clan as megacorp" metaphor, the concept of generations and having to climb the corporate ladder over the bodies of your superiors, and kept all the Gothic elements intact.  Now the Clans were really just vampire archetypes; the Seducer, the Shadow, the Monster, the Predator, the Dark Lord.  Now the vampires were hunters and parasites rather than secret rulers of the world.  Now you grew more powerful with age, rather than needing to off your elders.  Now nobody knew where vampires came from.  The punk was gone, but there was nothing new to replace it.  And that's the the problem; we've all seen Gothic vampires thousands of times before. Requiem is by no means a "bad" game, but it brings nothing new to the genre.  It reads--and feels--a bit like a generic knock off of Masquerade.

New publisher Onyx Path (created by White Wolf Creative Director Richard Thomas) decided to do something about this.  Since the reborn World of Darkness was meant to be more of a toolkit setting to craft your own unique takes, Onyx Path decided to do just that.  Starting with The God Machine Chronicle, which took the World of Darkness core rulebook and gave it a horrific new focus, Onyx Path took the de-punked World of Darkness and started putting new elements back in.  The new secret ingredient?

Punk.

If Masquerade was "gothic punk," Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle, is "punk gothic."  Masquerade was essentially a punk game with gothic flavouring, while Strix Chronicle is a gothic game with a punk aesthetic.  Masquerade's third generation Get plays with the same pieces that made its Grandsire work, but arranges them in new ways.

Let's get the basics out of the way.  Strix Chronicle is not a new game.  It doesn't replace Requiem the way Requiem replaced Masquerade.  And yet, it is an entirely self-contained product.  You won't need The World of Darkness core rules or Vampire: The Requiem to play.  Strix Chronicle is essentially just Requiem rewritten around a new antagonist, the shadowy and terrifying Strix, but also with a new attitude.  Requiem was meant to be all things to all vampires; Strix narrows things down to a very specific vibe.

It starts right up front with the "inspirational media" section. Under the vampire fiction section Strix lists Already Dead, Carmilla, The Hunger, Near Dark, and Night Junkies.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is it.  There is no mention of Dracula, Anne Rice, or Nosferatu.  Instead we get (in order) a book that presents the vampire as a junkie, an edgy tale about vampire lesbianism, ultra-modern and very chic punk vampires prowling Manhattan clubs, brutal vampire punks terrorising the Southwest, and (yet again) vampire junkies in London strip clubs.  These are all stories about transgressing social norms, the very essence of "punk."  And there isn't a Transylvanian accent in sight.

And then there is the writing.  Strix is written loud, with a raw, in-your-face tone.  Compare, for example, the origins of the Clan Daeva;

...Among Kindred historians, the Daeva are suspected of being one of the oldest clans of the Damned.  Their moniker suggests a Persian mythological origin, and their abilities suggest that they could be related to the demons from which they take their name.  A few ancient writings suggest that the progenitor of the line was a Kindred known as Aesma Daeva, but vampiric scholars debate whether this individual was actually undead or the writings merely draw comparisons to the Persian demon of lust and anger...  (Requiem, p. 22)

And from Strix;

...The Serpents arose from the sticky musk of the ancient world. River tides teased the gaping valleys to frothing fertility. The elder nights throbbed with temple music. Priests and priestesses practiced their love arts for coin — communion of the cunt and the cock. There was no difference between god and demon or sex and worship. In that space between, the Daeva curse gestated. They reveled in that time and place where deities cared enough to do horrible things to you directly. But the world turned. The capital “G” God changed the paradigm.   When they could no longer be gods, the Daeva became succubi and incubi. The world turned again. Tonight, when it is no longer practical to be a demon, the Daeva become zeitgeists...  (Blood and Smoke, p. 14)

Get the picture?  Strix gets what Masquerade knew; tone matters.  The Strix Chronicle then comes dripping with attitude.

If you know Requiem, your pretty much know Strix Chronicle.  It has the same Clans, the same Covenants, and pretty much the same rules.  But they are all redone with a nastier attitude.  Requiem leaned a bit towards Anne Rice's "dark angels of the night."  Strix wants you to remember that you are a fucking blood-sucking corpse.

Take the Daeva again.  In Requiem their Clan weakness is that they lose 2 points of Willpower for failing to indulge their vice.  Makes sense.  They are sensualists.  In Strix, the Daeva become addicted to their prey.  The more they feed on the same mortal, the stronger the addiction becomes, until they become obsessed stalkers or suck the mortal dry.  That, brothers and sisters, is proper scary.

It is in the Disciplines that the new aesthetic shows itself best.  They feel less like superpowers and more like holy shit what the fuck is that?!?  Remember Auspex?  The vampiric discipline of enchanted senses?  What a lovely little discipline that was, with heightened senses, aura perception (oh! pretty colours!), psychometry, telepathy, and astral projection.  Well, The Strix Chronicle laughs in the face of your pretty colours.  Now Auspex gives you a predator's ability to sense danger to yourself and weakness in your prey, the power to discover your target's darkest secrets, the ability to read an object or area based on scents and impressions, the power to "read" a target's mind by aligning your thoughts with his, and yeah...astral projection.  In short, the powers are pretty similar, but with the niceties stripped away.

Protean is another fine example.  In Requiem Protean gave the vampire the power to project a bestial aura, to sink into the earth and slumber there, to grow claws, to transform into a bat or wolf, or to become a cloud of mist.  Standard Count Dracula, really.  In Strix, Protean is much more raw.  The first level now allows you to sink into the earth, but here the two versions part company.  At level two the vampire lets her Beast out a little, twisting her body and transforming her flesh.  She gains animalistic features of her choice...running on all fours, a prehensile tail, the ability to breathe underwater, claws, feral senses.  The idea is that every vampire's Beast is different...your might be sharklike, mine might be pantherish.  At level three, the vampire can now transform into the form of any animal it has consumed.  Sort of.  Draining the blood of the animal turns you into an unholy, vampiric version of it.  Not a dog but a hound of hell. Now a raven but a blood-sucking horror of a crow-like thing.  At level four she can now really let the Beast out, her body warping into truly terrifying shapes, the kind of things we see in modern vampire films...gaping maws filled with fangs, loathsome, rubbery flesh that can stretch and twist, bat-like wings.  And finally that nice mist form is still there...if you can call a foul, oily smoke from which occasional glimpses of eyes or fangs can be called "nice."

All the disciplines have been retouched this way, never straying too far from Requiem, but definitely ramping up the horror tone.  These Kindred are really at their most monstrous.

But we can't complete a review of The Strix Chronicle without mentioning the Strix.

Way back in the beginning, Vampire: The Masquerade had the Sabbat.  In the original game, players were meant to portray the Camarilla vampires...members of the seven clans practicing the Masquerade and clinging to their humanity.  The Sabbat were shadowy antagonists, vampires that fully embraced their monstrosity.  They were the black mirror reflections of player Kindred, the Joker to the Kindred's Batman. Unfortunately, Masquerade strayed from this vision and the Sabbat became the "cool clans" to play.  The Strix Chronicle brings the idea of the shadowy opposite back, and this time with a vengeance.

The Kindred are human corpses, reanimated with a semblance of life and a thirst for blood.  So too are the Strix, except of course that they were never human to begin with.  The Birds of Dis are shadowy spirits that possess human corpses and drain life from living victims in the form of blood or breath.  They have no humanity; they exist to devour it.  They are the Sabbat vampires of old but far, far worse...true horrors that delight in torture and terror and death.  And yet where they come from and their relationship to the Kindred is left for the Storyteller to decide.  Were they once Kindred themselves, a clan destroyed by others and back for revenge?  Are the Kindred themselves a bastard offshoot of the Strix?  Whatever the case, they seem to be truly immortal and solitary, except for those horrible times when they call a Parliament and congregate in a city, bringing ruin and terror...

In the end, Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle is more like Masquerade than Requiem.  It doesn't try to be the vampire game for all people, but rather, the vampire game for some people.  If you are looking for the romantic, sensual vampire, the Lestat or Frank Langella Dracula, you will not find it here.  It is, however, ideal for people who associate vampires with death and decay rather than teen love triangles and sparkling.  Like Masquerade, it has a punk edge that this time is more visceral and bloody.  It's a vision less Queen of the Damned and more 30 Days of Night.  By keeping a tight focus on a kind of uncomfortable body horror with shades of addiction and despair, Strix has what Requiem by design couldn't...a flavour.  It just might not be the flavour for everyone.  And that's just fine.   













  




  





   







    







  









  


Saturday, November 29, 2014

PROGENY, PART ELEVEN

Read Part Ten here.

Thirty thousand feet below me, the Atlantic was a black abyss.  In my mind's eye I could see it, reflecting the starlight like polished obsidian, the surface rippling as the things beneath it swam about their business.  I'd never been comfortable flying, especially over water.  Not even death had changed that.  I had this dream, this re-ocuring nightmare as a child, of falling out of the sky, spiralling down and down and down, the sea waiting to receive me.  I'd awake in horror, my sheet soaked in my own piss.  I wasn't a child any more...nor did my body produce piss.  All the same, I gripped the arms of the seat tighter than I should.

Katsuyama and I had come back from der Nacht Palast a day late, sharing the master bedroom despite Richter's less than subtle suggestions that I might prefer the crypts below the palace.  These had not been on the tour, and the idea of sleeping in a mouldering grave beneath this ancient house was just a little too Bela Lugosi for me.  But as I closed the heavy wooden doors of the bedroom behind us, an image of the mausoleum outside the courtyard walls suddenly came to me head, the heavy stone sarcophagus with the knight slumbering eternally on its lid.  This is the resting place for you, a voice seemed to whisper in my mind.  You are the lord here now.  I shut it out, violently, uncertain whether it was Harrow's voice or my own...uncertain which possibility was worse.


I found myself strangely reluctant to leave the next evening.  It was almost as if the blood of my ancestors was calling to me from the soil of the place.  Was this, possibly, what they meant when they spoke about vampires and their native earth?  I wished, as I did thousands of times a night, that Athena was there to answer my questions.


It rained lightly all the way back to Geneva, and as we climbed into the Alps it slowly changed into a gentle snow.  Kit dropped me in front of the hotel, but made no sign of getting off the bike.  I glanced at him, puzzled, snowflakes swirling in the air around us.  "You aren't coming up?"


He lifted the visor of his helmet.  "It's been fun, handsome.  And I really did enjoy the fuck.  But I've got things to do."  The Cheshire Cat grin crept across his features.  "You haven't fallen in love with me already, have you?"


I don't know why--this was just the way Kit spoke, and had never bothered me before--but I bristled at this.  "I prefer dogs to alley cats.  More loyalty.  Better morals.  Look after yourself Katsuyama."


He looked strangely at me as I turned and walked away, never saying a word.  The motorcycle didn't pull away until I was halfway across the sumptuous lobby of the hotel.


What the Hell was that?  I asked myself as I approached the concierge.  A second voice in my head spoke up reassuringly.  It's better this way.  Being around you is dangerous.  You'll get him killed.  Besides, I still had no idea who he even was.  I had no idea what he was...given those strange visions filling my head as I Fed upon him.  No.  I definitely didn't need the complications Kit brought into my existence.


All the same, the twinge I was feeling, the pull, was not unlike what I had felt leaving the Night Palace.


"Ah Mr Draegonne.  A package arrived from Herr Schnidrig for you."  The concierge smiled blandly and waved for one of his underlings to retrieve it.  "Also your, 'son' has returned with your 'cousin.'  I believe they are waiting for you in your suite."


Which 'cousin,' I wondered.  Roman or Noetia.  He handed me the package and I headed for the elevator, bracing myself for a fight.


She was sitting on the sofa, arms folded, in the centre of the suite.  The room was dark, back lit only by the reflected glow of the city filtered through the windows.  I closed the door and stared back at her, wondering who was going to speak first.


Noetia Drachen turned her head, nodded at the second bedroom.  "Your Familiar is in there.  He is much improved, but I don't recommend Feeding from him for a few more days."


I nodded, taking off my coat.  "Thank you, Noetia.  I owe you and Roman both."


"Spare me your thanks," she spat, and despite myself, I chuckled.  Her face twisted up at this.  "I amuse you, abomination?"


I nodded.  "Actually, yeah...yeah you do.  I was trying to thank you.  I get that you don't like me, but you don't need to be such a cunt about it."


And it was out with the fangs again, her eyes blazing.  Her next words were going to be something like I ought to tear your throat out or I should rip your head off.  She was predictable, this one.  Like Roman.  Like any good chess piece it moved the same way every time.  


Something laughed softly in my brain.  I think it was Harrow.


"Watch your tongue with me, abomination, or I will tear you to pieces."


Ah yes, VERY predictable.


Something was wrong with me, or rather, something was different.  The same way I had snapped at Kit I had no patience for Noetia Drachen now.  I found myself crossing the room towards her, slowly, a smile on my face.  "I am laughing at you because you and Roman are such cartoons," I heard myself reply.  "You aren't going to tear me to pieces because you don't want to start a war with the Ravens, remember?  And my Sire sits at the left hand of the bloodline Patriarch.  You don't need a Blood War with the ally helping you fight the Outcasts.  So either keep a civil tongue in that pretty face of yours Noetia, or get the fuck out of my hotel suite."


I made a point of walking right past her, bumping shoulders, and opening the window.


She whirled around, livid, too furious to speak.  So I did the speaking instead.


"Do you really think you and Roman can scare me?  Seriously?  There is a creature out there right now, a vampire nearly a thousand years old, with his sights set on me.  A vampire that makes little girls and little boys like you and Roman piss yourselves.  And you think I should be more frightened of you and your little temper tantrum?"  I turned around, smiling politely at her.  "I am not your enemy, Noetia, and I am grateful for what you have done.  But I am getting tired of hearing you say 'abomination' again like a broken record.  My name is Damien.  Use it or don't speak to me."


I was expecting another tantrum...she would leap across the room and grab me by the throat, gnashing her teeth.  But then, the little chess piece did something unpredictable.  Her eyes widened, and her mouth closed into a tight, bloodless gash in her face.  Unbelievably she backed away a few steps.  I don't even think she knew she was doing it.


"Blood of the Source," she whispered.  "You went there, didn't you?"


I raised an eyebrow.  "Again with the 'cryptic?'  What is it with you, Noetia?  You read too many bad vampire novels before you were Embraced?"


"The Night Palace.  You went there."


I showed my teeth in the coldest of smiles.  "Oh yes, terrifying isn't it.  A Draegonne back in the Night Palace.  Your worst nightmare."


(damien what is wrong with you)


Some small voice was whispering in my head, and it sounded almost like Athena's.  I realised with a start that I had crossed the room again, closing the distance between Noetia and I.  I had reached my hand out and gently taken her by the chin.  And she was trembling like a leaf.


I didn't remember doing any of that.


"You should never have gone there," she whispered, now clearly terrified of me.  "You don't understand."


I dropped my hand from her face.  "Then for fuck's sake tell me.  What did Harrow do to you people?  Why did you make him an Outcast?  Why does he scare you this much?"


She backed away again, wetting her lips.  I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head.  She was realising now that keeping me in the dark had been a bad idea...she was thinking if she and Roman had told me everything maybe I wouldn't have gone to the Night Palace.  She wondered if telling me now might avert the thing she was most afraid of.  I lowered my voice persuasively.  "Just tell me, Noetia.  By not telling me all you have done is let me walk deeper into his trap."


She hissed at this, jumping back.  "Are you in my mind?  How?"


"Tell me."


She froze, staring, and I stared back, our gazes locked.  After several moments, possibly even minutes, she looked away.  She half turned from me and folded her arms across her chest.  "Simon Draegonne, the one you call 'Harrow,' was the worst mistake the Dragons ever made.  Worse even than the Impaler."


"Come," I heard myself say.  "Surely not as bad as that."


She glanced at me, still refusing to make eye contact.  "The Impaler's crimes were against the Quick.  Draegonne's crimes were against the Progeny, and his Patriarch."  She rubbed her arms, a leftover tic from her breathing days.  The Undead did not feel cold and didn't get gooseflesh.


I watched her pace the room, slowly, wrestling with herself.  "We don't speak of him.  Of them.  Of what happened.  It has all been stricken from the histories.  But...you are right, abomi...Damien."  She paused, shooting a glance at me again.  "You are right.  The Old Serpent is uncoiling again and either you know or you become his creature."


Finally.  We are getting somewhere.


"Simon the Monk was an alchemist and sorcerer before he was Progeny.  The Church cast him out of his order for diabolism.  I am not certain how he got himself Embraced.  We can't know, because Simon later killed his Sire and his Sire's Sire.  He was obsessed with the Blood...he believed he could decode the mind of Lachiel, steal fire from the Source.  He was made Outcast for killing and draining all the Blood of his Sire, and as I said his Sire's Sire, and then his Sire.  He managed to work his way all the way back to the Patriarch.  He discovered the resting place of the Great Dragon, and thought if he could drain him dry as well he--Simon Draegonne--would assuming the powers of the Patriarch.  He was caught and apprehended halfway through the process."


She was sitting now on one of the barstools.  The mirror behind the bar showed the bottles, but not her.  It was still part of our condition I couldn't get used to.  I crossed the floor slowly, so as not to startle or threaten her, and sat on another stool, leaving one empty one between us.  Curiously, I found myself wanting a glass of scotch.  I shook the craving away, knowing it would do nothing for me.  "Why didn't they kill him?"


"Because they were afraid," she replied, and something in her expression made me think she wished she could have a stiff drink as well.  "Draegonne's necromantic powers were terrifying.  You see, he didn't just take the Blood from his Sires.  Somehow he had made them Shades.  He had the spectres of his elders bound to him, doing his bidding.  And..." she lowered her voice at this.  "He had drained half of the Patriarch's Blood.  Half of the Patriarch's spirit was within him.  They were afraid that with this connection forged, killing Draegonne might kill the Patriarch as well."


"Jesus Christ," I whispered, the old Catholic boy inside me blaspheming in shock.  "Jesus Fucking Christ."


Noetia nodded.  "They say the Patriarchs begged Lachiel to intervene after that, and the Dark Angel did.  Since then, it is impossible for us to strike out at any Patriarch.  One cannot even physically unsheathe his or her fangs in their presence.  Because of Draegonne.  Because of what he almost did."


"So they exiled him.  Made him Outcast.  Sent him to the New World."


She nodded again.  "Yes, but there is more.  And this is the part you need to hear."


I braced myself as she slid from the stool and started pacing again.  "Draegonne had adopted the sons of his brother, and these Quick relations continued to rule the family estates.  But the Old Serpent also sired Gets from his family bloodline.  Simon Draegonne only made his own blood kin into vampires.  By the time he was banished, he had been Embracing Draegonnes for six centuries.  There were dozens of them.  It was decided that an Inquisition was required, to investigate House Draegonne and see if any of these lesser Dragons shared in their Sire's great crime."  


She turned an looked at me, hard, her black eyes grabbing mine.  "I was there that night, the night we went to der Nacht Palast.  And it will haunt me the rest of eternity."


I sat up straight, hanging now on her every word.  The strangeness that influenced me before seemed entirely banished.  I was myself again.


"There were twenty-seven vampires in the House Draegonne.  They were Simon Draegonne's not only by Progeny Blood, but my human blood as well.  They were his own kin.  And not a single one of them was left."


I had no idea what she meant, but the back of my neck was tingling again.  "Go on."


"I told you he killed his Sires and stole their Shades?  Draegonne had done something similar with all his Get.  None of them had any individual personality, Damien.  None of them had minds or wills of their own.  Draegonne had hollowed them all out, and placed copies of himself inside each.  They were all him."


I couldn't move.  If the room had caught fire at that moment, I would have burned to death, unable to budge from my stool.  Because I knew, now.  I knew.  Why he had been feeding me his Blood secretly in my breathing years.  Why he was giving the Night Palace and his fortune to me.  I knew.  He was planning on becoming me, or rather, on making me become him. 


Twenty-four hours later, suspended over the Atlantic, I turned these thoughts over in my head.


Stefan and I were the only passengers aboard the Gulfstream.  Herr Schnidrig had arranged it all.  As I sat replaying my conversation with Noetia, the boy was sleeping across from me, his dark hair falling across his face.  After she left me that night I went into his room and sat beside him as he slept. He still looked pale to me, but I knew he was going to be alright.  As I sat there stroking his hair, the way a Quick might pet his dog, I let my mind wander down the paths of Blood and enter into his.  I saw the entire attack there, feeling Stefan's terror and pain.  Foolishly, he had not obeyed me.  Leaving the hotel to follow me despite my warnings.  That was when it happened.


The Outcast had come out of nowhere, seizing Stefan and slamming him against the alley wall.  Ice-cold fingers groped his face, twisting it painfully to expose his throat.  The boy kicked his legs and wet himself, urine gushing down his leg in a hot rush.  And then the searing white hot pain, teeth tearing open his throat, and the wet, hungry sucking sounds.  The difference between the Feedings he was used to as a Familiar, and this attack, was as great as the difference between lovemaking and the most brutal rape.  The scars on his throat were healing.  I was not so sure about his soul.

And I was going to kill the son of a bitch who did this.  Assuming I survived what lay ahead of me.


The plane shook again, violently, or so it seemed to me.  I had this vision of the fuselage shredding open, dumping us out.  Like my dream I would spiral down into the raging sea.  Would that be enough to end me, or would I sink to the bottom, lost in the airless and frozen dark?  Vampires couldn't drown, but I wonder how they did with extreme pressure.

Bu then the pilot's voice was on the intercom, and Stefan was stirring, his blue eyes coming open.  "America," the pilot had said.

I was coming home.