26: The Dark Queen of Tomnahurich

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When It Happened (Campaign Time): August 15, 2003 – October 31, 2003

Who Was There: George Phillapoussis (Storn), Mark Donovin (Eric), Nemura Kentaro (Chris), Jeff Bradshaw (Bob), Bruce (Matt)

What It Was

After a night troubled by dreams and ghouls, the Aces head for Inverness and Tomnahurich Hill, where they find people suffering from the deadly scales disease. A man named Bruce has been fighting the plague with a counterspell, but that is no help against an attack by tainted Faerie and then Something much worse. While Ken tries to find a cure, the other Aces stage a direct attack on the Hill. But the Dark Queen is a greater threat than they realize, and they are forced to watch as one of their own comes to a sudden, brutal end.

The Full Horror

Jennie is now able to manifest every night. She still has a hard time moving physical objects or appearing during the day, but her abilities are definitely improving. Perhaps a side-effect of her martial arts training?

Meanwhile, the Aces try to decide what to do after their confrontation with Andrew Ben-Nevis. George uses Tessa’s scarf to scrye for her again and is certain she’s somewhere near Inverness. As for the strange stone in the leather bag, George Blesses it before Mark hides it under his mattress.

Mark’s room is still filled with garlic, but that night the vampiress returns. The curtains stay drawn, thanks to Mark’s knife, but she wakes Mark by tapping at his window. He tries to ignore her, but he hears her voice in his head: “Join us. Join your strength to ours and we will defeat the serpents at last. Join us. At Glamis.”

Her voice fades away as Mark drifts into sleep and finds himself at the Seventy Stairs, going down to the Cavern of Flame and the lands of dream.

The Enchanted Wood

When Mark reaches the cavern, the two strange men are waiting for him beside a small table on which sit three loaves of bread, a jug of water, a dagger, and clothing that looks like something out of a scene by Moebius. This is more than the two men ever gave him or the other Aces before.

Both men also seem upset, and Mark has a strong feeling they want to tell him something. But they only take him over to another, larger stairway: “The Seven Hundred Steps which lead down to the Gate of Deeper Slumber. You are to go through that gate and enter the Enchanted Wood.” Mark has no idea what the hell any of that means. But when he finally gets to the last stair, George appears next to him. Both men passed through the cavern at the same time, but like always, they experienced it alone.

Before them stands the Gate of Deeper Slumber, which looks like it was made from the bones of some gigantic, otherwordly creature. An enormous rib stretches across the top, and from it hangs a solid row of massive, ivory ribs. After a moment, Mark says, “Betcha it takes a skeleton key.”

George can feel the dark place in his mind, where Saint Germain placed the spell of dismissal he used against the Dark Young. It doesn’t hurt or throb, but George is somehow more aware of it.

A gentle push is all it takes to open the huge, but perfectly balanced, gate, and it swings open to reveal a strange forest. As they walk into it, George can feel the ancient trees watching, and can hear their boughs twisting and clutching at one another hundreds of feet above their heads.

A heavy mist twists and turns through the air. There are strange smells and sometimes, far away, what might be the call of an animal. If there is there is a sun in this place, the cloudy sky blots it out. All around them are patches of moss and fungi, shimmering in an explosion of colors, some familiar and others like nothing they have ever seen.

George tries to Perceive the True Nature of this place, but that’s a Bad Idea. The woodland falls away, and suddenly George is alone in the infinite gulfs of the cosmos, lost forever among dead planets and malevolent stars. A scream explodes from his chest, and he faints dead away. Mark is able to revive him, but now they hear odd, fluttering sounds in the heavy brush around them.

The noises sound like some kind of animal, and after a minute or two, they catch glimpses of rodent-like animals, small, brown, and quick. Then suddenly there’s the heavy tread of things much bigger. The fluttering creatures scream and the men hear sickening crunches. Several of the small creatures emerge and stare at Mark and George. They do look like rodents, except for the strange, small tentacles above their mouths. And the look in their eyes is intelligent and curious.

The larger creatures are coming closer, and the small animals are looking at Mark and George and then toward the threat and then back at them. The two Aces get the idea, and agree to fight whatever is threatening them. From behind a stand of trees emerge two man-sized creatures with pale-white skin, large claws, and flat, noseless faces. They look dangerous, but Mark is too, even with just a dagger, and George has Soulfire. After a short hard fight, the Aces are victorious.

The smaller creatures seem impressed. They circle the men, and then two of them step forward bearing pearlescent stones in their tentacles. The fluttering noises turn into a chorus, and the two men can hear the word “zoog,” which seems to be the creatures’ name. They accept the two stones, and George guesses some kind of understanding has just been forged.

The zoogs then lead the two men past a ring of large stones and into their small village, which has an ancient stone well at its center. The well is covered with engraved symbols, and there is a massive slab laid over it. The zoogs have brought them here, but now most of them seem to be arguing about something.

The well is enormous, and its heavy slabs of granite have sunk deep into the ground. The one on top looks so heavy, it’s hard to imagine how it even got there. As George studies the symbols, the dark place in his mind begins to throb in harmony with what feels like a distant drum, and somehow that allows him to read the engravings easily: “Among the zoogs / Enchanted Wood. / The power waits. / Secrets below. / Waters beneath. / The stars align. / The capstone shifts. / Dreamers are lost.”

As George translates the final line, the gigantic slab on top of the well begins to scrape and grind as it’s slowly but relentlessly moved aside by Something from below.

At that moment, the goddess Hecate is beside them. In a hushed but commanding tone, she says, “Hear me, George Phillapoussis. Come with me, or both of you will be lost.”

Neither man feels like arguing. Hecate gestures, and they plunge into the sky. As the Dreamlands pass beneath them, the goddess looks down. “These are not my lands, George Phillapoussis, and my power is limited in this place. You may return here someday to explore its mysteries and wonders, but Someone unknown to me has brought you here before your time. For now, these lands are perilous to you beyond description. Had we lingered, I could not have saved you. I might even have been lost myself.”

The Dreamlands fall away as they move through other dimensions. For a moment George thinks he can almost see the Sephiroths around them.

Hecate continues: “You have questions, George Phillapoussis, but they must wait for another time. Instead, I would have you think on this: it can be perilous for one such as I to treat with those who exist in time. This is especially true in your case, for there is a mystery about you and your companions that I cannot penetrate or understand. And a mystery in one so short-lived is often perilous and heavy with consequence.”

“So what you may see in me as arrogance, is better described as caution. For I am bound to exist until the universe itself comes to an end, no matter what my state may become, no matter what change or harm befalls me. And so there is risk when an Immortal touches those who live in Time. When you face me, George Phillapoussis, you face Eternity, and when you treat with me, you treat with the Cosmos. But there are limits, and even I ignore them at My peril. And for you, though the young may have much to teach the old, you must know that the old often have much to teach the young as well.” George nods in agreement with this.

As Hecate fades away, she adds, “One more thing I would say to you, George Phillapoussis. You are about to face one who once served me but who has lost her way. Be on your guard, for she no longer follows my guidance. This is my warning to you.”

Uninvited Guests

Moments later the two men wake up in their respective beds. And Mark knows instantly that something, or rather some things, are in his room.

With a fluid motion, he rolls out of his bed, snags a gun and flashlight, and snaps the light on the dark shapes in the corner. Three ghouls look up in shock. It looks like they were going through Terrance Gilmore’s stuff, but Mark is in no mood for questions. He opens fire, and the ghouls are dead before the Aces even reach his door.

Were the ghouls after the stone for some reason? Maybe, but there’s no time to wonder why because the gunfire woke up the building, and the police are probably on their way. They pile everything into the black van and head north, while Jeff goes online and erases all traces of their stay in Edinburgh.

The drive north is quiet, but the radio tells them they’re bound for more trouble: there’s an outbreak in Inverness, and it sounds exactly like the deadly scales mentioned in the wu-xia tale.

In an age of Ebola and BSE, response to an outbreak is swift. Scotland’s Health Protection Agency already has people on the ground, establishing a partial quarantine around the affected neighborhoods. The CDC’s International Emergency and Refugee Health Branch is on the way to provide support. Hacking his way into their comm systems, Jeff builds a profile of the outbreak. Sure enough, it’s centered on Tomnahurich Hill.

The Hill is at the edge of town, surrounded by railroad lines and warehouses, so the Aces reach a roadblock right away. But Ken has credentials, and he gets lucky: he met the health official in charge, Dr. James Campbell, at conference in New York last year. Campbell is very glad to have Ken there. Once Ken vouches for the Aces, Campbell gives them a quick tour of their clinic. The patients would have been taken to a local hospital, but any patient moved from the immediate area suffers a sharp decline. Campbell has no idea why that is.

Ken senses immediately that this is the same disease. A patient’s skin turns to hard, scale-like layers, constricting movement and causing terrible pain. Eventually, the patient is rendered immobile, and most likely will die from suffocation within days. For now, all the doctors can do is give tranquilizers to ease the pain.

Ken says he will stay and help. The others are about to leave, when George notices something about the patients: they’re all affected by two lines of mystical force. One of the paths is definitely drawing life energy out of them, but the other is wrapped around the first, and seems to be squeezing it and slowing the flow. Ken looks closely, then nods. Now he sees them too.

Neither Ace can follow the disease path—it leads right out of their dimension—but the second path is coming from somewhere west of the clinic. Ken pulls out an uranur detector, but the readings are strange. George, Mark, and Jeff gear up and get ready to track the second path.

Hard Choices

Now that they can see it, the path is easy to follow. The Aces head west and soon come to an abandoned warehouse. They arm up and move in. The storage area is empty, but there’s an office in the corner.

The first thing they notice is the smell: an overwhelming stench of human waste, vomit and worse. Then they hear the chanting, a male voice, heavy with phlegm, chuckling and laughing while it recites a strange mantra.

The Aces steel themselves as they burst into the pitch-black office and hit their flashlights, but what they see is much worse than they imagined. A man sits in the middle of the room, his legs tucked under his knees, his hands folded in his lap, and his eyes closed. There’s a small pile of Jolt cans and ding-dongs next to him. The rest of the room seems covered in human waste, but most of it has been used to make a magic circle around the man and a mummified body in front of him.

The man’s eyes snap open, and he looks at Mark, “Well, now you’ve really stepped in it.” Mark looks down and is disgusted to see that his foot has broken the circle. The man isn’t moving—he looks completely exhausted—so the Aces stand down.

As disgusting as it was, the man’s ritual was obviously holding back the scales somehow. But now the spell has been broken, and as the Aces carefully step into the room, they see how physically ravaged the man is. He looks even worse under Gifted Sight. In a giddy voice, he says his name is Bruce.

He says he and his mentor, Lily (he points to the mummified body), had been trying to stop the outbreak before it started, but everything went wrong. Lily was killed, and all Bruce could do was try to concentrate the mystical force of the disease into her body. He’s been maintaining the ritual for days, and doing such harm to the body of the woman he loved has driven him to the brink of madness. But so long as he’s alive and her body stays intact, the lingering effects of the ritual should still help restrain the scales.

And just as he says that, the Aces hear noises outside, surrounding the warehouse. Someone—or Something—knows the circle was broken. The Aces take defensive positions, but are still surprised to see ten goblins rush into the warehouse and head for the office.

These aren’t like the goblins they know in New York. Twisted, malevolent, and focused, the goblins don’t even try to attack the Aces with the strange, silvery blades they wield. Instead, the goblins dodge past the men and, with effortless strokes, cleave Lily’s body into pieces.

The Aces blast away at the goblins, as they try to carry away Lily’s mummified remains. The Faerie are short and almost too fast to hit, but the Aces manage to kill most of them. Yet when the dust clears, an arm, a leg, and the head are missing.

The Aces are standing in stunned amazement when another, much louder noise builds outside. The warehouse begins to shudder and shake as a tremendous whirlwind forms around it. The windows shatter and gusts of air blast holes through the rusted metal walls.

George flinches as the dark place in his mind suddenly begins to throb. The Aces and Bruce frantically gather up the last of Lily and run for the doors as the walls and roof begin buckling inward. They are barely out the doors when the building finally gives, and the entire warehouse implodes into a single point. That violent distortion of space throw the men several yards as a mighty crack of thunder blasts across the countryside.

Silence descends as the dazed men try to comprehend what just happened.

Many Trees Hill

Bruce is grim. The goblins don’t have all of Lily, but now the ritual is completely broken, and there’s nothing to stop the disease. Worse, the body parts they took will now have the opposite effect. With the mystical power of the scales concentrated in them, they are now powerful vectors for the disease. The Aces are left with one option: a direct assault on Tomnahurich Hill.

Leaving Ken behind in case things go wrong, the Aces arm themselves with wrought-iron pokers, along with their usual weapons. On the way, Bruce asks if they found a stone in a leather bag back in Edinburgh. It turns out Bruce and Lily were the ones who ransacked Terrance Gilmore’s flat. Surprised, the Aces say they did, and Bruce nods. They will need the stone to get into the hill. It was when he and Lily tried to go in without it that things went badly wrong.

Tomnahurich Hill is covered in yew trees, and by the remains of a Victorian-era graveyard, rumored to be the resting place of Thomas the Rhymer, a man who may once have been the lover of the Faerie Queen of Tomnahurich. The headstones, like the rest of the hill, have a dull glow, but the Essence here is twisted and strange. Bruce’s Gift suffers from the same effect.

As the sun sets, a soft aura spreads over the hill. The faintly neon effect reminds the Aces of the Faerie realm of Mannahatta, but the colors here are dark and forbidding. In the distance, they can see the silhouettes of ghouls moving about the headstones.

As Bruce guides them up the hill, the ghouls keep a safe distance away, but as the men get close to the entrance to the realm, several tomb statues come to life and attack. The statues are heavy and strong, but also slow, and they shatter when hit by bullets and pokers. They give the Aces a scare, but can’t stop them from reaching the threshold of the Faerie realm.

Into Tomnahurich

The door of stone and marble looks like a tomb, but Bruce assures them that’s only an illusion. He points to a depression in the door, and sure enough, the strange stone fits into the space. The door swings back, and the Aces start down a stairway, going deep into the hill.

The stairs twist and bend, and the men begin to hear a strange and unsettling music that sends shivers through their bodies. Something is very wrong in this place. At the bottom of the stairs, they find a maze of passages, and while they try to keep track of where they are, within minutes even Mark is lost.

After wandering around for nearly an hour, they hear noises up ahead. Suddenly Tessa appears, running down a hallway and ducking for cover behind an outcropping. She’s clearly been in a fight, and she looks hurt and exhausted, but she’s amazed and glad to see the Aces. She runs up to George and touches his chest, saying, “You came. You came.” Suddenly embarrassed, she steps back and composes herself. “Sorry, now’s not the time. We have to be careful here. You have no idea.”

The Aces can’t possibly be more suspicious about this, but Tessa seems quite real, and they don’t have much choice but to treat her as she appears, at least for now. She says she has an idea where the Queen might be, and they follow her—cautiously—down a different hallway that eventually ends at two large and imposing doors. George can see how the tension is getting to everyone. Mark is aggressive and totally focused on the mission. Jeff can’t stop glancing and leering at Tessa. And Bruce is chuckling and whispering and slowly coming apart.

George barely fills the silvery knife when “Tessa” drives it into his side. He stumbles back as time seems to snap back to the moment when she first appeared. The Queen had only been toying with him, keeping him an illusion for nearly an hour. Now she stands among them, a mocking betrayal of her kinswoman, the Queen of Mannahatta. Beautiful beyond description, yet cold and malevolent. She licks George’s blood from the blade of her knife. Then with a smile, the walls themselves come to life.

Six jet-black, rock-like creatures step forward and attack the Aces, throwing them to the ground or hurling them against the stone walls. Mark manages to fire a few rounds into one of them, but the bullets have no effect. Within seconds only Mark is left standing. He locks eyes with the Queen, and her eyes flash in anger at his defiance. But then comes a brutal punch from an obsidian fist, and the darkness comes down.

“Guests” of the Queen

Mark wakes up next to George, Jeff, and Bruce. They’re chained to the walls of a stone dungeon that could be hundreds of feet underground. The air is dank and stale, and the chains resist every furious pull and twist.

Mark looks up to see the vampiress standing before him, watching him closely. She reaches out and begins caressing his arm, moving closer. Mark holds back, refusing to give in, and that makes her stop. “No,” she says thoughtfully. “Not this one. You love another.”

The vampiress turns and silently walks out, but moments later, Tamara pads into the room. She’s wearing Mark’s favorite ensemble: a torn t-shirt and one particular short skirt. She walks right up to Mark and kisses him hard. Then smiling, she steps back and walks over to George, patting him on the chest as she walks by. Then she stops in front of Jeff, and her smile changes. “Well. I guess I should get you guys off—heh—out.”

Tamara reaches up to unlock the chains binding Jeff. They’re a bit above her head, so she has to get close, and she goes out of her way to brush up against him. The chains come loose, and she slides her hands down his arms as he is freed. “That’s better, isn’t it Jeff? Or would you rather have me back in my room where you can watch me some more on that camera? I knew you were watching me.” And she smiles.

Mark isn’t fooled by this for a moment, but he refuses to look, turning his head away even as the sounds of Tamara and Jeff making out on the bare stone floor assail his ears. The other Aces aren’t watching either, but George is increasingly alarmed. He tells Jeff to stop, but the young man can’t, or won’t, listen.

And then, just before Jeff can feel release, “Tamara” pulls out a black stiletto and plunges it twice into Jeff’s groin. He shrieks in pain as the image of Tamara fades back into the Queen. She laughs quietly as she watches Jeff struggle for several minutes. Then finally, as he’s about to pass out from the loss of blood, she raises the stiletto again, and with a single stroke parts Jeff’s head from his body.

George, Mark, and Bruce watch in shock as the Queen effortlessly picks up Jeff’s body and begins walking for the door, leaving his head in the spreading pool of blood to stare at them lifelessly. As she leaves the room, the Queen turns, looks at Mark, and whispers, “Later, Lover.” And then the stone door of the dungeon slams shut behind her.

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