Steampunk Monster Hunters #5: “Under The Thames”
In the face of the terrible revelation at the end of last session, Lucretia insisted on going out for many drinks with “my husband Octavious!” (Esmerelda, the changeling, in less-than-convincing disguise), and so, neither appears in this session.
At one point, I thought one of the heroes was going to sacrifice all but one of the group, including themselves, in an attempt to contain the threat. I’m told that there were multiple instances of PCs expecting to die, if not suffer an outright TPK.
- Margaret Anne Chapman, Accidental Hero, Sleuth, “World’s Greatest Girl Detective”
- Mercy Patton, Philanthropist Sage, magical governess
- Nayler H. Knuer, Philanthropist Techie, inventor and balloonist
- Tommy Nine, Operative Experiment, mechanical man
On the evening of Saturday, June 14, 1851, somewhat after sundown, aboard Nayler’s baroque two-story balloon, our intrepid band of monster hunters were surprised to hear that Wormley and Minister had already placed the ghosts of Masham, the evil witch behind the Great Fire of London, and his assistant into living bodies earlier that morning. He had a twelve-hour head-start pursuing his no-doubt apocalyptic schemes!
Hoping to uncover some clue that would put them on the trail of the evil duo, our heroes set out to interrogate Mr Minister. Nayler whipped up some homemade truth serum, which quickly overcame the man’s resistance.
Under Margaret’s expert questioning, Mr Minister revealed that he, like Masham, was a follower of a cult of devil worshipers dedicated to the demon lord Azrael. Research revealed that Azrael was a powerful demon with a particular affinity for goats and destruction by fire, but an aversion to salt from his time as a young demon in hell’s navy.
The cult’s plan, Minister continued, was to burn London as a sacrifice to their demonic patron, spreading death and destruction while increasing the demon’s personal power. Masham’s ghost had been placed into the body of Douglas Maberly, who Margaret recognized as a second- to third-rate cricket player, while his assistant received the body of Langdale Pike, an adventuress known for her thrill-seeking exploits climbing mountains, racing steam locomotives, and so forth.
In fact, Miss Pike moved in much the same circles as Nayler, himself something of an enthusiast in the sport of the extreme. Tommy recalled a party Nayler had thrown about a week back, attended by Miss Pike and her entourage. With his superhuman hearing, he had overheard some talk among the entourage about their rooms at the Waldorf.
Hoping to pick up a trail leading to the ghosts, the hunters decided to go investigate at the Waldorf Hotel, but first, they figured they would drop off Mr Minister with Scotland Yard. They rigged him up to lower at the end of a cargo cable, but as they lowered him, he began to struggle violently, shouting that he would sacrifice himself to the glory of Azrael. With a final “death is only the beginning!”, Mr Minister broke free of his bonds and plummeted to his doom, dying by suicide rather than be taken as a prisoner.
Seeing all this, Mr Wormley was obviously shaken and offered to fully cooperate. He admitted to being a psychic vampire, but claimed he had only ever been a small-time nuisance, draining folks of a little life for kicks, until he had met Minister. The whole ghost-transplanting business had been Minister’s idea; Wormley had only ever been in it for the money.
On the way to the hotel, claiming that her very best skill was acting, Margaret disguised herself as a little old lady, rather than a girl detective, using scrounged materials. Notably, she borrowed one of Nayler’s favorite canes, an ebony stick topped by a piece of amber with a bug trapped inside. She also pocketed one of the miscellaneous explosive devices that Nayler often leaves lying around.
Nayler docked the balloon on the Waldorf’s docking mast, and our heroes descended to the hotel’s rooftop bar. Margaret chatted with the bartender, discovering that Miss Pike and her friends had been a nightly presence at the bar for the past few weeks, yet they had failed to appear the last couple of nights.
Margaret was also able to get the number of Miss Pike’s room. One by one, the monster hunters made their way downstairs, gathering outside the room. Tommy Nine used his heat vision to peek into the room, discovering that there was a person inside, packing a bag in a hurry. Picking the lock, Margaret entered the room and, in her old lady guise, confronted the person, who turned out to be a woman in working-class garb. While startled by the interruption, the woman refused to talk with Margaret, closing the suitcase she had been packing and hauling it past the girl detective and out the door.
Outside the door, she came face-to-chest with Tommy, who loomed and tried to project an aura of menace. This didn’t work out: she shook her finger in the mechanical man’s face and told him that she wasn’t fooled, she knew things like him had rules built in to keep them from hurting real people. She pushed past, meeting Nayler, standing there with shotgun drawn and aimed directly at her face. While she paused for a moment and clenched her jaw, she called his bluff and continued walking. Knowing he dared not murder a woman in cold blood in a hotel hallway, Nayler lowered his weapon.
What now? Well, Margaret claimed, acting was really only her second best skill. Actually, her best skill was in shadowing suspects. Still in disguise, she hurried off after the woman with the suitcase, while the others rushed back upstairs to the balloon.
While the woman with the suitcase led Margaret on a roundabout stroll through the streets of London, the others wondered how they could discreetly follow. Mercy performed a quick ritual to track the amber on top of Margaret’s cane. (She’s better with Path of Matter, so it’s easier for her to track an inanimate object rather than a living person, and since it’s actually Nayler’s cane, he was able to act as a point of connection for the ritual.) It worked, but at a price: the indicator manifested itself as a arrow burned into Mercy’s palm, which would rotate and burn itself into a new position to point the way towards the cane.
On the streets, the woman with the suitcase took several precautions against being followed, but didn’t appear to take any specific notice of her tail. Margaret watched as the woman entered a shack near the docks on the Thames, only to leave a short while later without the suitcase. The woman then entered a nearby gin house. Margaret settled herself in a shadowy alcove where she could keep an eye on both the shack and the saloon.
After some trouble with contrary winds, Nayler was finally able to bring the balloon around to Margaret’s position. The hunters lowered themselves to ground level, where they had a quick huddle. Deciding that the suitcase was likely a more fruitful clue than the woman herself, they went to the shack. After Tommy’s heat-vision proved that nobody was inside, Margaret picked the padlock and everyone filed inside.
There, they found miscellaneous nets and boating equipment, as well as the packed suitcase, set atop some barrels. Clearly, this was a drop-off. Anticipating the pickup, the hunters concealed themselves in and around the shack. After a nerve-wracking wait, they observed four men carrying bundles under their arms approach the shack. Our heroes cowed the men with intimidation and hustled them into the shack.
There, Margaret first interrogated them, then persuaded them, and in the end, bribed them with cash from Nayler’s pockets and told them to go down the street for a few pints. The men admitted that they were cult members, but only lowly acolytes. They had been told to gather at this place and get into their robes, then await a guide who would lead them to the site of tonight’s satanic ritual. They would be expected to participate, which might mean some vigorous physical activity, but the ritual should be finished up by a little after 3am. The hunters with knowledge of the stars noted that this would time the ritual for just about the time that the full moon would be directly overhead, clearly a point of ritual significance.
Investigating the bundles, the hunters found that they were brown robes with dyed rope belts, plus goat-horned masks that would cover the top three-quarters of the wearer’s face. Donning the robes and masks, they awaited further developments.
After a short wait, there was a quiet knock at the door, and a robed guide entered. He greeted them, clearly taken in by their disguises, and distributed torches before leading everyone outside. He took them down towards the docks, then down a set of stairs to the sticky mud on the very banks of the river. They walked for a bit beneath the docks, finally meeting up with a pair of waiting cultists standing near a rope secured to the overhead crossbeams. The rope fell into… something impossible.
It seemed to be a hole in the water itself. It was like a tube of air, stuck straight down through liquid water and the nearly-liquid muck of the river bottom, leading down into a larger cavern of air. Flickering light could be seen below, and they could hear the sound of chanting.
One by one, the robed hunters climbed down the rope, finding themselves in a bizarre location. It was a church, built after the fashion of two hundred years before, but it seemed to have spent considerable time under water. The furnishings were rotted and covered in silt and slime, and in several places, the roof had caved in entirely. While the air was surprisingly fresh, the walls still ran with river water, proof that whatever supernatural bubble they occupied was not a perfect barrier.
The irregular room was lit by the torches of at least two dozen robed and masked cultists, all chanting in response to some object of interest at the far end of the chamber. With varying degrees of success, the hunters tried to filter through the crowd to get a better look.
Masham, in the body of Mr Maberly, stood astride the ruined pulpit, conducting his unholy congregation in the ongoing ritual. He carried no torch, but was impressively lit by a deep red magical light. Miss Pike’s body eyed the crowd from the steps up to the pulpit, holding a battle-ax at the ready, obviously acting as the witch’s bodyguard. Mercy could tell, the ritual was meant to summon something large and horrible, and it was well under way.
Realizing that their only hope was to disrupt the ritual before it summoned whatever it was summoning, the hunters swung into action. Margaret held aloft her borrowed explosives, claiming if they didn’t surrender she would blow them all up, but Masham claimed his cultists were willing to make that sacrifice, and it seemed that he might be right. All the robed figures drew pistols and moved to threaten the girl detective, and the fight was on.
From a position in the middle of the crowd, Nayler unloaded a seven-barreled load of rock salt from his experimental shotgun prototype, enveloping Masham in a head-to-toe cloud of burning pain. Tommy hoisted his cane and plowed through several cultists, hooking their legs from under them and cracking their bones. Taking advantage of the distraction, Margaret turned to flee the scene, advising Mercy to follow. As they evaded the crowd, running back to the entrance, she tossed the explosives aside. Her threat had been entirely bluff; she didn’t even know how to arm the device.
The cultists around Nayler opened fire, enveloping him in a cloud of smoke. It seemed impossible for the skinny inventor to survive, but he emerged with only a few scratches – only a flesh wound! He fired at Miss Pike’s weapon, earning her glaring attention. She jumped to the ground and sprinted to meet him, battle-ax held high, screaming defiance.
Masham recovered enough to dip his fingers into his pocket, pulling out something that he flung to the ground with a flash of light and a puff of smoke. The smoke resolved itself into the forms of four goat-headed demons, scattered around the room. Tommy ran past several cultists to engage one of the demons, while a second demon moved to pursue the fleeing ladies. The other two demons were hindered by the crowd near Nayler and Miss Pike, but waded through, squashing cultists as necessary to make their way. With the heroes reacting to the demons’ appearance, Masham was able to jump to the ground and make his way out of sight towards the back of the chamber, but not before spitefully flinging a fireball the length of the chamber to destroy the rope leading out of the sunken church.
Miss Pike took a couple of swipes at Nayler with her ax, while he unloaded a series of weapons to little obvious effect. Eventually, she was able to grab a handful of his waistcoat and drag him off after Masham.
With the original rope destroyed, Margaret had to use her grabbering-gun to fire a climbing line out of the sunken church. To leave a means of escape to Mercy, she was forced to drop her beloved grabbering-gun and climb the rope hand-over-hand. When Mercy attempted to follow, the pursuing demon caught up with them. It managed to grab Mercy by the ankle and drag her back to the ground. There, it attempted to gore her with its great goat horns. It seemed certain that she would sustain a mortal wound, but at the last moment, she was able to twist aside – only a flesh wound!
Tommy traded blows with one of the demons, standing toe-to-toe with the beast. Over the course of several seconds, he slowly bludgeoned it to death with his cane. As soon as his opponent went down, he sprinted towards the back of the church. Nayler thought the mechanical man was coming to his rescue, only to be surprised when Tommy ran right past him and Miss Pike in an effort to catch up with Masham.
Seeing actual demons appear and take over the heavy fighting, the cultists largely decided to make their escape. This was hindered by their attempts to steer widely clear of murderous demons, whirling robots, and massive displays of gunfire. In particular, Mercy’s wrestling match with the one demon effectively blocked the only obvious exit.
While expert at many things, Mercy is no match to a goat demon in a wrestling match. She struggled, even shooting it several times with her pistol, but was unable to break free. Margaret managed to climb up into the open air, where she cast around for something to help, finding a net. She dropped the net on the demon just as it was getting ready to go for another gore, distracting it and giving Mercy a chance to slip free. Margaret dropped a rope to Mercy, who began climbing out.
Tommy ran after Masham, turning the corner to find a second hole in the water of the Thames with another rope hanging down. He set to climbing. Meanwhile, Nayler produced his greatest invention, a caplock SMG, and unloaded several bursts into the murderous Miss Pike. She absorbed an astonishing amount of damage but eventually reached her limits and fell. Nayler scooped up her fallen battle-ax and ran to follow Tommy.
When Tommy emerged into the open air, he found himself under another dock, further down the river. As he looked around, he spotted Masham, panting and leaning over, bleeding from dozens of tiny, salt-encrusted cuts, on the deck of a small sailboat. As Tommy watched, one of the sailors working aboard the ship turned to face back along their wake, allowing the mechanical man to see that all three were recently-dead and reanimated to serve the witch. Obviously, Masham had prepared an escape plan. Seeing no way to pursue, Tommy turned back to pull Nayler out of the rapidly-collapsing hole.
Mercy and Nayler were soaked and had to hold their breath, but both managed to escape in time. The goat demons and the cultists weren’t so lucky; they were all covered over by the rushing waters of the Thames.
As the monster hunters dragged themselves ashore, soaked, bedraggled, and happy just to be alive, they heard Masham’s powerful voice calling back to them. “You haven’t seen the last of me, detective!” he said, “We will meet again!”
Cool Point: Everybody!
Booby Point: Mercy, for getting into an extended, one-sided wrestling match with a demon who was much stronger than she. “Contest of Strength. Mercy makes her roll by 1, demon makes its roll by 14. Moving on…”
Afterword: There were a couple of bit of out-of-character discussion that I feel are worth recording.
First, Tommy’s player, discussing the odds of taking on all those cultists: “We’re not super-heroes, you know!” Moments later, Tommy would fight a bunch of angry cultists and recreate that one fight from Watchmen…
Second, I’m not sure who said it, but at one point, after a demon took a couple of bullets and grinned: “These aren’t weak demons!” In fact, for those interested in the stats behind the stories, the goat-headed demons were… Weak Demons.