Steampunk Monster Hunters #6: “Diplomacy”

by mshrm

We return to the game after the holiday hiatus! A couple of players weren’t able to make it, and their absence was truly felt…

Who’s Who

  • Esmerelda Wagstaff, Accidental Hero Inhuman Changeling; learning how to apply her inhuman powers to make her way in the human world
  • Lucretia Gasser Buttersnaps, Philanthropist Commando; rough-and-ready American gunslinger and proud of it!
  • Margaret Anne Chapman, Accidental Hero Sleuth; “World’s Greatest Girl Detective” and aspiring witch
  • Nayler H. Knuer, Philanthropist Techie; half Sir Richard Francis Burton, half dissipated ’70’s rocker… with a balloon

What Happened

Mid-July, 1851, about a month after our heroes’ previous adventure, the group gathered on the beach at Brighton to meet with their contact from the Association, Charles Dickens. Lucretia brought along a giant wicker basket full of top-shelf wines and liquors, in case supplies ran low. Margaret brought along her Uncle Byron, who always enjoyed an opportunity to meet Mr Dickens. Taking advantage of the beach setting, Nayler wore his new, experimental bathing outfit. (He had taken advantage of downtime to come up with a couple of new inventions, including a concealed kerosene-powered backpack flamethrower and a holy water sprinkler.) Esmerelda, unsure of her place in the human world, chose to keep a low profile, and wrapped herself in glamour to appear as a remarkably large crab.

Mr Dickens raised his glass. “God save the Queen!”

Most of our heroes, Mr Dickens’ security entourage, nearby servants, and passers-by in all directions: “God save the Queen!”

Lucretia: “God bless America!”

After an awkward pause, Mr Dickens continued. He explained, for those not already versed in such lore, how for the past several thousand years, relations between humankind and the fae in the British Isles had been governed by a treaty. The good news was, this treaty kept the faerie mostly constrained from randomly abusing innocent people. The bad news was, the treaty had been originally negotiated by a gang of admittedly-clever Stone Age tribesmen, so it allowed for perhaps more leeway than modern civilization would prefer, and included some bizarre clauses and responsibilities.

For instance, the case at hand: the time had come for the Queen to send representatives on a sort of diplomatic mission. The treaty allowed for bands of trooping faeries to travel semi-freely around the land. One of these bands was the Goblin Market, currently disguised as a circus, the “Circe de la Lune”…

Throughout Mr Dickens’ entire monologue, Esmerelda had been becoming more and more agitated, clacking her crab claws and scuttling around the table. At this point, she scurried rapidly into a nearby changing tent and returned to her “natural” appearance – which is to say, elf-like and nonhuman, but still enhanced by glamour – before storming out to object to several of Dickens’ statements. She accused him of being biased against the fae, due to some of his comments upon their fickle and dangerous nature. Furthermore, she said, there was no way they were going to go anywhere near the Goblin Market, no way, no how, uh-uh, nope nope nope…

As she reluctantly explained under questioning, Esmerelda had once traveled with the Goblin Market, before she decided to leave to see more of human society. In fact, one could use words like “betrayal” and “desertion” to describe the event… though she wouldn’t. It seemed likely that anyone in her company would suffer from the association in the eyes of the circus’ members.

While acknowledging the challenges, the others pointed out that she could offer information about the inner workings of the circus that would be of great value on the mission, and made her sit down and listen.

Mr Dickens continued: The time had come for a diplomatic visit to the Goblin Market. On the surface, the visit was to offer respects and maintain diplomatic ties. The unspoken but open secret, of course, was that the visit was just as much an inspection. Fae can be counted on to follow the strict letter of the law, Mr Dickens observed as Esmerelda bristled, but being in league with Lucifer, they can also be counted on to subvert the spirit of the law at every turn.

The circus was due at Cardiff in three days’ time. Would our heroes be willing, Dickens asked, to travel there and respectfully take a look around? They would, they said, over Esmerelda’s grumbling protests.

The gang turned to preparation for their mission. The first order of business, of course, was the gathering of intelligence. Margaret did some research, brushing up on faerie law and lore, but mainly, the group questioned Esmerelda. What were fae like in general, and what were these particular fae like? What were their weaknesses?

Esmerelda seemed conflicted about offering up details of her own weaknesses to humans who seemed all too eager to believe the worst about the lying ways of her people. Furthermore, her trickster nature tempted her to give in to those very same lying ways. She mentioned that fae had a vulnerability to “certain metals”, but was evasive about exactly which metal; Occultism rolls allowed others to guess “iron”, but Lucretia’s obsessive hatred of lycanthropes caused her to put her money on “silver”, a decision that would have consequences later.

When questioned about the circus itself, Esmerelda explained that it was led by Clíona, the ringmaster and Queen of the Banshees. Her second-in-command was Donn Derga, posing as the circus’ knife-thrower. Both were Unseelie.

Nayler prepared his great balloon for the trip. Being a lecherous xenophile with a thrill-seeking streak, he questioned Esmerelda further about this Clíona – what was she like, what would help Nayler make a good impression and perhaps seduce her? Again influenced by her trickster nature, Esmerelda couldn’t resist; she was only too happy to provide copious suggestions, all calculated to offend. She instructed him to dress outrageously and to make overly-forward overtures towards Clíona at their first meeting. Having been told that fae were capricious and strange, Nayler ate it up. He prepared a completely-improper “baby New Year” costume for the occasion. The effect was somewhat marred, though, because he insisted on openly carrying his caplock submachine gun, specially loaded with cast iron bullets.

Acknowledging that Esmerelda couldn’t show her face anywhere near the circus, and expecting that one could not count on faerie glamour to fool a bunch of faeries, the gang pondered what to do. In the end, they decided to rely on mundane disguise where the supernatural form wouldn’t work. Margaret used her extensive knowledge of the criminal arts to conceal the slightly-built changeling as a tall human man with impressive muttonchop whiskers.

Interested in learning more about the occult and requiring reading material for the long balloon ride, Margaret went to her local back-alley magic shop and picked up a couple of grimoires. Later, on the trip, she would cast her first spell, to detect recently-opened portals. To her great surprise, she detected something! The spell gave her a brief vision of the other side of the gate, a world of immense gears and clockwork mechanisms. Dismayed, she put aside her study of magic for the time being.

After an otherwise-unremarkable trip, they left the balloon docked in Cardiff and switched to rented horses. After a short ride, they came within sight of the circus. It was quite large and busy, with lots of tents, a sideshow, children running in all directions, clowns, balloons, the whole nine yards. They came to a halt near the ticket-seller’s booth, where their approach had clearly been noticed: a burly man, clearly the circus’ strongman, covered with sparse hair everywhere beneath his neck, came striding out to meet them. Through a series of grunts, he introduced himself as Cyr.

He gestured at them, indicating that he would need to pat them down for weapons. The group submitted to this. When Cyr smelled cold iron from Nayler’s gun, he demanded, and was given, the bullets. He called over a nearby cotton candy seller, who pulled tongs from his back pocket to carry the iron slugs a few yards away, where he scuffed a shallow hole with his boot to drop them into.

The strongman led them through the midway, giving them a good look at the amusements on offer. Nayler was almost drawn off-target when he saw the donkey-powered roller coaster and hand-cranked ferris wheel, being inspired to set them both up with steam power. Lucretia forced a brief pause when she insisted on buying a red balloon for herself.

The group arrived at a gaudily-decorated wagon, where Cyr announced them and let them inside. There, the group met Clíona and Donn Derga. Esmerelda’s disguise seemed to pass muster, since the meeting was cordial… despite the risk of disaster, when Nayler pushed himself forward to make an obscene offer to the Queen of the Banshees. Luckily, Margaret was able to use diplomacy to paper over the faux pas, blaming Nayler’s actions equally on the everchanging vagaries of human fashion and his status as a fool.

As a gesture of goodwill, Clíona said, she would remove the veil of illusion from the visitor’s eyes. She passed a hand over their eyes, and the wagon’s interior suddenly seemed much less richly decorated. (The two Unseelie themselves were unchanged, though. Only the illusion covering the circus as a whole was affected.) She invited them to enjoy their “peek backstage”.

When the group left the wagon, the circus was entirely transformed. Indeed, most of the circus wasn’t even there anymore: many of the tents were really just facades tacked together from scrap lumber. The running children were replaced by goblins playing parts; occasionally, they would stand on each others shoulders, sometimes two or three at a time, to simulate the movements of a larger person. The roller coaster was a rickety sham, but curiously, the donkey turned out to be a sullen-looking unicorn. Everything was shabby and rotten.

Undaunted, our heroes went forth to gather intelligence. Before they got going, though, Nayler insisted on taking a few minutes to talk with the goblin running the roller coaster. He used a Gizmo and his inventing prowess to bash together a quick-and-dirty steam engine to power the coaster and free the donkey/unicorn from its life of toil. He gave the goblin a few seconds of operating instructions, then rejoined the group.

Margaret was approached by a friendly young man who offered to sell her some paut, which she accepted.

Esmerelda led them to a booth manned by an elf she knew from before, a French elf named Bob. He was running the knock-down-the-milk-bottles game. She questioned him, gathering little knowledge before he began mentioning the haunting familiarity of her voice.

Meanwhile, the others tried to knock down the bottles. Nayler made an excellent throw and swore he had hit the stacked bottles squarely, yet they didn’t fall. Clearly, the game was crooked. Undaunted, Lucretia took her turn. Carefully timing her throw and concealing her actions with her body, she threw the ball with one hand while performing a lightning-quick fast-draw, firing a single shot so that the sound of the discharge was concealed by a nearby ruckus, then reholstering the weapon before anyone could see what had happened. The stack of bottles disintegrated, forcing Bob to declare her a winner. She received a large, if ragged and one-eyed, teddy bear as her prize. Well-satisfied, she tied the string of her balloon to the bear’s wrist.

Having learned only that Esmerelda was poorly thought of by the carnies, but with her disguise still intact, the gang moved on to their next point of interest, the freak show. This was one of the few tents that wasn’t mostly illusion. In fact, even without the glamour, it was somewhat impressive. There was a cunningly illuminated cow fetus, displayed upside down in a jar and presented as a monster. Our heroes were led past the bearded lady, a contortionist, and so forth. There were mirrors that distorted what they reflected. There were gusts of wind to lift skirts and sudden sprays of cold mist to provoke surprised screams.

It was the last that caused Nayler to become separated from the group. The mist fogged up his glasses so he couldn’t see, causing him to take a wrong turn. By the time he realized what had happened and gotten his glasses cleaned off, he found himself in a dimly-lit room, facing a beautiful woman wearing little more than jewelry. She moved towards him. Startled, he took a defensive stance. With a shake of her head, she slipped past his guard to plant a kiss on his startled lips. Fade to black…

Meanwhile, the rest of the group had continued on with the tour without realizing they had lost one of their own. There were several more exhibits before they finally emerged. As it happened, the group found themselves leaving the tent at about the same time as Nayler was dumped outside, weak-kneed, dazed, and down 6 Fatigue Points.

“You know,” Margaret mused, as they walked out the exit and before they spotted the exhausted inventor, “the funny thing about that whole show was how there’s a hidden space inside the tent oh-” and then she turned and vanished into the shadows, planning to use stealth to investigate further.

“You know,” Lucretia said, thinking over the path they had taken from exhibit to exhibit, “she’s right.” She drew her big Bowie knife and started hacking her way through tent walls, aiming directly for the hidden space and provoking screams from the startled staff. The bearded lady fled before the American’s onslaught.

Nayler used a Gizmo to pull a sandwich from the ruins of his “baby New Year” costume and munched on it in a daze.

After slicing through only a couple of tent walls, Lucretia found the hidden space inside the tent. It was an area lit only by a brazier of smouldering coals. The center of the room was dominated by a small area partitioned off by curtains. To one side, on a low couch covered in silk cushions, reclined the woman Nayler had encountered earlier, but in the light shining through the rip in the tent wall, they could see that the lower half of her body was in the form of a snake!

“Wolf-snake!” Lucretia shouted a warning, convinced she had discovered some new kind of snake/werewolf hybrid in the middle of a transformation. She dropped her knife and drew her pistols. The creature moved with inhuman speed, crossing the space and attacking Lucretia, first with bare hands, then drawing a pair of scimitars.

Outside, Esmerelda tried to summon help, calling for Cyr, the strongman. At first, she tried to distract him with fast talk designed to cover for the undiplomatic breaking-and-entering, but when that didn’t seem to take, she panicked, drew a knife, and tried to stab the ogre in the heart, to little effect. He tried to hit her, and she ducked the punch, but her disguise began to suffer from the abuse. Changing his mind about his priorities, Cyr turned and charged after Lucretia.

Inside, Margaret joined the fight, jumping from a place of concealment with her own knife drawn, using it to rip a hole in the tent roof while slowing her descent. Sunlight came through the hole to illuminate the scene. The snake lady, revealed, was identified as a lamia, a kind of vampiric fae from the Middle East.

Outside, and still unobserved, Nayler’s loyalties were suffering from his recent erotic experience. He cobbled together a prototype rapid-fire grabbering gun, hoping to use it to entangle the other monster hunters and stop them from attacking his new friend. As soon as it was operational, he fired wildly into the tent, entangling Cyr and nearly catching Esmerelda, who dodged.

Inside the tent, the battle took a dire turn, as the lamia stabbed Lucretia in the chest, disabling her. It then turned and rushed across the tent to hack down Margaret as well.

With Nayler playing for the other team and two allies down in as many seconds, Esmerelda decided to cut and run. Casting off her tattered disguise, she grabbed Lucretia’s collar and ran, dragging the unconscious American behind her.

By the time she emerged from the freak show tent, though, Nayler had tossed his grabbering gun aside and drawn a double-barrelled shotgun loaded with rock salt. She took both barrels and went down in agony.

Fade to black.

When everyone returned to consciousness, everyone aside from Nayler was tied to a chair. Clíona and Donn Derga were there. The Queen of the Banshees asked them, with some exasperation, if they had any ideas on why she shouldn’t just kill them and leave them in shallow graves. The discussion went back and forth for some time.

Eventually, it became clear that Clíona was concerned that they had seen… something… but whatever it was, they hadn’t seen it, and they convinced her of this fact. In time, they came to an agreement. She would allow the humans to leave, but would retain Esmerelda as a hostage-slash-prisoner. The humans would report a successful and uneventful diplomatic visit, with Nayler (now loyal to the lamia) to keep an eye on the others and make sure they were true to their word. Everyone would get to live, and Clíona wouldn’t be put to the trouble of covering up multiple murders. Win-win!

With little choice in the matter, Esmerelda went along with her new status as a hostage. She planned to try to talk her way into a better position, asking that she be allowed to return to the human world as a sort of double-agent: she would help the humans, with an eye towards bringing any rewards back to the circus.

Greatly subdued, the others returned to Nayler’s balloon. On the way back to London, Margaret gently talked Nayler into a hypnotic state without him noticing, then walked him through him memories of his time with the lamia. Did he see anything?

After some time, he remembered one image. In a hypnotic trance, he sketched what he had seen.

A little girl, in a cage.

A little girl with wings.

To be continued…

Cool Point: Lucretia, for winning the rigged carnival game and literally cutting to the heart of the matter