Session 32: Constantinople 330 AD, Part Two

Originally posted March 13, 2018

Summary

In 1923 at Prof. Smith’s archaeological site in remote Yugoslavia, the Investigators listened to Miss Crispin read the strange journal they had found in the ruined temple.

In 330 Constantinople, the Fortes Falcones continued their investigation into cultish criminal activities in a blighted distinct of the otherwise thriving city. The 1923 readers recognized that this area was to become the site of Sedefkar’s Red Tower in 1203 and is the current location of the Brothers of the Skin’s “Shunned Mosque.”

The squad had divided into three groups. Galerius and Milonius tracked down the dwelling of the last survivor of the three men who had written the letter of complaint about the gang. This retired sailor lay on his deathbed and told how a stranger from the west had arrived and gather a collection of devotees, promising great rewards if they obey him and found some treasure or source of power within the district. The man departed, but his followers only grew in number and boldness, striking down any who crossed them with a deadly bite that caused wasting sickness and death. Only an ancient idol of Apollo kept the Sailor alive this long, and once he passed the artifact to Milonius , the he quickly succumbed.

Damanais had been stationed to guard the house of the dead stonecutter whose family was being forced to hand over his body to the cult. He fought valiantly against two cultists when they arrived, but they seemed possessed of supernatural strength, speed, and resiliency and he was forced to withdraw.

Belasir had agreed to accompany Lucrious, a ranking member of the cult to an audition for joining. He explained their belief that each member could rise to a position matching their worth, but certain tests will be necessary to determine that. They descended into the catacombs beneath the city.

Belasir’s first test was to carry a dead body to a vat on a ceremonial altar, were it is devoured by hungry black tar. This tar was then poured on another willing, if hesitant, applicant to the cult. When the substance utterly destroyed the applicant, Lucrious proclaims “He was not worthy.” He turned to Belasir and said “Now it is your turn.” Seeing he has no chance of escape, Belasir agreed. As the oily liquid poured over him, a deafening buzzing filled his head and he blacked out.

The other members of the squad gathered to compared information – and noticed that Belasir was missing. Recovering a comrade was their highest priority and so they set off to search.

Belasir woke up in a pleasant apartment attended by servants. Lucrious arrived and subserviently explained that Belasir’s passage through the ceremony suggested he may be the “Chosen One” they, the Cult of The Flayed, have been seeking. He must travel to the west into Dacia to see the “Teacher” who will know what this means. Lucious seems puzzled that Belasir has no interest in the pitcher of blood he has been provided to drink and has no hesitancy in walking into the sunlight. Belasir feels perfectly normal.

Finding the others, Belasir explained the best he could about what happened. He’d been given directions and a list of contacts of the Cult of the Flayed that will lead him across the countryside through the cult’s network and to the sanctum of the Teacher. After reporting to their commander, the Falcones are ordered to follow up on this lead and remove this threat to the Empire.

A long journey followed, with the squad moving farther and farther into the barbarian controlled countryside outside the Empire, hearing as they go stories of plagues, witches, and walking dead. The 1923 Investigators who are hearing the story realized this journey is taking the Romans to their current location and Prof. Smith’s excavations.

Eventually they found a village of crude huts surrounding a complex of stone buildings. The villagers are drained physically and spiritually and claim to only live to assist the great Teacher and share in his coming glory and ascendance.

Cautiously the soldiers entered the stone maze, its wall covered with blasphemous carvings of people worshiping insect-like sky demons. Two silent figures in robes and theatrical masks met them, but only observe. At the labyrinth’s center is a strange domed chamber with walls of metal plates and a whirling, flashing machine of unnatural proportions at its center. They were confronted by a wild-haired man who claimed he had discovered the secrets writings and awoken the sleeping priests. He and he alone was the Chosen One who will be found worthy to serve the Outer Ones who are older and greater than man, god, or Titan.

He commanded Belasir to kneel and worship him, but the spry soldier attacked, attempting to throw the Teacher into the machine. Bat creatures dropped from the ceiling to engage the others in a bloody battle of blades, fangs, and fire. Belasir grappled with the Teacher until he desperately threw them both into the impossible machine.

The others had defeated the creatures, though Damanais and Milonius lay injured and unconscious. There was a flare of strange light and Galerius saw Belasir rise, lambent, from the machine. He was greeted by the silent, masked attendants. Then the dome’s ceiling dissolved and a horrific creature, a huge crustacean swathed in fungus descended and approached. Galerius, barely holding onto his senses, grabbed the bodies of his fallen comrades and attempted to drag them out of the chamber, though unknown dangers and foes stood between them and escape. The chronicle of these events told nothing of whether they were successful.

What did follow were fragments of scenes depicting Belasir’s dissection, reconstruction, and indoctrination into the vampiric Mi-go bio-weapon that has become known as Count Fenalik.

Before turning him loose on the world they showed him an image of the Simulactum:

We are pleased
You are our greatest creation, our greatest success
This is your reward
Seek it out and so as you like with its power
Revel in it
Until the day comes when we shall call on you
You shall be our Tabernacle
And deliver the Gift of Skin unto our Master

The 1923 Investigators then found themselves in a dreamlike state in a dark room, somehow in Fenalik’s presence. He explained that he had written the book with his own blood and their contact with had activated a bond between them all. He is imprisoned by unknown forces, and renewed his offer that if only they’d return his “armor” they would be freed of all their worries. Miss Crispin asked if he recalled his original life. He did, but gave it little importance, having over the centuries, been “so many people.” She inquired if he had any remorse or would turn from his existence of debauchery and sadism, and he was clear that he had no such intensions.

The Investigators finally awoke in Prof Smith’s camp, the enchantment of the book fading. Though Dr. Wilke remained distrustful of what they had learned from Umar’s Uncle Sayed, they decided to follow the lead he had uncovered as to a rebellious faction in the Brothers of the Skin, in hopes of discovering the remaining Sedefkar Scrolls.

Commentary

This session continued the flashback scenario set in 330 AD Constantinople, and included some major plot reveals I’ve been working towards since early in the campaign. The characters had a mission with a very definite goal but a lot of different paths they could follow for their investigation. The main plot ended up being based entirely on a player idea: she contacted the criminal cult being investigated, posing as a rogue wanting to join up. This was an unexpected development to me as GM, but one that opened up a clear path to the required resolution.

The next half of the scenario was a trip into Roman Dacia and beyond. It could easily have been a whole session, drawing on the material in the published scenario, but I wanted to wrap things up and so just summarized the journey. Now this whole 330 AD scenario is actually a historical record being read by the main player characters in 1923. I emphasized that the place the 330 AD characters were journeying to seemed to be the archaeological dig in Yugoslavia where they 1923 Investigators had found the book they are reading in the first place.

I’m now getting into big, big Spoiler territory for Orient Express, so be aware….

As written, the climax of the 330 AD scenario involves the PCs commanding officer slaying the big bad cultist, becoming poisoned by tainted blood, and eventually transforming into the vampire Fenalik, who haunts the 1923 characters as one of their many adversaries. This is strictly scripted to happen. The NPC kills the baddie and is poisoned. Even if somehow a PC succeeds in the final blow, it is still the NPC who gets cursed. The GM is supposed, if at all possible, rob them of a satisfying death blow and – even worse, it seems much, much cooler if one of the PCs themselves becomes Fenalik! It’s an odd element of the published material that it actively takes agency away from the players, or makes they actions secondary to other peoples’ stories.

So I had the commander NPC stay back at home in Constantinople and left which player character would end up cursed to actual game play. As it turned out, the choice became clear pretty early on: the character who was pretending to join the cult. Things could have gone a different way at the last minute, but the pieces did end up falling into place as if planned.

I next then read a narrative section that was much longer than I usually like. As GM I try not to talk for extended periods, but there was a lot to cover: the unfortunate character’s dissection, reconstruction and mental conditioning into a vampiric bio-weapon by the Mi-go. Mixing the Mi-go into “Horror on the Orient Express” was my own addition, part of my desire to have more straightforward Lovecraftian elements into a story that fundamentally had little to with the classic Mythos. I also had decided early on that the Mi-go spawned vampires as experiments to create a tool to give them some control over the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

Returning to 1923, players had several options as to what they wanted to do next. There is still one piece of the Simulacrum to find. But I’ve been hinting that a wise course would be travelling to Constantinople to follow up a possible contact with the Brothers of the Skin, the cult than is their main advensary at this point. I did leave the choice up to them, though they chose to take my hints. I’m trying to wrap up various components of our quite convoluted plot one by one, so hopefully the next couple sessions will see a resolution of the Brothers and set the stage for the final conclusion of the campaign.

Posted by Unknown at 7:22:00 PM

Labels: Horror on the Orient Express, Trail of Cthulhu

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