Back in Malifaux City at the Star Theater, the heroes are ready to begin their search for Kirai Ankoku, the woman they believe will be key to foiling the attempt of the Tyrant Plague to ascend to godhood.
A nervous stage hand approaches the group as they plot their strategy for locating Kirai. “Um, Viceroy Mattheson is at the stage door asking for all of you by name. What should I do?”
“He knows we’re here,” mutters Bal, “and he’s probably not happy with us.”
“He gotta crew with him?” asks Bernard.
“He appears to be alone,” stammers the stage hand.
“How about we get our story straight before talking to this gentleman?” suggests Zai.
“I know what the story is,” boasts Bernard.
“I think what the lady is suggesting here is that we all agree on one account. I’m not so sure we want to speak with Lucius, though,” says Bal.
“What’s there to agree on? There’s one account,” Bernard replies.
“What account is that?” asks Zai, archly.
“One where we ran around, got more powerful, and came back,” says Bernard.
Zai appears startled. “Okay, that works, I have no objections to that.”
Anna Mae looks nervous. “Perhaps we should mention the Arcanists.”
“I think that’s a detail best left out,” Bal replies.
“I think the important thing is that we were asked to retrieve an item, and we are not able to produce said item,” says Zai.
Bal interjects, “We were asked to procure an item to keep it out of the wrong hands. We just cut out the middle part.”
“And now it belongs to nobody!” crows Providence.
“That’s the part of the story I want to make sure we all agree on,” says Zai.
“To be fair, we did more or less do what we were asked,” says Anna Mae.
“I believe my exact words to Lucius were ‘we will ensure it does not end up in the wrong hands’. Well, my fine handiwork has ensured that will not happen,” adds Bal.
Zai sends her newly acquired Star Theater mannequin construct to bring Lucius to them. He arrives, and, as best as can be seen through his mask, appears quite jovial. “Well, Ms. Zai, you’ve come up in the world, it seems. Official Star Theater showgirl. Very impressive.” Turning to Bernard, he adds, “And I see you’ve acquired a rocket pack as well. They’re all the rage this year among the Gremlins, I understand. At least for those who manage to launch one without exploding into tiny green and red scraps.”
“Who’s your informant?” demands Bernard.
“I have certain connections with a mutual acquaintance from whom you may have acquired this device.” Turning to Bal, Lucius adds, “And I see that you’ve played cards with her as well.”
“Despite better ideas of how to live my life and make my decisions, I am a man of the cards,” says Bal.
“Temptation can be challenging. I would advise you to stay away from The Honey Pot.”
“While I do not quite know what you are referring to, I shall take your advice into consideration.”
“Of course, you might wonder why I would think you could even consider visiting The Honey Pot, considering there is a Guild bounty on your heads.”
“Yeah, about that,” puts in Bernard.
“Or rather, there was. Given the situation with increasing numbers of people in the city falling ill and your apparent connections to these matters, I have made arrangements to end the Guild bounty on all of you. I must say, however, that dear Sonia is not in agreement with this decision.”
“What if I send her some moonshine, would that sweeten the deal?” asks Bernard.
“Perhaps she might enjoy setting it on fire, but in general, probably not. I would suggest that you steer clear of her and make no use of magic in public. I cannot protect you from the Witchling Stalkers if it becomes publicly known that any of you can perform true magic.”
“Weirdos,” grunts Bernard.
“This will, however, give you the opportunity to move freely about the city without interference. By the way, I understand that the grimoire which I sent you for came to a rather unfortunate and dramatic end.”
“Well, I believe I did say that I’d ensure the grimoire didn’t end up in the wrong hands,” says Bal.
“I do admire a man who can improvise.”
“The situation had gone very south,” puts in Anna Mae.
“I cannot blame you for the situation with the rats. They are quite concerning, and have begun to appear even by day.”
Zai interrupts. “I feel like puppets are a larger concern at this point, quite literally.”
“Like your mannequin here?” Lucius laughs.
“Not just parlor tricks. These puppets are massive and dangerous. We’ve encountered them three times already, and we understand them to be the work of Nytemare,” Zai protests.
“Perhaps they are a danger for the future, but at present, they do not approach the city. That cannot be said for the plague zombies or the rats, or the disease they bring with them. The Governor-General may be forced to quarantine Malifaux entirely and cut off connection to Earth if the plague worsens. You can imagine the morale effect that this news has had on all the humans living here.”
“And I take it you hope our company will… deal with that?” asks Zai.
“I hope to maintain a base of power here in Malifaux City, and to ensure that those beings that have been bound in various ways do not escape their bindings.”
“What’s the job pay?” asks Bernard.
“I believe you may already have found an employer.”
“Don’t quite catch your drift there,” mutters Bal.
“No, I’m sure you don’t.” Lucius takes a swig from a hip flask. “Regardless, do give my regards to Madame Colette. Should you require any assistance in dealing with these matters, you may enquire at my office. But such assistance will of course have to be… discreet.”
“Well, we could drop a name on you here without makin’ an appointment. We’re followin’ up on a lead,” says Bal.
“And that name would be?”
Bal glances around the room and, not seeing any objections, offers, “Kirai Ankoku.”
“That name is vaguely familiar, but I cannot place it. I will make inquiries and see if I have any information to provide.”
Bal pulls Lucius aside. “As a matter of more personal significance here, could you perhaps tell me if you know anything about the force known as Nytemare?”
“One of the thirteen tyrants, believed to be imprisoned between the worlds, and apparently manifesting in the form of a being we call The Dreamer. The Dreamer is inimical to humans here in Malifaux. Thus far, I have not seen any reason to oppose it. If he keeps Nytemare amused and safely bound, I’m all for it. The only other thing I know is that very few people who have encountered The Dreamer have left the encounter in one piece.”
“It’s an eat or be eaten world,” puts in Bernard.
“We’ve lost a few pieces already,” adds Zai.
“Very well, I will leave you to your business,” says Lucius, and ushers himself out.
Armed with the freedom of the city, Anna Mae heads to the Guild archives to research Kirai. Zai summons a water gamin and sends it to scout the sewers. Bernard and Bal head out gambling to gather rumors, and Providence visits the Guild HQ and does her best to network.
The group gathers after a day of searching to compare notes. Providence determined that Kirai may have a connection to the Resurrectionists. Bal and Bernard found out that Kirai was connected to the Qi and Gong, a tavern and house of ill repute. Anna Mae found reference to a criminal file naming Kirai, but was unable to access it. Zai’s gamin overheard something about Kirai and a man called Nicodem from people in the sewers.
With this new information, Zai assumes a nondescript face and tries to sign on with the Resurrectionists. Bal and Bernard conduct a mini-heist to steal the criminal file on Kirai. Providence hits the streets to gossip with whoever she can find, and Anna Mae reviews the stolen files and discovers that Kirai was involved in a murder. She was attacked by an unidentified assailant, but a gentleman named Kirakawa Hoshi pushed her out of the way of the bullet and was killed instead.
Bal and Bernard head to the Qi and Gong to drink and investigate, while Zai continues her infiltration. She discovers that Nicodem lairs somewhere in the Northern Quarantine Zone, and that he has been making a habit of visiting someone in a tower there. Anna Mae returns to the Guild archives with new information to focus her research. There she learns that Kirakawa Hoshi is a pseudonym. His true name is Tokugawa Hoshinobu, third son of the shogun. Bal and Bernard also learn that Kirai once worked at the Qi and Gong.
Bal and Bernard continue their carouse, and discover that the murderer was likely after Kirai but Hoshi/Hoshinobu intervened. Zai’s infiltration pays off and she traces Nicodem’s visits to a specific tower in the Quarantine Zone, and rumors that there is a woman living there. The heroes head for the tower, and Zai summons a wind gamin to investigate. The gamin sees an attractive but haggard woman sitting on a bed in the tower, quietly sobbing.
Anna Mae heads for Guild HQ, and works her magic by invoking Lucius’s name to obtain a team of Death Marshals as backup in case Nicodem or his minions show up while the heroes are entering the tower. A squad of four Death Marshals accompanies the heroes back into the Quarantine Zone, where they ascend the tower. At the top, the woman is still there, drinking from what appears to be a bottle of plum wine. On her left hand, she wears a ring with two glowing green points of light. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” she demands.
“Are you the one that left your job at that sweet gig on the other side of town?” blurts Bernard.
“What we want with you has nothing to do with your old job,” Anna Mae quickly adds.
“Yes, I used to work at the Qi and Gong. What’s it do you?” she slurs.
“Didn’t you leave there after someone died?” asks Bernard.
“I’m sure there are better ways to approach this somewhat delicate matter,” drawls Bal.
“You little swine,” the woman hisses at Bernard. “How dare you bring that up!”
Indignant, Bernard replies “Why? It happened, it’s the truth. Are you trying to hide from it here?”
“We also aren’t implying that it was your fault,” Anna Mae puts in.
“And I know it’s confusing, but he’s a Gremlin, not a pig,” adds Zai.
“Those are fightin’ words, sir ma’am,” snorts Bernard.
“I’ve never seen much of a distinction myself,” sneers the woman.
“Those are ALSO fightin’ words,” Bernard says.
“If you don’t have anything useful to say, I would ask you to leave me be,” the woman says.
“We may have gotten off on the wrong foot,” says Zai. “Honestly, we’re generally a nice group of people, and we think you might be in danger and want to help.”
“Yeah, we came because we didn’t want you to get fed to a machine,” adds Bernard.
“Fed to a machine?” says the woman, baffled. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean, I assume that’s what they want to do with you. What else do you do with people and machines?” Bernard seems confused.
“I don’t know anything about any machines,” says the woman.
“How comfortable would you be having this conversation somewhere else?” asks Zai.
“Not comfortable at all!” The woman clenches her left fist, and the two spots of green light on her left fist begin to glow brighter.
Anna Mae raises her hands in an attempt to soothe the woman. “Are you by chance here because you choose to be, or is there any other reason?”
“I have nowhere better to go,” the woman says, lowering her fist.
“Ah. What would be better, then?” asks Zai.
“Some days, I believe, the grave.”
“No, see, that’s a temporary solution,” says Zai.
“There, I could see my beloved again.”
“Knew it,” says Bernard.
“Alright, I begin to see what’s happening here. I get the feeling that you are here, perhaps, to accomplish a not entirely legal goal,” suggests Anna Mae.
Anger flares in the woman’s face and she raises her left fist again, the ring’s eyes glowing. “What, you mean this?” A spectral form erupts from the ring and circles the room, leaving a chill in its wake, then dissipates. “I have no concerns for the laws of the Guild. They did not protect me or my beloved from the depredations of his father.”
“Well, how convenient for us,” says Bal. “We aren’t on the best terms together neither.”
“Look, they don’t really protect anyone that doesn’t make them money, so I don’t know what you expected,” puts in Bernard.
“Look,” says Anna Mae, “this thing you are doing, whether you intend it to or not, may be playing into the hands of a powerful magical being known as the Tyrant Plague who is plotting to destroy Malifaux.”
“I don’t know anything about Plague. The spirits often come whether I will them or not. My teacher is helping me to learn to control them. Ever since my beloved gave me this ring, they began to come to me, and much more so now that he has passed.”
“I feel like I must enquire about your teacher,” says Bal.
“I will not betray him,” answers the woman. “He is of aid to me. I must learn to control this power, especially if it connects to some catastrophe.
“Catastrophe is an understatement,” replies Bal. “I believe we are looking at a full-blown calamity.”
Anna Mae adds, “I don’t necessarily disagree that you should figure out how to control what is happening to you, but I feel that this person may be taking advantage.”
“At least you are here to learn to control uncontrollable power. I thought you were going to try to bring your friend back,” says Bernard.
“If only I could, but I have no interest in returning my beloved as an undead monstrosity.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen when that happens and… it’s not the best,” says Bernard.
“No. He merely haunts me, in incorporeal form. Perhaps if I can master my powers, I can at least speak to him from time to time.”
“You said he gave you that ring?” asks Anna Mae.
“Indeed, when he asked me to marry him,” says the woman, who the group is now certain is Kirai. “He said it had been in his family for many, many years, hundreds or perhaps even thousands.” As she holds up the ring, the heroes see that it is formed in the shape of a serpent with emerald eyes – and the workmanship suggests it was forged in Malifaux.
As the others look at the ring, Bernard reaches for the abandoned bottle of plum wine. Kirai notices the movement. “What are you doing?” she asks, exasperated. “Fine, drink. It’s not doing me any good anyway.”
Bernard tips back the bottle and gulps a few swallows. As he does, Kirai sends a spirit into Bernard’s face. Unperturbed, he drinks again.
“Very well. I will continue my studies and be on the lookout for this ‘Plague’. But for now, I ask you to leave me.”
“Before we go, have you seen any unusually large rats?” asks Anna Mae.
“There are always rats here, they come and go, but none larger than normal.”
“If you see large rats or living zombies, you might want to let us know,” says Anna Mae.
“If I have news of this Plague creature, where can I send word?” asks Kirai. Zai hands over a calling card, and the heroes head for the sewers, to see if they can find a way into the Necropolis.
While Anna Mae researches city maps at the Guild Archives, Zai sends her gamin to search the sewers and Bal and Bernard inspect the tunnels for engineering anomalies that might conceal entrances. Providence stealthily follows Resurrectionist minions in the sewers looking for areas they congregate. After a few hours of searching, the heroes find an entrance – protected by a crowd of undead zombies. Bal whips out his shotgun and takes down two zombies immediately. Providence pulls her revolver and drops another zombie with a headshot.
The zombies close the range, biting and clawing at Bernard and Bal but to no effect. Zai charges with her mannequin at her side; the mannequin stabs a zombie but does no harm, while Zai attempts to summon a gamin. Bernard punches one of the zombies, knocking him off balance. Providence shoots the off-balance zombie, killing it (again). As the mannequin continues to flail at the zombies, Zai summons a fire gamin on the opposite side of the zombie pack. Anna Mae blasts a zombie with her shotgun, vaporizing it, and Bal crushes one’s head with his shotgun butt. Bernard slips on the dungeon floor and falls down, rolling crazily to avoid the clutches of the remaining zombies. Anna Mae rushes in and pulls him to his feet, only to be attacked by a zombie herself.
Bernard punches the head clean off one of the remaining zombies, and the gamin blasts one of them but doesn’t hurt it. Bal shoots it while it is distracted, putting it down. A zombie scratches Bernard’s rocket pack, and Anna Mae blasts it back with her shotgun. Bernard punches the last zombie, putting it down, and the heroes proceed into the Necropolis…
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The heroes have survived their encounter with Rasputina, Avatar of the Tyrant December, but not without a change; Providence is now a member of the December Cult. Rasputina informed them that a woman named Kirai is key to Plague’s effort to ascend to godhood, and directed the heroes to seek her out in Malifaux City. The heroes decided to retrace their path to Hollow Point Pumping Station to confer with their new patron, Victor Ramos, but were intercepted enroute by Sonia Criid and her Guild Witch Hunters, and also by Neverborn Nephilim possibly seeking out Zai.
The heroes immediately saw that the two hostile forces would likely keep each other busy, and made a run for it into the badlands. Each commander, however, dispatches a small force to pursue them – a team of Witchling Stalkers led by a Handler for the Guild, and, from the Neverborn, a group of Terror Tots, hideous demonic imps, led by a larger winged demonic Nephilim.
Seeing the pursuit, Bernard fires up his rocket pack. “Come with me if you want to live,” he yells as he flies into the air, seizing Anna Mae by one arm and hauling her into the air as she screams in surprise. Providence uses her new abilities to cast an ice pillar in the path of both Neverborn and Guild, which results in a small melee between Witchlings and Terror Tots. The result is a chain reaction explosion with splashes of Nephilim black blood corroding Witchlings, who then burst into flame.
Zai summons a poison gamin atop the pillar, ordering it to blast poison into the ice in the hopes of shattering it as a weapon. Bal attempts to shatter it with his rifle, but the pillar only cracks, and his pause to take a careful shot puts him at the back of the chase. The Nephilim soars over the pillar, but the poison gamin manages to leap into the air onto its back. Meanwhile, Anna Mae fires wildly, but only manages to graze the Nephilim.
Bal fires at the pillar again but his trusty rifle Tawny jams. The poison gamin claws ineffectually at the Nephilim, who hurls it to the ground just as Zai summons a metal gamin. Distracted by the new gamin, the Nephilim slows for a moment, and the Witchling Handler shoots it out of the sky with her crossbow. She proceeds to finish off the remaining Terror Tots and then fire at Bal, injuring him badly. When the rest of the heroes turn back to fight her, however, she takes the hint and runs for it.
With their original plan to return to Hollow Point compromised, the heroes decide to set out overland for Ridley. Much of their journey is uneventful until they reach a point about a day from the town. They hear loud crashing through the brush. “That doesn’t sound like pig,” remarks Bernard. “You might want to ready your weapons.” Providence and Anna Mae take cover behind rocks on either side of the path, while Bal takes a sniper’s perch in a tree. Zai stands on top of Anna Mae’s rock, and Bernard stays put, squarely in the path of whatever is approaching.
Through the brush, two enormous wooden puppets appear, flanked by eight smaller marionettes. Bernard rolls up his sleeve on his punching hand and steps forward. “All right, step forward one at a time. None of you have anything good anyway, so I’m not really expecting much, but you could at least put up a bit of a fight before I beat you.” One of the puppets seems taken aback by the taunt, but both charge. Providence shoots one as it approaches, but the other wraps its arms around Bernard and attempts to crush him. The one Providence hit shrugs off the attack and punches Bernard.
From his sniper perch, Bal fires the repaired Tawny and shatters the head of one of the smaller puppets. The survivors immediately charge forward, claws outstretched. While Anna Mae cowers in shock and hides behind her rock, Zai gestures broadly and a fire gamin appears behind the smaller puppets; the gamin promptly claws at one puppet ineffectually and blasts another to pieces with fire. Zai summons a second fire gamin as well as an illusory gamin to distract the puppets. Providence pops up and blasts the damaged large puppet (which looks like a noble lady) with her shotgun, then drops back into cover, and Bal coolly picks off another of the smaller puppets from the tree.
Emboldened by her friends’ successes, Anna Mae closes on the large puppet dressed as a king that is holding Bernard. She takes careful aim and fires her shotgun – and it explodes in her hands, scorching and stunning her! Taking advantage of the distraction, Bernard breaks free of the king puppet. Ignoring the fire gamin, the small puppets continue to close in. Two of them begin to pummel Bernard, injuring him, one attacks Anna Mae, and two attack Zai. The lady puppet also punches Bernard, lifting him into the air by the belly and slamming him into the ground face down, unconscious and bleeding. The king puppet then leaps over the prone Bernard and punches Zai, knocking her momentarily off balance.
The smaller puppets swarm around the heroes. One leaps atop Providence’s rock and claws at her, two strike out at Anna Mae, one clawing across her back, and two strike at Zai, one sinking claws deep into her shoulder. Anna Mae reaches down and tries to unstraps Bernard’s rocket pack, intending to send it flying into the lady puppet, but she cannot puzzle out Bernard’s bizarre Gremlin control system. Providence smashes the puppet off her rock with a frying pan – its severed head flies off yelling “That’s the way to do it!” She then fires her rifle, which jams.
Bal, seeing Anna Mae in distress, tosses her his shotgun. Anna Mae catches it out of the air and blasts one of the attacking puppets into splinters. Bal then fires his rifle and the lady puppet collapses into pieces. Zai calls one of her fire gamin to her and detonates it, igniting two of the small puppets, then summons a whiskey gamin atop the king puppet. Anna Mae snatches up the sharp barrel of her broken gun and stabs a small puppet, sending it spinning to the ground. Bal leaps from the tree and runs over to patch up Bernard. “Gonna be OK, boss,” he mutters. The last surviving small puppet runs towards Zai but her other fire gamin claws it to pieces. Zai summons a new fire gamin on top of the king puppet as she runs for it, then detonates both it and the whiskey gamin. With a blue fireball, the last puppet falls.
The wounded party limp their way into Ridley, where they follow a trail of blue graffiti to locate an Arcanist safe house. There they find their old companion Cesar, a.k.a. Vito Sessa, juggling a small ball of fire. “Hey, how’s it goin’?” he asks.
“Oh, is that why you were there? Oh, is that where you were? Where we might be?” asks Providence, both excited and incoherent.
“Yeah, turns out I can do magic. Who knew?” answers Cesar.
“I knew I felt good about letting you go,” says Bal.
“So, you guys are Arcanists now? That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” answers Bal, “We kinda ran short on options, but we’re glad to help out!”
“Somebody sure messed up your Gremlin there.”
“I’m in the works for a rematch,” says Bernard. “Until then the show’s suspended.”
“I’m not an arcanist. I’m a Child of December,” says Providence.
Unnerved, Cesar replies, “Yeah, well, I guess I’m gonna say keep your dietary habits to yourself, and we’re all good here. I hear from the boss that you’re all on some kind of mission. What do you need?”
“We need to get to Malifaux City,” says Bal.
“OK, I think we can hook you up. You all mind being packed in crates? We can ship you into the city that way and deliver you right to the Star Theater. You know Colette’s one of us, right?”
“I did hear about her inclinations,” answers Bal.
The smuggling plan is successful and the heroes arrive in crates at the Star. Colette is waiting as their crates are opened. “Fancy meeting you again,” she drawls.
Zai answers, “This is not how I intended to make my triumphant return to the stage.”
Between Bernard and Providence, the heroes quickly fill Colette in on all the details of their adventures.
“Well,” says Colette when they finally wind down, “I understand from dear Victor that you are now amongst the inner circle, as it were.”
“I’m not with Victor, but I am with Rasputina,” puts in Providence.
Colette gives a delicate shudder. “I’ve never met her, but I understand she is rather… creepy.”
“I didn’t see it,” Providence shrugs.
Bal adds, “I’m not going to say we joined because we were short on options, but we were short on options, and here we are.”
“Well, I know you are capable folk, so I’m just as happy to have you on the proper side.”
“Ya know, considering our track record, it’s almost like we were members all along, am I right?”
“Well, I can’t say that blowing up that grimoire was the best thing you’ve ever done. Nevertheless, I understand you have a mission to find this Kirai Ankoku. I’ll put the word out on the streets and see if we can find here. In the meantime, we can hide you in the theater. The Guild is certainly still interested in arresting you, and I’m afraid you’ll need to be subtle about moving through the city. Best get used to the sewers.”
Later, Bal takes Colette aside and asks her about Nytemare. “I’m not aware of a cult of Nytemare,” she says. “But there have been strange manifestations in and around the city that I believe might be related. There are also legends that say that Nytemare is the master of puppets.”
“We been attacked by puppets a couple times.”
“I have heard that Nytemare is trapped between the worlds and can only influence them indirectly, through his avatar, a small boy who seems to be dreaming his way into Malifaux, and manifesting horrifying nightmare creatures. I fought him recently, and lost one of my showgirls before I could escape. It was quite distressing.”
The heroes settle back into the Star and await news of Kirai, wondering if they can find her before Plague does.
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Mah and the rest of the Tucket clan, along with MacTavish, are hunting Wild Boar. But in Malifaux, the pigs hunt back...
After the zombie fight and their first successful performance at the Star Theatre, the heroes have settled into a period of relative routine; they prep in the morning, have a few hours of leisure in the afternoons, and work a performance shift in the evenings. However, on their afternoon explorations, they have each noticed that plainclothes (but still menacing) Guild officers follow them anywhere they go. If the heroes step foot into one of the streets marking the boundary of the Downtown district, a Guild regular is there to greet them with a murderous smile, or a finger drawn across a stubbled throat.
One morning, as the heroes are doing their jobs in the theater, while mentally wrestling with their probationary period (which has felt longer and longer with each passing day), the slovenly Captain Dashel appears in the lobby to summon them (all six of them) to the Governor-General’s palace, right now, thank you. Dashel’s dim expression dims even further, when the heroes tell him that puppeteer Vito Sessa (Cesar) disappeared right after Zai’s opening performance; only the five of them are available. Dashel is not pleased. “Mr. Mattheson will send the Witchhunter after Mr. Sessa. Ms. Sonnia Criid will find him, slit his throat, and string him up on the Warning Tree outside the palace gate as a warning. All kinds of bad people out in Malifaux.” He spits. “Terrorists. Arcanists. Same damn thing.”
Bernard suggests that if Vito Sessa ran into the Bayou, the swamp would take care of him. Zai mutters something about Gremlins under her breath. Bernard immediately retorts, “THAT’S RACIST.”
Dashel, seeming amused by the interplay, gestures for the grumpy heroes to fall in line, and leads them through the Downtown District to the Governor-General’s palace.
The heroes arrive to a much more genial welcome; a generous selection of drinks and snacks have been laid out on a gilded sideboard. Bernard and Providence dig into the snacks with great appetite; Anna Mae pours herself a drink; and Zai and Bal both take the opportunity to refill their hip flasks from the bottles of the good stuff lined up on a mirrored tray. Lucius, on arrival, pretends not to notice Zai and Bal’s appropriation of his finest spirits; instead, he offers the group effusive compliments.
“I have enjoyed your work at the theater. Wade Norris told me that your help was critical in resolving last week’s violent situation. The Chief Coroner, Dr. McMourning, is calling the creatures you helped destroy plague zombies.” Lucius shudders. “Our expects surmise that the so-called plague zombies were pursuing Hannah Lovelace because she carried a powerful and dangerous grimoire of mystical diseases. In the interest of public safety, you understand, this grimoire must be retrieved from the Freikorps and placed in the Guild’s vault, where such dangerous items are protected from misuse. However, an attack on the Freikorps library would unbalance important peace agreements between the Guild and Freikorps, agreements that keep the trains in Malifaux running on time.” Lucius flips out a handkerchief and blots a spot on his face under his mask. What he’s about the say seems delicate. “However; if your group would secretly acquire the grimoire on behalf of the Guild, as you’ve been doing so very well, your probation might be considered complete upon the grimoire’s safe return.”
Bal is, at first, enthusiastic about the offer. “I feel confident we can scope this place out and bring back,” he pauses, “… whatever will, er, satisfy you.” Thrilled, Lucius rolls a set of maps across a table, explaining the layout of the Freikorps headquarters and the underground chambers beneath it. On top, he adds a leather folio with a description and a sketch of the grimoire. Bal asks for additional information, any dirt that Lucius might have on the senior officers, and so forth. Breezing past the request for “dirt,” Lucius explains that there are 30-50 soldiers in the fort and Von Schill, the commander of the Freikorps, is usually in the Downtown District negotiating deals. However, Hannah, the Freikorps Librarian, is more often on site. Lucius acknowledges Bal’s familiarity with Hannah, and expresses regret that he does not have any information about Hannah that could be used as leverage.
Bernard asks what else is in it for them, and Lucius offers 50 scrip for each team member, plus one item (each) from his vault of special equipment. The group is starting to cotton on to the fact that Lucius has his fingers in many pies, that his reach is long, and deep, and above all, secret.
Nervous about compromising her professional relationship with either Hannah or Lucius, Anna Mae asks how the Freikorps and the Guild get along. Couldn’t the Guild just ask for the grimoire? Lucius explains Von Schill’s fraught history with the Guild. Once a fairly high-ranking member, he quit the Guild after a dispute with the Governor-General, and established his own group thereafter—the Freikorps; Von Schill is not openly hostile to the Guild, and the Guild sometimes hires out the Freikorps for special operations against the hostile Malifaux Natives, but the groups are not officially allied. Lucius says that it’s unlikely the Freikorps are awake that Lucius even knows about the grimoire. Asking the Freikorps directly for the artifact would compromise certain resources in the Freikorp that provide Lucius with intelligence.
Zai, appearing to listen only casually, asks if the group should take any special precautions when handling the grimoire. Lucius strongly urges them not to even open the book, much less investigate its contents. He fears that even reading the content might trigger a deadly plague that would decimate the city, maybe even all of Malifaux. With concern in his voice, Lucius says that the Guild wants to remove the grimoire to a safe place before the Freikorps causes a catastrophe—whether intentionally or not.
Although their commitment to the job seems less than definite, the group agrees to obtain the grimoire in exchange for immediate completion of their probationary period. When they leave, Anna Mae hangs back for a private conversation with Lucius.
Bal meets up with his former comrade, Arik, who currently works as a recruiter for the Freikorps. Speaking obliquely, Bal suggests he’s been offered him a job that will hurt the Freikorps in some way, and he’s looking for a counter-offer from Arik. Arik, no fool, wants to know what needs doing, exactly, and who’s asking Bal to do it. Verbally ducking and weaving like a champion boxer, Bal implies if Arik doesn’t help Bal (and his friends) get out of Malifaux City, they’re going to sort of, kind of, maybe steal something from the Freikorps. Arik thinks on that for a while and asks Bal some follow-up questions that Bal answers with a nod and wink about having handily survived that weird event, where all the people vanished from the train to Malifaux. His friends survived it too, so they have…skills. Arik finally figures out what Bal’s asking for and says he’ll make arrangements to set them up as Freikorps recruits and get them out of Malifaux City in a few days’ time. Bal and his friends can meet Arik where the Downtown District meets the Quarantine Zone, and Arik will escort them to the Freikorps HQ.
After thinking their options over, Bal and Providence return to the Governor-General’s palace to take up Lucius’s offer of special equipment. Although allowed only one item each, Bal takes a grappling hook gun and distracts the guard with rambling conversation while Providence stashes away two small mechanical spiders and three explosive charges. In turn, Providence pelts the guard with a breathless series of long questions, allowing Bal to covertly snag a fourth explosive charge, while overtly selecting an intriguing set of clockwork wings. Later, in the alley behind the Star Theatre, Providence and Bal spend some time figuring out how the clockwork wings work. Although Bal isn’t a pilot, his knowledge of engineering gives him a basic understanding of how to wear and drive the wings.
Bernard, meanwhile, is already spending his scrip. Distracted from the plot tosteal the grimoire, he spends a couple of hours researching metalworks in Malifaux City that can produce alloys capable of withstanding the temperature of burning Gremlin rocket fuel (moonshine). He has his own agenda and no matter what’s going on with the others, he’s locked into following it as soon as he can.
When the heroes reassemble that evening, Anna Mae, Bal, Bernard, and Providence finds themselves in the unexpected company of a strange woman who claim that she will be going on this mission on behalf of Zai. When the group stares at her, trying to get what she’s saying, she impatiently indicates her plain clothing, her dusky but unremarkable prettiness. Frustrated, she points to the bar, where Zai, costumed in her customary extravagant glory, silently holds her head as though in pain, taking what appears to be a medicinal bottle of whiskey back to her room. Bal puts it all together—the relatively plain, unmasked person standing before them is Zai, willing to retrieve the grimoire, but not willing to ruin her reputation over the job. Whoever or whatever just staggered away with the bottle is a reputation-saving illusion.
Bal tells the group that he has independently arranged their transport to the Freikorps headquarters, two days from now. Bernard and Zai get on board immediately, but Providence has a million questions. Although Bal manages to put Providence off for the time being, Anna Mae refuses to cooperate, as she is determined to operative honestly, while somehow maintaining her important professional relations with both Lucius and Hannah. While Bal and Anna Mae argue about who’s going to the Freikorps fort, when they’re leaving, and how they’re traveling, Bernard walks over to the bar and pilfers a lit cigarette from an ashtray. Zai steals up behind him, spirits it away from him, takes a puff on the cigarette herself, and then puts it back in his hand. Bernard says, “You owe me a snack for that. You owe me a finger.”
Zai replies, “Fine. So long as it’s not one of my fingers.”
Eventually, Anna Mae agrees to consider acting as a distraction for Hannah, but first wants to speak with Lucius again, to see if she can convince him to deal more honestly with the Freikorps. Bal, Bernard, and Providence wander away, and Zai takes Anna Mae aside to ask why show’s not comfortable with Bal’s plan. Anna Mae explains that her research is very important to her, and that to do her work effectively, she must be on good terms with both Hannah and Lucius. If Anna Mae steals from Hannah, she’ll lose an ally, and access to the library. Zai says that the artifact is extremely dangerous and doesn’t want Hannah OR Lucius to have it. Both outcomes would be BAD.
“But isn’t the Guild going to lock the grimoire away safely?” asks Anna Mae, blinking.
“I doubt that power-hungry maniac would hesitate to use it to further his own agenda,” says Zai, referring to Lucius. She frowns. “How much do you know about the Natives of Malifaux?”
“As much as any Earthside human being could, I think? I’ve written several dissertations on the subject.”
Zai sniffs. “There’s a difference between studying something and living it.”
With her suspicions that Zai is a Neverborn shapeshifter confirmed, Anna Mae apologizes profusely for any cultural insensitivity she may have inadvertently displayed. In Anna’s Mae’s eyes, the Neverborn are just people, like all other people, deserving of compassion and respect. Never mind their bloody history.
Zai sniffs. “There were some very dangerous things happening in Malifaux a long time ago. I came back here thinking the coast was relatively clear, but the grimoire smells like those old bad things.”
As always, Anna Mae is straight-forward in her reply. “You’re talking about the Tyrants.”
Wincing, Zai looks around to see if anyone’s listening before she answers. “I think the grimoire would be safer with us than with the Guild or the Freikorps.”
Anna Mae thinks for a minute. “If it’s so dangerous, could it be…maybe…destroyed? I don’t want to put my research at risk, but the grimoire does sound extremely dangerous. Better to make sure no one can use it? Maybe?”
Zai smiles, all teeth. “If it just happened to be destroyed in an attempt to acquire it… well, that would be unfortunate.”
Anna Mae smiles tentatively back, but she senses that Zai isn’t really willing to destroy the grimoire. Nevertheless, Anna Mae agrees to make a Guild-sanctioned visit to Hannah, and perhaps distract her with a conversation over dinner while the rest of the heroes do what they have to do. Anna Mae isn’t sure there is any other (more noble) recourse, at this point.
Two days later, at sundown, Anna Mae arrives at the Freikorps fortress on an official visit, escorted by two Guild Guards assigned to her by Lucius. Responding to the smell of dinner wafting from the Mess Hall, Anna Mae asks Hannah if they might have a conversation over dinner about some texts she’d like to borrow. Hannah is surprised that anyone would want to eat in the Freikorps Mess Hall, but, still star-struck by Anna Mae’s academic achievements, willingly escorts her to the mess for dinner.
Meanwhile, Bal, Bernard, Providence, and Zai meet Arik and follow him into the Quarantine Zone. As they go along, Bal explains to the other heroes that the Freikorps and Guild don’t really get along, and no matter what they do that night, they’re going to get on the bad side of one or the other organization, so he thinks they should join the Freikorps, as the pay is a lot better, and Lucius’s plans for the heroes seem a mite more complicated (ok, shady). Bernard asks Arik if the Freikorps would stop him from going to the Bayou, because he needs to go there, and also if the Freikorps have good metalworks and forges and machine shops and such. Arik promises Bernard everything he asks for, and Bernard signs on with a shrug. Providence asks if she could have access to the Freikorps library of arcane knowledge; when Arik says it’s all hers, Providence signs on as well. Zai dials up the attractiveness of her arcane glamour, and bats her eyelashes at Arik, saying she just wants to be with whomever will keep her safe. Arik adjusts his large flamethrower backpack and assures her that she couldn’t be safer than with the Freikorps.
Thusly committed to several conflicting plans, our heroes proceed through the Quarantine Zone, bothered from time to time by an unpleasant rustling sound all around, but not bothered enough to stop what feels like a path out of Malifaux City, to freedom. They arrive at the Freikorps fortress about an hour after Anna Mae. As Bal, Bernard, Providence, Zai, and Arik step into the courtyard, they hear the disturbing sound again. Louder. In one collective gesture, they look up at the walls of the fortress to see a giant rat wriggling over the crenellation. Followed by another. And another. An avalanche of giant rats, easily 50 pounds each in size, boils over the wall, creating a wriggling, squeaking ramp into the courtyard which a veritable army of their brethren lumber like wet, angry bears.
As one, the heroes reach for their weapons.
At the Star Theatre, during Collette DuBois’s illusionist act, what appeared to be zombies broke into the theater and attacked the audience. Most of the shambling creatures chased the escaping audience out the theater’s back doors, but a few zombies stopped short to fight our heroes: Anna Mae, the intrepid anthropologist; Balthazar, the shell-shocked war veteran; “One Glove” Bernard, the Gremlin pugilist; Providence, the Australian mystic; and Zai, the mysterious stage illusionist. After the heroes mop up the zombies (much to Anna Mae’s grief over the loss of life), a Guild Death Marshall arrives and determines that the “zombies” are not, in fact, undead at all. What’s going on here?
Act 1: The Chase
Turning to Lucius Mattheson, the Death Marshall says that he wants to investigate the zombies and needs backup. Lucius gestures at the assembled heroes, who are standing by covered in blood and gore, some of it their own, and when the Marshall looks dubious, Lucius launches into a sales pitch. “Balthazar here is responsible for the admirably accurate headshots you see before you. And Bernard, this Gremlin right here, is a master of the art of pugilism; he knocked that creature’s head clean off its shoulders! The lovely and talented Zai is a skilled knife fighter and acrobat – See that zombie with the knife sticking out of its head? See that chandelier? Best chandelier attack I’ve ever seen, bar none. Providence, here, well, let me tell you, sir; she’s a surgeon with that shotgun.” With a smile, Lucius gives the shy anthropologist a little push into the spotlight. “And this is Anna Mae, a brilliant scholar. She can help figure out what these creatures are. You’d better hurry up, though. The zombies are getting away.”
Convinced, the Death Marshall nods, Let’s go then. But Bernard and Balthazar immediately ask what’s in it for them. Lucius offers them additional scrip and the chase is (finally!) on. The heroes stream out the rear door into a dark alley behind the theater. Rushing into the main street, Providence nearly collides with an ox-sized, techno-magical construct jerkily pulling a wagon of bundled goods. Not to be deterred, Providence swings up into the wagon, joined by Anna Mae and Balthazar. “Hey, no fair!” yells Bernard, pelting along behind as fast as his short, Gremlin legs can carry him. Zai, following her comrades into the alley, avoids slipping on some rubbish, but Wade Norris, the Death Marshall, back in impressive flaming skull disguise, hits the same slimy patch and crashes to the ground, the coffin chained oddly to his back bashing him unimpressively in the head. As Zai runs down the street after the wagon, she encounters a crowd of drunken miners spilling out of a pub, which she dodges with flair.
Perched in the jouncing wagon, as insatiably curious as ever, Providence opens a bundle of goods to find a neatly folded package of miner’s denim coveralls. Both she and Anna Mae snatch and stow a pair for later, Just in case, while Balthazar looks on, nonplussed; Really, that’s what we’re doing right now? As the wagon turns a corner, all three heroes recover focus, and jump down to continue the zombie chase on foot. Around the next corner, they see a trio of zombies that have fallen short of the main pack.
Anna Mae jerks to a straight-backed halt in the middle of the street. Wait, what?
Bal darts back behind the corner, yelling, “Take cover, boys, they’re unlimbering the cannon!” Bal’s odd interjection, no doubt a product of post-traumatic stress from the Black Powder Wars, heralds an actual ball of flame. Completely unsurprised, Bal watches as the fireball (and its strange ZORCH sound) is followed by a roiling plume of smoke that blows up and over the roof of the building ahead.
Providence steps around the frozen Anna Mae, draws her shotgun, and blasts one of the shuffling zombies in the back before taking cover beside Bal. Bernard, pumping his little green arms, catches up and runs right past his comrades to charge at one of the zombies. Yelling Punchinello’s signature line at the top of his lungs, “THAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT!” Bernard winds up and punches the closest zombie’s head clean off. WHAM!
Zai and Norris arrive on scene as the sound of battle arises behind the building just ahead. Zai leaps onto the nearby roof of a taller building to get a better look. Beyond, she sees that the main body of zombies is attacking a woman, who stands in a doorway in a defensive crouch against the zombie horde. Hoping to confuse the zombies, Zai casts an illusionary smoke cloud over the melee. Bal climbs onto an adjacent rooftop, taking up a sniper’s position. Still jogging after the trailing zombies, Bernard dispatches number two with another thunderous punch, and Anna Mae sorrowfully blows away the third (Anna Mae talks softly, but she carries a big triple-barreled shotgun). As Bernard and Anna Mae stride toward the melee, Providence circles around in the other direction, hoping to flank the zombies in a pincer move.
The thick cloud of illusory smoke, a good idea in concept, only thwarts the aim of those firing into the melee; Providence (on the ground) and Bal (above) both shoot without hitting a target. From her perch, Zai hurls a knife into the melee, managing to graze one of the zombies. Bernard charges directly into the cloud, punching left, right, and center. Seeing the tactical problems Zai’s smoke is causing, Anna Mae rushes in to fan it away with a notebook, but being illusory, the cloud only swirls stubbornly in place. With a ZORCH, a zombie flies out of Zai’s obscuring cloud and collapses into the street, part of its head missing. Someone inside the cloud is handily ZORCHING zombies.
Stopping short of Zai’s cloud, the Death Marshall slings his coffin from his back and, with a bullwhip gesture, hurls it into the zombie melee. The coffin flies through the air, the lid creaks open, and the coffin snaps shut around a zombie. With a practiced jerk, the Marshall hauls on the coffin chain, bringing the fabulous monster-trap slamming back in place across his back. “Gotcha.”
Providence steps into the street, dumbfounded. “THAT’S AMAZING! SHOW ME HOW THAT WORKS!”
Standing inside the swirling cloud, Bernard punches another zombie into the ground. With a ZORCH, the last of the zombies flies past him through the smoke, a hole blasted clear through its chest. As the cloud finally dissipates, a tall, lovely blonde woman straightens from her defensive stance. Ragged tears in her street clothes reveal well-tended clockwork armor beneath. It’s Collette’s volunteer from the audience back at the Star Theatre; the bag Collette had borrowed for her first trick is strapped across the blonde woman’s back.
The Death Marshall steps up. “Ms. Hannah Lovelace of the Freikorps, I believe?”
Hannah nods, her searching gaze landing on Anna Mae. Her expression changes from defensiveness to excitement tinged with awe. “Are … are you Anna Mae Hawkins? The Anna Mae Hawkins?”
Unsettled, unused to any kind of attention or recognition, Anna Mae says, “Um. Yeeeess….?”
Hannah gestures excitedly with her hands and starts to gush. “Oh, oh! I read your monograph on the relationship between Bayou Pigs and Gremlins. Brilliant work.” Hannah immediately engages Anna Mae in a dense academic discussion that excludes the rest of those assembled.
The Death Marshall takes this opportunity to introduce himself to the others as Wade Norris. Providence invades his space and immediately tries to open the coffin chained to his back, but the Death Marshall shoves her away without malice. Inside the coffin, he says, is an interdimensional portal that will swallow them all, so better not to touch. Intensely interested, Providence mutters a vow; she will satisfy her curiosity about the device at some future time.
After finishing her conversation with Anna Mae, Hannah takes Bal briefly aside to hiss something in his ear, then turns her attention to the Death Marshall and the zombies. Although they all take a gander at the zombie-like, but not undead, bodies, it’s Providence who ultimately determines that the creatures are human beings suffering an unknown disease.
When the heroes return to the Star Theatre, Lucius greets them, thanks them, and flips each of the heroes a silver half-scrip-piece before leaving with Norris.
Act 2: The Performance
Before the heroes have really regained their bearings, a stern-faced majordomo ushers them to their lodgings – a six-person bunkroom. Zai is appalled by the quarters and immediately demands an upgrade. The majordomo, a stout, no-nonsense woman with a puckered face, says that all newcomers start at this basic level of room and board, and must earn better lodgings over time. “You should thank your patron, Lucius Mattheson,” she says, her voice strict (and bored). “You could be starting your brilliant careers in the basement, with the rat-catchers, the vomit-swabbers, and the cooks.” The majordomo’s grim smile implies (at least jokingly) that these jobs may all be part of the same gastronomic system.
Providence gulps. “The theater has rats?”
The majordomo offers a thin smile. “Why else would we need rat-catchers?”
The heroes disperse, each in their own way trying to understand the room and board situation, as the cast and crew bustle around the theatre preparing for the evening show. An hour before curtain, the owner of the theater, Collette, gives an inspiring speech about the singular Star Theatre, how the cast and crew are collectively responsible for her fame and success, her reputation, her future. While some of the heroes (Zai, for instance) recognize that Collette is cribbing from the St. Crispin’s Day monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Bal and Anna Mae are nonetheless extremely affected. (All of the heroes know they must perform well this evening, or they’ll be bunking on top of one another, possibly also sharing space with an unknown population of bed bugs – so, the stakes are pretty high.)
With Collette’s rousing speech still ringing in her ears, Anna Mae has an attack of stage nerves. Most of the time, stage fright leaves a person hampered in their performance, but Anna Mae’s nerves turn her into Super-Duper Usher Extraordinaire! When the lobby doors open, Anna Mae kindly and efficiently helps an elderly couple to their seats, afterward making especially friendly and engaging conversation with Lucius as she escorts him to the Governor-General’s box. He’s so impressed that he gives Anna Mae a standing invitation to join him at the palace for tea.
Meanwhile, the other heroes have their own tasks to perform. Bal deals with a drunken citizen who insists he’s been invited to sit with Lucius in the Governor-General’s box (hint: he hasn’t). Providence, in her turn, quickly masters the complex ropes and pulleys of the backstage apparatus and performs her tasks with accuracy and vigor. And, finally, Zai, having tried (and failed) to coax the chief Artist Mage at the Star Theatre into magicking up a custom backdrop, selects a prefabricated (but still nice) galaxy backdrop for her illusionist act.
As the evening’s show begins, the ballerinas from the previous night’s show take the stage, pirouetting on their strange (in some cases deadly) toe-shoes. One of the ballerinas turns an ankle, and Providence bandages it, subtly using her healing powers to repair the injured joint. Meanwhile, Anna Mae sneaks a tardy audience member to his seat mid-performance against the house’s strict seating rules, and Bal forcibly evicts a heckler with the butt of his trusty rifle.
After the ballerinas, the musicians, and the comedians have performed, Bernard stands in front of the stage curtain and asks for a volunteer to fight him. “Toughest opponent I ever had was a Bayou Pig. Any pigs out there?” A huge, bald mountain of a man climbs onto the stage, half drunk, but with mean eyes; Bernard says, “You’re no pig, but I guess you’ll do,” and lays the bald mountain flat on the stage with a single, gleeful punch. As stage hands carry the unconscious man away, the maroon velvet curtain rises, revealing a series of obstacles for Bernard to punch through: a plaster wall, a wooden wall, and a brick wall. Bernard effortlessly slams his rope-wrapped fist through all three walls. To his delight, behind the brick wall stands a raging, snorting, stinking Bayou Pig (which Providence, earlier in the show, wrestled into place as part of her job). Bernard yelps with glee, EXCELLENT, and attacks the pig in a whirlwind of punches. With a 1-2-3 flurry, Bernard wallops the pig to its porky knees, and, to thunderous applause, knocks the pig out cold.
The stage is cleared, and an expectant hush drops over the audience. Zai steps on stage, acknowledges the audience with an enigmatic bow, and starts juggling knives. To prove that her knives are real, with a coquettish tilt of her masked face, she flips a knife into the audience and skewers a man’s shirt sleeve to the armrest of his chair. As the audience gasps, Zai manifests more and more knives, some real, some illusory, and on one dancing, showy tumble through a flaming hoop of knives, the galaxy backdrop she so carefully chose before the show collapses, revealing another: a magnificent golden sunset. Artfully, Zai dodges the falling galaxy backdrop, only to feel her foot slip on a slick floorboard. An accident? Or is it sabotage? She incorporates the slip into her dance, sending her flaming, singing knives into rotating sheets of glistening, deadly rain. Mid-backflip, Zai senses unfamiliar motion and instinctively catches a rogue dagger between her palms—not one of her own, but a sharp steel projectile thrown at her face from stage right. Zai successfully flips the enemy knife into her act, but it’s clear to her that the dagger was meant to kill her. In the wings, a shadow flits and flies away. At the end of her act, as is her way, Zai moves her mask aside, briefly revealing her face to the audience.
The audience leaps to its feet in an ovation. As the shouting, awed crowd disperses, they argue amongst themselves. Zai was a blonde, a brunette, blue hair, pink hair, tattooed, dragon-faced, face of an angel—they can only agree that they’ve never seen a face like hers before. It was magical, breathtaking.
When the audience is gone, and the house lights come up, Collette rewards each of the tired heroes with an advance note of scrip and graciously upgrades their room and board. Small, but private rooms and a seat at the regular mess hall table (no rat stew, after all, for our heroes).
By dinnertime, Anna Mae, Bal, Bernard, Providence, and Zai are officially cast and crew of the Star Theatre, the greatest show in all Malifaux!