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!