CONTEXT/RATIONALE: Finally. At last. The second of the Troll Trials – the Saga Contest. Contestants will travel into the Near Dreaming to encounter a story. Later, as their memories fade, they will recount their adventure and the best story will win the Trial. The players need to be aware of the rules for the Near Dreaming (especially the danger of real death) and the concept of the Dreaming Realms. This is our first real adventure in the Near Dreaming, so the pressure is on to make it memorable and distinctive.
After sending Fergus and Malbeth off with the book of shadow, Sir Gawaine realises most of the other trolls have left on their saga quests. Bors of Ganis is still making final preparations and agrees to travel with Gawaine and seek a story together. Thora is accompanying Gawaine as his squire and Dodinel the Savage, as a chimerical ranger, is going as their guide.
Beyond Lot’s Grotto, the Rath opens out onto the forested valleys of Dreaming Bedegraine. The first landmark is the Cauldron of Annwvyn, a gigantic crater where the trail descends firewards and earthwards into the smoking depths. Most of the other trolls descended here, but the heroes press on. Bors wants to see the Great Cog, a titanic wheel half a mile high that emerges from mountains. Dodinel has heard of a wizard, Sigurth, who knows the secrets of the titanic machinery that is part of the landscape of Bedegraine. Gawaine would like to find the secret Trod out of Bedegraine he discovered at One Tree Hill.
Discovering tracks the indicate Carados of Escoce and Cei Hir may be lying in ambush, they decide to leave the trail. Dodinel uses Hopscotch to ascend the mountain and drop ropes for the others. From up above their can see the great volcanoes firewards, the great glaciers frostwards and they spot one of Morgause’s wyverns flying at speed towards the Great Cog. The cog is an amazing sight, but a tremor under the other suggests it might actually be ready to move again. Centuries have passed since last this baffling machine rotated and whole forests have grown across its lower expanses while a great glacier covers its upper reaches where it disappears into a vast cavern in the mountainside. Bors surmises it is part of the Unseelie machinery of the Dreaming that moves the realms about and powers the Trods.
Closer to the Great Cog there is another tremor and the Cog shakes, sending enormous icicles hung from its underside crashing to the valley floor. Morgause’s wyvern has entered the great cavern into which the Cog extends. Using Hopscotch, Dodinel and Bors try to leap the dizzying gap, holding on to Thora and Gawaine – but they fall short! Dodinel fires an arrow tied to a rope into the side of the Cog; it supports his weight and Gawaine’s, but not Bors and Thora too. Gawaine perceives the arrow’s true name – Holdfast – and uses Willow Whisper and Dictum to command it to bear their weight. The doughty arrow-head catches on the rim of the Cog and bears their weight for a few more moments as they leap to safety. In gratitude Gawaine knights it as Sir Holdfast.
The heroes struggle on up the Great Cog and enter the ice cave. Here a strange tower is built into the top-most ‘tooth’ of the Great Cog, a tower of salvaged machine parts on a larger-than-human scale. Tame perytons are stabled nearby and the occupant is in the process of evacuating. Raised voices come from a balconied room on the first floor, so Gawaine sneaks in to investigate. He passes cardboard boxes of machine parts labelled ‘study’, ‘living room’ and ‘den’ and identifies one of the voices above as his mother, Morgause. In the room above, Queen Morgause (who evidently flew here in wyvern-form) is confronting the seer Sigurth, a half-mechanical giant who is pleading for his life. A great dial on the wall shows that barely a minute remains until the Great Cog starts to turn again and everything on or near it will be ground to atoms, but Morgause will not let him leave until he has performed a service for her. She has a riddle she needs solving
Unlorded, true lord
Unmanned, above men
Swordless, true sword
Unsame to rule again
Sigurth fumblingly puts the sheet into a cylinder which slips into the glass tubing that crisscrosses the room and a whoosh of air carries it around and down into the depths of the Cog. Sigurth is frantic now and the whole Cog is starting to shudder and shriek; the perytons take flight in terror but Morgause is unyielding: she wants her answer.
With seconds to go, the cylinder comes whooshing back, rattling through the glass pipes, round and round the room. Gawaine rushes in, shatters a pipe and the message shoots out and into Morgause’s hand.
“Gawaine, dear boy: do take care!” She blows him a kiss, turns into a wyvern and flies away. When she reads the riddle’s answer, she will know who Thora is.
The grinding is deafening. Dodinel leaps back into the room to rescue Gawaine, but it’s too late: the Great Cog is about to turn.
Gawaine’s response is pure hubris. From Sigurth’s hysterical shrieks he perceives the Great Cog’s true name and uses it as a Bunk to speak with the gear itself and command it to give him ten more seconds. There’s a sanity crushing squeal as the gears of the universe stall, the whole Cog vibrates bringing Sigurth’s soothsay device crashing down and everyone rushes down the stairs and out of the gate. The Cog starts turning and the tooth on which the tower was built tips back, shearing away the tower and pulverising it. The next tooth below them is now rising up towards them. They slide down their tooth’s flank to the bottom land between the teeth where Bors and Thora are cowering, and press themselves flat. They rise up to the very top of the Cog’s rotation then start to descend down past it, emerging into the Otherwhere where the machinery of creation is laid bare. They can cover their eyes or look, so they look. Gawaine covers Thora’s eyes, but she bites his fingers and she looks too.
They behold the Unseelie Vision, chance and destiny revealed as an uncomprehending machine. They see the wheels and gears of nations, the pumping machinery of history, the pistons driving realms and noble houses. They see people they know as wheels and gears within larger machines. They see their own cogs. They see, briefly, how they fit in to the great machine.
Thora sees her own cog. She smiles grimly then laughs. It is not what she thought.
Dodinel sees his wheel, locked into the turning of Korrigan’s gear, turning smaller and larger wheels that trigger changes and movements far across the machine, in the wheels of werewolves, vampires and mages. He is significant. The Iron Mask of Despair comes loose at last and he can take it off.
Gawaine sees the Darkness that lurks within the machine, that spreads through the pumps and pulleys and taints the machinery. He understands that the Darkness has seen him. He has beheld the True Enemy. He looks for allies but sees the Darkness surrounding Queen Guinevere; he looks for enemies, but Morgan La Fey is nowhere to be found, only an empty space where her gears should be. He doesn’t understand.
Bors sees only a soulless machine, a world of automata where none of his struggles have any meaning. He covers his face and his Unseelie Legacy emerges.
Now death is upon them. Another giant cog hoves into view, its teeth interlocked with the Great Cog to which they cling. One such tooth, the size of a castle, grinds down into the gap in which they lie, blocking out the light, its pitiless blank expanse lowering on top of them. Quickly, Dodinel pulls off the iron mask and lays it beside them like a conical metal buttress. The other gear makes contact with it and the most awful sound shrills through their souls as the two unimaginably vast gears of fate lurch, stall, then keep turning. The other gear’s tooth rises away, scratched and scored, but the mask is unharmed.
With a terrible crash the wheel comes to a halt. The Great Cog stands at rest at one end of a staggeringly huge underground gallery. Waterfalls tumble from the heights, spinning rainbows across a Cyclopean chamber straddled with girders and gantries, ladders and pulleys, and piping, lots of piping rattling and hissing, belching clouds of steam into the emptiness, the huge industrial bowels of a great hydraulic factory.
Sigurth has also fallen into his Unseelie legacy – the craven. However, threats focus the wizard’s mind and he identifies the realm as Dreaming Surluse, deep in the bowels, in the forgotten factories where King Arthur’s arsenal was once forged.
A metal voice calling for help takes them to an injured robot, a cog-person with no legs, trapped on a high gantry. This robot, ‘Tickertape’, is a survivor of ‘R-Heimdall’, the Heimdall Regiment which guards the factories. Tickertape’s squad was attacked by ‘Insurgent Prime’ along with “cannibalised units from R-Loki and R-Freya”. Trapped on this gantry when the Great Cog started to move, Tickertape has been using the telephone in its chest cavity to call for help from its regiment.
Tickertape directs the heroes to a fortified crossroads in the tunnels where ‘Captain Champagne’ of R-Odin outlines matters. Insurgent Prime has been commandeering units and compromising whole stretches of the factory. R-Loki has defected en masse to Designation: Enemy and most of R-Freya has been subverted. As enemy units approach, Dodinel uses Sir Holdfast to capture a Loki unit. Examining it, they realise its pumps and oil tubes are carrying dark viscous blood. Designation: Enemy must be none other than Alexandyr the Dragon-Vampire, in which case Insurgent Prime is Lancelot, now Unseelie and working with his erstwhile enemy.
Cap. Champagne prepares to escort the changelings to Command HQ but Thora turns back, collecting Tickertape and commanding the other cog-people to fight to 30% casualties then fall back rather than being exterminated. Gawaine approves of this new strand of leadership in her character. Rocket propelled trolley-cars take them at high speed along rails to the HQ, where medical units of R-Odin and repairing injured cog-people. The generals are Darling of R-Heimdall and Eye of R-Odin and they show Gawaine the map of the complex. They’ve sent an ineffective message up to Prince Gallehault (“things looking a bit wobbly down here sir!”) so Gawaine commandeers a phone to speak to the Prince in person. Despite Gallehaut’s mistrust (after the events of Dragonfall in the Shard) he persuades the unhurried Prince to investigate the forgotten factories where a threat to his realm is building.
Bors goes for medical treatment in the infirmary and has cybernetic gears added to his armour and Fae mien. The nurses also offer to remove Bors’ troubling dark secret from his mind and store it externally, which the Unseelie Bors agrees to.
Thora and Dodinel discover that the only hope of defeating Alexandyr’s legions rests with activating the Thor Regiment and heavy infantry units, who can in turn control the Mjollnir Regiment of bombardiers. The location of Thor Regiment is not known, but they do identify the central archive where such data will be stored. Unfortunately it’s in territory controlled by Alexandyr. Knowing that the vampire does not allow his precious blood to be lost and goes to great lengths to recapture fallen units, they concoct a plan.
Bors takes a rocket trolley deep into enemy territory. When he comes across a picket of R-Freya units blocking the tracks with sandbags he launches a stealth attack, quickly dispatching them and collecting their blood. He then uses a survivor’s torso-phone to call Alexandyr in person and announce his presence. Alexandyr ominously promises they will soon meet in person. Bors sets about fortifying his position. When a troop of R-Loki units arrive to set up a perimeter he uses Meteora to confuse their leader about his identity and re-programs them to attack Lancelot when he arrives.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Gawaine, Dodinel and Thora arrive at the Archive, a multi-storey library served by hydraulic lifts. They hide from cyber-bats sent out by Alexandyr to locate intruders. They appear to succeed in eluding the bats, but Gawaine experiences some lost time. The location of the Thor Regiment is discovered – right underneath the Archive itself. They prepare to descend.
Bors is ready for Lancelot when he arrives and the re-programmed cog-people catch Lancelot off-guard. This enables Bors to coat his enemy in fire extinguisher foam then use Meteora again to freeze it. Lancelot still lands a mighty blow before he is frozen and Bors is left with a few rounds to get Lancelot into a trolley and across to one of the great steam vents, where he tips the cart into the furnaces below. The heat melts the ice instantly, but Lancelot plummets into the smoke and out of sight. Bors then heads back to the Archive.
Down in the barracks, the massed ranks of Thor Regiment units sleep on. Gawaine finds himself gripped by an odd compulsion: he reaches out to use a torso phone and patches through to Alexandyr. He realises he has been manipulated by the vampire’s power of Dominate and now the enemy is only minutes away. Thora commands the robots to awake, but to no avail. As the hydraulic lift starts to descend towards them, she tries pleading and cajoling but the robots sleep on. Gawaine takes up a defensive position with his solar shield and Dodinel notches his bow. However, when the doors open in a cloud of steam, the lift contains a solitary R-Loki insurgent unit, weighed down with explosives. “DIE::FLESHY::ONES” reads its tickertape before it explodes, bowling Gawaine over and flinging Dodinel to the back of the room.
Dodinel recovers enough to see a platform being lowered down the wrecked lift shaft: a group of R-Loki scouts fan out into the room; two of them seize Thora. The platform is descending again, this time bringing Alexandyr down. From his prone position Dodinel reads the designations on the sleeping heavy infantry units: R-THOR. He realises what the command protocol is and calls out to Thora. The girl wriggles free of one robot and calls out to the sleeping regiment:
“R-THOR, your long sleep is over. R-THOR, the realm needs us. I am R-THOR. Accept my designation. Comply!”
R-THOR! The heavy infantry units light up, their eyes flashing. R-THOR! The regiment roars its designation in compliance. R-THOR! As one, their chain guns rise and erupt into life, blazing down the R-Loki units, pulverising the lift shaft and forcing Alexandyr’s retreat.
In the chamber above, Bors has watched Alexandyr descend into the shaft. Now he sees another figure among the ranks of R-Loki cog-people. It is Alexandyr’s merlin, the sorceress Malegea. Bors’ memory stirs, despite being sealed in the clockwork chip the nurses removed from his brain. He leaps from the balcony and seizes her in his arms. She is mechanical, half-Fae and beautiful.
“Bors! You came back!”
He kisses her, reaches out with Corbin’s Claw and tears a hole through the Dreaming into the Otherwhere, allowing them both to fall through together.
EVALUATION: I enjoyed this so much I’ve taken the time to write it up in detail. For me, this is where Changeling finally came together, both thematically as a game and as a chronicle. Here we have Cog People, Thora starting to be Arthur (or R-Thor) and actual honest-to-goodness Swashbuckling. Thanks to everyone [and an Acting Point to Nick]. Wait till next episode!