These Words Within Me Burn

We played This Heart Within Me Burns by Sam Dunnewold this week, in which we play three adventurers who journey to the House of the Empty Goddess seeking to have a curse removed from one of our number. Jul is the accursed, a former circus performer who is always seeking another thrill, her mind now flooded with memories that are not her own. She is accompanied by Maggs, a former prisoner who once caused a man’s death and swears he’ll never be caged again, and Torcha, a former midwife seeking the woman who stole a young child she had ushered into this world.

Cover of This Heart Within Me Burns showing a red heart aflame.
Cover image for This Heart Within Me Burns from Story Synth.

It is Torcha’s thirst for revenge that leads to Jul’s curse, when she guides us into the lair of a hermit who has studied the lost tongues and been driven mad by the curse he discovered in them. Jul reads his notes before Torcha can and is struck down by the curse herself. Wracked by guilt for being so selfish, Torcha performs her usual ritual prayer after the adventure, lighting the incense candles while Maggs watches on silently. Maggs begins having to protect us from Jul during the night because she rises to attack us in her sleep, and when the memories overwhelm Jul, she speaks in strange ancient languages. Jul fears that she may never get to try her gliding suit, but otherwise thinks the new memories may be useful, may allow her to help others, a change in attitude that pleases Torcha. With her mind flooded with these ancient memories, we must go to the House of the Empty Goddess to appeal to she who empties the overflowing and fills the empty. Jul worries about the rumors of people being left empty husks, but what choice do we have. The memories flowing through her frighten us all, especially Maggs, who see them as the voices of the dead, at least one of whom has reason to want him dead too.

While the curse is not all gloom—Maggs no longer being dragged on Jul’s adrenaline runs and Torcha finding herself seeking hope and thinking less of revenge—Jul is often haunted by nightmarish memories and depends on Maggs to ground her. One day in a large city, while Maggs hides from the authorities, Jul goes running along the rooftops and ends up arrested, but Torcha uses her investigative contacts to free her. Another time on the road, we meet a traveling monk who will take nothing from us but bread and water, but who insists the curse is a conduit to lost knowledge from the long dead. Are we in danger from those who would take that knowledge? Each of us thinks of what could happen. Maggs thinks about losing his friends as well as his freedom. Torcha reflects on the terror of losing one’s mind and self of self. Jul remembers the fantastic stories told about her future by fortune-tellers at the circus after her parent’s abandoned her. She extracts a promise from Maggs to end her suffering if her mind goes completely, if she can no longer be saved.

At last, we reach the House of the Empty Goddess, an emotional moment. Torcha confesses to Maggs her fear that the curse will infect the Goddess. Maggs is comforted by an acolyte of the Goddess who tells him, “Be not afraid,” when she sees him worrying over having to fulfill his promise to Jul. And Jul herself fears that the only way to rid her of the curse will be for it to infect someone else. Inside, Jul is laid upon an altar in the center of a circle of acolytes of the Empty Goddess. They perform a ritual that calls forth a Babel of voices from her, each voice a memory and each spread among the gathered acolytes, diffusing the knowledge and making it both comprehensible and safe. Jul recovers and returns to her life of adventure, but more cautious now, though she is still occasionally plagued by nightmares. Just as Jul is emptied of the unwanted memories, a hole in Torcha’s knowledge is filled: the child lives, and she senses where she must go next in her search.