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.

This Horror Within Me Burns

Our game this week is This Heart Within Me Burns by Sam Dunnewold on the StorySynth engine in which we adventurers confront a curse and journey to seek a cure. We are Alada, a young traveler who adventures to see the world; Baylee, a farmer’s son who set out to support his family and earn their love; and Maris, a sailor and gambler who adventures to get out from under crushing debts. At the end of our last adventure, Baylee was cursed and now the veil between our world and the nether realms is weakening, seeping through into our world wherever he goes. Periodically, especially if he stays in one place too long, horrors enter our world and threaten our lives. We must travel to the temple known as the House of Empty Goddess seeking a cure, a ritual to remove the curse.

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

Our journey begins with Alada thinking of the promise Baylee made to keep her secrets, fearful about losing her friend, and what that will mean for her future. Maris thinks of the sea monsters she has seen and shudders to think how they pale in horror to the things that creep out from the nether realms. Baylee wishes he had some protection from them, but is too distrustful of magic to ask for wards to be cast upon him. When we encounter another traveler, Maris collects clams to serve him, but after eating, the traveler quickly departs, muttering about how creepy we are, words that disturb and worry Maris. While Baylee appreciates the protection and care his companions offer, he remains dedicated to his family above all else, so he is resistant when Maris leads them to the temple and away from his family. Maris convinces him that Baylee would be endangering his family in his current state, and so they head directly north toward the House of the Empty Goddess. Alada is relieved because she sees how corrupted and frightening Baylee’s appearance has become as the nether realms suffuse his soul, leaving him blackened and shadowed at all hours of the day.

Maris delays us for a few days in a seaside town, gambling with the locals, winning away sea treasures for herself. Baylee recalls the night he spent before reuniting with Alada and Maris before our last adventure, asleep in that room above the tavern, excitedly anticipating the day to come. He also recalls how this time, they never went to the tavern for their celebratory drink, and he never got the chance to send anything home through the moneychangers. On the third day at the seaside, a malevolent squid monster emerges from the sea, reminding us that to stay in one place with this curse means death. Alada can hardly believe how much faith Baylee has that the cure will come, as she begins to succumb to despair, fearing our quest is impossible. Perhaps the trip won’t be wasted if she can receive a blessing from Empty Goddess, but she’s disturbed when Maris confesses seeing glimpses of the nether realms through a haze behind Baylee.

As they approach the temple, Baylee is feeling the loss of the years away from his family that he’s spent adventuring, and fears most of all losing himself and his loved ones. Alada fears the curse will overcome Baylee and she will lose her friend. Maris believes they will lift the curse at the temple, but fears the horrors may be unleashed upon us all. A priestess greets them at the temple and takes Baylee inside, leaving Alada and Maris to camp outside, waiting. And they must wait a month before the priestess again emerges with Baylee, who now is shaved bare and wearing white robes. He seems disoriented and naive, like a newborn child, and doesn’t remember them very well. While Alada misses the friend who was, Maris is just happy he is free, and we begin the journey to return Baylee to his family.

This Brain Within Me Burns

This week we played This Heart Within Me Burns by Sam Dunnewold from the StorySynth Gallery in which we play a troupe of adventurers who travel to the House of the Empty Goddess seeking to have a curse removed from one of our number. We are Imogene the fire-eating acrobat, Sigurd the unbathed Ratcatcher, Wes the orphaned Smith, Aramis the half-elven Minstrel, Wyn Stormborn the merchant turned Priest, and the curse-afflicted Jessica the Ranger. The curse has ransacked Jessica’s perception, leaving her face blind, but the condition is worsening as she forgets not only faces but common words, and perhaps eventually much more.

We’re traveling through rocky, scrubby hills during the humid months toward the House of the Empty Goddess. Few venture through this desolation, but Jessica fares well for she spent months in the Temple of the Silent One five years ago, so the curse has yet to isolate her. Imogene recalls the child Martina, who lived at the same boardinghouse she did before leaving for adventure, and the promises she made to return. Sigurd secretly blames himself for the curse upon Jessica, believing that when he abandoned his post as ratcatcher out of pique at city officials, the creatures have spread this curse wide. Wes is the first to notice when Jessica fails to recognize everyday objects, calling a spoon a sword, and confides his worries in Wyn. Aramis hopes this curse will teach us all a lesson about the dangers of arrogance and entitlement; we need some humbling, he thinks.

Imogene the acrobat balances a candle on top of a ball on top of her knees. In the background, another image of Imogene touching her foot to her head.

Wyn is at a loss, unable to use his magics to minister to us, he must learn to exercise compassion despite his faith not valuing such softness. When we stop in a small town, Imogene cooks a crème brûlée for a weary traveller but is haunted by his exclamation about the dangers of fire. Sigurd is wracked with guilt over his belief that he caused this plague that has swept up his comrade. Aramis, taking one for the team, entreats Sigurd to take a bath, but the ratcatcher remains unbathed. Wes remembers when he almost lost Wyn when the mountain trolls attacked and worries now about losing Jessica. Unbeknownst to us, Jessica knows whence the curse came, for tis the same calamity that befell her father after an angry client vowed that her father and all his line would suffer before he too began to forget faces, then objects, people, then everything.

The entire group becomes increasingly worried about Jessica, except perhaps Sigurd who is blinded by guilt and regrets ever leaving his work to go adventuring. Imogene has stopped using fire around Jessica, fearing that she might grab a flaming candle thinking it a comb or axe. Aramis regrets never having confessed his love to Jessica before it was too late. One morning, as the group is breaking camp, we discover that Jessica has scattered our items about the site in a crude circle, believing that Sigurd’s shoe and other items are swords, so Wyn walks Jessica into the trees to allow the group to complete the packing without her seeing the mistakes she has made. Wes used to celebrate each of our victories with a commemorative sword, but can’t imagine what to make for this adventure. Jessica feels that our bringing the Queen of Silence to mediate in the Elven-Dwarven War was worth it, despite her returning accursed, because it did some actual good in the world.

As we approach the House of the Empty Goddess, we’re each alone with our thoughts and our fears: that it will all be for naught, that we’ll have to trick the Goddess to help, that the Goddess is a myth and can offer nothing, that Jessica will worsen. In the temple, the priestess places Jessica inside an iron casket and asks us each to make a sacrifice to our Lady. If she deem the sacrifices worthy, then the curse will be lifted. Wes gives up his finest sword, Sigurd sacrifices his honor and agrees to bathe at last, Imogene sacrifices the candle she’s promised Martina, Wyn will retire to a monastery and make sacrifices to his god and to the Goddess daily, and Aramis will sacrifice his quest to master magic. Jessica explains about the family curse and agrees to give up her quest to become legendary if the curse is lifted. As we leave the temple, Jessica seemingly restored, Aramis begins to sing the love song he wrote for Jessica and the credits roll as the song continues to play.