Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Circle of Seven: Session Five

Tuesday, November 18, 1924

This is one of the days that the Heartfire Church has one of their open house/public worship services at noon. The investigators prepare themselves to visit the church and take the measure of what they are sure is an evil cult. After some discussion of whether to split up, spy on the proceedings, and other things, they all resolve to go to the church like normal people and see what there is to be seen. Val, for reasons known only to her, ditches her newsie outfit for a nice dress, heels, a clutch, and makeup.

Dr. Miller goes on to say that he will bring a “small” amount of money—$300, to be precise—which he plans to give as a charitable donation to the church. He will also promise to give the church more money in the future. He hopes this will ingratiate the group with the church and make it easier for them to conduct investigations.

The other investigators are shocked that Dr. Miller thinks $300 is a small amount of money.

Prior to going to the service, the investigators go over what they know and consult Fresno’s journals, the remaining old newspapers in the house, and several other sources. Val finds an article about the missing girl that Leatherman Hobbes mentioned: Molly Scott. Father Wilk and Dr. Miller find some of Fresno’s notes on the church’s odd background.

The Article on Molly Scott's Disappearance

“It was founded a few years ago and, while still small, has steadily accumulated new converts. It operates out of a refurbished barn on the north end of town and seems largely focused on missionary and charity work. It seems to be an outgrowth of the spiritual movement and has some bizarre philosophies as a result. It claims that, millions of years ago, a kingdom of enlightenment, magic, and future technology existed on the sun. Some of the people living in this city are spiritually immortal—dying countless times only to be reborn into new lives. The church leaders are, of course, two such individuals. Through meditation and other practices, they seek to find other people who are, unbeknownst to them, also immortal solar royalty. They also want to recover their people’s lost technology and share it with Earth.”

Dr. Miller is frankly aghast at Fresno’s description and doesn’t quite believe that people could believe such a stupid thing.

Dale seems increasingly nervous and pale the more the others discuss the church. When prompted by Dr. Miller, he briefly describes a past trauma. He was once employed at an ironworks. During his time there, a strange man, hired by the plant manager, began tinkering with and adding runes to one of the furnaces. The furnace later exploded, killing people and causing massive damage. Dale was sure he saw the runes on the furnace glowing, as well as a burning figure walking around inside the furnace before he fled from the scene. When he tried to return to work later, he and all his surviving coworkers found the ironworks had been razed to the ground.

Dale further speculates that the church may be connected to the Book of Black Tourmaline.

Inside the Church

The investigators travel to the church (Martin on horseback, the rest by car). They find the church’s complex to be pleasant and inviting. The refurbished barn is the focal point, but there are other outbuildings, including a storage shed, three stone dome huts each with a sturdy door and three chimneys, as well as some outhouses tastefully hidden behind fragrant bushes. There is also a whitewashed brick tower on the property, which, strangely, lacks a roof.

Going inside, the investigators are welcomed most courteously by the church members, all of whom are dressed in pastel robes with hoods. The investigators are invited to take coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and various baked goods which have been laid out on nearby tables. They feed themselves, mingle, and try to learn as much as they can.

The investigators notice two young women who are obviously identical twins, sitting on a bench in the back of the church, holding hands, and giggling to one another. Dr. Miller recognizes them as Tabitha and Madeline Thornhill, socialites and scions of the wealthiest family in town. 

Tabitha and Madeline Thornhill (aka. Aphelion and Perihelion)

Val notices a knothole in the floor near a table of baked goods that opens out into a dark void. She realizes the barn has some kind of crawlspace or basement that is otherwise not immediately evident. She then surreptitiously drops one of her earrings into the hole in case she needs to navigate this unknown space later.

Most of the conversations among the churchgoers is banal, but the investigators overhear someone saying that they, “want to make the next step, because I’m sure I’m a prince of the sun!” There is further discussion about a purification ritual that the investigators do not understand.

Dale goes searching around for any occult symbols that might link the church to the Book of Black Tourmaline or his own supernatural experiences. While studying one of the church tapestries, he loses his balance and falls. Desperate to right himself, he grabs at the tapestry and pulls it off the walls. The nearby church members rush to his aid and get him some water. They seem utterly unbothered about the damaged tapestry.

Dr. Miller uses this distraction to approach the altar, which is a reclaimed table decorated with candles and copper bowls. He picks up one of the bowls and inspects it for any occult significance, only to be startled by the sudden arrival of a young woman who rings a gong. Dr. Miller is so surprised that he drops the bowl, which lets out an answering gong noise and causes everyone in the church to turn and stare at him. The young woman admonishes Dr. Miller until he picks up the bowl, puts it back on the altar, and moves over to the seating area.

The young woman rings the gong again and announces the two leaders of the church: Helios Rebecca and Alpha Solaris Maxima Est. The two women enter in splendid dresses, hats with cloth tops that resemble rising suns, and Isis-style capes. As the two women approach the altar to begin the service, Val recognizes Alpha Solaris as Ruth Green, a criminal who betrayed her some years prior. Fortunately, it seems as thought Ruth does not recognize her…

The Service

The service lasts about a half an hour and is filled with saccharine affirmations and mindless, repetitive chanting. To Dale, it seems both innocuous and unimaginative, as if written by someone who wanted to create a religious ceremony but who didn’t know the first thing about religion.

At the closing of the service, Alpha Solaris and Helios Rebecca welcome their new visitors (the investigators) to the church. They also thank the Thornhill sisters for providing the funds needed to pay for various land improvements and to construct a new building to help in their charity work.

With that, the ceremony ends, and everyone returns to mingling.

Helios Rebecca, Princess of the Sun

Helios and Alpha

Father Wilk approaches Helios Rebecca and discusses theology with her. He learns that she is a former Baptist who became enlightened during a séance. She insists her faith is “basically just like his,” citing the golden rule as one of the core tenets of her church. The conversation grows increasingly circular and convoluted, as Helios Rebecca either woefully misunderstands Christianity or is warping it to suit her needs.

When he presses her about whether or not the church recognizes God the Father, she smiles and says that, “of course she does, after all, Jesus died, rose again, and brought us divine wisdom because he was the First and Greatest Ruler of the Sun.”

This statement causes Father Wilk to nearly break down in incoherent, stuttering fury. Seeing this, Dr. Miller rushes to intervene, asking Helios Rebecca for some particulars about the church. He mentions that he is interested in providing a donation of $300, “with more on the way,” which causes Helios Rebecca to excitedly call Alpha Solaris over.

Most of the other investigators cluster around Dr. Miller—and Val hangs on his arm—so that they can more closely observe the two women during this exchange. Martin, meanwhile, leaves the church to go check on his horse.

Dr. Miller once again states that he would like to become a church benefactor, but that he has a few questions first. He would also like to see the church grounds. He notes the glint of avarice in the women’s eyes as they agree. He asks to have a moment to inform the rest of the investigators, which they grant him.

While Dr. Miller hastily talks with the others and establishes a game plan, Dale notices that Helos and Alpha are having their own private conversation by the altar. Listening in, he overhears that both women are giggling with excitement at, “swindling 300 simoleans outta these rubes!”

Alpha Solaris Maxima Est, Princess of the Sun (aka Ruth Green)

What Martin Saw

Martin brings Lincoln, his horse, over to the church’s well and draws him some water. While Lincoln drinks, Martin gives the outside of the church the once-over. He is particularly interested in the three stone dome buildings out back, which seem to have a lot of firewood stacked around them. He notices that these buildings have both door brackets and a large plank of wood leaning beside the door, which means that they can be easily barred from the outside.

Curious about this ominous discovery, Martin leaves his horse to investigate the nearest building. He finds the door unlocked. When he goes inside, he sees the building is a single room with three fireplaces and a stone floor, upon which even more firewood has been stacked. Martin realizes that this building, and likely the others, are saunas or sweat lodges of some kind.

He does not have a chance to do any further investigations, however, because an angry voice calls out from behind him. Martin turns to see a man in a worn coat and hat, a shovel slung over his shoulder. The man, who Martin eventually learns is the church’s groundskeeper, Zebulon Davis, tells Martin that these buildings are off limits to the public, and grumpily escorts him back to the church.

On the way back, Martin mentions that Lincoln is his horse. Zebulon complains about horse poop ruining the church grounds. The two men get into an argument about the efficacy of horse poop as a fertilizer.

Zebulon Davis, Groundskeeper (aka Brother Sol)

The Tour

The investigators regroup with the priestesses and start asking questions about the church and its history. They learn that both women realled their past lives during seances, seeking one another out, “as if by some mystical connection.” They seem fixated on finding other reincarnated solar spirits and bringing the technology of the kingdom of the sun to Earth. When asked by Ada, the women admit to wanting to build a dormitory on church property to make it easier for parishioners to meet, worship, and do good work.

Things take a turn when the investigators insist on interviewing the newest member of the church—the better to get a newcomer’s opinion of it. This seems to make both women nervous, and the investigators suspect that this is because Molly Scott was the newest member, before her disappearance.

Dr. Miller presses the matter, insisting on talking to the newest member before he gives them any money. Helios and Alpha try to politely rebuff and distract him, but it is clear that they are either angry or scared beneath their facades. Things look like they are about to get heated when Zebulon and Martin walk in, with Zebulon explaining that he found Martin over by the huts in the back.

Much to the investigators’, and Zebulon’s, astonishment, Alpha proclaims that the groundskeeper is the newest member of the church, and that he can give them the tour that they requested. Zebulon takes this in stride and says he’ll show them around. The two women depart and Zebulon conducts the tour, pointing out the fruit trees (which Helios Rebecca is absolutely crazy about), the ornamental shrubs, and similar. The roofless tower was, apparently, a grain silo that was too expensive to take down. Helios and Alpha had Zebulon whitewash it to make it look nice and hope to get enough donations to dismantle it sometime later.

After the tour, Dr. Miller asks if he can talk to Zebulon somewhere privately. Zebulon shrugs and invites him into the tool shed. Most of the investigators follow, with Martin and Saul going back to the cars.

In the Shed

Entering the shed, the investigators notice an empty wheelbarrow that has curious brown stains in the bottom of it. Ada is so unnerved by this discovery that she excuses herself to go to the cars and tell Saul and Martin what she’s seen. She stops along the way to officially thank and say goodbye to Helios and Alpha. The women say that the investigators are welcome back “anytime” and load Ada up with books and pamphlets about the Solar Kingdom.

In the shed, Dr. Miller starts laying out $20 bills in front of Zebulon and begins asking some very pointed questions about the church. Zebulon explains the following:

  • He is a member of the church and goes by the name, “Brother Sol.”
  • The two women live on the property, in private rooms at the back of the church.
  • The two women have a mysterious patron or backer, a man who Zebulon doesn’t know and who doesn’t live in Port Harbor. The man comes the first night of every month to meet with the women. He brings a briefcase and drives a very expensive car.

Dr. Miller asks Zebulon about Molly Scott and her disappearance. Zebulon says that he doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks that Molly ran off with some boy and may be living somewhere down the coast now. Bridgeport, maybe.

Based on what they know, and on the presence of dried blood in the wheelbarrow, the investigators suspect that Zebulon is lying.

Dr. Miller sighs and returns the money to his wallet. Zebulon looks stricken as he does so. Dr. Miller says, in an offhanded sounding way, that maybe someone close to the church knows what happened to Molly, and maybe they’re afraid of talking about it because they can’t get away. Dr. Miller insists that he is a good person, and that he will happily provide money for such a person to leave town in exchange for this information.

Zebulon cracks. He grabs Dr. Miller by the elbow and frantically spills his guts. He says that Molly is dead and that her body is buried here, on church property. He was too afraid to talk to the cops or the family during the initial investigation, and none of them were able to discover the body.

He goes on to say that he can’t leave just now, because doing so might make the priestesses suspicious. He says he can help the investigators sneak onto the property later and help them unearth Molly’s body.

When he is asked for more details, Zebulon draws a crude map on a scrap of paper. As he does so, he explains that Molly went through the church’s ritual of purification, which was supposed to help her regain her memories of her past lives. This ritual involves being put in one of the saunas for hours and hours at a time. Molly didn’t take it well. She had some kind of seizure and died before they could get her out. Helos and Alpha ordered Zebulon to bury Molly’s body under the stone floor of the middle sauna.

The investigators thank Zebulon for his help and propose to return later that night to do a little excavating.

Zebulon's Map, with the Investigators' Annotations


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The Circle of Seven: Session Four

An Odd Expression of Grief

Dale attempts to tackle Dr. Miller before he can reach Saul. This results in the two men rolling around on the carpet, ineffectually slapping at one another. Ada tries to coax Dr. Miller back to his senses while Father Wilk kneels in supplication before Val—who gamely goes along with it.

Father Wilk sees his deceased, former mentor, Father Anatoli, standing before him. Father Anatoli tells Father Wilk that there is darkness and evil in Port Harbor, and that he must be vigilant, so that he can take the fight to the corrupt, the degenerate, and the unbelieving.

The Late Father Anatoli

In the midst of all of this, Saul sneaks over to the door and lets himself out. This allows the sounds of the conflict to reach the main lobby of the bank. Saul sees that several people are already concerned, and Neil Letty (the bank manager) is already on his way to investigate, with another man at his side.

Saul insists that everything is all right, and that his companions are just having trouble processing their grief in the wake of Mr. Fresno’s death. The man with the bank manager introduces himself as Dr. John Brinkley, a psychiatrist. He tells Saul that he is available if he or his companions need treatment.

Dr. Brinkley steps away from the situation, but Neil Finney pushes onward into the conference room. Fortunately, both Dr. Miller and Father Wilk have recovered sufficiently by this point to at least put up a good façade. Dr. Miller tries to brush off the bank manager’s concerns, but he is having none of it. Father Wilk fares significantly better, however, when he rises to his full—nearly seven foot—height and commands the bank manager to leave. He does.

The investigators decide to leave the book in the bank for now. They also decide to go back to the Fresno place, so that they can rest and process what’s happened.

On their way out of the bank, Dr. Miller approaches Dr. Brinkley to see if he can learn more about the man. He finds Dr. Brinkley instantly unlikeable and impossible to read, but somehow familiar. A brief “conversation” between the doctors yields no new information about the man, other than that he has a practice in Westbrook and had come to Port Harbor to open a new bank account. Frustrated and exhausted, Dr. Miller is eventually convinced to leave the bank with the others.

Neil Letty, Manager of the 2nd National Bank

I’m Thinking Lincoln

The investigator reconvene at the Fresno residence and catch Martin up on what happened at the bank. Father Wilk describes his visitation. Dr. Miller apologizes and says that he has no memory of what occurred after he started reading from the book. Saul, who seems quietly, but extremely, affected by the incident, hides himself away from the others and tries to calm down.

It is nearly 5:00 pm, so Martin gets ready to go to the train station to pick up his horse. Dale offers to drive him in the Fresno car. At the station, the pair run into Charlie (of the Charlie Dog). They buy hot dogs and engage in pleasant conversation with Charlie. They learn that Charlie’s business is rather slow at the moment.

Dale has the idea to hire Charlie to set up shop at the Fresno place the following day to sell hot dogs to the investigators, the Detherages, and anyone else who happens to show up. Charlie is amused by this prospect and agrees. He also tells the players what he knows about Nicholas Fresno. This turns out not to be very much, as Fresno had no close friends in town apart from a hobo named “Leatherman” Hobbes, who wanders around a lot. Charlie also mentions that Fresno died hiking Ringrose Mountain, of an apparent heart attack, and that Hobbes was with him at the time.

Dale and Martin thank Charlie for the dogs and the information. They sign for Lincoln, Martin’s horse, and bring him to Crosstree Farms for stabling. They return to the Fresno house and share the information they got from Charlie with the others.

A Side of the Tracks

It is a cold, rainy, unpleasant November night, but the investigators decide that they should try to track down Mr. Hobbes as quickly as they can. They travel to Duchess Diner, which is near the train station, to both get a bite to eat and see if there are any hobos around that match Hobbes’ description.

After dinner, the investigators head out into the railyard near the station, where they find several hobos warming themselves around a large, burning drum. The hobos are skittish around the investigators and are uninterested in talking to them, at first. However, between some kind words from Dale and an offer of money from Martin, one of the hobos—a man named Carl—is convinced to open up.

Carl says that John “the Leatherman” Hobbes doesn’t ride the rails or come into town very much at all. Hobbes apparently walks a regular circuit that takes him as far west as Killingworth and as far east as East Lyme. He usually keeps away from populated areas, preferring to walk and camp out in the woods. Carl suggests that the investigators might have good luck poking around in the woods north of town. If Hobbes is in the area, that’s where he’ll be.

Up Ringrose Mountain

The investigators travel to Ringrose Mountain. It turns out to be a mostly civilized mountain with an attached park. There are numerous walking trails, campsites, and an observatory at the top.

The investigators are lucky to find two working flashlights in the back of the Fresno car. They take them out and shine them on a nearby map board. They learn that there is a large pavilion midway up the mountain. Since it is likely to be unoccupied and dry at this time of night, they decide to start looking there first.

A trip up the mountain paths in the chilly drizzle eventually leads the investigators to the pavilion. It is dark inside, but there are obvious signs that someone has been here recently. A small campfire has been lit in the massive firepit in front of the pavilion, with a bubbling tin of beans sitting on top of it.

The investigators call out for Hobbes and receive a nervous answer from somewhere deep inside of the pavilion. The investigators explain that they are the current heirs to the Fresno estate, and that they just want to have a talk. This coaxes Hobbes, a scruffy man clad in homemade leather garments, out into the firelight.

Jonathan "Leatherman" Hobbes

Over the course of a very spooky conversation with Hobbes, the investigators learn that he was with Frenso when he died. He claims that Fresno was killed by a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. He insists the investigators not believe the story they tell in town, about how Frenso died of a heart attack. It’s not true.

Hobbes also tells the investigators that Fresno was in the process of gathering evidence about a young woman who went missing. This woman was a member of the Heartfire Church, and Fresno was convinced that there was a connection. Hearing this makes the investigators even more determined to figure out what’s really going on at the church.

Dale asks if Hobbes would like to come and stay at the Fresno place, but he refuses. He says that, much like “the Wanderin’ Jew o’ legend,” he is cursed to wander by a strange power that he does not name. He tells the investigators his usual route, in case they need to find him to talk to him.

The investigators eventually take their leave of Hobbes, leaving him to his fire and beans. They walk back down the mountain trails to the car, with much to think about.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Circle of Seven: Session Three

Monday, November 17, 1924

The investigators, joined by the Detherages, once again descend on the Fresno house to continue the cleaning. Dr. Miller and Father Wilk take breaks to read Fresno’s journals, helpfully collated by Ada. Dr. Miller finds them discomfiting, but not unusual. As a psychiatrist, he has read stranger things. Father Wilk’s mind becomes a touch unbound from reality when perusing Fresno’s works. 

At some point in the morning, Ada, Dr. Miller, and a few others step out to get some groceries. They find a small market near Seben Haus—which turns out to be a seven-sided house that is also an historical landmark. They buy groceries without incident, but Dr. Miller does notice that a very well-dressed young lady, who is walking two tiny, fluffy dogs, gives his group a penetrating stare as she walks by. Dr. Miller is unsure whether or not he should be more intimidated by the woman or her dogs.

The Fancy Lady in Question

The phone rings. Saul answers it and learns that the caller is from Pierre, South Dakota, who is inquiring after Martin Craven. Upon being given the phone, Craven learns that his horse, Lincoln, will be arriving on the 5:10 train into Port Harbor. He thanks them kindly and hangs up.

A Barely Averted Altercation

Father Wilk, who is reading out on the screened in porch, thinks he sees an intruder sneak into the house. Alarmed, the good father puts down the journal he was reading and goes to investigate. He finds a hideous, shadow-like monster hunched and muttering in the living room. He grabs a chair and plans to strike the beast by surprise, but it turns and lets out an awful howl.

Meanwhile, the telephone rings in the living room. Saul once again answers it. It’s Mabel Ohlmstead, the legal secretary. She asks if the rest of the investigators have decided to sign affidavits stating that they agree to become Fresno’s heirs. Saul cups his hand over the mouthpiece and turns around to call out to everyone else in the house.

Only to find a frantic and bug-eyed Father Wilk standing behind him, holding a chair above his head.

“What manner of creature are you?” shouts Father Wilk.

“It is me. Saul. You know, the pharmacist? We have met several times, yes?”

Just as Father Wilk is about to smash the chair over Saul’s head, Ada and Val enter the living room from separate directions. Their screams of fear and warning snap Father Wilk back to his senses. Embarrassed, he sets the chair down.

While everyone tries to make sense of what the hell just happened, the phone receiver squawks in Saul’s hand. Saul apologizes and says, “Yes, absolutely, we will sign.” Mabel says that Mr. Sebastian will bring over the paperwork straight away and hangs up.

Papers of Various Kinds

With the Detherages’ help, Dale manages to exhume Fresno’s car from the garage. It takes a bit of tinkering, but he gets it running. He is pleased about this. He also argues with Gus Detherage about the raccoon in the garage. Dale claims the raccoon is his friend and isn’t leaving, despite the junkman’s protests.

Most of the garbage in the garage turns out to be bundles of old newspapers (from the Port Harbor News-Reader, the papers of surrounding towns, and several national newspapers). Ada, Dr. Miller, and Val go through them, looking for clues. They find that numerous articles have been neatly cut out of the paper, likely with a razor.  

Val, a newsie, digs a little deeper, and manages to find a clue that the others miss. One front page story is completely excised apart from a caption that reads, “See Heartfire Church, pg. 5.” 

The remainder of the article is also excised, but at least the investigators now know what Fresno was researching. They now insist that they must pay a visit to the strange church in the north section of Port Harbor. They debate on going during a service (Tuesdays and Thursdays) or stopping by at another time.

Mabel Ohlmstead arrives shortly thereafter with the paperwork. Everyone signs the affidavits, and Mabel hands various bankbooks, documents, and the key to the safe deposit box in the Second National Bank. The investigators question her about Fresno, but she has only a little more information than they do.

Martin asks Mabel if she knows a good place to stable a horse. There is some discussion about clearing out and using Fresno’s garage, since it was a barn originally. Mabel also mentions that Crosstree Farms (to the northwest) has public stables for rent. Martin thanks her kindly.

Maude and the Mare

Saul, Martin, Father Wilk, and Dale pile into the Fresno car and take it up to Crosstree Farms. They meet the owner, who is a large, friendly man in stained overalls. He agrees to rent stable space to Martin for $15 a month, and even agrees to pick up Lincoln from the train station. Martin insists on bringing Lincoln himself, but thanks the owner for his time.

In passing conversation, the owner mentions the Thornhills, who are apparently the wealthiest family in town. They have a large mansion on the other side of the Abanasset River, to the east. The owner seems a touch wistful, sad, and worried when he indicates the direction, but the investigators do not know why.
Meanwhile, Maude Collins pays a return visit to the Fresno house. Armed with information obtained in their independent research, Val, Dr. Miller, and Ada question Maude about the book and its contents.

Once she realizes that the investigators know more about the book than she thought, Maude apologizes for the deception and levels with them. She explains that the book is a dangerous grimoire of occult magic, which would be used for evil if it ever fell into the wrong hands. She knows that Fresno was able to keep it safe, and she suspects that the investigators, considering their understanding of the book, could do so as well. However, she suggests that, should the investigators not feel up to the task, they could always give her the book. She once again offers to pay for it.

Dr. Miller finds Ms. Collins frustratingly difficult to read but convinces himself that she is still not being completely forthright.

As the conversation with Maude winds down, the others return from Crosstree Farms. As they park the car, they spot another, larger car parked just down the street. Three large, burly man are either sitting in this car or hanging around outside of it. 

When Maude Collins leaves, Martin watches her from the Fresno house’s upstairs window. He sees her greet the three men. Then all four of them get into the car and drive off.

To the Bank

The investigators all agree that Maude is very suspicious, and that they need to learn a lot more about this book. After a lot of discussion on who should go, what routes they should take, and what they plan to do if they are being watched or followed, they decide to all go to the bank. 

Martin does not notice anyone or anything unusual as the group depart. They reach the bank without incident and, after explaining themselves, are taken into a private room with the safe deposit box. The book is still inside.

The investigators decide to force the lock and open the book. After Dale, Val, and several others wrangle with the book, Ada manages to unlock it with a judiciously applied hairpin. Not sure what they will find inside, the investigators gather around the book and open it.

Only to discover that it is blank.

The Book

Well, not completely blank.

The first page of the book is embossed with a strange symbol. Dale and Father Wilk, for reasons that are unclear to themselves and others, believe that the symbol is the mark of the Queen of Black Tourmaline, a malign ruler from ancient folk legends who commands perfect order and servile obedience from her followers.

The Symbol

Ada and Dr. Miller say that it makes no sense that the book has no writing in it. Books of this type were written first, then bound. Binding a series of blank pages would be a wasted effort.

Val quips that maybe she ought to get some lemon juice.

This gives Father Wilk an idea. He mentions that he saw “a ritual” in Fresno’s journals that, allegedly, allows one to read books even if one was blind or in pitch darkness. He thinks it is reasonable that, if the ritual works, it could also reveal invisible writing.

Ada scoffs at this and is vaguely alarmed that the rest of the group seems to take Father Wilk’s proposal seriously. Dr. Miller even goes so far as to hypnotize the priest, so that he can recall the ritual with perfect accuracy.

This somehow works, and Dr. Miller scribbles down the instructions for the ritual on a nearby deposit slip.
The others watch—with varying degrees of skepticism—as both Dr. Miller and Father Wilk invoke the ritual and lay their hands on the book. To both the doctor and the priest’s surprise, the words of the book leap unbidden into their mind. They learn that this book is the Aóratos Grimoire, an almost perfect translation of the Book of Black Tourmaline, by Sister Bohuslava of Mezhyhirya Monastery.

The book is filled with the awful rites to the Queen of Black Tourmaline and the constant castigation of her eyeless and tongueless servants. The Queen’s desire to “return to the world” is mentioned many times, along with her intent to “purify the diseases that infest it.” These words prove to be too horrible for both men to contemplate.

To the others, it seems as though Father Wilk and Dr. Miller have fallen into a deep trance, their hands on the book. Then, without warning, both men recoil from the manuscript, screaming and shouting.

With a cry of, “Apostate! Defiler! Unbeliever!” Dr. Miller hurls himself over the table at Saul.

At the same time, Father Wilk knees reverently in front of Val, his eyes brimming with tears. “Father Anatoli!” he cries, “I have missed you!”

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Circle of Seven: Session 2

Evening Activities

The investigators continue their discussion regarding Ms. Collins and Mr. Fresno’s medieval book. Dr. Miller seems to know a surprising amount about medieval manuscripts. He suspects that the book is, effectively, priceless, and that Ms. Collins is practically defrauding them by offering only $300 for it. He also suspects the book is more likely a magical grimoire than a Bible or other religious work. Ada agrees with this.

Everyone agrees that Ms. Collins likely knows more than she’s saying about the book. They resolve to confront her with their suppositions the next time they encounter her.

Dale, desperate to steady his nerves, goes out to the garage and gives Mr. Fresno’s car the once over. He also makes friends with the racoon. The car turns out to be in surprisingly good shape.

Martin steps out to go to the nearest Western Union office. He cables someone in the Dakotas and asks them to put his horse on the next available train.

Everyone else splits up to continue searching through/cleaning the house. Ada busies herself organizing Fresno’s journals, which seem to be evenly split between dossiers on potential heirs and documentation of various occult phenomena.

The Fresno Journals, In No Particular Order

Father Wilk locates a small door in Fresno’s office that leads to the attic. He decides to poke around in there for a bit.

A few minutes after he enters, a loud crash shakes the house. It turns out Father Wilk dislodged a load-bearing bit of detritus in the attic and became trapped under an avalanche of stuff.  Between Dale’s strength and Val’s nimbleness, a bruised Father Wilk is quickly extracted and tended to.

Shortly after that bit of excitement, the investigators decide to head to bed. Val, Father Wilk, and Martin all remain at the house. The rest return to their rooms at the Sutter Root Inn.

Nighttime Noises

Val seems to be an insomniac and spends most of her night awake and outside by the back porch.

At about 3 am, Val hears some noises in the back yard and goes to investigate. These noises also awaken Father Wilk, who comes to the back door to see what’s going on. When he doesn’t notice anything amiss, Father Wilk launches into a fiery religious diatribe, demanding that whatever ne’er-do-well is lurking on the premises show themselves or face the retribution of hell.

His speech is so intimidating that Val worries that Father Wilk is talking about her.

No one answers Father Wilk’s challenge, other than a dog three streets over who starts barking its head off.

With a shrug, the duo go to bed. Meanwhile, Martin sleeps on, untroubled by the disturbance.

Sunday, November 16, 1924

The investigators reconvene at the house to continue going through Mr. Fresno’s personal effects. They are soon joined by Gus and Gabby Detherage, who have returned with a list of their rates. The Detherages charge a dollar a day and twenty-five cents per load they take to the dump. This seems equitable to the group, and so the Detherages are hired to clean out the house. They work with the investigators to clear the kitchen and dining area.

The investigators notice that Gabby keeps looking nervously at her grandfather. They eventually deduce that this is because Gus is an old guy and Gabby is worried about him, and not because the Detherages are finding any weird or untoward things in their excavations.

Gabby Detherage

Dale decides to check out the attic in the daylight, to see if he can find anything that Father Wilk might have missed. He notices something that looks very much like a warding circle carved into the floorboards. He points it out to the others, and everyone worriedly discusses what it means and what they’ve gotten themselves into.

During this discussion, Gus approaches the investigators. He tells them that he and Gabby have started to clear out the basement. He also says that he has found a locked door behind some junk and wants to know if the investigators want that cleaned out as well.

“If’n you do, I’ll need you to unlock it, o’course.”

The investigators proceed to the basement to find that the Detherages have uncovered not only the door, but also a nearby workbench. Val goes through the ring of keys and ultimately finds one that unlocks the padlock on the door. Opening the door reveals a crude alcove that seems to have been hacked out of the basement wall. There seems to be a shaft leading down into the earth, which is blocked off by an unadorned metal manhole cover.

Taped to the manhole cover is an envelope that reads, “to my friends.”

The Letter

The investigators take some time to read the letter, which is from Nicholas Fresno and written in June of 1919. Fresno welcomes the reader to his house and hopes that they will be able to carry on his strange and dangerous work. He mentions that the "Veil" around Port Harbor is very thin, and that he has tried--with some success--to keep any cracks from growing or spreading.

He closes with a crude drawing of some tunnels that he claims run beneath Port Harbor. He hopes that the map will be of use to the reader in some of their future endeavors.

The investigators mostly cannot decipher the map’s labels. They suspect that it is not to scale and that at least one tunnel leads to the shores of the Abbenasset River. Ada wonders if the label “UR” means that the tunnels—or part of them—were once part of the Underground Railroad. Dr. Miller thinks that the map looks suspiciously like a ritual symbol he's seen once or twice before.

To My Friends



Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Circle of Seven: Session 1


The Eccentric Mr. Fresno

The Reading of the Will

While things are still getting set up, the investigators spend a little time studying the décor in the first floor of the Fresno house. Father Wilk notes a dearth of crucifixes or any signs of proper Christian faith but does see some figurines and iconography used in Oceanic religions. Ada notes that Fresno’s book collection, while haphazard, is also extensive. He had read both fiction and non-fiction and has several somewhat valuable first editions in his downstairs library.  

Coffee is poured and everyone sits. While Mabel takes notes in shorthand, Mr. Sebastian reads Mr. Fresno’s will.

The terms of the will are frankly bizarre. Mr. Fresno, who has neither spouse nor children, has come up with a list of 140 potential heirs using unknown means. Of these 140 people, seven of them must be “active” heirs of his estate, which includes the property in Port Harbor, two bank accounts, and the contents of the safety deposit box in Port Harbor’s 2nd National Bank. 

The Will

Mr. Sebastian says that he picked the first seven names on the list—the investigators—but that they will only become heirs if they agree to sign sworn affidavits that they will uphold all the terms of the will. Mr. Fresno also hoped that at least one heir be willing to live on the property, but if no one does, the property should be sealed and not used or rented out for anything else.

A lively discussion follows, during which Dr. Miller excuses himself to telephone his lawyer for advice. Of the investigators, only Val seems interested in immediately signing the affidavit. The rest insist that they must think about it, which Mr. Sebastian is fine with. There are many questions regarding the will and its terms. Mr. Sebastian answers as best as he can.

  • He does not know how or why Mr. Fresno came up with the list of 140 names, but he suspects the investigators could find out the particulars upon searching the property.
  • There is no penalty if any or all of them refuse to be heirs. He will simply continue down the list.
  • In the event all potential heirs are exhausted, the Fresno house becomes property of the town of Port Harbor.

The investigators also ask about Mr. Fresno himself and are told that he was in his mid-seventies, an antiquarian, and a nature lover. He passed away suddenly on September 29th, while hiking on Ringrose Mountain, of an apparent heart attack. By the time rescuers arrived on the scene, it was far too late for him to be revived.

The Manuscript

Mr. Sebastian asks the investigators to accompany him to the 2nd National Bank, so that he can show them the contents of the safety deposit box. They agree, and he calls up some taxis to ferry them over.

Once at the bank, Mr. Sebastian procures and unlocks the safety deposit box, revealing a large, medieval manuscript with leather bound wooden covers, brass fittings and a large brass lock. This causes some amusement for Mabel, who forces Mr. Sebastian to pay her a dollar.

“None of us at the office had any idea what was in the box,” explains Mr. Sebastian, “so we started a betting pool.”

“He thought it was gold bars,” says Mabel, primly. “Confederate gold bars.”

Mabel Ohlmstead

Ada, a books dealer, analyzes the manuscript. She judges it to be from somewhere in the Baltics, 9th century. She agrees with Father Wilk that it is probably a religious text, but she also mentions that books with locks were more commonly found on alchemical treatises. She also says that she can’t determine much more about the book until she is able to look inside.

When Mr. Sebastian says that he doesn’t have a key for the book’s lock, the investigators begin discussing how to get it open. Dale thinks the mechanism inside might be so old that it will either fail or break. Crowbars, pliers, and lockpicks are also mentioned. Mr. Sebastian puts an abrupt end to this discussion by mentioning that none of them can do anything to the book until they sign affidavits to become Mr. Fresno’s heirs. Until then, the book is not their property.

At this point, Val, Dale, Martin, and Saul all sign affidavits. Val enthusiastically, the others because they have become quite intrigued about the situation that they’ve found themselves in.

Ada mentions that she knows someone in town who might be able to give her additional guidance on the book. For now, however, the investigators leave the book in the bank.

A Light Lunch

Mr. Sebastian takes the investigators to the Duchess Diner for lunch before bringing them to the Sutter Root Inn next door, where he has reserved them all rooms for the night. The inn serves as a boarding house for elderly single men and for the occasional traveler.

As the others are putting their luggage in their rooms, Val says that she wouldn’t mind staying at the Fresno place. Mr. Sebastian hands her the keys. As she makes plans to return to the house, the rest of the investigators decide to accompany her to do a little more exploring. Mr. Sebastian has the taxis take them back to the house and tells them that, if they need anything else from him, he will be at his office.


The investigators take stock of Mr. Fresno’s house. The man proves to have been a bit of a pack rat. There are boxes and papers and books piled high in every available corner. One formidable pile of detritus completely blocks the door to an upstairs bedroom. The house’s basement and garage are filled practically floor to ceiling with clutter of every possible type. The clutter in the garage has gotten so bad that it has mostly entombed Mr. Fresno’s dusty Model T car.

Val, suspicious that someone might have tampered with the car, goes to investigate it. She finds nothing apart from a startled racoon.

Dr. Miller calls his lawyer back on the house phone. His lawyer says that the terms of Mr. Fresno’s will are certainly unusual, but there’s nothing in it that sets off any alarm bells. He tells Dr. Miller to sign it, but only if he wants to.

The other investigators, meanwhile, move the pile of junk away from the upstairs bedroom door. Opening the door, they discover that this bedroom is Mr. Fresno’s somewhat tidier office. Thinking that the office might give them more information regarding Fresno and his decision-making process, the investigators give it a thorough going over.

The First Visitor

There is a knock on the front door. Dr. Miller answers it and finds an elderly man standing outside. Behind the man, out in the street, a young woman dressed in men’s clothing sits on the running board of a horse-drawn junk cart.

The man introduces himself as Gus Detherage, the junk man. He’s heard that someone’s taking charge of the Fresno place and expects that they’ve got a lot of junk that needs to be taken care of. He and his granddaughter are happy to cart whatever junk they’ve got to the dump.

Gus Detherage

Dr. Miller sizes Gus up and doesn’t like what he sees. He tells Gus to come back tomorrow once the investigators have taken stock of the property, and to bring a handwritten copy of his rates. Gus obliges and promises to come back the next day (Sunday) at 10:00.

The Study

Fresno’s study features, among other things, a locked roll top desk and a trunk filled with about two dozen identical black journals.

Val, who has been given the keys to the property, finds the key to the desk and unlocks it. Inside are, among other things, several decks of Tarot cards, a pendulum, yarrow sticks, Norse runes, and other tools of divination. Dale surprises the others with the depths of his knowledge about these divinatory objects. Acting on a hunch, he prowls around the room until he finds a well-worn map of the continental US. Unfolding it, he finds several faint scrapings that might have been caused by the pendulum tip, as well as neat pencil marks made in various parts of the country. His home city of Detroit is one of the marked places.

The two dozen journals are similarly interesting. Roughly half contain painstaking notes, in pencil, of various individuals. These individuals are arranged in no particular order and their entries are of varying lengths. Some of them have photographs and newspaper articles pasted onto the page as supplementary information. Father Wilk’s entry is found rather quickly. The accompanying photograph seems to have been taken at some point in the distant past. The investigators wonder how Fresno could have gotten the picture, and whether Wilk had met Fresno at some point and not remembered it.

The contents of the other journals are first discovered by Val, who opens one up to a random page featuring a pencil drawing of a horrifying creature. Her frightened yelp draws the attention of the rest of the investigators.

Dale looks through the dropped journal and his eyes happen to land on a page featuring a destructive bonfire with a flame-wreathed figure standing in the center. He breaks out into a sweat, closes the book, drops it, and abruptly leaves the room.

Ada also looks at the journal and discovers a written passage describing a lurid, frankly disturbing scene, that seems to be part ritual sex act and part ritual sacrifice. She is discomfited and closes the book, deciding that maybe these journals should be put aside, for now.

The Second Visitor

Dr. Miller, a trained psychiatrist, follows Dale downstairs to check up on him. Dale explains that he used to work in a steel mill in Detroit, which had been abruptly shut down after an accident. During the accident, Dale mentions that he and several of the other workers saw “something” horrible, and that there is somehow an artistic rendition of that “something” in one of Fresno’s journals.

Dr. Miller tells Dale that, contrary to the usual parameters of psychiatric care that he should trust his own eyes and try to come to terms with what he saw.

Just then, there is a knock at the door. Dr. Miller answers it and finds two young ladies standing on the porch. They are dressed in shapeless robes and cloaks—one all in yellow, the other in bright pink---and are carrying a covered picnic basket between them. They introduce themselves as Sister Ray and Sister Penumbra, and step into the house.

Their arrival draws the rest of the investigators, whom the women enthusiastically greet. The women say that they had heard people were moving into the Fresno place and have brought over a housewarming gift as a way of welcoming them to the community. The basket turns out to contain fresh bread, jam, and other preserves. Val immediately begins stuffing her face.

The women also say that if the investigators find themselves lonely, out of sorts, or just looking to become better acquainted with town life, they have an open invitation to visit their church in the north end of town.

This prompts Father Wilk to ask if the women are part of the Luminous Church. The women are delighted that the good father knows of their organization and are frankly surprised that a Catholic priest has heard of it.

The investigators question Sisters Ray and Penumbra about the church. They learn that it is the Luminous Church of the Ten Heartfelt Fires, which is presided over by Alpha Solaris Maxima Est, High Priestess of the Solar Kingdom and Helios Rebecca, Flare of the Northern Hemisphere, Princess of the Solar Kingdom. The investigators manage to not laugh at these florid titles while asking if Mr. Fresno was a member of the church. The sisters respond that he wasn’t because he had his own rather peculiar religious beliefs. They become increasingly uncomfortable when the investigators press them on this topic.

Sister Ray and Penumbra soon take their leave, but not before passing out a few handbills with the name and location of the Luminous Church. The handbills also note that Alpha Solaris’s Christian name is Mary Ellen Masterson, while Helios Rebecca’s is Greta Brown.

The Third Visitor

The women open the front door to depart, only to reveal that there is yet another person standing out on the front porch. This person is a woman, older and more normally dressed, who regards the departing Luminous Church members with a mixture of bafflement and amusement.

She introduces herself as Maude Collins, a correspondent and colleague of Mr. Fresno’s. She mentions calling Mr. Sebastian’s law office to inquire about the state of the property, where she learned about today’s reading of the will.

Maude Collins

Maude says that she, like Mr. Fresno, were both avid readers and antiquarians, and that Mr. Fresno has a certain book in his collection that she would like to obtain for her library. She describes the locked medieval manuscript currently residing in the 2nd National Bank. The investigators tell her that they haven’t seen such a book and ask about its contents.

Maude says that the book is a one-of-a-kind manuscript with an interesting history. It is a 10th century Bible, reputed to have been transcribed and illuminated by a blind Slavic monk. She mentions, once again, that she is desperate to have it, before writing down her contact information and handing it over to Dale. After this, she welcomes the investigators to Port Harbor and, understanding that they must be very tired after a difficult day, excuses herself and departs.
Dale glances down at her contact information and notices that she has written “$300,” which she has subsequently circled three times.

After Ms. Collins’ departure, Father Wilk states, without equivocation, that she is lying about the contents of the book. Firstly, any book that pre-dates the printing press is, by definition, one-of-a-kind. Secondly, if a blind monk had transcribed and illuminated a copy of the Bible, this would have been considered a miracle by the Church. Since Father Wilk has never heard of this monk or of this Bible. Father Wilk admits that he doesn’t know why she is lying about the contents of the book, just that she is.