Short Story: Coal

In his dreams, Coal hears screams and the clink of chains rattling and sliding. Formless flashes of colour resolve into a series of static and disjointed scenes. His mind and body feel trapped in ice, unable to move or affect the parade of images forcing themselves on his mind’s eye. A cold lassitude lies on him, stealing his focus.

He sees the Last War, and the fighting in the streets against the risen dead. He remembers the sorcerous warriors clad in bone. The maniacs who slew the living and commanded their corpses, and the hatred in their eyes. He sees the Titans released. He sees buildings broken, bodies everywhere. He knows them.

Then he sees a face with horns curving from its temples. He hears shouts. He hears metal striking metal and the crackle of flames, and his eyes grow heavy.

Coal wakes. He is in a bed, limbs tangled in blankets and sheets. That alone gives him pause. Waking implies sleep and his kind don’t do that. Yet here he is, in a room he knows but rarely rests in.

Every part of him hurts. The enamels and brass-inlaid surfaces of his limbs are cracked, scorched, and riddled with holes. His joints whirr and crunch as he levers himself upright. His body, forged to fight where flesh would fail, has been greatly abused.

The cottonwool thickness shrouding his thoughts still lingers, deflecting his mind’s streams of awareness. The lenses in his eyes suddenly click and refocus, and with new purpose he pulls the sheet away.

The revealed wreckage of his body leaves him numb. There are rents in the steel plates, and missing panels that reveal damaged conduits, pistons, and cables woven to resemble bundles of muscles. There are scratches and gouges everywhere, and the discoloured blooms of scorching. What has happened?

Coal prods and tests the limits of the damage to his body in the morning half-light. With dispassionate care, he ascertains that he is functional and will heal. The act of assessing his own state allows his mind to start to catch up.

He remembers being restrained by dead things with the faces of friends. He remembers the bite of blades, and tubes being driven into him. He remembers the pale wight directing the corpses, and a man dressed in bones. He remembers the other two figures – warforged like himself – telling the wight what needed to be done.

Above all, he remembers the carcass of the reassembled Titan and what they did to him, and why.

His scream startles a cat-sized dragon snoozing in the rafters and it flees the room as fast as its butterfly wings can carry it.

He hears cries of alarm downstairs. Feet pound on the stairs. He is not alone.

The DDC Game Design Theme

We had a great session today, bringing to a head the mystery of where Coal had disappeared to and what had happened to his former compatriots. Last week had brought the group to a war damaged slum, and the zombified remnants of the gang, and a wight that controlled them.

And then this week, as they thinned the waves of zombies out, the wall next to them came down revealing a roughly rebuilt Warforged Titan – a towering engine of destruction from the Last War – which had Coal patched and embedded in it as a jury-rigged power source.

And they fought among the ruins, fighting their fears for Coal, and were triumphant. The wight escaped, but they were able to rescue their companion. A huge victory, all the better for the emotional investment for everyone.

And it’s those connections I’ve been watching build, and encouraging as we go that rises to the queer experience of this set of adventures. There’s an underlying theme of the consciously built family in place of their various fractured backgrounds.

All the characters are outsiders and have bonded together in mutual support and love, but they are adventurers first and foremost. The characters original backgrounds are now being developed with new connections, and I’m enjoying weaving those into the story and hearing my players reactions.

Hearing my description of Coal being literally forcibly enfolded and assimilated into this relic of the military and wars he had fought so hard to reinvent himself away from, there were gasps around the table. There may also have been joking threats from myr s of what might happen if Coal died.

Music to my ears. Passion and determination fought fear and desperation this evening for stakes that felt important to everyone around the table. The discovered family fought the clutches of the abusive past, and won.