Episode 137: Welcome to Cognouza
The Nein find themselves trapped in the Astral Sea. The living city of Cognouza looms threateningly in the distance, and the tiny figures of Cree and Lucien become lost among the chaos of the stars. After catching their breath and checking in with each other, the adventurers attempt to salvage the situation. Caleb is still trapped in a polymorph sheep’s body, everyone is injured to varying degrees, and there’s no time to rest and recover. Things are real great.
Caduceus decides that having Caleb back in his body is better than dragging this adorable sheep across the Astral Sea. One quick smack with his staff and Caleb isn’t feeling sheepish anymore. The group watch as the two tiny specks that are Lucien and Cree split off into different parts of Cognouza. Now they must choose, left or right. Hoping to follow Cree’s path, they choose the left path.
As they near the city, the Nein are able to make out distinct shapes and bodies roaming the streets. Caduceus notices something very strange about the milieu though. The townspeople seem to be going through the motions of life as normal…but in complete silence or as if stuck in a loop. On edge, and totally freaked out Fjord and Caduceus send out every warning beacon and undead sense they have and are only mildly concerned that nothing dangerous pings back.
Trying to get a sense of what they’re up against, Veth sends a message to one of the milling figures. It seems to understand the message but gives no verbal response. Caleb tries to be a bit more direct, telepathically reaching out and asking a male figure if they know what time it is. The figure slowly turns to make eye contact with Caleb. It’s mouth begins to open as if to respond, but all that comes out is an ear piercing, terrifying scream that continues for a dozen heart stopping seconds. As the screaming slowly subsides, Caleb feels a nauseating humming deep in his brain, then a voice begins speaking.
A frightened and crazed voice invites Caleb to speak secretly in a nearby alleyway. The Nein are frozen in a moment of indecision. Everything about this screams at them to flee, but they have no other direction or guess at what to do next. So Caleb bites the bullet and cautiously follows the figure into the secluded hallway. The rest of the Nein float above the street, just within reach in case of the worst. Caleb hovers just above the cobblestones in front of the figure and watches as it begins to shudder and sob. It’s eye begins to turn a horrid red color and suddenly the figures head swells to bursting as the eye expands unnaturally. Caleb’s blood runs cold as he recognizes this red eye from his dreams of the Somnovum. The eye shifts its focus to Caleb and a voice returns to his mind. It introduces itself as Timore, one of the Somnovum. Timore, in a series of frighteningly insane rambles, begs for Caleb’s help in taking down two other members of the Somnovum. Some of the members, Elatis and Luctus, have embraced oblivion and drive the city towards destruction. Timore wants Caleb to find their essence in the Aether Crux and destroy them before they destroy Cognouza. Caleb struggles to follow the crazed ramblings as the voice brings with it an almost overwhelming tidal wave of primal fear and terror. Nearby, Beau is also catching echoes and whispers of this conversation and tries to shake of a shiver down her spine.
Timore asks if Caleb knows where the Nonagon went. The Nonagon was supposed to rescue them, help them return home, but he has disappeared from their vision. Caleb asks what they should be careful of in Cognouza. Timore’s voice trembles, “The rest. I must go. I can sense them coming. They are curious too.” As the voice leaves his mind, the man’s body in front of him begins to deflate and melt into a puddle that is absorbed into the cobblestones. Before the horror of what he’s witnessed has even sunk in, another figure begins to approach Caleb.
The body of an older woman shuffles forward and Caleb notices another bizarre detail. The clothing on these bodies…looks more like flesh. As if the body and clothes have fused as one. Also, the feet never seem to actually leave the ground. The ground reaches back towards lifted feet, melding with it at each step. The woman’s body shakes and shivers, eyes rolling back as a goiter at her throat…no, it’s another red eye begins to swell, snapping her head back at an unnatural angle. “Who was here?!” A voice trembling with barely contained rage thunders in Caleb’s mind.
This new voice introduces himself as Ira. He speaks of anger, wrath, suffering and destruction. He doesn’t trust the other members of the Somnovum, especially the traitorous Mirumus and Gaudius. A blinding white pain sears in Caleb’s mind as Ira sifts through Caleb’s careful lies to discern who he was just speaking with. Caleb is able to feed into Ira’s feverish mistrust and shift the blame onto Gaudius. Ira’s wrath hits a boiling point and he commands Caleb to find Gaudius’ essence and destroy it. The eye suddenly swells even larger before bursting. The eruption sends seven other nearby bodies into horrifying, choking seizures before they too explode into whipping masses of teeth and viscera.
The Nein ready themselves for a fight as Fjord and Caleb try to fend off the whipping toothy tentacles. Beau flies down, staff at the ready and lands two solid hits but her stunning strike has no effect. As her staff hits the viscera, it splits and tears, revealing more teeth and human eyes underneath. The creatures simultaneously let out an ear piercing scream. What is this land of nightmares and horror. Most everyone is able to shake off the effects of the screaming but Beau seems to break under the wall of sound.
Yasha cuts in and sends Holy Avenger slicing through an undulating body. Veth scrambles into a nearby tower and incapacitates a creature with a cutting joke. The dozens of mouths on the creatures body all begin laughing as it slumps slowly to the ground. The other Flesh Horrors begin to retaliate. Caleb and Beau are sliced and gripped by toothy tentacles but both manage to break free before being knocked prone. Jester burns one Flesh Horror to ash with her Guiding bolt and notices that as the body disintegrates, she hears a voice in her mind euphorically thanking her for setting it free. Essek lines himself up with several Flesh Horrors and winds up with a powerful black energy lightning bolt. All three creatures writhe and flail as their flesh burns. Not wanting to be outdone, Caleb whips his component out and casts Widogast Web of Fire, hitting five flesh horrors at once. Three horrors down, four to go.
Beau is lost in a sea of red eyes and screams, she lashes out at the nearest Flesh Horror landing another two solid hits. Her vision suddenly clears as she hears Yasha crying out in pain, recoiling away from Beau’s staff with a confused look. More annoyed than anything, Yasha uses a finger to push Beau’s head out of the way so she can dismember the nearby creature. As the body sloughs off her blade, she turns and blows an understanding kiss to Beau.
Veth moves to a hiding spot in a weirdly fleshy tree and sends a couple crossbow bolts into a nearby monster. Fjord’s Eldritch blasts rip another body to shreds. Jester and Essek team up a Sacred Flame and Fire Bolt to take out the flesh horror that’s bothering Veth. Once again, not willing to be outdone by his Kryn colleague, Caleb also casts Fire Bolt…just slightly bigger and stronger than Essek’s to disintegrate the final fleshy horror.
After spending a moment to recover from the incredibly gory battle, the Nein reassess their plan. They still need to find and follow Cree before she can activate the threshold crest. But also what the [email protected] is going on with the Somnovum and this eerily fleshy city? The Nein cautiously begin to explore the surrounding buildings.
Everything here at surface level is veiny, moist, sagging, and covered in unexpected eyeballs, tongues, teeth, and yes, gaping maws. Veth and Essek who went off exploring together, accidentally send another Cognouzian into a heart-stopping screaming fit, but Essek manages to burn it into a fondue puddle before it alerts any more nearby flesh horrors. Fjord and Jester only find a room with a floor made of a tongue-like sponge and they spend several seconds prodding, bouncing, and collecting the strange moisture from the walls. Yasha and Beau find strange faceless statues and water fountains with no water…just oddly shivering muscle and rippling flesh as if it’s imitating the sheen of water.
Caleb and Caduceus hit the jackpot when he coaxes open a fleshy maw that descends into a darkened, humid hallway. The wall on one side bulges and sags strangely and he watches as a hand seems to push against the other side of this fleshy membrane wall. As the Nein begin to descend the steps together, they notice the city seems more solid and sure, less doughy and wilting. It seems the memory of this part of the city is more concrete. Up ahead he sees three signs. One is a hallway similar to the others back in Aeor. The sign reads Praesidis Junction (Junction, junction, juNcTIOn). The sign over the second hallway just repeats “Help” over and over again. The third reads Crest Vault. They take the third path, though not without wondering who might need their help down the second hallway.
The Nein can’t seem to shake the sense of unease and confusion in the air. Everyone is so unsure of each decision and any wrong move is a big risk as they are magically tapped and rather injured. Still they press on, winding through vertigo inducing twisty hallways and throbbing, veiny flesh fold walls. (Have I conveyed just how much body horror Mercer threw up in this episode?)
Suddenly, the Nein hear quick footsteps approaching. They quickly attempt to hide themselves in the flesh folds of the nearby walls, pressing themselves into the moist warmth of darkness. (I’m not even kidding. I don’t know how Laura Bailey made it through this episode in one piece). An out of breath figure jogs into view, then cautiously slows. They seem to sense a presence nearby. As the figure pulls their focus… two glowing eyes begin to shine from their body. The Nein watch as Caleb and Beau’s red eye markings begin to glow in response. Then, Cree’s voice calls out, “Ah, I was wondering when you’d catch up.” And that’s where we’ll pick up next time!
What the actual [email protected] Mercer! I was very much unprepared for this level of body horror and assault on my senses! Mercer’s story telling and insane world building talent never cease to amaze me. Just when I thought I’d seen every kind of Mercer nightmare fuel he pulls out this disgusting place. I’ve survived Dashila, the trail to Uthodern, Bazzoxan and the greying wildlands, and Aeor, to now experience this new horror. I don’t think I’ve ever squirmed quite so much during an episode. I was thankful when break popped up so quickly into the episode and am very thankful that I have another full week to completely process and prepare myself for what the next few episodes may bring. All this to say…what an insane episode and I can’t wait for more!
After last week’s anxiety attack of a session, it was ok to have a shorter, more exploratory session this week. With the abrupt genre shift from futuristic sci-fi dungeon crawl into this body horror fueled fever dream, the cast needed this session to process, adapt, and shift gears. There was some initial indecision freezing during the first hour, but it’s completely understandable in their situation. Things did not end on an easy note last session, and the plan went from bad to worse as Cree and Lucien immediately split up and lost themselves in Cognouza. No time for long rest, no time for short rest, no time for heroes’ feast.
There were a couple of small hiccups in the beginning, mainly due to the fact that Mercer had a monumental task of presenting Cognouza in full glory and missed a couple small details. One that was quickly resolved was Astral Sea movement being based on Intelligence Stat, instead of the stat bonus like they initially thought. Caleb and Veth’s wild magic effects were mostly dealt with in the first 40 minutes or so. Maybe the homebrew mechanics worked differently in Aeor and the polymorph effect lasts indefinitely instead of just one minute. Either way, Caduceus solved the problem without wasting any spells. Veth’s shrinking problem was never addressed, but let’s just assume it faded after a minute.
I’m still so torn over whether going after Cree is the best decision or if they are falling right into Lucien’s trap. Maybe both are correct. We’ll just say it’s both. Cree is the more dispensable remaining member of the Tomb Takers. It’s unsure if Cree has access to the same eye tattoo powers that Lucien has but the three previous encounters point to no. Facing Cree alone, without having to worry about an anti-magic field and a one-hit kill psychic attack is a much better option than facing Lucien while they’re at half power. On the other hand, this is the perfect distraction. Cree seems to already have placed the threshold crest, which means the encounter now is just buying Lucien more time to complete the plane shift and anchor Cognouza back into reality. Ticking time bomb.
How long should I dwell on how delightfully horrifying Cognouza is? If you’re not squeamish or easily spooked, this episode is an intriguing interlude between BBEG encounters. If you’re a big old horror softie like me (or Travis or Ashley) then this episode was another white knuckle, stomach churning, cold sweat inducing nightmare. Congrats Mercer, you very much succeeded in introducing a new level of horror into the campaign. And we’re stuck here for another….who knows how long! I’m ready to be back in the safety of beautiful Nicodranus, or Zadash, hell I’d even take Rumblecusp after spending three hours in Cognouza.
The fight scenes were brutal this session. While Mercer’s descriptions rarely shy away from gore, this episode was next level. I’m still waiting for Critical Role stats to release a count of how many times the words flesh, fleshy, moist, and veiny appeared. On top of the gore filled battle, we had creepy dialogue, endless screaming oblivion, and drug trippy city exploration.
We finally get to meet the Somnovum up close and personal! As predicted, we are going full Seven Deadly Sins (or in this case it’s Nine). We’ve met Timore, representing fear or terror. And Ira, who very obviously embodies wrath. Then, we only get the names of four other members. Based on some clever Critter deductions, and a quick google translate from Latin to english we can infer that the other members we’ll be meeting will include: Luctus as grief or sorrow, Gaudius as rejoicing or joy, Elatis as exaltation, and Mirumus as surprise. That’s right, we’re getting a completely twisted version of Inside Out, or maybe a creepier version of Fullmetal Alchemist.
I was wondering how Mercer was going to spin the Somnovum into anything other than a 100% evil force to be stopped. This whole campaign has been all about the grey characters facing shady moral decisions. I mean just look at all the Nein’s friends they’ve made along the way! Essek for one, supposed to be the big baddie from Xhorhas that ended up being befriended and hopelessly guilt tripped into loving the Nein. The Gentleman, a leader of the seedy criminal underbelly of Zadash is Jester’s father and subject of her parent trap ploy. Astrid and Eodwulf, Volstrucker with a possible weak spot for the Nein’s resident wizard. Even Lucien (or more likely Molly hiding in Lucien’s brain) seems to have a soft spot for our heroes. So, all to say, I was thrilled to see Mercer sewing the seeds of distrust and fractured consciences as he introduced the Somnovum. We were expecting a hive mind of insane evil geniuses working in tandem to destroy the world as we know it. Instead what we get is a cabal of insane evil geniuses at each other’s throats after a millennia or two of soul crushing immortality. How the Nein will use this information will be exciting to watch!
Oh, and now that the Nein are officially in Cognouza… will they try to find Yussa?! Jester brought them up once during the session, but no one mentioned trying to scry or message the poor trapped mage again. I hope that once they have a second to breathe after next session’s opening encounter they’ll at least attempt a quick scry on Yussa to see what’s going on there. Mercer didn’t astral project this mage into Cognouza for no good reason.
Next week session will open with Cree’s encounter! Will the Nein get the jump on the feline foe or will they turn to negotiation and try to flip her alliances? Then we are faced with the decision to race to stop Lucien before the crests activate, or turn the Somnovum against itself and destroy the city from the inside out. So many tricky choices! Let’s see if the Nein can shake off their uncertainties and focus in on one problem at a time. Don’t worry Critters, it’s almost Thursday!
Don’t Miss It!
Catch a new episode of Talks Machina this Tuesday. Brian W. Foster and the delightful Dani Carr will deep dive the campaign so far with guests Laura Bailey and Sam Riegel.