|Charles Dunwoody RPG Superstar 2011 Top 32|
Early autumn in the haunted realm of Ustalav slowly stole the heat of summer from the air and the life of summer from the trees. A strong wind blew whirlwinds of the first fallen dead leaves into whirling phantasmagorical shapes before scattering.
The casket was solid oak bounded with brass and iron. It was heavy, although the rippling scarred muscle of Gruumsh made carrying the burden much easier. The orc was a true monster, even partially concealed beneath his cloak, but he took part in this rite of civilization with quiet dignity. The worn leather grip of the greatsword jutting over his left shoulder and the scarred knuckles of his clawlike fist gripping the rail created a strange juxtaposition of his savagery with his veneer of civility.
At times simply seeming to hang on and stumbling to avoid being dragged, the elven alchemist named Alton Der would not make eye contact with anyone else. The professor’s daughter had tried to make conversation with him, but he would only talk to answer questions in a mumbling, servile tone. He was broken and not easily fixed.
On the other side, three more pallbearers of most unusual appearance held up their side. The eyes of Yi Ji Ota were dark and unusual in shape and his face was fine and ethereal; he was a mix of exotic human and elf. He carried himself with poise and deadly precision.
His two fellow bearers both seemed to swallow the light and radiate back darkness. The gunslinger had never given his name, had hardly spoken a word at all. He was not human and he carried a strange weapon that looked like a metal horn with a handle. He was a complete mystery.
Alison Sten had the same darkness in her, but it accented rather than detracted from her unique beauty. Her deathly radiance was intertwined with a light and life that shone forth from within. Combined with her natural beauty and strength of will, the oracle was a complex mix of death and life and could not be easily ignored or dismissed.
This quiet procession followed Kendra Lorrimor. Refusing to cry during this solemn march, she walked with back straight and head held high.
When she followed the path around a small rise and came to a sudden stop, the pallbearers nearly stumbled to avoid running into her. Spread out blocking the path were a baker’s dozen of uncouth men of slovenly disposition holding rusted farming tools and a few jugs of cheap moonshine. The men were sullen, unshaven, and unwashed.
The tallest of these toughs, an elderly but wiry man who carried himself carefully, spoke. “That’s far enough, Ms. Lorrimor. We been talking, and we don’t want Lorrimor buried in the Restlands. You can take him upriver and bury him there if you want, but he ain’t goin’ in the ground here!”
All of the pallbearers shifted as if one being. Gruumsh set his powerful legs and prepared to take the weight of the casket as the others let go of the rails.
Kendra, standing nose to chin with the ruffian, responded swiftly, her sadness swiftly transforming into anger. “What are you talking about, Gibs Hephenus?” she said. “I arranged this funeral with Father Grimburrow. He’s waiting for us with my father’s closet friends. The grave’s already been...”
“You don’t get it, woman. We won’t have a necromancer buried in the same place as our kin. I suggest you move out while you still can. Folks are pretty upset about this right now.”
The pallbearers moved up behind Kendra. She didn’t notice them in her anger. She said, “Necromancy!? Are you really that ignorant?”
The louts lunged forward only to find themselves stopped by the presence of Alison. She shone with an otherworldly light that surrounded but did not overpower her aura of death and darkness. She spoke softly. The thugs stopped to strain to hear her words.
“Life is sacred. How would you feel if the ceremony for one you loved was desecrated in this way?”
The men shifted uneasily. But their leader pressed forward.
Yi Ji Ota spoke softly but with menace. “There is not honor in what you do here. Disperse and let us bury our honored dead.”
The gunslinger didn’t speak, but he shifted the strange hornlike weapon with a metallic clack. The sound carried a weight of menace and impending violence.
Still, the leader of the angry townsfolk would not be swayed. He looked ready to lead about six of his followers forward in a wave of anger and force.
Gruumsh, forgotten in the back, growled. All eyes turned to see the massive orc, cloak hood thrown back, balancing the heavy casket over his head. Bunched muscles quivered on scarred arms the size of most men’s thighs.
“Could all of you hurry this up? If I have to set the Professor’s casket in the mud I’m going to get angry.”
All the tension flowed out of the thugs. Naked fear replaced snarling rage on the face of their leader, Gibs Hephenus. They dispersed quickly, moving out of the path and blocking the path no longer.
The pallbearers returned to their places. The casket did not get fouled. Gruumsh did not lose his temper. The townsfolk did not die. The funeral procession proceeded forward.
A cluster of five old men, one a priest, and a young man backed up by two gravediggers armed with shovels met them on the path. The priest was livid with anger, but it was the stately elderly man in the dress uniform of a retired officer who spoke.
“That was Gibs Hephenus leading that mob,” the man said. His voice was clipped and his face was flushed with anger and exertion. “I’ll set the sheriff on him.”
“Captain Hearthmount, please,” the priest said. “Let us worry about that later. We need to think of Kendra at this moment.”
“You’re right, Father Grimburrow,” the retired captain said. “Forgive me and pray let us proceed.”
The procession continued to the gravesite. The Father began the ceremony. He called out for Pharasma to receive Professor Lorrimor’s soul and keep it from being corrupted.
As Father Grimburrow finished his final benediction, he asked if anyone of Professor Lorrimor’s friends would like to speak.
Without making eye contact, Alton shuffled forward. The priest moved aside. The elf stood awkwardly, his hands twisting a small bottle back and forth.
“The Professor treated me well,” Alton mumbled. “He taught me many secrets, some of it disgusting stuff about undead chunks and rotting worms, and…”
The elf let out a cry and jumped. Father Grimburrow had bumped him rather forcefully followed by a half-hearted apology.
“Uh, that is to say, the professor was kind. Really kind. That’s it, really,” Alton finished. “Thanks for listening to me. You’ve been great.” Head down, he slunk back to his place in the back.
No one could follow up on that speech, so the Father ended the ceremony. The pallbearers waited as Kendra said her thanks and goodbyes, and then they walked her home. They kept an eye out for sullen, drunk degenerates but none of them reappeared.
The Lorrimor residence was a modest home with crowded bookshelves in every room. Once they were inside, Yi Ji stirred up the fire and Alison poured drinks. Everyone toasted the professor.
The reading of the professor’s will required the presence of Councilman Vashian Hearthmount (the closest thing Ravengro had to a solicitor), but he had some other matters to attend to after the funeral, so he didn’t plan to arrive for about an hour. Kendra wasn’t sure what was contained in the will, since part of its stipulation was that all of the professor’s associates who attended the funeral must be present for its reading.
The pallbearers and Kendra talked softly. They told stories about the professor. Kendra was quite fascinated by Gruumsh, who had been the subject of training and study with her father.
Vashian arrived precisely on time. He displayed a haughty, distant manner toward the strangers who had involved themselves in local matters, but he kept any comments to himself. He focused his involvement entirely on the reading of Petros’s will.
Councilman Vashian produced a scroll case, showed that the professor’s personal seal was unbroken, and then broke the wax and opened the case. As he did so, a small iron key fell out of the tube, clattering noisily onto the table. Undaunted by the key, the councilman began to read, obviously eager to be done with the business and to get back home.
“I, Petros Lorrimor, being of sound mind, do hereby commit to this parchment my last will and testament. Let it be known that, with the exception of the specific details below, I leave my home and personal belongings entire to my daughter Kendra. Use them or sell them as you see fit, my child.
“Yet beyond the bequeathing of my personal effects, this document must serve other needs. I have arranged for the reading of this document to be delayed until all principals can be in attendance, for I have more than mere inheritance to apportion. I have two final favors to ask.
“To my old friends, I hate to impose upon you all, but there are few others who are capable of appreciating the true significance of what it is I have to ask. As some of you know, I have devoted many of my studies to all manner of evil, that I might know the enemy and inform those better positioned to stand against it. For knowledge of one’s enemy is the surest path to victory over its plans.
“And so, over the course of my lifetime, I have seen fit to acquire a significant collection of valuable but dangerous tomes, any one of which in the wrong circumstances could have led to an awkward legal situation. While the majority of these tomes remain safe under lock and key at the Lepidstadt University, I fear that a few I have borrowed remain in a trunk in my Ravengro home. While invaluable for my work in life, in death, I would prefer not to burden my daughter with the darker side of my profession, or worse still, the danger of possessing these tomes herself. As such, I am entrusting my chest of tomes to you, posthumously. I ask that you please deliver the collection to my colleagues at the University of Lepidstadt, who will put them to good use for the betterment of the cause.
“Yet before you leave for Lepidstadt, there is the matter of another favor—please delay your journey one month and spend that period of time here in Ravengro to ensure that my daughter is safe and sound. She has no one to count on now that I am gone, and if you would aid her in setting things in order for whatever she desires over the course of this month, you would have my eternal gratitude. From my savings, I have also willed to each of you a sum of one hundred platinum coins. For safekeeping, I have left these funds with Embreth Daramid, one of my most trusted friends in Lepidstadt—she has been instructed to issue this payment upon the safe delivery of the borrowed tomes no sooner than one month after the date of the reading of this will.
“I, Petros Lorrimor, hereby sign this will in Ravengro on this first day of Calistril, in the year 4711, Age of Ill Omens”.
Once the will was read, Councilman Vashian looked to Kendra, who thanked him and walked him out. Putting on a brave face, Kendra thanked her father’s friends again for coming, and informed them that she’d need at least a few weeks to decide if she wanted to sell her family home or remain in Ravengro—in the meantime, as stipulated by the will, she asked the PCs to remain as well.
She offered rooms in her spacious house for them, promising them free room and board for the month the will requested them to remain in town. The friends accepted. Kendra then excused herself to go fetch the chest mentioned in the will.
The chest itself was a relatively small object of oak and iron. Kendra, nervous about the contents, offered the key to Gruumsh to give her father’s friends the honor of opening the chest. The key fit the lock perfectly.
Gruumsh large finger carefully lifted the delicate lid. Within the chest were several old tomes and one relatively new one.
The professor’s friends looked at the books:
• The newest tome sat on the top and bore the phrase “Read me now!” scratched into the leather cover.
• The Umbral Leaves: An unholy book with the symbol of Zon-Kuthon. A note indicated that this book should be delivered to one Montagnie Crowl, a professor of antiquities at Lepidstadt University.
• On Verified Madness: A jet-black book also to be delivered to Crowl.
• Serving Your Hunger: A text of an unholy book with the symbol of the goddess Urgathoa on it. To be delivered to Crow.
• Manual of the Order of the Palatine Eye: The rich purple cover contained a brass scarab set with a single eye in its center. A note indicated it should be delivered to Embreth Daramid, a judge at the Lepidstadt Courthouse (although the note asked for this delivery in particular to be handled discreetly, and included the address of Embreth’s home so that the professor’s associates could deliver it there).
Gruumsh lifted the newest book with the scratched cover out. He thrust it at Alton.
“Read this for me, potion boy,” the orc growled.
Alton’s eyes filled with fire, the first time he’d showed any real emotion, as he stared daggers at the fighter. Faster than the eye could follow, his empty hand suddenly clenched into a fist holding an alchemical bomb.
The orc smiled with all his fangs. “Please.”
Alton gave him one more measured look, then put the bomb away. He started to read entries the professor had circled in his journal.
Ten Years Ago:
The Whispering Way is more than just a cabal of necromancers. I see that now. Undeath is their fountain of youth. Uncovering their motivation does not place me at ease as I thought it might. Their desire to be eternal simply makes them more dangerous.
Two Months Ago:
It is as I had feared. The Way is interested in something here in Ravengro. But what could it be?
One Month Ago:
Whatever the Way seeks, I am now convinced their goal is connected to Harrowstone. In retrospect, I suppose it all makes sense—the stories they tell about the ruins in town are certainly chilling enough. It may be time to investigate the ruins, but with everyone in town already being so worked up about them, I’d rather not let the others know about my curiosity—there’s plenty of folks hereabouts who already think I’m a demonologist or a witch or something. Ignorant fools.
Twenty Days Ago:
It is confirmed. The Way seems quite interested in something—no, strike that—someone who was held in Harrowstone. But who, specifically, is the Way after? I need a list of everyone who died the night of the fire. Everyone. The Temple of Pharasma must have such a list.
Eighteen Days Ago:
I see now just how ill prepared I was when I last set out for the Harrowstone. I am lucky to have returned at all. The ghosts, if indeed they were ghosts (for I did not find it prudent to investigate further) prevented me from transcribing the strange symbols I found etched along the foundation—hopefully on my next visit I will be more prepared. Thankfully, the necessary tools to defend against spirits are already here in Ravengro. I know that the church of Pharasma used to store them in a false crypt in the Restlands at the intersection between Eversleep and the Black Path. I am not certain if the current clergy even know of what their predecessors have hidden down below. If my luck holds, I should be able to slip in and out with a few borrowed items.
Seventeen Days Ago:
Tomorrow evening I return to the prison. It is imperative the Way does not finish. My caution has already cost me too much time. I am not sure what will happen if I am too late, but if my theory is right, the entire town could be at risk. I don’t have time to update my will, so I’ll leave this in the chest where it’ll be sure to be found, should the worst come to pass.
The gunslinger said, “I wonder what the Way is?” Everyone googled at him.
“What?” he said. “I can talk.”
Alison smiled. Then she turned serious and said, “I know some lore of the Whispering Way. In fact, I just finished up intense study on the cult. Here is what I know.”
“The Whispering Way is a sinister organization of necromancers that has been active in the Inner Sea region for thousands of years. Agents of the Whispering Way often seek alliances with undead creatures, or are themselves undead.”
“The Whispering Way’s most notorious member was Tar-Baphon, the Whispering Tyrant, although the society itself has existed much longer than even that mighty necromancer.”
“I think I remember that the cult uses language in some way, but I’d need to do more research to learn more.”