Raven’s Keep: A Surfeit of Ghouls

20 Gersmoan 57234

As related by Allesson

AllessonI am a bard, but most bards travel, and in Raven’s Keep there was nowhere to go, those who leave are most often exiled like Jack Girth, John Raven, and Arcturus Rann. Bards are also professional story tellers, verse-makers and music composers, employed by a patron, to commemorate one or more of the patron’s ancestors, mine then is Raven’s Keep, but I don’t want to write histories about the city, those living there are pleased enough with themselves as it is, and the really exciting people, the leaders have already gone. It is my turn now and that’s why I’m here.

Now, specifically, I would class myself a lower class of poet, contrasting greatly with the great names of legend. For example, playwright William Shakespeare, and composer of devotional poetry and songs Rabindranth Tagore, they known as “the Bard of Avon” and “the Bard of Bengal” respectively, or Lord Mendel, who is the greatest of the Lords of Klarn or as they’re better known the Lords of Mendelland, after that great bard. And so I thought I have long hoped that I too might someday be great. After all, my training has been impeccable, and I have had lifetimes of study, with all known knowledge available at my fingertips, and in Raven’s Keep that means more than it might in other places; in Raven’s Keep you learn to ask new questions like, what makes you who you are?

That’s what happens when you can change your body, your mind, and you relationships like your clothes. Imagine living in a city where all of those things are negotiable. The limits of your body no longer apply, you are what and whoever you want to be, and on top of that we are immortal. It is enough to drive you mad, and for many of us it did.

The worst of them is Blern; at least if there is anyone worse, I don’t want to meet them. They say he suffers from a delusional disorder. When he was exiled, nothing and no one seemed entirely real to him. He decided that the world was whatever he would make of it, and he felt trapped by it; it was his keeper and since nobody else in it was real, it didn’t matter what he did to escape. There was conflict–an accident–his family, his friends, all gone, dead, and he was damaged beyond repair. He needed to wear special equipment to keep him alive; he was what he sought to become, the living death. His mere presence could kill you, and so he was sent away. Since then, his name has gained new meaning in Raven’s Keep, a word of gibberish that can be substituted with any other word, referring to nothing and anything at all at the same time with equal specificity, like going out and blerning yourself.

He was the first exile, but he was sent out into the old dead world, the place we called the Wildlands. But, he was happy to go; he wanted to leave. He wanted solitude, at least that’s what we were led to believe; that is what we’ve been told, but that was before. Now, I have encountered the man myself and I can tell you, he is a stranger man with stranger purpose than that.

Unfortunately, in the wilderness Blern was not alone, and he discovered that his very presence had become corrupting. Over time he used that fact to form his own tribe, a group he named the Friends of Entropy. They became an army of violent thugs that harassed, intimidated, and terrorized the good folk of the frozen north of this world, Naessa. Among them, this Raven Keep’s outcast became a leader, and they called him Blern the Stranger, a force of chaos and great power filled with deadly purpose. While I was briefly imprisoned among them, I overheard a strange claim. They said they want to end all life on Naessa and to destroy all the technology we brought with us from Raven’s Keep, but that didn’t stop Blern from collecting our technology and equipping his growing army with our technological marvels. One can’t help but wonder if he succeeds, having destroyed all other life of the time, will they turn their weapons upon themselves or will they instead turn their wrath upon Raven’s Keep itself.

The Red Death (as they are also now known) can be identified by black uniforms that cover their bodies, and the varied masks that hide their faces. Calling themselves the ‘Red Death,’ they have now embarked upon their stated goal to bring about the end of all life, and I believe in time, the cessation of Raven’s Keep. Blern is especially interested in destroying all equipment of robotic nature. Theirs is a nomadic society, and they are now traveling southward across the land in small groups, spying out populated areas to raid or attack, and whenever possible, they steal babies both humans and otherwise, intent on raising them up to bolster their numbers and to prepare a second generation of the Red Death should it prove necessary. Their signal consists of cleaning the blade of a dagger with a cloth, until that cloth turns red with blood, then thrusting the dagger through it.

I have escaped that I might tell you this; they are waiting for you now, outside beyond this dungeon, but they have not yet approached the house itself. They have their own reasons to stay clear of T’yog who is much feared in these parts; then too, while I was with them, they encountered fearless hog-faced brutes as they approached the Devil’s House, and those beasts have added to their distrust. I escaped in the chaos of one of their attacks. Of course, I headed in the only direction that I knew they wouldn’t follow, to the Devil’s House itself.

When I arrived, I found the place in disarray. The main gate to the courtyard had been ripped from its moorings, and in courtyard there lay a mauled hulk, the body of a great beast; it had been skinned and beheaded, injures beyond the capacity of the great wolves that had set upon the body. Those wolves, as well fed as they were, didn’t hesitate to turn their ire upon me. I took cover in the nearby tower that waited just to the right of the broken gate where the tower door was hanging ajar.

This interior of that chamber was another bloody scene of overturned furnishing and alchemical sundries, no more comforting than the courtyard itself, and with the wolves still on my heels, I made for the stairs, but there too, my way was cut-short . . . Above me snarled a great black hound, sleek, with burning embers for eyes. I stood frozen as it leapt over me knocking me back down to the floor of the entry, but it wasn’t after me; instead it attacked the wolves. The wolves held their ground for a moment, but before long it was evident that they were no match for the hound and they turned and fled. The black hound gave chase, and with the courtyard suddenly cleared, I made my way to the main house. The main doors there were also gone. Scattered remnants of the courtyard’s gate lay on the ground near the entry, but that too had been knocked aside. Stepping over the rubble, I made my way inside and everywhere I looked there were signs of struggle.

Not knowing how long I might have, I determined to find any shelter that might avail itself to me and I suppose I was following the trail you had all had left behind. It led me to down a narrow hall to the right of the entry, and from there to an open black door beyond which waited a descending stair. I descended quickly until the stairway ended in a large circular room that smelled strongly of rot and old earth. The air was moist, and slime coated the walls; there were scattered debris, old pieces of wood and patches of congealed mold clinging in clumps to the room’s curving wall. In the center of the room waited a large open pit, but the floor of the chamber was also littered with the bodies of several very large, hairy-bodied spiders; thankfully all lying dead on their backs, their legs curled in death-rigor above them. There was a rope tied off from one of two great iron wheels that were embedded in the room’s stony wall, the other end hanging down the open pit. Given the circumstances, the rope was the most inviting item in the chamber, and so without further deliberation I took the rope in my free hand and I began to descend. Immediately, I noticed the ropes manufacture, clearly it was from home, and I realized that whoever had set it was likely another survivor from Raven’s Keep or failing that, at least likely to be human.

Still holding the rope, I dropped about five body lengths, as I did I began to notice that I was being watched. Strange globes, had presented themselves, they were the size of oranges, slime-covered like the rest of the wall, but eyes none the less; they were embedded in the wall of the pit; they looked like the eyes of monstrous beasts. They were will hidden, but I could see them as they popped open. As I slid by, they glared at me from a variety of positions in the well and they followed my every move, but already the walls of the dank pit fell away opening in the center of the ceiling of a much larger, water-filled chamber below. There was no solid ground, only the dark water, and it of questionable depth, but the rope had already been stretched out diagonally crossing the room and extending through the room’s only visible breech, an egress leading to a rising stair. The air of the chamber was rank, but there was no choice, I had to continue my descent, but the rope went slack and I dropped into the dark water below. That is when the others heard me, as I splashed into the water.

As I mentioned, I am a bard, and party to that I have always been a collector of antiquities: books, lore and artifacts . . . Things not often appreciated in Raven’s Keep. Of course, upon their approach, I recognized Sayberion and Nyssa immediately and I quickly surmised the identities of Halbrandir and Ankoma, but I did not then, nor do I now recognize you, by anything other than reputation, and by that I mean the legend of the changelings; a race engineered by Blern, another of his subterfuges intended to defeat and replace the ruling family of the city. I had believed you all destroyed in the wake of Blern’s exile. In ancient times, it was the Bards that were the keepers of tradition, the memory of the tribe – and we have been the custodians of knowledge; as Bard, a poet and storyteller, one who has trained in a Bardic college. I recognized you when I saw you, but how you have survived I do not know. In time, we shall have to come to terms with that, but for now I will tell you about what you have missed in your delirium.

As a Bard, I chose to nurture my ability, storytelling is what I do, and in the telling perhaps we can learn more together. Now, I can tell you about the basic nature of these catacombs. The true entry to this place was a portcullis blocked archway; it stood ominously waiting before us as I met the others, and there were two large statues, one on either side of the entry, and a methodical thudding, together with the clicking of gears which poorly masked the deep sounds of echoing anguish, the cries of the torture leaking through from somewhere deeper in the necropolis that waited beyond the archway.

statue-male-egyptianstatue-female-egyptianThere was also a sickening, mephitic blast of queer aspect, stale, fell, noxious, like the air of a befouled, ancient tomb only much worse. The chamber was large and tall, cone-shaped, and highlighted by the two tall ancient statues; one was male and the other was female, both portrayed wearing strange, but like attire, Egyptian attire if I am not mistaken, and I believe the statues represented the builders of these halls, ancient halls, with ancient secrets, not often visited, yet clearly occupied, yet by whom I wonder?

Our meeting was interrupted by a hail of javelins, a trap, well sprung at the same time as the drop of a half-dozen heavy, slicing, bladed pendulums that blocked the arch before us, and the appearance of other monstrosities. They emerged from behind the statues and they attacked–ghasts and other more ghoulish, dog-like hybrids of equally foul demeanor; those were even more hideously malformed, corpse-like aberrations with a crooked spines and bent limbs wrapped with thick folds of skin or sinewy muscle. Their hairless, gray-green bodies were covered with eruptions of large, swollen pustules. They were groaning, perhaps in pain, perhaps in hunger, and as they came at us they began snapping, oversized jaws like rabid dogs.

We fought our way through them in a hurried battle that was both brief and disgusting. The boils of the dog-like ghouls exploded as we struck them squirting out secretions of burning pus. After we destroyed the monsters we gathered at the portcullis, and working together we managed to raise it, but having no way to fix the gate we had to let it fall behind us and proceed.

We found that we had entered a vast expanse of dark corridors. Admittedly, my arrival had been the cause of some strife; the gnoll, Ankoma, in particular was notably irritated by my presence and uncomfortable with my arrival, but just as I had recognized the other members of your party, I too was recognized by them, and so by them at least, I was quickly accepted, and wherein I was not, Brand quieted the more bestial gnoll speaking out on my behalf. I had never imaged the gnolls would be as intimidating as your Ankoma certainly is; he is large, powerful and strong and he had dressed himself in the head of the dead owlbear I had encountered in the courtyard. And that was where I met you. You were slung over the gnoll’s shoulders; he was mindlessly carrying you as if you weighed nothing at all. He had tied you off like an unwieldy, fleshy cape or captured prey I couldn’t tell which, but you seemed to be in the midst of a fevered dream. Behind your closed lids, your eyes were busy, rapidly darting from side-to-side and your lips were mouthing unspoken words, as if your vocal cords were clumsily groping for sounds that never came. As you struggled I caught glimpses of thought, idle telepathic whispering . . . mumbles about floating polyps, and visions of an alien vista built upon the corpse of a dead god. As interesting as this was, my examination of you came to an end as we found a hole in the wall of one of the corridors.

We had been following the sounds of misery through the maze of halls, a task made more difficult due to the ever present echoes, even so judging by volume, we were drawn in by a noisome snarl of toppled scaffolding and broken shelves that lay on either side of a large gaping hole. Miscellaneous tools were also lying scattered across the floor. Extensive damage had occurred at the collapsed southern wall, creating the large hole, and provided egress to a much larger natural cavern beyond. Shards of rubble were poking through from the other side which was also the source of the cries of torment. Moans and shrieks echoed as a mob of hideous undead brutally beat helpless victims and hurled them headlong into a gaping pit. A few victims struggled vainly, but to no avail. Their merciless assailants bore into them that much harder, first dragging them and then kicking them into the chasm. In the pit, the victims were barely moving; they weakly stared from blank sunken eyes as their fate was inflicted upon them. Without hesitation we rushed the pit, as those pitiful wretches writhed in feverish delusions as death took hold and was ripped away. Struggling to maintain coherence, I saw one poor dying farmer almost make it out, before another one of the monsters kicked him in the face sending him sprawling back into the mass of churning bodies waiting below.

pit-churning-bodiesAnd so, another larger battle began against the undead things that guarded the chambers here, but like those other before, they seemed ill-prepared for such a competent team of combatants as we. The fighting ire of Raven’s Keep had been raised, and was on display as we mauled them, a task made easy after Sayberion rebuked them, sending all but one of them scurrying to the far side of the chamber, where Nyssa could pick them off individually, setting them aflame one-by-one with burning bolts of fire.

We tried to execute a rescue, but the victims were too far gone, a fact made clear by one of the victims who yelled:

village-victim“Away with Ye … I know who you are, and what you brung. You are devils, devils and worse. You’re no better than the monsters that came after Ye. Rydalka is dead; my folks is dead … dead as this pit, deader! And yer friends were looking fer you, the Monster in the Mask, hims what with the blue glowing eyes. They kilt everyone, everyone they could catch, but the old ones they couldn’t get away. They was tortured and they died slow. It was you he wanted, you he was looking for. The ole ones didn’t know, and they died for nothing.

Those who knew you, they died first; Swayne died fighting, and Trella, she was burnt in her hut. I heard her screams as we left, but that wasn’t the end of it. They all had masks, but the one in black robes, with the white mask, the NOSTS, they wanted the BODIES TOO!

Arnthrud and Yrsa were lucky, they died in the wilds, the rest of us, anyone captured was thrown in here … And it is all your doing. AND NOW IT’S MY TURN!”

We were forced to kill them all after the boy attacked us. The pit had changed him like the others. It was as if the pit transformed them into evil manifestations of themselves. After the victims had been put to rest we searched the chamber, and searching for magic, Nyssa found a discarded stone scarab that held an enchantment. She gathered the stone up and then we moved on.

glowing-fountainUntil the corridor split in three directions; to the south the passage formed an alcove with a strange but beautiful glowing fountain. Water spilled from the center of the fountain, pouring out from beneath what looked like a large eye into a large stone basin.

And there was a west passage, blocked by a reinforced wooden door emblazoned with a strange incantation, and to the east a massive ten-foot-square slab of solid granite rests in a wheeled track permitting it to slide left or right to allow or deny access to the northern hallway; it was slightly ajar.

The inscription read:

Si un homme meurt, peut-il revivre?
Tous les jours de mon temps j’attendrais, jusqu’à ce que mon état vînt à changer.

 Given my training I was able to attempt a translation the archaic script, loosely stated it read: ‘If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, until my change comes.’

With the others prompting I gave voice to the inscription and the door opened. Past the door the hall extended another 50 feet before a chamber was revealed. Thick iron chains lined the interior walls of a T-shaped room, linked, and they are welded into a single, massive candelabrum, twisted branches of symmetrically positioned blackened chain. There were scores of half-burnt candles hanging there. Within the confined space the air was stifling with greasy soot and the unbearable scent of rotting flesh. An oversized granite altar served as the room’s centerpiece, behind which, in a rounded alcove sat a beautifully crafted statue of a nearly naked man of good-physique and bearded face seated upon an anvil. I believed it to be a representation to the Roman god Mulciber, the celestial artist, the son of Jupiter and Juno. He was considered as the manufacturer of art, arms, iron, jewelry and armor for various gods and heroes. And, at the far end of the room, there was a slightly raised dais holding several long knives, a glass alembic, and six bisected skulls filled with strange, putrescent powders, and a scroll tube. In truth, we were all so distracted by the scene, and perhaps, already made too inert to the smell of decay to realize our danger.

hulking-bruteHiding behind the alter, a hulking brute lied in wait, a colossal, barbaric, blasphemy with glaring red eyes suddenly emerged; it wielded a massive axe easily in its left, bony, yet obviously powerful claw. The thing had at one time been a man, it was clearly similar to the other mountain-dwellers we had met, but he was no longer truly alive. He licked parched, dead lips appraising us like we were fattened prey, and he the famished beast. His mere presence filled me with an unwelcome dread – his features were dog-like, pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drolly lips, and the thought of those jaws closing upon my throat were enough to drive me to madness, but Sayberion cut the distance between us and imposed himself between me and that monster, and then the others closed in upon him. The monster didn’t survive our press; powerful as it was, it fell under the storm of blows that followed and afterwards Ankoma took the monster’s axe.

Now, all of us being in need of rest, we settled in. We have conducted a thorough search and among the implements stored in the chamber we have found a scroll tube and a parchment. The parchment reads thus:

‘The essential Salts of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole catalog of zoological representation in his own Study, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the like Method from the essential Salts of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestor from the Dust where into his Body hath been incinerated.’

foul-smelling-serumAnd then to there is the serum, it is a foul smelling concoction, an odor so dense as not to be masked by any amount of herbs, and it is a wickedly, thick, veiny, evil-looking, greenish brew that is more likely to make one ill than to do anyone any earthly good.