Having had a pretty taxing day, and after dropping the axe-fatuated paladin at the local church for the night, it was good to get back to Kendra’s house. I went to my room after having an evening drink and studying my spellbook for a bit. I find, now, that my prior caveat about the weight of the cursed prison dropping on us that night was far too close to prophetic for my liking. Though it did not drop – it knocked.
Having lived in Ustalav for a couple of years now, I have learned one thing with absolute certainty: if two young ladies are alone on the first floor of a house, and everyone else has retired for the evening, they should not, under any circumstances, answer the door after midnight. Sadly, Kendra’s new, pirate sister was unaware of such a stricture. I, however, was across my room, across the hall, and at the top of the steps in time to see her slam the door on the night caller and promptly direct the adorably confused Kendra to remain in her seat.
I beat the dwarf’s sister down the stairs by a mere shade, and the rest of our intrepid band thundered after her shortly. THEY, at least, know the rules in this black country. The pirate – Wraithe, though who knows what her real name is – whispered that it was Professor Lorrimer, though not quite the Petros that we remembered. This would not do, and I determined that sweet Kendra could absolutely not see her father in such a state.
Twig (the cleric’s sister’s name, I believe… as she is a druid, and a gnome, it makes frightening sense) sat with the now bemused Kendra and cajoled her into staying put while the rest of us broke out the back door in a herd. Professor Kazare and I ran one way around the house, while the cleric went the other. The dwarf, as forthrigth a member of his species as I have yet encountered, did not disappoint my expectations – though we had been very quiet about what was going on, a clearly-shouted, gruff-voiced, “He’s in the cellar,” broke the relative silence around the house. Twig ran a slightly concerned Kendra upstairs as the pirate bolted into the house.
I had gotten to the bottom of the cellar stairs when the shot was fired – I saw a spray of smallish pieces rain down across the floor, followed by the thud of the body of my collegue, still clad in his burial suit. That suit being fully identifiable, as well as the body, I spoke a few words, touched the recently ambulatory corpse, and stripped it of all flesh. Then, and much to the chagrin of the dwarf, I grabbed the suit and began shaking the bones out of it. He implored me to stop, out of respect for the dead, and I did – once the last, stubborn rib had dropped from his shirt. Previously, he had reminded us that the zombie was no longer the professor, so I reitereated it back to him, and he huffed but conceded that delicate Kendra need not hav eseen her father so, and that my intentions were good. This surprised me, as dwarves are generally more irritable – I suppose a deity whose specialty is not collecting the souls of those who die pointless, accidental deaths leads to a slightly more positive outlook. Which reminds me that I should toss a banana peel on the ground tomorrow as tribute to Zyphus.
We cleaned up a bit – I stuffed the burial clothes into my robes to give to the dwarf when he went to properly lay (or re-lay) the Professor to rest the next morning. Then back to bed. Kendra seemed to wonder why everyone was looking at her with mostly-concealed concern/sadness. To Wraithe’s credit, she did not seem to think twice before shooting her adoptive father in the face, though it leads one to consider just how she came to be without parents in the first place… Frankly, though, as long as she does not dabble in sororicide, I am content to not ask questions.
After considering whether or not it was more necessary to add flesh back to the bones tomorrow at the burial, or to poke around town for items which might be of assistance in the prison, I decided to shop for a bit in the morning.
The next morning, I was up and about early – stopping by a couple of different shops and coming away with a fabulously mis-priced ioun stone (to the detriment of the shop owner, not my own) and a treatise on the methods for constructing and animating a flesh golem. The book, coincidentally, was apparently a never-returned volume from the University’s library. I convinced the shop owner to part with it for the generous price of not reporting him for holding such an expensive work overlong. Really… Multiple thousands of coin worth of instructions for something that, I am sure, every Tom, Dick and Harry learns how to do as childhood prank in Ustalav. How do they learn, you ask? They check out a book on golem creation from the local library. For free. Country full of morons, really, with no respect for the arcane. Unless, of course, it is to make dead things a little less dead than before. Which is repulsive…
I shan’t say much about the walk back up to the prison, save that Sir Viktor seemed quite pleased that he had not hacked the church staff to bits during the night. I had been expecting to see blood not just on his hand, but also smeared over his body, as though he had been doing a boa dance with preistly entrails. Because that is the type of situation we are in. Ustalav surprised me pleasantly when that was not the case – first instance of a pleasant surprise in this country in my time here. Well, the second, actually, as I did meet extraordinary Kendra here.
We agreed that today would be the dungeon day. And there was no way I would be going first. When I did reach the bottom, there were skeletons about. Nd they were beginning to smoke. Professor Kazare’s spear was, sadly, ineffective against the creatures, and functioned about as well as a toothpick between widely-spaced teeth. Fortunately, Wraithe’s marksmanship had improved remarkably from prior outings, so her target was smashed easily, and the cleric reduced the rest to piles of bone. The headless, flaming skeleton that had brought a large axe to the fray, however, was more resilient. I tried to disrupt it, but the distracting memory of peeking into the Splatter Man’s – yes, as silly as it sounds, I have to use that name, as it fits the Ustalavic milieu – spellbook made me realize just how sparing one should be with the use of one’s Gift. Of all of us, I did not think that the pirate would be the other sensible one, staying far away from the burning undead while everyone else closed to swipe at it from well within the heat of its flames. After whittling at it for another few seconds, I tried again to disrupt it, and this time, through force of will, compelled myself to zot the skeleton. Its joints let go, and as it began to fall to pieces, I was glad to have maintained my distance, for it exploded. As we all knew, or should have known, that it would. You know why – it begins with “U”.
We made our way down the hall from whence the headless figure came, and I, personally, thought that its use of an axe, coupled with its lack of a head, might have marked it as the Lopper (ridiculous names, really). I kept the thought to myself, however, lest I jinx our chances of finding nothing further along the corridor – jinxes are something you truly, truly have to manage when dealing with anything Ustalavic. They are not benign, “Ha, ha, I jinxed it,” things here. Here, they are knock-on-wood affairs after simply joking that you still have a face or, in short order, you might find yourself lacking one.
Upon entering a cell block with, of course, an oubliette, the paladin had some sort of jerky, twitchy, other-life experience. It was very unnerving – partly because it was unexpected, but mostly because the man is a paladin. Behavior was nonstandard in the extreme. And then the wraith came. Sure, it had an axe, and its legs were broken horribly, and there were all manner of terrible things about it, but there was no reason to panic. So I am ashamed, somewhat, to admit that I was again unable to draw upon the Power to do anything for several seconds. My will to use magic failed me, and then people started bleeding. At least it was relatively clean, as the blood turned to black mist and was assumed into the form of the Lopper. Viktor was seized by the urge to hack at the thing with the bloody axe, and it was incredibly effective – moreso that I would have thought, given the incorporeal nature of the creature.
When I was able to get a handle on my spells, I cast the only thing that I could be sure would remain in place for a time and potentially harm the thing – I summoned a ball of fire and placed it squarely on the Lopper. And then he panicked. So the gnome druid did the same, and he screamed, and gibbered, and cried, and was unable to continue hacking at us with the same composure he had previously. Viktor finished him with the axe. I could have sworn the pirate was firing the whole time as well, but every time I saw her she had somehow stumbled and steadied her gun against the bare skin of one of our party, which – given her otherwise masterful handling of firearms – she surely would not have done had the barrel been hot and in use. Perhaps exhaustion had simply caught up with her.
We continued wandering, and while approaching another cell block came across a pair of doors. I chose right, while Twig chose left. Fortunately, I found nothing. Twig, on the other hand, yelped in pain after a vaguely hollow-sounding thump, and then the screaming started behind me, from the door through which she had just passed. I cringed somewhat – being startled was not helping my concentration. Then a second scream, and I decided that I just needed to get some sort of obstacle between myself and the source. Then a third scream, and I sidestepped into the gate control room. Just to gather my wits, you understand. I admit to having been shaken, and very nearly wanting to just leave the area entirely. I just hate loud noises, and shouts, and ear-splitting screams of pain and despair. They fall very much out of line with my own quiet malaise.
After some sort of scuffle in the other room, the pirate approached me and called me a coward. It was chastening, and I grudgingly admitted to being a little uneasy with the situation. My hands were still shaking a bit. But everything turned out alright, so no harm done.
We passed through the cell block with no further issues, but then came upon the torture chamber. Fully stocked. Just as every lower level of every building in this country should have. And probably does… The body on the rack was in particular disarray, but the iron maiden, which was closed when we came in, opened and contained (or, at least, appeared to contain) fair and terrified Kendra. So I rushed to save her, and was quickly enclosed by the device. Needless to say, dear Kendra was not in the Maiden. I was, and I was pierced by spikes of pure supernatural dread. I felt exceedingly weak while trapped and, hearing the sounds of a scuffle outside, worried that perhaps I would be stuck for rather a long time. As it turns out, it was just a pair of hands. Hands that belonged to the poor gentleman on the rack, who further turned out to be Vesorianna’s late warden husband.
I think that, worse than the pain of the spiritual spikes in the maiden, my own fury at having been so intentionally and terribly distressed by the image of sweet Kendra was burning away at me – and the thought that this low, base, tasteless haunting would use her likeness was too much. I overturned the maiden myself – a remarkable feat of strength for one so admittedly bookish as I. And I felt better. The others took a cue from my reaction, and vented their frustrations on the other devices in the room, after which the heaviness in the air lifted, and the deep-yet-bloodless punctures pocking my body disappeared.
We went home that night feeling a certain degree of accomplishment, for we had discovered the warden’s badge (stuffed in his mouth and used to crack his jaw when he was on the rack), and would be able to return it to Vesorianna once we dealt with the final of the Five. I told Kendra about the difficulties of the day, and my distress at having seen her in the maiden. She comforted me, and the pirate looked disgusted. I thought she was growing to enjoy the budding relationship between her new sister and myself. It may have been the “coward” thing. I resolved to redeem myself the next day.
I suppose that I forgot to mention that there was a secret tunnel running from the torture chamber to the “Nevermore” – the place where we expected to confront the Splatter Man. I had my provisions all set and ready to go. If he was a wizard, as his spell book indicated, as well as a twisted killer, there were some preparations that I would need to make. Especially considering that I was still finding it hard to justify spending magical energy on every little thing that came to pass. I had to ensure that I had the supplies necessary to openly demonstrate both, “Ha, ha… I’m better than you,” and, “Oh, and smarter, too.” A dead psychopath, with heavy trends toward narcissism, would likely find such taunts to be… Unsettling.
We collected Tingleflip, who had escorted the women and children from Ravengro to the next town over (how much safer that would be the grand scheme of things… who knows? If not ghosts, they would surely be beset by big bad wolves, or bogeymen, or some other fairytale creatures). And then we sallied forth again.
We passed through the secret passage, and there was a commotion toward the front of the line, coupled with the acrid smell of acid-drenched material. But it did not take long to get going again. I walked through a puddle of some manner of greyish ooze, which I believe may have been the cause of the ruckus. When we reached the Nevermore, we decided that, perhaps, it might be better to approach from the main entrance, where the portcullis had been dropped. So we backtracked, found the controls disastrously mangled, and then went through the same tunnel as before. Wasted steps, as far as I was concerned. I found myself absent-mindedly thumbing the pages of the spellbook in my pouch.
Walking back into the Nevermore, somone yelled, “Heen.” But there was no response. Then the pirate pulled her second most effective weapon – a piece of chalk – and began to spell his name on the wall. Of course, it was mere moments later that she began desperately rubbing at the wall, as though trying to erase something far more substantial. And so it began. In turn, the other members of the group swung at the wall, or punched it, or scrubbed it. I, alone, did not make much of the bloody first letter of my name when it appeared on the wall. Instead, I pulled out a pipe (disgusting habit, but stylistically important when dealing with a ghostly professor, who also happens to be a wizard). I lit a match. I lit the pipe. And I waited. The rest of the group expressed differing levels of exasperation, but concentrated on the task at hand – destroying the building around them. Not their fault, really, as they all feared that they were losing pieces of themselves. Someone pulled the stopper on a haunt siphon, and the letters disappeared. The sound around us indicated that the structure above us was in severe danger of falling due to the damage to the walls.
Of course, then the room fell in. That hurt. And mere moments later, the ghostly Splatter Man vaulted out of the oubliette. He fired a volley of fully powered magic missiles into the paladin, and then it was time to begin. I withdrew the book and held it tauntingly. Then I burned it. The Splatter Man seemed… Less than pleased. Sadly, there was little that we had which could affect him physically, and he then turned his attention to me. Another round of magic missiles, which dissipated harmlessly as my shield – which I had the presence of mind to cast before entering the Nevermore – blocked them. I smirked, waved my hands in a mocking imitation of his own casting pattern, and managed to break through the inhibition on using spells. He was hit by two missiles of my own. Then he seemed to go just a little bit crazy. The rest of the fight was something of a blur. We hit him with everything we could muster, and it was a near-run thing… Heen, as angry as one could imagine a ghost being, came for me. I had hoped that my layers of mystical protection – mage armor, shield, my ioun stone – and my naturally dextrous fluidity of motion would prevent him from touching me. It did not. In conjunction with the bits of room that had fallen on me, the touch of the ghost very nearly laid me low.
Korrik was very generous in his outlay of positive energy, and kept me feeling realtively strong, all things considered. I continued my attempts to draw attention to myself, but the ghost turned and touched Thimbleguy, who chirped and collapsed. I tried to convince myself that now was the time to use magic, but failed to complete another magic missile. Between Viktor, the druid, Korrik, and Professor Kazare’s faux dragon, Heen was eventually dispatched. I played little more part in the fight than my initial attempts to enrage, distract, and annoy the Splatter Man. Which, frankly, I thought rather brave, and redeeming in light of my prior issue with the screaming (as I found out later) skulls. I made a fat target of myself, thus to spare my comrades Heen’s attentions. Hopefully, the pirate will have noticed.
We returned to Vesorianna her husband’s badge, at which point she became less the pale, uneasy shade she had been, and transformed into the full protector and containment vessel for the evils of Harrowstone. It was a warm and fuzzy moment, and I feel that a bit of my internal darkness was wiped clean with it.
Upon going back to town, we told everyone that the prison was clean, and were roundly celebrated. With the remaining several weeks of required stay in town, I spent most of my time with precious Kendra. The experience in the torture chamber was still hanging over me, and it took some explaining to finally vent it from my system. She was very understanding, and sweet, and kind, as she always is. She has recently confirmed that we are “an item,” which has lifted the rest of the black cloud from me [AL change: NE → N]. I hope her sister is OK with it. I think her opinion of me may have shifted drastically, as she shakes her head in apparent disapproval whenever Kendra and I are interacting in our usual fashion – though, to be fair, most of our other companions have muttered words such as “disgusting,” “blech,” “get a room,” and the like. Professor Kazare quipped that he has been documenting the Courtship Rituals of the Besotted Human. As though I do not know what that means, or that constant giggling and mooning expressions of adoration are something to be mocked. Anyway, that treatise has already been written. I work at the University, and it is not as though I do not have time to read an enormous amount of material. The prior Courtship Rituals dealt with a man who was literally struck with idiocy when thinking about or dealing with his beloved. Nothing like me. I mean, really…