IIIa. The Doom That Came to Elderham

Session Date: April 15, 2019
Effective Character Level: 3

The undead are an ethically-tricky business.

Not that I have any personal issues with destroying them. But what are they? When a magic-user brings a skeleton or zombie “to life,” what controls its actions? Stories of necromancers always speak of the undead carrying out simple orders, as best they can. So what intelligence guides each step? What mind sees through their eyes? What will decides how to raise its sword (or mace, or femur) and strike with it?

And when the original spell ends, what causes them to continue spreading their mayhem into the surrounding world?

Is there a true consciousness behind those eyeless sockets? Has an expired soul been bound to the corporeal form? Does a demon manipulate it from another plane? Do the gods pull the strings?

Or has the original spell somehow created a new form of life itself?

And if it is the last, is it murder to kill one?

-notes from Theren’s journal

They Mostly Come at Night

The group of adventurers made town around ten o’clock in the morning. Even then, however, only a few of the local businesses had begun unshuttering for the day.

Multi-story buildings that might have, at one time, housed a thousand souls were boarded and in decay. Only those in the center of town still saw use, and even then, generally only on the first floor.

A man leading a mule of his own directed them to the nearest inn, named appropriately “The Leaky Tap.”

As could be expected, there were no other tenants. Zacchaeus Omallian, the inn master and barkeep, seemed happy enough to see new paying customers.

“…what with those bards and their friends mysteriously leaving in the night,” he noted. “Though I might suppose I can see why, with them losing one of their one. Shame, really.”

The second floor was not spacious, and Zacchaeus was only able to give the group a single room. However, he lowered the price to one gold a head (stables and feed included, food and drink extra), which was a comparative bargain.

It was clear the town had seen better days, likely even before the sudden rash of mobile deceased. Right now, its residents would gladly seize any opportunity (and hope) they could manage.

It had been five days since the adventurers had eaten something besides rations, and they waited for a hot meal at the inn before venturing outwards. As they ate, they discussed the situation with Zacchaeus.

“We come to kill undead,” Rudolfo began, bluntly.

“You’ll find no shortage of that here, cleric,” Zaccheaus replied. “We’ve had our dearly departed walking up and down our streets at night for, oh, three months now.”

“Are all the undead you’ve seen from sentient races, then? We fought an undead bear just last evening.”

“All the ones from our local graveyard have been sentient…even human, apart from the occasional family pet. But with the necrotic energy slowly seeping out from the cemetery…well, all sorts of things have been animating themselves. In daylight, no less.”

“And you’ve had no luck in clearing them yourselves?”

“Aye, well, there’s two problems to that, y’see. First, the undead we fell simply reform themselves the next evening. The second is…well…it’s hard to stab your old pa between the ribs with a sword. Even the second or third time.”

He coughed a bit, uncomfortably.

“At least they don’t seem to be out to cause much harm. Bang on a few doors, rattle some windows…mostly make sure we know they’re out there. But nobody gets attacked, unless you actually go into the cemetery at night.”

“So why don’t you just wall off the cemetery? That doesn’t sound like too hard of a task.”

The innkeeper looked aghast, almost offended. “Would you wall up your old ma up in the attic when she was alive? Then why would we do it after she’s dead? These bodies…these people are still our flesh and blood. Even if, maybe, they’ve forgotten it a little.”

“When exactly did the plague start? Any idea what caused it? Is it a magical source? And if so, arcane or divine?”

“The problems all started about three months ago. You’d need to speak with Elder Templeton for anything more than that. He’s our mayor, of sorts…the most knowledgeable around here, at least. Right now, however, he’s out cremating the unlucky soul from last night–an Elijah, if I recall right.”

Here he leaned in closer to the group. “From what I hear, the other group of adventurers was not, um, with the boy when he died.”

The party nodded in understanding. They too would likely leave town in the middle of the night, if it had ever gotten around that they’d intentionally left one of their own behind.

Still, Zacchaeus was able to give them a basic introduction to the town’s lore. Fifty years ago, a famed dwarvan paladin hero had been buried here, one by the name of Xervius the Sixth. He’d served as a hero, not just to Elderham, but all of Rapier’s Edge. His most famous act was the felling of a white dragon in the mountainous portion of the island, north beyond Argurn’s Hold.

This noble deed also resulted in his own demise; and, per his requests, he had not been revived. Instead, he had been buried here, in this simple, unassuming village.

However, it was his tomb that was at the epicenter of all these events. Rumor among the villagers was that Xervius had somehow broken his paladin oath before he died, cursing himself and his afterlife.

Unfortunately, no one in the village had been able to access his tomb safely to check.

Rudolfo blinked. “A paladin of Moradin,” he breathed, acknowledging the chief deity in the dwarven pantheon. “I’ve heard of this dwarf.”

“How could such a great hero have fallen so far?”

“There are, unfortunately, too many ways. One of the easiest, for example, would be exactly what this village’s previous guests did. Namely, sacrificing another for their own safety.”

Over their hot meal, the group discussed their options. Rudolfo suggested not running into this situation blindly, instead taking a night or two to investigate the village and its graveyard before hatching plans. The others agreed.

Scoping the Grounds

The town of Elderham proper was a small affair, and it was easy enough to find their way from one end to the other. There was a small market in the center with a few bland, uninteresting shops. Eastward were the docks, where most of the city’s revenue came from (at least, until the undead). To the southwest, however, lay the party’s objective: the cemetery.

True to Zacchaeus’s word, a twelve-foot palisade of tree trunks driven into stone ran the entire perimeter of the town. These discouraged attacks from hostile wildlife or marauders. It was open on only two fronts: at the ocean to the east, and where the town met the graveyard.

The gates to the cemetery were firmly shut and locked; whatever business Elder Templeton performed with the dead was elsewhere. The locked doors seemed more a deterrence to the living, as the undead could easily scale the eight-foot iron fence, dig under it, or even squeeze between the bars.

There were a few leathery human bodies visible in the graveyard; Theren’s eldritch vision confirmed a magic afterglow, indicating these would be more mobile at night.

On the far side of the graveyard, a large stone structure stood out from the plots. If what Zacchaeus had told them was true, this was likely the final resting place of Xervius. They would not know more without getting closer.

The cemetery was eerily quiet. Whatever animals that lived here had already fled or been slain. Even Lyman’s badger refused to have anything to do with it.

Stay a While, and Listen

Next on the group’s agenda was a formal consultation with Elder Templeton Chamberwolf, the oldest and wisest of the village.

The Elder’s house sat more to the side of the village, and it was carefully kept. The outside seemed as beaten and as weathered as any other structure of the village; but even through the meager windows, the adventurers could make out elements of refinery.

Elder Templeton himself answered the door when summoned. His hair was grey, where he was not balding; and he wore a blue-grey robe, complete with a walking stick. He greeted the newcomers in a jovial lisp.

“Yesh? Who ish it? How can I help you?”

“We’ve heard of your town’s undead problem, and we’ve come to address it.”

“Oh, I shee, I shee. Well, please come in. I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Theren’s eldritch sight, on the lookout for any magical items, lit up as soon as he stepped into the main room. Along polished oak tables that looked older than their owner, rows of books, in several languages, gleamed with a telltale aura. This was a man who was versed in both the mundane and the arcane.

(For now, There kept this knowledge to himself, pondering if, how, and why he would bring it up to the others.)

The mystery surrounding the town’s graveyard seemed both straightforward and convoluted. Yes, the townsfolk had deduced that whatever afflicted the dead originated from within the paladin’s crypt. Yes, there was a way to safely open and enter into the tomb. But that way involved a riddle, carved into the doors in the dwarven tongue.

Elder Templeton took up his notes, though the words flowed more from memory than paper.

“Freeze your anger.
Shock your heart of melancholy.
Bury your fear.
Incinerate your greed.”

“These are the words, it ish shaid, that Xervius would recite to himshelf, before doing battle. Beshide each line are two indentationsh, ash if for an item to be placed. But no one, in these pasht fifty years, hash been able to learn what they might mean.”

They spent a few additional minutes gathering a little more helpful information about the history of the event, the number of casualties, and the layout of the graveyard. They learned that more visitors to the town had actually died than natives; and, like Elijah from the night before, anyone who had died since the outbreak had been cremated.

As far as anyone could tell, Templeton was a genuine, forthcoming individual who spoke truthfully…although he seemed to be ultimately resigned to the fate of his town. Yesod eventually put forth a suggestion.

“Theren. You have a history as a scribe. Would you be willing to look over the church and property records here, to see if there’s something that’s been missed? These undead are surprisingly non-aggressive, and I wonder if they’re not just being set up to scare away tenants.”

Theren didn’t object. Reading and writing had been his specialty in Baldur’s Gate; and this excuse would allow him to spend more time around the magical library in Templeton’s house.

[Editor’s Note: The following conversation occurred outside Theren’s presence.]

Once the rest of the party had emerged from the Elder’s house, Yesod turned to the others.

“Don’t you think Elder Templeton seemed just a little too eager to help? He’s only just met us, but he welcomed us into his home, freely shared his information, and even let us pore through his important documents.”

“Maybe he’s just genuinely happy that someone’s here to help,” Rudolfo replied. “You’re a very distrustful of people, did you know that? I remember that even when we left Whitechurch, you deliberately lied to the town guard about where we were going, for no reason that I could see.”

“Did I ever tell you why I am to slow to trust anyone or anything? Because the last time I rushed into anything, it cost me my whole village!”

Yesod revealed that this was not, in fact, the first time he had ever adventured. Before, he had entered a crypt not far from his home village. While there, he had encountered a demon and accidentally freed it. The demon had gone on a killing spree that had cost him the lives of everyone he’d known or cared about.

In fact, according to Yesod, the ghosts of those victims still haunted him to this day.

“So forgive me if I see darker intents behind everything these days. But I can’t help but wonder if adventurers aren’t being intentionally sacrificed to something.”

You Should Rest and Meditate

The sun set around eight in the town of Elderham, but the windows remained unshuttered till ten. At that point, lumbering husks began shambling about the village, pounding on doors, and generally ensuring people knew of their presence. If they were armed, it was usually only with a club or some other makeshift weapon.

The five adventurers regarded them with passing interest from their second-floor inn room. Attacking them would be pointless; it would not end the undead threat, and it might put one of them in danger.

Theren, who had returned from his bookkeeping earlier, affirmed that–at least in as far as he could tell–Templeton’s story seemed on the money. There was nothing unusual in the deeds, land ownership, or births and deaths that he could find.

“But that doesn’t mean I’ve come back empty-handed!” he declared, pulling out a page of notes he’d copied down from Templeton. At the top of the sheet were the words “Instructions for Summoning a Familiar.”

Together, the party of five pooled enough resources to summon two familiars to their group. During Gariff’s guard watch, he was visited by a green-tinged barn owl, whom he affectionately named “Nibbles.”

Yesod gained the other familiar–a ghostly-white bat, who remained unnamed. Its echolocation could come in handy later.

Theren, too, gained a new element of power that night, though his experience was perhaps slightly more traumatic.

Theren found himself wandering along a path, encompassed in complete darkness. The only visible object was an indistinct female figure in the distance ahead. Theren called out, but his voice made no sound. He rain towards the girl, but she kept pace, eluding him.

Then she was in his face, blood streaming from her eyeless sockets. She pressed a book-sized object into his hand.

Then, he awoke in his room at the inn. The object was still in his hands.

Theren occupied himself with his new gift during breakfast on the inn’s main floor. He did not want to admit to the others that he’d fallen asleep on shift (again), even if both times he’d done so, he’d been granted greater powers by his patron. If these nighttime visits continued, he’d need to find some other way of keeping guard.

The “object” was, in fact, a single giant scale. Its size implied it had fallen from a truly majestic beast. On its underside, three words were etched with immaculate precision, in lines nearly too fine to read:

“Ice. Fire. Light.”

Without even needing to verify, Theren knew inside that he’d gained skills of magical evocation. His patroness must be pleased with his conduct thus far.

Elder Templeton agreed to loan the party the key to the cemetery gates for that evening. He also gave a few extra tips on features to look for, including eight stone gargoyles he felt were key to solving the mystery. Until then, they were free to occupy themselves as they wished.

Yesod found the local blacksmith’s and inquired as to their goods. He found a line of simple but perfectly passable tools, and decided to commission a weapon. The smithy was happy to take his order of a large, two-handed hammer, though he warned it wouldn’t be ready for another three days.

Rudolfo too made preparations. Their paladin Lyman had spent the previous night on the roof of the inn, both for a better vantage point over the undead crowds below, and for a nocturnal view of the graveyard. However, his line of sight had been blocked by other two-story buildings.

Knowing that many of these houses were now empty, Rudolfo received permission from Elder Templeton to take up temporary residence in one that sat directly across from the gates. In addition to being spacious and affording direct line-of-sight, it could serve as a defensible structure, if things went poorly tonight.

Getting Down to Business

The sun was setting as the party double-checked the equipment they would bring tonight. As they were preparing to leave for the cemetery, a heated argument began between their cleric dwarf and Damien, their hired help. It seemed Damien was having second thoughts about entering a zombie-filled crypt in the middle of the night, and he was instead opting to “guard” their belongings back at the inn.

“Fine! Then don’t expect any cut of whatever we find tonight!” Rudolfo roared as he exited.

Behind him, the youth looked as if he’d been punched in the gut, but he said nothing.

As soon as it was ten o’clock, the bodies in the graveyard again rose to their feet. The five adventurers, waiting inside their new safe house, wordlessly watched them slide through and under the gate. Once the bulk of them had meandered towards the center of town, they exited their new safe house and unlocked the cemetery gate. With the undead horde occupied elsewhere, they would now have the best chance to work in peace.

There were quite a few plots in the graveyard for such a small town, even accounting that many were family plots. The tenants were more neatly arranged–and even better represented in stonework–the closer the group got to the hero’s resting place. This fact, together with the number of empty two-story houses in the town proper, indicated that the village’s golden age was far behind it.

They located the eight pedestals and accompanying stone gargoyles easily enough. Thanks to Theren’s mystical vision, he could see magical orbs not much bigger than his fist, lodged deep in the throats of each of the figures.

Along with the orbs, each of the gargoyle pedestals had a symbol at its base. All together, there were four elements, and four emotions (represented by masks, as if from a comedy or tragedy play).

Rudolfo reviewed the dwarven script still visible on the crypt’s door. Beside each line were two small recesses, each the same size as the orbs they’d collected.

“Freeze your anger. Shock your heart of melancholy. Bury your fear. Incinerate your greed.

“Well, this seems straightforward enough.”

The adventurers worked together to place the eight orbs in their correct receptacles–first cold and fury, then air and tragedy, following with earth and fear, and finishing with fire and avarice.

As the last orb was placed, the stone doors dissolved into dust before them. The way to the crypt below had been laid open.

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