Horror on the Orient Express, Prologue: the Haunting, Part 2
Edelmiro Cervantes - Spanish-born Occultist touring Britain.
Dr. Klauss Fischer - German-born Psychiatrist, disciple of Jung. (player absent)
Flora Bianchin - Italian Nurse and Midwife, saw the Great War up close.
Mikhail Sokolov - Exiled Russian Aristo-turned-Criminal.
Viktor Gruzinsky - Bolshevik Spy posing as Exiled Russian Aristo.
Lavinia Wray - English Archaeologist working for the British Museum.
The second part of our prologue commences when the group arrives at the Fitz Hotel Dining Room to discuss the days events. A new face shows up at the table: Dr. Fischer has asked his friend Lavinia Wray to attend the gathering on his behalf so he can deal with a difficult patient. Given all the information to hand, the group decides once again to divide up in order to pursue two goals: Dr. Wray and Mr. Cervantes will check the London city records office while the remainder of the group will perform a cursory inspection of the house at Bacon's Lane.
Visiting the Records Office yields some further information: a certificate of death for Walter Corbitt dated in 1866 and court records pertaining to the arrest of disbanding of the Societas Cognitationis. Half a dozen men were arrested for defacing the grave of Anna Kingsford in Highgate Cemetery. Cervantes knows the name Anna Kingsford, but can't place it. The pair decided to make their way to Cambridge to review the SPR library, which has a number of sources on historic occult and supernatural happenings. Research reveals Anna Kingsford was a rare case of demonic possession investigated by the Church of England. Ms. Kingsford had several violent outbursts wherein she harmed her parents and her local parish priest. She eventually institutionalized and her family left money to pay for a burial in the newly constructed Highgate Cemetery. She was interred in one of the first large public vaults.
Meanwhile, in Camden, Viktor, Mikhail, and Flora enter the former home of Walter Corbitt. Viktor is convinced that if a house is "haunted" the source of the problem is invariably in the basement, and heads there first with Flora while Mikhail checks out the upstairs. Viktor notices a broken step and he and Flora are able to avoid it. Flora quickly spots a rat hole in the far wall that indicates there's something hidden behind it. The pair begin to search around for what else might be hidden in the debris of the basement. Flora wants to find a tool she can use to pry off the boards surround the rat hole, having the sense that the basement is unusually small for a house of this size.
Mikhail is on his way to the former guest bedroom when he hears a scream from downstairs. From amidst a pile of broken boards and dirty rags, a gore encrusted knife emerges and floats in midair, attacking the pair of investigators in the basement. Terrified, the pair flee upstairs and bolt the door, knocking Mikhail over in the process of taking cover. After fleeing the house, the group reassesses their plans and heads for the second floor, this time staying together. Once inside the remaining bedroom, Flora closes the door to present any unwanted cutlery from attacking. Viktor views the wall in the room and watches in shock as the face of a terrible old man bubbles up from within the crusty wallpaper. As Viktor draws the attention of his friends to the phantom image only he can see, the wooden bed frame in the room rises up and strikes Mikhail! Flora bolts for the door, only to find it resisting her efforts to pull it open, Viktor pulls his pistol and blast the face in the wall, which dissipates in dust and silent laughter. The bed now turns up on end, towering over Mikhail and forcing him toward the window. Mihkail makes a startlingly fast dodge out of the way just as the bed surges toward the window, trying to drive him through it. Viktor during his gun on the door and blows a hole in it. The door falls open and the three companions escape, this time leaving the house behind them.
The investigators join up again for another nighttime meal at the Fitz Hotel. Edelmiro and Lavinia notice Vitkor's torn pant leg (a near miss with the knife) and Mikhail limping. Their three companions recount their tale of the haunted house. At a loss for what to do next and fearing the house at night, the bulk of the investigators decide to see what they can learn from the burial site of Anna Kingsford. Perhaps the Societas Congnitationis left some clues behind that could better help them understand the old Corbitt house. Meanwhile, Flora is looking for coping strategies and turns to the Roman Catholic Church. She's seen some horrible things in the Great War, but nothing that prepared her for genuine supernatural activity. A persuasive discuss with her priest allows her access to his personal library, where she finds a copy of Malleus Maleficarum.
Back in Camden, Lavinia, Edelmiro, Viktor, and Mikhail sneak into Highgate Cemetery after hours and pry open the vault where Anna Kingsford in interred. Inside they find her wood casket, marked up with a variety of sigils, including a prominent all-seeing eye. Looking around, the investigators find a loose stone in the floor of the tomb, under which is hidden a canvas bag containing some ritual objects and a record book containing the minutes of the Societas Cognitationis. Anna Kingsford's grave was chosen because of her experience with possession. The SC considered her remains an ideal focus for calling to their "God Beneath the Earth." The records also identify Walter Corbitt as a founding member of the SC and indicate his last request was to anoint his body with certain oils he'd mixed and then lay him to rest in his basement.
Sunday and Monday are used for research, as Edelmiro combs through the Societas Cognitationis records and several other investigators attempt research to different ends: Flora studies MM, Lavinia looks for a source on cult activity and turns up Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Viktor takes a different approach, studying sources on magnetism, electricity, and rumors regarding Tesla's latest theories and inventions, as he's convinced himself there is nothing supernatural in the house, but rather someone is using magnetic and electrical effects distort perceptions and make things move seemingly of their own accord.
By Wednesday, the investigators are ready to go back to the house and deal with what lies within the the basement. Their plan is to locate Corbitt's remains and either bury them properly or burn them. Their 1920s "Ghost Buster" kit consist of two wooden shields with leather straps commissioned through a local carpenter and a large magnet. These are intended to trap and deactivate the floating knife or another other sharp objects employed against them. Lavinia supplies a shovel and pick axe from her personal tools, and Flora brings a vial of holy water secured from her priest, some herbs to burn, and rags soaked in medical alcohol to act as accelerants.
Heading down into the basement, careful to avoid the broken step that Viktor and Flora discovered the first time, Viktor and Mikail locate the formerly floating knife resting atop a pile of crates in the basement. Using the shields, they knock it to the floor, place a shield on top of it and Mikhail stands on it. Upstairs on the ground floor, Edelmiro, Flora, and Lavinia take a moment to rifle through the storage cupboards where they find a box of books marked "Corbitt." They find three hand-written journals in ratty leather bindings and set them aside to review later. The remaining three investigators head for the basement and Edelmiro and Lavinia tear into the wall with the tools while Flora lights her herbs intent on warding off the evil she can feel practically feel beyond the loosening boards.
After prying away three boards and revealing the 1-foot space between the two false walls, a flood of rats rush out and cover the three closest investigators. The group has had the foresight to purchase heavy leather jackets and coveralls for protection, but the rats hang on and seek the soft spaces where the clothing doesn't cover as thoroughly. Wrists, knees, ankles, and necks become targets as the rats cling on in defense of their nest. Finally the death of one of the larger rats is a signal for the rest to flee up the stairs and disappear.
In the midst of the confusion with the rats, Mikhail was overpowered by a voice at the back of his mind which commands him to pick up the knife and drive it into VIktor when his back is turned. Mikhail attempts this, but fortunately Flora sees what's coming and warns Viktor. Viktor dodges out of the way of the attack and restrains Mikhail while Flora strikes him repeatedly with her handbag. The blows seem to knock some sense into Mikhail and he gets control of himself and drops the knife, which is picked up with Viktor's heavy magnet and placed in a a chest of drawers at the back of the basement. Mikhail, however, is a mess. He wakes up from his trance in an amnesiac state. As far has he was concerned he was just having breakfast a moment ago. His mind tries to force away the memory of the otherworldly voice scratching about inside his head and commanding him to do its bidding. It's all too much. Mikhail will be largely useless in the coming fight with Coribitt, but as he recovers he begins to correlate the contents of his mind (Mythos related sanity=+5% Cthulhu Mythos).
The rats are dealt with and Mikhail, psychologically weakened and disoriented, has been placed at the back of the basement near the stairs. These two matters in hand, Lavinia and Edelmiro break through the wall that stands between themselves and Corbitt. Flora approaches the wooden-looking cadaver on its mound of earth first, intent on making an examination of Corbitt's curious state followed by anointing the remains with holy water. Her plan his cut short when the cadaver suddenly lurches up upright! The monstrous thing lunges for Flora, who drops her vile of holy water on the floor. The creatures claws rake across her stomach, a wound so severe it takes all her concentration to stay upright.
Viktor's bullets do little except distract the creature, but this gives Lavinia enough time to light one of the alcohol soaked rags and shove it in the Corbitt-thing's face. Edelmiro puts himself between Flora and the creature, but falls in the process of trying to assault with his cane. The creature leaps onto the occultist and rakes him with its claws. Lavinia wraps the burning rag around Corbitt, now that his back is turned. The fire does the work that bullets and blunt instruments can't, and Viktor manages to finish off the creature by striking its burning body from one of the commissioned shield. Edelmiro is rescued from the remains as Corbitt crumbles to ashes.
Both the occultist and Flora are taken to a nearby hospital where they spend almost a month recovering. The group takes some time to go through Corbitt's journals, learning of how he left seminar, failed at becoming a professional writer, and eventually pursued some darker avenues of research that led him to conjuring a being he calls the Opener of the Way. This creature taught Corbitt a variety of magical knowledge, initiated him in the worship of several Great Old Ones, and offered him command of powerful spells.
--My investigator group has vary degrees of experience with CoC, they're clever thinkers, and they also keep in mind the bigger picture of telling a good horror story and role-play to a fault. They know better than the burn a house down if they can help it, so they came up with a couple of ingenious ways to handle Corbitt and the games he plays: the magnet, the shields, coveralls, and the burning rags. The quick-start version of the 7th edition rules containing "The Haunting" doesn't really mention Corbitt is vulnerable to fire or that the knife can be stopped by a competing magnetic field, but I decided these were well-thought out strategies.
--I'm still having trouble managing some of the more obscure rules: ganging up, burning luck points in combat.
--They're taking the "Mythos Book Club" approach this time. Everyone read Corbitt's diaries. I decided to leave out the Livre d'Ivon associated with the cult in the original adventure, because this isn't a stand alone story and there's not enough time between the prologue (September 1922) and the Challenger Lecture that starts off HotOE (January 1923) to appreciate a longer tome. So I reduced it to the Records of the Societas Cogitationis. The Records and the Corbitt Diaries offer +3% and +4% Cthulhu Mythos respectively in exchange for a small amount of Sanity Loss. The players now have access to two short Mythos sources and Corbitt's magical knife, so calling upon the Opener of the Way is there as a tantalizing option.
--Most players now have between 4% and 7% Cthulhu Mythos, with Mikhail leading the pack at 9% due to the additional "benefit" of Mythos induced insanity.