Migrated this play report from the forums as suggested by PoC (thanks!). Discussion is located in this thread.
Just finished running the Peru prologue for Masks with my family this weekend. Went pretty well and we had a good time. I haven’t come across any posts from others that have already run Peru, so I thought I’d share how our game went, see if others can give me some feedback, and maybe provide some tips for others that may be getting ready to venture into Peru as well.
Needless to say, spoilers lie ahead.
Quick background: I’m not as experienced a keeper/GM as many others around here. Used to run games when I was in my teens and 20s, but I’ve only run one game in the last decade or so. That was the first half of Haunting (using ToC rules) for my family as well. I’m more experienced from a game design standpoint, and right now I’m working on tailoring my RPG/tabletop system for a mythos game - actually used Peru as a first test of that system. My players are even less experienced - actually my two kids and my mother - we play lots of board games, but the Haunting was the first time they played an RPG and we didn’t quite finish it.
Anyway, on with Peru…
I didn’t tell the players much to start - they were going to Peru in 1921 and there was a lost pyramid. Told them it was a mystery game and their goal was to gather clues, figure out what was going on and what to do about it. Showed them the newspaper clipping about the expedition and handed them a stack of character sheets for the pre-gens with the background stories on the back. My daughter picked Jennifer Smallwood, my son chose Arthur Dibden, and my mother surprisingly chose Archibald Washington. I gave them the telegram from Larkin, gave them a 5-minute rundown of the system, and they were off to Lima - a dilettante, a doctor, and a boxer turned engineer.
The investigators met up with Larkin, Mendoza, and Elias (as Hughes) at Bar Cordano, and by the end of the conversation with Larkin they were already very suspicious. They weren’t sure about Hughes either when he asked them to join him for a drink, but once he indicated he didn’t trust Larkin and revealed his true identity they were at least willing to listen to him. Hearing about the legend of the kharisiri and Elias’ theories about a cult only reinforced their suspicions and paranoia. They made plans to meet Elias in the morning and head to the museum, but first they asked Elias if he could point them to where they might be able to purchase some weapons before heading out on the expedition. He gave them some names and directions before parting for the evening. The investigators still didn’t trust Elias, so they made plans to get up early, get some weapons, and then meet him. Jennifer also suggested she telegram some of her family contacts to see what she could find out about Larkin, but she didn’t want to go alone so they all went to the telegraph office before returning to their hotel. They still didn’t feel too safe, so Washington slept on a chair in the hall to keep watch overnight.
After an uneventful night, the group headed out to buy some guns. They wanted pistols, knives, and rifles - plus Jennifer wanted a Derringer she could hide in her boot. With Elias’ suggestions and Jennifer’s money, they had no problem finding what they wanted - but there was some debate on how to proceed. The investigators clearly didn’t trust anyone at this point, and they didn’t want anyone knowing what weapons they had. They talked about trying to hide the guns along the route or maybe bribe the truck drivers. In the end, they decided to take the pistols and knives with them and have the rifles delivered to the trucks in front of Hotel España on Monday morning. They wanted the delivery to take place in front of everyone, that way no one would suspect they also had the pistols.
After securing their weapons and making delivery arrangements, the investigators met up with Elias and headed for the museum. Elias introduced them to Sánchez, who explained what he knew about the pyramid and that his grad assistant was working on the details. Washington was surprised that Sánchez didn’t know anything about the cult that Elias was investigating. The investigators got tired of waiting for Rizo and decided to head downstairs to talk to her, but not before debating about whether or not they wanted Elias to accompany them. The discussion almost escalated to an argument - in hushed whispers since they were still in Sánchez’s office - but they finally agreed to have Elias stay with Sánchez while they went to the storeroom.
The investigators headed downstairs into the dim basement corridor and easily located the storeroom. Already on edge in the low lighting, the discovery of Rizo’s nearly mummified body weakened the resolve of the group – especially Dibden – but all managed to keep it together. Dibden examined the body and was able to conclude a caustic substance dissolved some of the tissue and fat appeared to have been sucked through the gaping wound in the chest. He also noticed a notebook tucked in her pocket. Washington noticed the glint of the Golden Ward in the debris around the body – and then saw the bloody footprints leading to another door in back of the storeroom. Jennifer wanted to leave, and Washington and Dibden argued about whether or not they should follow the footprints. Hearing an echo of screams from somewhere upstairs brought the situation to a head. Dibden and Washington grabbed the notebook and the Golden Ward before heading back up the way they came. Jennifer had no interest in going towards the source of the screaming, but after an exclamation of, “I’m not staying down here alone!” she promptly followed them upstairs.
As they reached the ground floor, the group heard screams and commotion coming from outside – as well as sounds of scuffling from inside Sánchez’s office. The investigators quickly split up, with Dibden heading outside to see if he could provide medical assistance and Washington and Jennifer entering the office.
Dibden quickly located the source of the screaming as a crowd standing around Elias, who appeared to be crouched over someone else lying in the street. Rushing up to the scene, Dibden found Elias trying to stop the blood coming from a wound in an elderly woman’s stomach. Wasting no time to render what aid he could, Dibden asked Elias what happened while he started working to save the woman. “Not sure. I heard screams and came outside. Found her like this. They’re saying something about a man with a sword,” indicating the gathering crowd.
Washington and Jennifer entered Sánchez’s office to find someone standing with his back to them next to the desk, and they could just make out the professor’s struggling body on the other side. Washington rushed forward to restrain the attacker and was shocked with how easily he was flung backward. His shock was compounded when the attacker turned – Mendoza in full kharisiri form. Jennifer quickly drew her Derringer and fired, striking Mendoza in the chest. Mendoza just snarled (courtesy of Syrinscape), which immediately triggered a, “Oh hellll no!” Washington, lying on his back, also drew and fired a volley of shots from his pistol, which felled Mendoza.
Hearing the shots, Dibden and Elias instructed the onlookers to get help for the now-stabilized woman and began running back to the museum. Elias asked what was going on, to which Dibden replied, “We found Rizo dead downstairs and heard noises coming from the office.” Elias drew his pistol and sped up, with Dibden barely keeping pace.
Dibden and Elias enter the officer to find Washington checking on Sánchez and Jennifer keeping her distance from Mendoza’s body. “We should probably see if he’s alive or dead… but I’m not going to check to see if he’s dead!” With Sánchez writhing on the floor in obvious pain and moaning about being kissed, Dibden immediately checks him over. Upon discovering something moving in his abdomen, the team comes up with a plan of action. Jennifer pins her boot on Mendoza’s neck and cover him with her Derringer, while Washington covers both Sánchez and Mendoza with his pistol. Elias holds Sánchez down while Dibden performs an impromptu surgery to remove whatever is inside him. They manage to remove a large larva-like creature and promptly kill it – and of course everyone’s grossed out.
With Sánchez stabilized, Dibden turns his attention to Mendoza. He confirms Mendoza appears to be dead and inspects the odd structure of the mouth. Verifying this is the likely cause of Rizo’s injuries, the doc also determines that Mendoza was at least once human. The investigators start discussing what to do next, when Elias points out that Sánchez needs medical care and two dead bodies – one riddled with bullets – will require some explanation to the authorities. Elias goes outside to grab any medical personnel that may be assisting the woman on the street. He brings two men back, whispers to them for a couple of minutes and pays them, and then informs the investigators that these men will see Sánchez safely to the hospital. He suggests the investigators head back to the hotel – he will talk to the police when they arrive and ensure Rizo’s body is properly cared for while questions regarding Mendoza are kept to a minimum. He asks one of the investigators to leave their pistol behind so he can provide it as evidence. Everyone agrees and the group heads out.
Washington, Dibden, and Jennifer return to their hotel and review Rizo’s notes. The group quickly concludes that the gold from the pyramid must be cursed and that they should return it in order to bring the curse to an end. Elias arrives and tells everyone that he has handled the police, but that Mendoza’s body disappeared while they were downstairs with Rizo. The group is unnerved by the news, but not surprised. Elias also checked on Sánchez and verified he will recover. After some debate about whether or not they should trust Elias, Washington shows him the notes and the gold. Elias points out there is something on the Golden Ward, which Dibden identifies as skin – suspecting that the gold somehow harmed Mendoza. The group reviews their options to see what else they might learn before the expedition departs on Monday morning and decides to check out Larkin and Mendoza’s hotel.
Rather than accompany the others directly to the hotel, Jennifer and Washington first stop to sends some additional telegrams to Jennifer’s family contacts to see what they can confirm about Elias.
Elias and Dibden head to Hotel España and gain access to Mendoza and Larkin’s rooms after confirming that neither is there. They find Mendoza’s room largely unused, but discover and take the Golden Mirror. They find heroin in Larkin’s room, confirming Dibden’s suspicions about his condition. They rendezvous with the others in the lobby and are still there when Larkin returns to the hotel. They follow him to his room to find him high and only marginally coherent. Following a brief discussion with Larkin, Elias finally confronts him with the truth about Mendoza. Eventually Nyarlathotep briefly assumes control of Larkin to make a few vague threats, followed by Larkin collapsing long enough for Dibden to examine him – discovering the strange tattoo on his chest, the failing state of his physical body, and the fact that he does not appear to be a kharisiri or host to a larva.
Leaving Larkin in his room and returning to Hotel Maury, the group decides to spend Sunday trying to find out what they can about Larkin’s tattoo and anything else they can learn. They also decide that they will meet Monday morning to continue with the expedition as planned, but if they don’t like what they see they still want to go to the pyramid. Elias says that with what they know now, he believes he knows someone in Puno who could direct them to the pyramid’s location. The group asks Elias to make alternative travel arrangements to get to Puno, and Elias agrees on the condition that the investigators can cover the costs of the trip. Jennifer assures him that won’t be a problem.
Sunday morning, Washington and Jennifer head to the telegraph office where they receive some telegrams from Jennifer’s contacts. Most cannot offer much on such short notice, but they are able to confirm Elias’ story and reputation. They also confirm Larkin comes from money but is something of a black sheep – and that he has travelled a great deal in the last couple of years.
Meanwhile, Dibden and Elias hit a couple of libraries trying to learn about the tattoo. Finally, Elias points out that without some point of reference, finding information in a library or museum related to a description of an unknown tattoo will be difficult. He offers to contact some of his associates knowledgeable in the occult, but doubts any information will be forthcoming before they have to leave for the pyramid. The team also learns that Larkin left his hotel first thing Sunday morning and that neither he nor Mendoza have returned since. Elias arranges travel for the group.
Monday morning, everyone meets in front of Hotel España, where the trucks and drivers are waiting for Larkin, who is evidently a no-show. The investigators take delivery of their rifles and ammunition, grow tired of waiting, and head into the hotel to find Larkin’s room cleared out. With that, they decide to take advantage of Elias’ arrangements. The group takes a steamer up the coast and then catches the train north to Puno, all on Jennifer’s dime. She seems unaffected by the high altitude, with Dibden and Washington’s military and boxing backgrounds serving them well as they easily make the adjustment to the elevation.
Once in Puno, Elias asks around until he learns that his friend, Nayra, is hiding from suspected kharisiri on one of the islands on Lake Titicaca. The groups heads to the docks, where they notice a couple of people watching them, then take a small boat to the island. Nayra greets Elias and tells them about the legend of the pyramid – the Tiwanaku built it to contain a ravenous god that fell from the sky using “spells worked in gold”. Two kharisiri arrive on a boat and attack, but are quickly felled by the group with rifles. As it dies, one of the kharisiri threatens the team in Spanish that Elias translates as, “You too will serve the Father of Maggots.” Hearing this in contexts with other stories she has heard, Nayra concludes that this may be another name for the god dwelling inside the pyramid. She expresses concern that the recent stories of the kharisiri have including attackers of native descent as well as white men. She thanks the group for their help and assists with getting them supplies before seeing them off with directions to the pyramid.
The investigators are anxious to reach the pyramid before Mendoza or Larkin and remain convinced that they must return the gold – including the Golden Ward, the Golden Mirror, and the pendant and cup last seen in the possession of Larkin – in order to break the curse of the kharisiri. Washington keeps watch the first night in camp on the way into the highlands. Hearing strange noises, he rouses everyone else and the group finds one of their pack animals dead, its wounds matching those found on Rizo’s body.
The following day, the investigators continue their trek into the highlands. When they hear gunshots ring out, they dive for cover behind the rise of a hill. They have stumbled upon two farmers – a man and his son – who were recently attacked by kharisiri. After convincing the father they are not kharisiri themselves and mean him no harm (depending on Elias to translate), Dibden treats the son’s wounds before the group sets off after the attackers. They finally catch up with two kharisiri the following day and follow them to the ruins and the pyramid.
The group surveys the ruins from a nearby overlook and watches as the two kharisiri each ascend the pyramid and vomit into a large crack on its flat peak. When the kharisiri disappear on the far side of the pyramid, the team descends and locates a section of wall buried enough to allow them easy access to the ruins. The entire site smells retched and is buzzing with flies. The group first ascends the pyramid, where they discover vile remnants of fat around a crack in the roof, and an odd bubbling sound from deep within. The team decides they want to try and fill the crack in, so they begin searching the ruins for loose stone or anything else they can use. As they explore, Washington falls into an exposed chimney. He is a little banged up but otherwise okay, and discovers and angled shaft that leads deeper underground. Consulting Rizo’s notes, the group reluctantly decides they need to go into the tunnels and this shaft will probably get them there. After briefly considering lowering a lama into the hole to use as some sort of bait/sacrifice/canary, the investigators and Elias all climb down into the tunnels.
Finding themselves in dark, squat tunnels, the investigators quickly reappropriate part of Jennifer’s wardrobe – specifically her scarves – to cover their faces so they can tolerate the nauseating stench that only strengthens as they continue on. The shaft dropped them into the tunnels at a T, so the investigators have three possible directions to travel. After orienting themselves with the ruins above, the group decides to head south. Slowly following a band of worked gold set into the walls on one side of the tunnels, the twisting tunnels eventually lead to a large pool of rancid fat that extends across the entire tunnel. A ragged but narrow crack lies in the wall, evidently the source of the fat, and the group watches in disgust as a larva like the one they removed from Sánchez wriggles through the crack and drops into the pool.
With the band of gold broken around the crack, the investigators quickly conclude they need to fit the Golden Ward into the gap, but the bubbling and constantly shifting pool is so large that there is no way to easily reach the break. After some discussion, Washington manages to use his engineering know-how and some of their supplies to rig a small floating raft. Dibden volunteers to precariously use the raft to secure the Golden Ward in place. As he does so, a low rumble shakes the ruins, and the fat in the pool begins to dissolve. The group hears sounds coming from the tunnel back from the direction they came.
The investigators continue to follow the golden band around the base of the pyramid, looking for any other gaps where they might place the Golden Mirror. They come across a decayed skeletal corpse and the remains of another larva, but find no other breaks in the gold around the pyramid. Finding themselves back at the chimney where they entered the tunnels, the group continues to explore the remaining passageway, which they discover also branches in two directions.
Again heading south, the investigators eventually discover an opening surrounded by very old human remains. Passing through, they find themselves in a large open pit in the ruins amidst piles of corpses in varying states of decay. Quickly deciding they would rather be elsewhere, the group returns to exploring the tunnels. Following the only remaining path, the group reaches a final chamber containing the remains of the two kharisiri they saw earlier, along with thousands of dollars’ worth of valuables and artifacts dating back centuries. Hearing noises from the chimney, the group fears they may have company. They decide to climb up and face whoever (or whatever) has arrived for them, only to discover several kharisiri stumbling towards the pyramid. One by one, the kharisiri collapse and die. The investigators are unsure what to do with the Golden Mirror, but are hopeful that they have succeeded in ending the kharisiri threat.
Finally, the group discusses what to do with the valuables discovered in the tunnels. Washington refuses to remove anything, asserting that it does not belong to him – and possibly fearing another curse. After Elias states his intentions to bring Sanchez in to inspect the artifacts and work with Nayra to try and locate the owners of any of the more recent valuables, he points out that they would be fools to not take a little something for themselves after all they’ve been through. Dibden and Jennifer agree and decide to take a small sum for themselves.
With that matter settled, the group discusses the need to seal up the tunnels to protect anyone else who might stumble across site. Elias agrees that after Sanchez has had the chance to remove any artifacts from the chamber in the tunnels, they will enlist a few trusted souls to seal up whatever the can. Satisfied and eager to be rid of the place, the four set off to return to Puno.
Another collaboration, this time with Wilfred Blanch Talman. The story follows the narrator investigating the death of his uncle, the clergyman of a remote country church.
It's a curious opening, feeling very direct, and to the point. Not very Lovecraftian at all. I'm also intrigued by some of the language used. In Scotland in the past a "Dominie" would usually be the schoolmaster. Here it seems to apply to the clergyman too. But doing a quick bit of digging online I see it's a term used for a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. And Vanderhoof certainly sounds Dutch. As it goes on I'm also curious about how the Dutch Reformed Church compares to Scottish Presbyterian. It seems remarkably similar in its capacity to preach sermons of dire things to terrify the congregation! Similarly Calvinist I suppose.
Reading comments by others I gather that Lovecraft revised this work for Talman, so it is mostly written by Talman. It definitely feels as though it's written by someone else other than Lovecraft. Though the middle section seems more Lovecraftian in approach and language. S T Joshi has written of evidence suggesting Lovecraft wrote this part.
It's a nice story, and well developed. I particularly like the characterisation of Abel Foster, which I guess is Talman's work. One thing Lovecraft was not very good at was developing strong, three dimensional characters. But this character jumps out of the page, and is remarkably vivid. The story also has a marvellous description of what happened to him. I'd really like to see that visualised on screen! It reminded me quite a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark ...
I see that the story was published in Weird Tales in 1927, in Talman's name. Curiously another story that sprung to mind as I read it was published that very same year: John Buchan's little-known novel Witch Wood. This novel has many elements in common with Talman's story, but is a fuller tale, set in 17th century Scotland, and arguably better written. I recommend checking it out, to anyone interested in the intersection of religion and weird goings on, especially those centred around a remote country church.
For some more detail on Talman's life, including a photo of him, see his entry on the FindAGrave website.
Resuming the blog, abandoned previously when I found that the writing style I was trying to develop didn't suit me - I'll try shorter, less formal subjects and see if that works better!
Some thoughts on Mythological Monsters: It occurred to me while creating Wiki entries for mythological monsters, like "Trolls", that I actually prefer writing about those sorts of creatures to the weirder Mythos monsters. It seemed counter-intuitive.
Thinking about it again, I realize that the standard approach for Mythos monsters is fairly rigid and limiting - not to me, but to the monster itself: it defines the weirdness out of Mythos monsters!
Meanwhile, the more generic mythological monsters are more of a blank slate: they've been defined into boredom by hundreds or thousands of years of pop culture in many cases, but their role in "the Mythos" is wide-open for reinterpretation, especially for uncertain and vaguely-defined reinterpretation: in truth, I enjoy the mythological monsters more because I'm freer to write ambiguity and mystery into them, by supposing a lot of things they COULD be, but possibly aren't!
It's a less conscious (and, I suspect, potentially more potent) version of my addition of "Heresies and Controversies" sections to any of the Mythos elements I add to the Wiki: a muddying of the well-defined waters, an attempt to leave murkier areas for unpleasant surprises and undefined horrors to lurk within.
I have had a small number of such entries planned, which (hopefully) I'll get around to adding over time.
I wrote an article for the first issue of Yoggie’s Patron zine IOTSOTOT about interactive fiction games, including how to write your own games in Inform 7, and various games I’m writing at the moment.
As an update to that, here is the current status of all three of my current games, all parser games in the traditional text adventure style:
John Napier one (“Napier’s Cache”) now - today! - entered into the 2018 IntroComp, for the opening portions of games. I would be aiming to finish the full version of the game within the next year. This is set in 16th century Scotland, and is based on a true story in my family history, of mathematician John Napier being employed to search for hidden treasure in a castle using occult methods.
Hermitage Castle one (“Border Reivers”) in final finishing stages, to go into the 2018 IF Comp, which opens for voting on 1st October or thereabouts. This is another historical game, set in the 15th century. And it’s a full game. Conversation based, as you try to solve a murder mystery.
My Lovecraftian one (“Bibliomania”) trickles along, but has been put to one side as I focus on the time-critical competition games. This is based on various entries in Lovecraft’s commonplace book, and is episodic, and I’m creeping my way through writing it, while learning Inform 7 too.
And I’m about to start brainstorming for a 4th game, set in Arthurian Britain. It’s a time and place I’m rather fond of, and thought I’d give it a go. Actually I’ve been meaning to write a text adventure set in that setting for about 35 years ... I have a nice new notepad for note taking / brainstorming, and the Pendragon RPG rules to read through to see what ideas they spark off.
I will report back on how my two competition games get on. Fingers crossed!
Synopsis: The investigators discover the gruesome fate of Arthur Cornthwaite.
Session Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Session Location: Six Feet Under Games, New Holland, Pennsylvania
* Elspeth Marsh, a librarian at the Miskatonic University
* Stephanie MacLeod, an archaeologist at Cambridge University
* Lynn Conners, a stage magician in Arkham, Massachusetts
Monday, February 9, 1925
After a breakfast with Hank and Edith, the ladies ask Pete to drive them back to the Fitzgerald Manse. Now more than ever, they are struck by the 'wrongness' of the house - the way it seems somehow crooked despite any obvious architectural flaws. Inside, the water damage seems to have worsened since their last visit two days earlier.
When they enter the kitchen, the door that they could not budge last time is now hanging open. The ladies draw their firearms. None of them wants to venture down into the basement; instead, they make their way upstairs and find the master bedroom. While searching the room, Elspeth begins to notice thin lines of salt here and there - on the windowsills, under the door, and around the fireplace. Near the hearth, she also finds some shotgun shells that have been emptied, as well as a crystal salt shaker. The interior of the fireplace is darkly discolored.
The next room is locked, but Lynn easily picks the lock. Opening the door just a crack, she sees a golden face leering at her with a wicked expression. The room is filled with artifacts - statues, busts, masks - almost all of them featuring sinister visages. The investigators move through the room, noticing that everything is covered in a thin layer of dust, unlike the rest of the house. As Lynn passes a display table, a small figurine with a particularly vicious face topples to the floor. Elspeth begins to notice a gruesome pattern - all of these artifacts involve funerary rites of various South American tribes. She begins to open the shutters on the windows to admit more light. While opening the second set of shutters, she notices a strange figure walking through the garden path below. It is wearing the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier and carries a musket. She calls to the others, and all three of them watch as the figure moves toward the front of the house. Stephanie hastens downstairs, while Elspeth is taken aback when the figure looks up at her, revealing a gaunt face with dark hollows where the eyes ought to be.
Stephanie almost reaches the door when there is a loud knock. She opens the door to find Sheriff Whitford glaring at her suspiciously - particularly at her drawn revolver. Stephanie informs the sheriff that they have seen an unknown man walking in the garden. Whitford goes to have a look, with the ladies close behind. Where the figure was walking, there are no footprints, despite ample mud on the path. Whitford asks them what they are up to and warns them not to cause trouble. He says that the house is cursed, and that they would do well to steer clear of it. He then drives away, leaving Pete to ask if everything is all right.
Back inside the house, Stephanie hears a skittering noise upstairs. In one of the guest bedrooms, she spots what appear to be tiny handprints leading under the bed. Peering underneath, she sees a dark creature with glaring red eyes. She gives the bed a shove, and the raccoon darts away, frantically clawing at a crack in the wall near the fireplace. Stephanie aims her revolver at the creature and fires, creating an explosion of gore and fur.
Back in the hallway, Stephanie pulls down a ladder leading up to the attic. She and Elspeth carefully climb the rickety rungs and begin to explore the attic. They are surprised to find that the roof is dry, based on the water damage throughout the house. Elspeth notices that one of the trunks appears to have been flattened; its sides are lying on the floor, leaving its contents in a somewhat damp pile. The trunk contained the kind of clothing a jungle explorer might wear, and one of the pockets appears to have been ripped apart.
Returning to the landing to discuss their next move, the ladies hear a soft gurgling from below. Looking down the stairs, they see that the ground floor appears to have flooded - except that water doesn't move the way this dark, translucent gel is moving. They watch in horror as eyes begin to open here and there, as well as gaping mouths full of rotten teeth. Within the writhing mass, they spot the mangled features of the man they have been looking for. Cornthwaite's face looks twisted, as if it's a mask that could be worn over someone's head. Behind him are the similarly distorted features of a horse.
Elspeth lets out a shrill scream, while Stephanie staggers backward. Lynn steps forward and fires her shotgun at the seething mass. Slime splatters everywhere, but the thing is still moving, filling the ground floor, sliding up the steps toward them.
The ladies retreat to the master bedroom. Throwing open the shutters, Elspeth and Stephanie see that there is a straight drop down the ground below - perhaps fifteen feet or so. While Lynn fires her shotgun again, Elspeth tries to lower herself out the window, but soon slips and falls. Fortunately, she lands on some bushes below, but the wind is knocked out of her.
While Lynn prepares to climb out the window, Stephanie spots a snake-like tendril creeping out from under the chimney. She quickly grabs a handful of salt from the fireplace and flings it at the tendril, causing it to hiss and recoil. She realizes that the creature must be vulnerable to salt, but her triumph is short-lived when she hears a cry from outside; Lynn has fallen to the ground, badly twisting her ankle.
Alone in the bedroom, Stephanie sees that the nightmarish slime is now covering the doorway and oozing toward her. She grabs the windowsill and lowers herself down the wall, managing to jump down without injuring herself. She notices that a dark stain is beginning to creep from the foundations of the house, quickly spreading across the grass. Stephanie and Elspeth support Lynn; together, they make their way to the front of the building, where they are horrified to discover Pete's lifeless body inside the car, his head covered in a shroud of undulating slime. The ladies hobble as fast as they can down the winding drive and eventually hitch a ride back to town.
Returning to the boarding house, Hank and Edith are dismayed at the sight of the bedraggled women. They scramble to provide blankets, food, and bandages. The investigators say nothing of the horror they've encountered; Lynn says that she suffered a fall in the house. Hank shakes his head, saying that he did warn them that the house was 'just plain bad'.
The next day, Stephanie drives the dump track full of salt up to the Fitzgerald Manse. She drives a thick circle of salt around the property before dumping most of it into the cellar. The ladies watch in horrified fascination as the house begins to tear itself apart in a cacophony of hissing shrieks.
Walter Dodge is livid when they tell him that the house simply collapsed. He threatens to sue them for everything they own. But as they leave, Sheriff Whitford assures them that he'll talk with Dodge. He says that the house was cursed from the beginning, and that he's frankly relieved that it's gone. He advises them to leave Gamwell as soon as they can.
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I felt as though this was a satisfying conclusion to the investigation. All of the early clue-finding finally reached its horrifying culmination. I get the sense that the players would have liked more thrills and dangers throughout the rest of the scenario, and I'll keep that in mind when I plan future mysteries for them. I think some players are happy to conduct investigations, scouring libraries, talking to NPCs, etc. - but this particular group seems keen to get involved in more adrenaline-charged encounters.
I'm really glad I finally had a chance to run this scenario, something I've wanted to do for years. The players didn't seem as thrilled with it as I was, mainly for the reasons mentioned above. It also occurred to me that the scenario includes a lot of red herrings that could some players might find irritating - e.g., the sinister shed, the ghost of Johnny Fitzgerald, the gruesome history of the house, etc. I still like the scenario a lot, but I think it might work better for players who are more interested in the investigation aspects of the game.
Interestingly, the players lost very little sanity. Two of them failed their sanity checks when they saw the monster, but their d20 rolls were extremely low. There weren't really any other sanity checks in the scenario (they never found Curwen's corpse), although I realized belatedly that I should have called for checks when they saw their deceased chauffeur. I also should have introduced Joe Virelli sooner (he did appear briefly in the last session, but Lynn basically threatened him with her shotgun until he left).
What to do next? There are so many great published scenarios - Blackwater Creek, more scenarios from Mansions of Madness and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. But I'm really tempted to create my own scenario. It would be a lot more work, coming up with all the characters, locations, etc. - but I like the idea of building my own structure rather than trying to adapt someone else's.
Please feel free to offer any comments, suggestions, or advice, especially if you've had experience with this scenario. Thanks!
Ah another collaboration, this time with Winifred Virginia Jackson. My limited understanding is that Lovecraft wrote all of the text, which was based on a dream that Jackson had.
Written as a supposedly real account of an event in Maine, the story starts with an introduction, explaining that a meteorite crashed to Earth, and was retrieved by fishermen. Upon examination the meteorite was found to contain within it a notebook, about 5x3 inches in size, 30 sheets within. The main part of the story then recounts the story recorded within this miraculous notebook, seemingly written in Classical Greek in a script that looks to date to the second century BC or thereabouts. I'm presuming that the framing story is an invention in addition to the dream, probably thought up by Lovecraft. It certainly feels very much of his style.
The main story starts very atmospherically, in a landscape surrounded by sea and mysterious trees. This certainly feels dream like, more about feeling and sense of place than any plot. Then the narrator spies the titular Green Meadow, and shortly afterwards the piece of land that they are standing on breaks away, and starts moving over the sea. This definitely feels dreamlike, like some of the weirder dreams I've had!
The narrator leaves the menacing trees behind, and then notices singing coming from the Green Meadow. Though inspired by a dream this reminded me of the many Lovecraft stories where music - usually not so welcoming - plays a part. I very much like the description of the Green Meadow as the narrator draws near:
That's a very nice piece of writing, not over flowery, or difficult to read, but simply, and nicely expressed.
The ending is quick but effective. The narrator remembers that they have been transformed, and will live forever, yearning for death. They also mention the city of Stethelos, which I don't think I've read of before, but is a city where "young men are infinitely old". Some might wish for immortality, but certainly not the narrator of this story,
So rather a nice piece. Slight, but well done. And a nice framing story added.
To read much more about Winifred Virginia Jackson see http://winifredvjackson.blogspot.com
The opening part of this story is over written, and hard to read. Too long sentences, and too many words. Lovecraft is hardly known for simple writing, but he can do better than this.
I know that it's set in New York, but I guess New York has changed since Lovecraft's day, with curving streets replaced, old buildings knocked down, and replaced by more modern buildings. Or at the very least I don't recognise the New York I've seen on the television in this description. That television depiction may, of course, be very misleading.
It is worthwhile, I think, to compare this story's approach to Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", which I greatly disliked, for its racist overtones and general mean spiritedness. This has some elements of that at the start, but it's more toned down. Though again I have problems with any phrase like "a blue-eyed man of the old folk", given that the people Lovecraft is praising were, themselves, immigrants. But at least the main problematic section in this story is quickly passed over, and doesn't linger in the same way as in Red Hook.
It does feel very autobiographical. I can't remember from what I've read of Lovecraft's life, and time in New York, but was he plagued by sleeplessness when there, and took to walking the streets at night?
I'm quite captivated once he meets the cloaked stranger. My edition of the story has a wonderful illustration of him, and I'll attach it at the end of this review. It's a marvellously evocative journey back through time, and something that I bet Lovecraft wished he could have experienced himself, not just conjure up in words.
I'm not sure I like the change of theme in the house though. And I'm definitely not keen on "half-breed red Indians" or "mongrel savages". I'm struck again by the thought that these vilified red Indians were the earlier inhabitants of this part of America, and moved off their lands by the early European immigrants.
I do like the reveal of the curtain falling though, showing the house and its occupant for what it is. Decrepit and decayed, something from the past, now only a pale shadow of its former glory. And the description of what happens to the old man is almost like a special effect from an old Hammer film, or similar gothic horror.
I do like the ending, so typical Lovecraft, with a narrator barely escaping some horror with his life, just about. But I'd not take the same lesson from the story that Lovecraft does. For me the horror is as much in the legacy of the past, and the early European settlers that Lovecraft admires so much. And such a horror can also be found, as seen so often in his other stories, in his treasured New England. And no, modern immigrants are not the enemy. But this is never something Lovecraft and I would have agreed on. So a slightly problematic story for me, but marvellously evocative, with some gory special effects visualisations at the end. Generally good.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu scenario “The Iron-Banded Box” by Michael Dziensinski from Strange Aeons II today from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Kyle Matheson, John Leppard, and Ben Abbott.)
It was a time of civil war in Japan known as the Sengoku or “warring states” Period. Since the Onin War (1467-1478), the razing of Kyoto, and the subsequent weak rule of the Azuchi military rulers, all social order in the county had fallen into complete anarchy. Political alliances changed constantly and feudal daimyo lords faced threats from without and within as their samurai subordinates tried to seize power for themselves.
Common folk and priests, disgusted with the lawlessness ravaging the countryside, formed egalitarian communities free of daimyo rule. To take life’s daily hardships in stride, a commonsense wisdom of enduring misfortune had developed, as most could do little else. Many felt the age of Mappo had arrived, the darkest of times where Buddhist law and morality disappeared from the land.
It was the golden age of the samurai, where bravery and a strong sword arm could determine one’s fortune or doom.
A group of six rônin, masterless samurai, were on the road seeking better fortunes since their daimyo was killed and his lands taken by a young upstart warlord some months before. Hōjō Sōun was the first lord of the Hōjō clan. Born Ise Moritoki, he was originally known as Ise Shinkurō, a samurai of Taira lineage from a reputable family. He had worked his way up from a rônin until he gained control of Izu Province in 1493 when he avenged a wrong committed by a member of the Ashikaga family which held the shogunate. It was then he adopted the surname Hōjō and the given name Sōun or Sozui. He built a stronghold at Nirayama and then secured Odawara Castle, which became the center of his domain.
He died in the winter of 1519 when his stronghold fell and his samurai were scattered, becoming rônin. Masterless.
For the last few months, the group had wandered the countryside brooding, the sting still fresh from the indignity of their new rônin status. How could they establish a name in the new order when even the lowliest could overturn the elites? With sharp swords and solid determination, they needed an edge to establish a new domain in the time of anarchy … if they didn’t slide into common banditry out of desperation.
The six had a falling out when two of them, brothers, had an argument. The group had parted ways at that point, half of them heading south while the other half went north. This is the tale of those who had traveled south.
Wada Soburô was 25 years old and was a large, muscular man standing a head taller than most. His skin was deeply tanned and he wore his hair in a simple topknot. He carried a katana and three yari, spears strapped to his back. He wore a rough cloth kimono and hakama.
The third oldest of the Wada family, Soburô had worked enough years as a farmer and suffered trampled fields by samurai enough to be very cynical about the lot. He was amused when he and his brother, Gorô, were conscripted as soldiers and eventually promoted to samurai. Practical as ever, he merely saw it as another way to protect his village. However, now that he had gotten a taste for the warrior’s life, he liked it. He was very cynical of the samurai and their ways however.
He and Gorô were the brothers who had argued and caused the rift in the party. Soburô had argued that, as their master was dead, they had to move on with their lives and make something of themselves. However, his brother Gorô had disagreed, thinking they needed to find a way to avenge their former master. The group had split, for the most part, along those lines. Gorô had left with Endô Soun and Doi Ihara.
Abe Masao was thin but sturdy with graying hair that was thinning on top. He wore a green kimono and a hakama, a katana and wakizashi in his belt. He was older than all the rest of the rônin at 48 years. He no longer scraped his forehead for the chonmage hairstyle as he had gone bald long ago. He had gray hair on his temples and had seen many battles.
Abe had served Lord Hōjō most of his life before his untimely death. Though not sure what he was doing out with the young rônin, he couldn’t go home until he made a new name for himself. A former Tiashô, a field leader, he had the wisdom the others did not. He only hoped they would defer to him at times.
Oda Ino was 29 years old and had the shaved head of a Buddhist monk. He had a light beard and mustache.
Though he started life as a Buddhist priest, at age 17, destiny had other plans for him when his monastery was burned to the ground by samurai. Taking pity on him, a rônin who protected the nearby village took Oda under his wing and trained him in the warrior arts. He had always been a rônin though his companions didn’t know it. He sought to punish those who trampled the common folk. He wasn’t above physical work and sought out the company of the common folk.
It was the summer of 1520 A.D. when the three men came upon the village of Kôhai-Mura in Izu Province. The town consisted of three dozen or so sun-bleached buildings clustered around two central but narrow intersecting dirt streets that divided the buildings into a simple grid, an inn in the center. The west side of town abruptly ended in a thick mountainside forest. The arid air was absolutely still and the heat suffocating.
As the three entered town, it seemed they were not welcome. The streets were empty, the only sounds being doors and windows creaking shut upon their arrival. They could hear people off in the town to the east as they passed the inn. Then they smelled food coming from a tavern nearby. Their stomachs growled as they were all very hungry, having only a little of their dried fish left from the road.
Wada lifted his head and sniffed at the air. He looked at the other two and then sprinting towards the tavern. The other two looked at each other and then followed behind more slowly.
* * *
Wada burst into the tavern. The omiya had a cluster of four low tables and stools which filled the room. A dozen people were in the poorly-lit establishment, eating or drinking sake. A middle-aged man in a simple black kimono stood behind a counter with space for about four stools. Behind the counter and near the ceiling was a shelf with a small Buddhist altar with two fresh wooden planks.
The smell of rice, fish soup, cooked mountain yams, buns, and tea filled the room. A few of the men were drinking warmed sake. Wada’s stomach growled loudly.
Wada kicked off his sandals and crossed to the bar and the man in the black kimono.
“I humbly offer my services for any food or drink that you may spare,” Wada said to the man, putting his face humbly down on the bar. “Please, I am a rônin. I have no money. May I please work for my food tonight? Please sir.”
The man looked down upon him and considered it.
* * *
When Oda and Abe entered the tavern, they saw Wada at the bar, apparently begging the man behind it for something.
Oda saw the small Buddhist altar. In Japan, Shinto ceremonies were performed for births and weddings while Buddhist ceremonies focused on funerals. Buddhist mourning consisted of cremating the dead and storing the remains in an urn under the house for a period of time. A Buddhist priest would give the dead a new posthumous Buddhist name which was inscribed on a plank of wood and prayed upon, both at the family or clan grave and in the home on a small, Buddhist altar.
The butsudan altar was a cabinet with a central image of the Buddha surrounded by candles, sandalwood incense, and wooden planks bearing the names of deceased relatives. Daily offering of rice, sake, or fruit were placed at the base o the altar. Living relatives wore black during the mourning period.
Oda removed his sandals, crossed to the Buddhist altar, and knelt down, saying a short prayer. Abe removed his sandals and crossed to the bar.
“Oji-san!” the man behind the bar barked.
On old man came out of the back. “Oji-san” meant “old man.” He hobbled painfully over to the bar.
“Find him some work!” the man said, gesturing at Wada. “And get him food.”
He left the bar to see to his other work. Oji-san went into the back and returned with two plates of rice, cooked fish, and buns. There was a very small carafe of sake as well, though it was little more than a swallow for each of them. He gave them each tiny cups.
Wada groveled on the floor in thanks before he sat at the bar and dug in. He poured himself some sake and poured a little less to Abe. He drank and quickly poured out the rest of sake into his own cup. Abe bowed slightly and then set to eating as well.
Oda, meanwhile, read the wooden planks on the altar. They bore the posthumous names for “Ichirô” and “Mika.” He saw the offerings of incense and rice there, indicating recent deaths. The names were poorly scrawled and he guessed they had not been done by a Buddhist priest.
He walked over to the barkeep.
“I am very sorry for this town’s loss,” he said.
The barkeep grunted.
“You’ve already met my traveling companions,” Oda said.
The barkeep looked over at the men at the bar who ate. He grunted again.
The tavern started shaking. The walls and tables rattled. A bottle of soy sauce tipped towards the edge of a shelf but Oji-san deftly caught it, righting it. No one in the tavern seemed to give it any mind as if it was a common occurrence.
“I … I am looking for work as well, if you or anyone you know in the town …” Oda said. “Are you … is this normal?”
“It has been happening,” the barkeep said. “What can you do to pay for your meals? Who are you? Are you a monk?”
“I am a rônin,” Oda said. “I was raised as a Buddhist monk. I am trained in combat but I have two good hands─”
The barkeep pointed at the altar.
“Can you write?” he said.
“Yes,” Oda said. “Calligraphy. Very good at it.”
The barkeep took him to the altar as the earthquake subsided. He showed Oda the planks and asked if he could do better. If he could do that, he would give the monk meals for a day. When the monk agreed, he fetched a half dozen planks for him to write on. It took Oda a few tries before he wrote out two that he thought would be acceptable. He also learned the man was Udai and Ichirô had been his son. Mika had been his wife.
“Oji-san!” Udai shouted when he was done. “Food!”
The old man brought the monk some rice, cooked fish, and sake as he took his seat with his fellows.
Three men stood up and approached the bar as the rônin finished their meal. They were rough-looking fellows, one with a goatee and mustache, as well as a topknot. Another had a mustache and a strange bump on his forehead. The last was clean-shaven though he had a full head of hair, also pulled back in a knot. Each of them had a wakizashi in their kimono sashes.
They leered at Abe’s katana.
“Greetings,” the first said. “Welcome to Kôhai-Mura. Allow us to buy you a drink.”
The rônin could smell sake and food on the men’s breaths but they did not seem drunk in the least.
“Yes!” Wada said.
“Come,” the man said. “Join us.”
“Yes!” Wada said.
The three rônin joined the three men, who yelled for sake from Oji-san. The old man hobbled over and brought a clay jug and six cups. The first man poured for everyone at the table and they talked to the rônin.
“Where are you from?” the first man asked.
“I am Wada Soburô from the Izu Province,” Wada said, taking up his cup. “I am a rônin. My master is dead. And now I am here to drink sake and enjoy life.”
All of the toughs laughed
“Sake!” one of them called out.
They all drank. One of the toughs refilled the cups. Then they looked towards Abe.
“Who are you, old man?” one asked.
“I’m Abe Masao,” he said. “I am also a rônin.”
The men laughed at him, pointing at his katana and his wakizashi.
“Of course,” one said.
“He is the captain,” Wada said.
“The captain of the fallen samurai?” one of the toughs grunted.
Abe glared at Wada.
“Our fearless leader,” Wada said. “You are the oldest one at the table. They know you are the captain.”
“I could just be an old man,” Abe said.
“He’s just an old man!” one of the toughs cried out.
“Old!” another said.
“Who are you, monk?” the third said.
“My name is Oda,” the man said. “I was raised as a Buddhist monk but my temple was destroyed by samurai. I was raised as a warrior by a rônin who took pity on me and I have been a warrior every since.”
“But not a samurai,” one of the toughs said. “Just a rônin. A fallen samurai.”
“I am a rônin, yes.”
“Without family. That’s a shame.”
“That’s a shame,” another said, obviously not meaning it.
“Sake!” the third called out.
Everyone drank and one of the toughs refilled their drinks.
“And have you found work in this town as samurai?” Oda asked.
The toughs all burst out laughing. It was loud and obnoxious, like the braying of mules. Wada laughed with them.
“We are not samurai,” one of them said. “We are much better than samurai.”
“Then what do you do in this town that is better than samurai?” Oda asked.
The three men looked at each other.
“We work for Hebei,” one of them said.
“Hebei?” Wada said.
“At the gambling house,” the tough said.
“We will soon all be rich,” another of them said.
“We already are!” the third said.
He tossed some coins on the table to pay for the sake. Wada started to reach for the coins, thinking they were for him, but then realized they were not. The tough leered at him.
“You can become rich too,” he said. “Come and work for Hebei. At the gambling house.”
“Where?” Wada said.
“On the east side of town,” the man said.
“But you are just samurai,” another said. “You might not be good enough.”
“Sorry … rônin,” another said, sneering.
“I hate my life,” Wada said.
Then, though he was not the smartest among them by any measure, Wada realized something: the three men were trying to goad them into a fight. He had the impression the three men wanted to cut them down, cross steel with the three rônin. They had been mildly insulting them since they had crossed their paths, laughing at everything about them. For whatever reason, they were trying to provoke him. He didn’t know if it was a test or they wanted to kill the rônin or just wanted an excuse to send them from the village. It might have been because they were outsiders but he was not sure, exactly.
Both Abe and Oda were starting to feel inebriated from the sake.
Wada stood up suddenly. Oda and Abe did so as well.
“It has been a pleasure drinking with you, but─” Oda said.
“It’s a shame we can’t say the same!” one of the toughs said.
They all burst into laughter.
“… but I must attend to my prayers,” Oda said. “While I am not a monk, I am still a Buddhist and it is my time to go and be with my prayers.
“Go!” another tough grunted. “Be with Buddha.”
“I will go seek out Hebei,” Wada said.
“Yes, go seek out Hebei,” one of the toughs said.
They all laughed.
“You said the east side?” Wada said.
“East side,” another tough said. “You can’t miss it. Just follow your ears.”
“Follow my ears,” Wada said.
The three toughs giggled as the rônin retrieved their sandals and left the tavern, Oda thanking Udai for the work. The man merely nodded at him.
Oji-san stopped Oda before he left.
“You need guide?” he said to the monk. “What do you need me for? He doesn’t need me. What do you need? Do you need something?”
“No …” Oda said.
“I can get something for you. The town. The earthquakes. Ugh!”
“If you need anything, you ask for Oji-san. Oji-san will help you.”
“May I ask where the source of these earthquakes is from? Are they recent?”
“Bad magic. Be careful. Be careful at night.”
“What happens at night?”
“If any of you need me, I will be near.”
They left the place and stopped in the street. They heard a cheer from the east side of town.
“Maybe they weren’t lying about Hebei,” Wada said.
“Who this Hebei is sounds like something that is not good for this town,” Oda said. “He’s the head of a gambling house.”
“Those men were quite rude but, seeing as how I have no food or coin on my person, I … believe making some coin with Hebei is in my best interests,” Wada said.
He walked down the street towards the east side of the village.
“Well, you’ll not find me working for Hebei,” Oda said, following him. “These gambling houses take advantage of people who spend all their coin on fleeting glimpses of grandeur. I think, if anything, that we must protect this town from Hebei.”
“Well, then, should we not see and meet Hebei to learn more about him?” Abe said. “If we are either going to work with him … or deal with him … we need to know more about him.”
“I guess,” Oda said.
They caught up with Wada as he reached the gambling out. The bakuchiya, or gambling hall, had a large entrance in the front. When they entered, they found it was a smoky room within with two entrances and no windows. A group of haggard and obsessed people sat in a row of low stools in front of a long, flat table. One man cried out and covered his eyes from the sunlight that shined into the dim room when the rônin opened the door.
A thin yet muscular man, naked form the waist up and covered in dragon motif tattoos, was using a bamboo pole to stack in front of the customers wooden lozenges carved with numbers that indicated their bets. A dog was tied to a post in one corner, barking furiously and pointlessly.
The man ran a dice game of betting on evens or odds, shaking the dice in a cup and then bringing it down on the table. Bets were made and the man revealed the dice. Behind him were four tough-looking men with swords. Behind them were a set of four sliding rice-paper doors that led to the back of the gambling hall. At each entrance was a pair of men with studded clubs.
A man on one side was selling cups of sake to the gamblers.
Oda stood by the wall and watched the proceedings. Wada went to the man selling sake.
“Sake?” the man said. “Sake?”
“Free?” Wada said.
“I have nothing.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because I have nothing. Do you know Hebei? Where’s Hebei?”
“Hebei’s the boss!”
“Yes, he is.”
The sake seller pointed at the four men standing in front of the rice-paper doors.
“May I see Hebei?” Wada asked.
“Hebei sees no one,” the sake seller said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He slapped the man on the shoulder.
“I need money,” Wada said.
“Get a job,” the rice seller said.
“I’m trying!” Wada said.
The sake seller looked the man up and down carefully.
“What are you?” he said. “Samurai?”
“Was,” Wada said.
“Hm. Come back tomorrow. Hebei will maybe give you a job as a bodyguard.”
The sake seller pointed at the men near the door with the clubs.
“If you don’t pay when you gamble: smash!” the sake seller said.
He gestured at his hand as if smashing it with a club.
“You good at smashing?” he asked.
“Better than most,” Wada said.
“You talk to Hebei tomorrow.”
“I talk to Hebei today!”
“Tomorrow. He’s busy today. I’ll tell him you came here. What’s your name?”
“I tell him Wada wants to see him. All right?”
“May we watch?”
The sake seller looked uncomfortable.
“Eh,” he finally said. “I don’t care.”
“I will watch,” Wada said. “Thank you.”
Abe was petting the dog.
After a short while, they noticed one of the men was losing a lot of money. The man was thin and spindly but with a fat face and a long mustache and beard that came to a point. He was balding on top and seemed cowardly in his mannerisms. He wore a little black hat and a faded black kimono that seemed too big for him. He seemed almost supernaturally bad at gambling and got every dice call wrong.
One of the guards approached Oda.
“Are you going to play?” he said.
“I am here with my company,” Oda said. “One of my traveling companions wanted to ask about a job working for─”
“Who? Who?” the guard said. “The other ones that aren’t playing?”
He snapped his fingers and the guards approached all three of the rônin.
“Play or get out,” each of them was told.
Abe sat at the table with his pittance of coins. The men sitting near him looked at his coins and then, surprised, looked a second time, as if they could not believe someone would play with so little. He grinned at them confidently.
“He plays for me,” Wada said to the guard.
“Play or get out,” the guard said to him.
“Then I will get out,” Wada said.
He and Oda left, escorted to the door by the guards.
* * *
Abe played only a few rounds of dice for his pittance. In that time, he managed to quadruple his money, meaning he had enough to purchase a meal. When he got up and left, the other gamblers staring at the man while the guards rolled their eyes.
* * *
The others waited outside in case Abe got into trouble as he didn’t have much money. They were pleasantly surprised when the last rônin exited the building unharmed. Abe looked pleased with himself.
“Look how much money I got,” he said to the others. “I could buy a meal now.”
The ground shook again for about a minute.
“Great Buddha, what is going on?” Oda said. “I am worried about a man I saw in there who was losing all his money. He was wearing a black kimono. Someone in mourning. It must have been those other two … a relative of theirs.”
“Is this the work of a god, or the gods, or a spirit, Oda?” Wada asked. “You are more religious than I.”
“Not anything I am familiar with.”
“Perhaps those in the afterlife are upset that you won that much money and you should give some of it to someone else.”
He held out his hand to Abe, who looked at him in disbelief for a moment before he slapped the man’s hand away with a frown.
“You will pay for that in the afterlife!” Wada said.
“Oji-san said there was black magic at foot causing the earthquakes,” Oda said.
Several townsfolk approached the three rônin, Udai in the lead. They stopped some ways from the gambling house and Abe went to them.
“I never worked for my food,” Wada said to Oda. “That must be what this is about.”
They followed Abe.
“We need your help protecting this town,” Udai said.
“How?” Abe said.
“There’s a terrible thing happening,” Udai said. “Will you help? We are willing to give you free room and board. We cannot give you much more. Will you help?”
“Are we enough?” Wada said.
“You are samurai!” Udai said.
The townsfolk looked at their weapons.
“Was,” Wada said.
“You know how to use a sword?” Udai said.
“Yes,” Wada said.
Udai turned to one of the other townsfolk.
“Do you know how to use a sword?” he asked.
“Wha?” the man said, surprised. “No!”
Udai clapped his hands in front of the other man’s face.
“Room and board … and food?” Wada said.
“Room and board and food,” Udai said.
“That’s what board is.”
“Your friend is not smart. No offense.”
“Apologies. Will you help us?”
“I am not offended.”
“A terrible thing is happening to this village that must be stopped.”
Oda pointed back to the gambling house.
“Will you help?” Udai said.
“Yes, I will help,” Oda said.
“Will you help?” Udai said to Abe.
Abe nodded. Udai turned to Oda.
“No no,” he said. “Not them.”
“R-really?” Oda said.
“They are Ryû-Ryôshû,” Udai said. “The Ryû-Ryôshû are not the problem.”
Ryû-Ryôshû meant “Dragon Lords.”
The ground started shaking again.
“Is it this?” Oda said.
Udai nodded as they waited for the tremor to pass. It lasted for about a minute.
“Some unspeakable monster arrives in the dead of night from the mountainside to abduct townsfolk,” he said. “It is a dreaded event that everyone recognizes by the rhythmic earthquakes that shake the buildings for several long minutes, followed by a bloodcurdling scream of the victim. We cannot go outside to help. We are not armed. We have no weapons. We need someone to help us. To stop this. You have sealed a pact. You have agreed to protect us from this thing. Please stop it. I will take you to the inn where you can have your rooms.”
The townsfolk muttered in agreement, all of them obviously fearful.
“Is the monster the thing that took your wife and son?” Oda asked.
“Yes,” Udai said. “It takes many. Every night, it takes someone.”
“I am terribly sorry,” Oda said.
Udai wiped a tear from his eye.
“Is there a pattern?” Abe asked.
“No,” Udai said. “It comes into town. It takes someone. Screaming. We hide and hope it doesn’t take us.”
The villagers muttered in agreement.
“Where from the mountains does it come down?” Oda said.
“We don’t know,” Udai said. “Nobody will look. We are locked in our homes in the hopes it will not smash through the wall and take one of us.”
“Hmm,” Oda said.
“Come, I’ll take you to the inn,” Udai said.
“Can you take us to the house of the person who was taken last night?” Wada said.
The tavern keeper looked at him.
“Yes,” he finally said. “If you have nothing to take to the inn then come.”
They were taken to a small house with a large hole smashed into the side. The hole was larger than a man. Inside the room, blood was splattered around the floor and walls as if someone had been hurt. Scratches on the floor had been left by someone trying not to be pulled out of the house. Broken fingernails were also scattered amongst the scratches. Whatever had pulled the person out of the sleeping chamber had been immensely strong.
They spent some time examining everything in and around the room.
“No one has seen this?” Wada said. “Ever?”
“It’s been going on for more than a week,” Udai said.
They learned it had rained that morning so any tracks would have been obliterated.
“This thing is big,” Wada said.
Wada took the other two rônin aside in the room and spoke to them in a low voice.
“What are the consequences of breaking a pact?” he said, unsure.
“Oh, the townsfolk are clearly suffering from this,” Oda said. “It is our solemn duty, not only as rônin, but as fellow members of this Earth.”
“You’re starting to sound like my brother.”
“If it was happening to rich folks, I’d be … uh.”
“Maybe we should leave and hope it takes Hebei then.”
Abe reached over to slap Wada in the face. Wada tried to block the blow, realizing it was coming, but the man easily slapped him regardless.
“Stop hitting me, old man,” Wada said.
“You have terrible ideas,” Abe said.
“That thing is big! We only fight other men! This is something else! Am I the only one that sees blood and the big hole in the wall and says ‘Not for me?’”
“But, as Oda said, it is our duty.”
“You are samurai,” Oda said.
“Was a samurai!” Wada said. “We are rônin now! We beg for food!”
“Is there a problem?” Udai said, peeking in the huge hole.
“No problem,” Wada said to him.
The innkeeper stepped back out of the house.
“If you wish to break your vow, I will not blame you,” Oda said. “But this is something I must do.”
“And I will do it with you,” Abe said.
“Not for my honor as much as for the people of this town. I have seen people in mourning, losing the rest of their savings to gambling, and it is clear that this town is helpless with the only other warriors being bodyguards of … gambling rings. You all can decide on your own, but I have made my decision.”
“I will stand with you for it is my duty as a samurai. Well, as a rônin. It is my duty to protect these people and I will do it for my honor as well. We have made an agreement. We will deal with the issue or die trying.”
“Is this the second time today you’ve agreed to something for food before you knew what it was?”
Abe noticed Udai was obviously trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. He shooed the man away and he went outside.
Wada looked at his feet in shame and fear.
“This is not for me,” he said. “I am sorry.”
He left immediately. Oda watched the man go, heading south in the direction they had been walking when they had come to the town. Udai peeked into the hole again.
“Is-is there a problem?” he said.
“You have my blade,” Oda said.
Udai looked terribly relieved and looked towards Abe, who nodded.
“Come come,” Udai said. “I will take you to the inn so that you may sup and rest.”
Oda looked for Wada but the man was out of sight, having left town. He thought he couldn’t blame him too much but was still disappointed.
It late afternoon when Udai took them to the inn. The rest of the villagers went their separate ways.
The nondescript yado was old and neglected with ancient tatami mats on the floors. The smell of sandalwood incense permeated the building. In the front room was a beautiful young woman, her hair bound in a bun. She was in her 20s and wore a black kimono. She was chanting in prayer in front of a small Buddhist shrine with freshly painted funeral tablets. It looked all too familiar. She abruptly stopped when the door opened and greeted the rônin, taking their sandals as they stepped into the yado’s entrance.
A man Oda recognized as the loser from the gambling hall also entered the room.
“Hikyô, they are going to help us with the horrors at night,” Udai told him.
Udai introduced him as the innkeeper: Hikyô, who introduced them to his daughter, Chiyo.
“Take them to their rooms,” Hikyô said.
“I am terribly sorry for your loss,” Oda said to them.
Both of them bowed deeply.
“I was trained as a Buddhist monk,” Oda said. “If you would like me to work on the calligraphy on those …”
Both of them seemed delighted at that.
“My brothers are dead,” Chiyo said.
She broke into tears. There was a noise from the back hall and an old man came out, merely a silhouette in the darkness.
“Chiyo!” he screamed. “Shut up!”
Then he went back wherever he’d come from. Oda glared down the hallway.
“Come come!” Chiyo said. “I apologize. Come. I will take you.”
She took them to their rooms and bid them wait there. She soon returned with food, tea, and sake for each of them. While they ate, another tremor shook the inn. Dust sprinkled from the walls.
It was after dark when Chiyo returned for the bowls and cups. She told each of the rônin the town had a hot spring and hot or cold baths were available. She noted as they were helping the village, they could use the baths for free.
It had been a while since either of them had a hot bath. Japanese bathing involved scrubbing down with soap, rinsing, and then soaking in a large tub full of hot water, the furo. The pastime was considered very relaxing and had developed into an industry as people sought out natural hot water springs set in beautiful vistas or bearing waters infused with minerals said to have medicinal properties.
Both of them decided to take their wakizashi with them.
Chiyo led them to a building connected to the yado by a breezeway to the back entrance of the bathhouse. They realized there was a back and a front entrance. The girl gave each of them a wooden token carved in the shape of an oni, a demon. She told them the place was called Jigoku No Onsen or Hell’s Spring because the minerals in the natural hot spring turned the water rust-red. The minerals bubbled up like magma in the spring and were believed to have healing powers. She told them the town was developed when the hot springs was found and the bathhouse was built around it.
The two both took a hot bath and both of them took their wakizashi in with them. It was heavenly. They had not bathed in that way for a long time. They scrubbed themselves down and then got into the hot spring. The water was hot and rusty red and felt divine.
As they relaxed, the door burst open and Oji-san came in.
“Hey, can I help?” he said. “What do you need? Do you need something from me? I can get you something.”
“I’m fine,” Abe said.
“Can I take your weapons?”
“You don’t need anything?”
“Oh. Okay. Good. Good. Good.”
“Yes? You need something?”
“Why do you keep … why are you here?”
“Why are you in the bathhouse?”
“To help you. I understand the great rônin are going to help our village. So I wanted to help you.”
“Do you need any help?”
He turned to Oda.
“Do you need any help?” he said. “Do you need food? Do you need beverage? I could bring you sake.”
“I will be fine,” Oda said. “Thank you.”
“Oh,” Oji-san said. “Okay.”
He left and they went back to relaxing in the tub.
It was a short time later when the door opened again and five men entered the room. They were dressed and all of them were armed with wakizashi. They walked around the tub, surrounding it. Oda put one hand on Abe’s arm and put his other hand on his wakizashi. He stood up, weapon in hand, water dripping from his naked body.
“What is the meaning of this?” he said.
The men looked the two of them over as Abe stood as well, weapon at hand.
“The meaning is … you are not wanted here!” one of the men said.
They all drew their wakizashi.
Oda took a single step and stabbed the man who’s spoken in the belly. The man cried out and stumbled back, crashing against the wall and falling to the ground, dropping his weapon.
Abe swung at one of the other men and sliced his clothing, barely blooding the man.
Two of the thugs attacked each rônin. One of them stabbed Oda in the back though he parried the other with a backhand thrust. Abe parried both of the blows coming from the men who attacked him. Oda turned and swung at the man who had stabbed him but the man parried the blow with a nasty grin. Abe stabbed one of his opponents and the man stumbled back and fell to the ground, crying out in pain and slumping to the floor.
They suddenly felt the ground shudder underneath them and large ripples sloshed the water in the tub. It was not constant as the quakes before had been, but a rhythmic yet thunderous pounding like a drum. It was as if something huge was walking through the night.
The thugs looked at each other in terror. Abe took advantage of their confusion to stab one of them while Oda slammed the pommel of his wakizashi to another. Instead of fighting back, the three fled, leaving their unconscious companion. The man whom Oda had stabbed tried to crawl away, trailing blood, but Abe grabbed his foot and dragged him back into the bathhouse.
* * *
Wada had left the town out of fear of whatever horror had taken away the villagers. He had not traveled more than a hundred yards before he realized he could not bring himself to leave the village to its fate or his brothers in arms to theirs. He crept back to the village after it got dark to watch it from afar.
The thing that walked into Kôhai-Mura was so tall as to stand well over any of the buildings. It was horrible to look upon, standing 20 feet tall and having huge, terrible horns and great ears. The oni had huge tusks coming from the lower part of its jaw and wore only a loincloth. It dragged a massive tetsubo, an iron club, in one hand.
It came into the village on the east side, going to the gambling hall where it smashed in a wall and reached in. He heard someone screaming. The oni pulled out what appeared to be a man, who grabbed onto the broken wall. The oni pulled on him once, twice, and, the third time, there was a crunch and a pop and something flopped to the ground as the man let out a shriek and the horror stood back up again. It walked to the west as the man struggled in its grip.
Once he lost sight of the horror, Wada ran down to the village.
* * *
Oda and Abe heard a scream from somewhere in the village. They heard the men outside scream and then flee. Abe moved to quiet their prisoner but the man had already gone completely silent. He was very pale and shook in terror as he stared at the door that led to the hallway and then to the street. Oda crossed the narrow hallway to peek out the door.
The thing that walked down the street was awful to behold. It held a man in one hand and as the figure struggled, something splattered against the wall, a warm liquid also hitting Oda. He could smell blood. Abe saw dark liquid splatter on the floor near Oda.
Suddenly, something flew out of the air from Oda’s left.
* * *
Wada had made his way into the village, ducking between the houses to try to keep them between him and the oni. When he entered the main street where it walked, he found himself next to the bathhouse. He flung his spear at the horror, striking it in the center of the back. The oni let out a shriek and turned and looked around.
* * *
Oda recognized the spear that struck the terrible beast as one of Wada’s. He turned and ran back into the room with the hot spring bath.
“Wada is fighting this thing!” he said to Abe. “We must retrieve our weapons!”
He ran out of the other door to the bath, heading for the inn.
* * *
Outside, Wada had seen Oda peek out of the bathhouse door before disappearing inside once again. He also recognized the thing as an oni, a demon. Without thinking, he drew another spear and flung it at the thing, missing it completely, the weapon flying past its head. As the oni turned to watch the spear fly by, he fled, running into the alley by the bathhouse and towards the back, ducking out of sight of the horrible demon.
* * *
Abe crept to the door to the building to peek out. He saw the oni, the terrible thing looming over the bathhouse and every building in the village. It looked around in confusion and he ducked back into the bathhouse and fled after Oda.
* * *
As Wada came around the side of the bathhouse to the breezeway between it and the inn, Oda burst out of the bathhouse naked, wakizashi in his hand, and ran towards the inn. Oda looked his way.
“I-I’m getting my pole arm!” he said.
“Oda!” Wada said. “Oh!”
Oda ran towards the inn. Wada could see the figure of the oni moving west but it was quickly out of sight and he realized the creature was probably faster than he was. He was glad he had not tried to run down the street. He didn’t think he would have been able to outrun it.
A moment later, Abe ran out of the bathhouse, naked as well, and stopped when he saw him.
“What’s going on?” Abe said.
Wada tried to climb up the side of the bathhouse without luck. He turned to Abe.
“Can you help me?” he asked.
“Sure,” Abe said.
Abe gave him a leg up and he climbed to the tiled roof of the bathhouse. He looked around and could hear the oni still walking away to the west, but could not see it. He ran along the roof of the breezeway towards the inn and found a window at the top of the breezeway. He let himself into the second floor, finding himself on a dimly-lit landing.
Oda ran by where he stood, rushing into his room. Wada ran to the opposite side of the landing and looked out the window there, trying to see where the oni went. He saw it enter the forest on the west side of the village and disappear into the foliage.
* * *
* * *
Abe went back into the bathhouse and found the man who had been injured was gone, having crawled away. The unconscious man still lay there. He dragged the unconscious man out of the room and towards the inn.
* * *
Oda ran out into the passage with his pole arm and saw Wada looking out of the window.
“All right, Wada,” he said, naginata in hand. “I am prepared. Where is the monster?”
“It is gone,” Wada said.
Oda looked at him for a moment.
“Next time, then,” he said.
“I injured it,” Wada said. “There might be a blood trail. It seemed very agitated.”
Wada told Oda he had gone into the forest to watch the village from afar, that being his plan all along.
“We could have just done that … if you’d told us,” Oda said.
“Yes,” Wada said. “Perhaps we could have.”
He turned to leave but then looked at Oda more carefully. He pointed at the blood seeping through his clothing.
“Did the oni do that to you?” he asked.
“Oh, you mean this,” Oda said. “There were a group of armed men, not samurai or rônin like us, but … not warriors, but men with swords came and ambushed us in the bathhouse, which is why I was running around with my … swords out.”
They heard a bumping on the stairs and Abe came up, dragging one of their attackers by his feet. The man’s head bumped on the steps.
“Here’s one now,” Oda said.
“Why did they attack you?” Wada said.
“The reason that they gave us is that we are not welcome here. Which was not a very good reason.”
“Why is it the oni wears more clothes than you two?”
They took the unconscious man into one of the rooms and bound his wounds. They also saw to Oda’s wounds as well. Oda hurt himself further in his attempts at binding the wound when he wrapped it too tightly. Abe wrapped the wound up again.
Oda realized there might be some clue as to what was going on at the site the oni attacked. When he told the others, Wada mentioned the oni had attacked the gambling house. That surprised Oda. Wada told him the thing had smashed its way through the wall and took someone.
“I believe half of the man is still at the gambling house,” he said.
“Oh,” Oda said. “Who would still be at the gambling house this late at night. If there were a large group, perhaps there would be witnesses.”
“There was screaming. I believe they were still gambling.”
“Maybe we should─”
“We should go there now, I believe.”
They took two of the paper lanterns from the walls.
“What do we do with him?” Abe asked, nudging the unconscious thug.
“Ah,” Oda said. “Do you think that our hospitality was … ill-offered or that this happened─?”
“They tried to kill us!”
“Well, I mean, but were they with the people who were housing us or did they just know we’re here is what I’m asking.”
“Do you think it safe to stay here any longer?” Oda said.
“But he could have information about why he attacked us,” Abe said.
“True. We could … have one person watch him.”
“I could stay here and watch him.”
“Be armed and be aware of other people coming.”
“Or you could stay here and watch him because you’re injured.”
“Well … yeah. Either way.”
“I … I’m not trying to fool you old man, but I might need your coins in case they make us gamble to get in,” Wada said.
“Despite the giant hole in the wall?” Oda said.
“I do not know how Hebei works. They were pretty insistent that you must have coin to get in.”
“Fair enough. If you must have coin to get in the hole that he opened …”
Wada and Abe left Oda with the unconscious thug.
* * *
It was quiet and dark at the gambling house. The front doors were closed and there was a great hole in the wall. Splatters of blood were sprinkled all over the scene and a severed hand with tattoos lay on the ground near the hole. The wrist of the hand was roughly ripped as if the man had not let go until the hand had been ripped free.
Examination of the hole proved it entered into a small room in the back of the gambling house. The room had a pile of personal gear and goods of various kinds, probably things lost gambling, including some weaponry and cheap jewelry. Atop the pile of goods was an odd box the size of a coffin. It was iron-banded and looked very valuable.
Wada looked around. No one was on the streets and there was no sound at all.
He went to the iron-banded box and examined it, finding it was made of sacred hinoki wood (Japanese cypress) and reinforced with by iron bands and rivets. Along both edges of the lip where the box opened was a strange script of glyphs. The box was latched shut but some scrapes upon it indicated it might have been recently opened.
“Abe?” he said.
“Yes,” Abe said.
“Do you want to open this?”
“That would be stealing.”
“From a dead man?”
Wada looked down at the hand on the ground.
“I’m not sure why opening the box would be helpful in the situation,” Abe said.
Wada suddenly remembered something horrifying. He remembered an old story about an iron-banded box and told Abe.
Long, long before, the infamous oni king of Rashomon Gate in Kyoto had his armed severed by the brave samurai hunter Watanabe, one of the five retainers in service to the great ogre killer Raiko, who was said to have wiped out all the oni in Japan. Watanabe was said to have chopped off the oni’s arm and sealed it in the iron-banded box after a fierce battle with the ogre, in order to deny the cowardly demon the chance to retrieve its arm. It was magically sealed so the other oni could not find it and take it away as, if they returned it, he would retrieve his powers. However, if the box was ever opened, the oni could detect the arm.
“We must take this box now,” Wada said. “And this.”
He picked up a spear to replace the one he had lost.
“Come captain,” he said.
They lifted the iron-banded box and headed back to the inn.
They had noticed a gully going down the middle of the street and Wada guessed it had been caused by the giant club the oni dragged behind him.
On their way back to the inn, Abe saw the spear Wada had thrown that missed. He pointed it out. Without a word, Wada dropped his half of the iron-banded box and went to retrieve the spear, much to the annoyance of Abe.
“Thank you,” Wada said, picking up his end of the iron-banded box again.
They continued on to the inn and returned to the room where Oda and the unconscious thug waited.
“Oda, poor me some sake,” Wada said.
“This will ruin the tatami!” Oda quipped. “What are you doing?”
“I will tell you what we are doing if you poor me some sake.”
“This room is very crowded.”
Unfortunately, there was no sake in their room.
Wada told Oda what he knew about the iron-banded box and the oni.
“So … someone opened this,” Oda said.
“Hebei,” Wada said. “I believe Hebei opened it.”
“I didn’t like Hebei before and I still don’t like it now.”
“But I still have the question of who had this box and brought it here.”
“I feel like the question more so should be what do we do with it?” Abe said.
“We don’t open it,” Wada said. “I tell you that.”
“But we just can’t keep it here.”
“We must dispose of it.”
“I do not know.”
“You two are the more … spiritual …”
“They didn’t train me in demons,” Oda said.
“Perhaps someone like … Oji-san knows more about the folklore of the oni and the kind oni than I do,” Wada said. “All I have heard is about the iron-banded box but perhaps Oji-san knows how to get rid of it. If nothing else, we could take it to the coast and drop it in the ocean.”
“I was thinking about putting it in a big body of water like a river or lake or ocean. Those are all good.”
“Anything bigger than a bathhouse.”
“Now, I have a question,” Abe said. “Would opening it again, as it’s been opened, do anything?”
“I believe we should not do that,” Wada said.
“But what if the arm’s gone?”
“I don’t think the arm is gone.”
“I think if the arm was gone, the demon king would have his power,” Oda said.
“I am also … it was very dark, but I did not see the oni dragging an arm,” Wada said. “Or maybe it was the club that he had. Was the club the arm? It was too dark. No. It was a club.”
“Well, you all carried the box,” Oda said. “Is it just the box or is there something inside?”
“I think that the arm is still in this box. But if we were to open this box, we run the risk of attracting more oni to this location. I think we should speak to Oji-san in the morning.”
Upon further thought, Oda realized they should probably take the box to Kyoto to one of the Buddhist monasteries on Mount Hiei.
“The monks in Kyoto might be able to do something about it,” he said. “We could make it their problem instead of ours.”
“I like this plan,” Wada said. “Should we still tell the villagers in the morning what has happened? Why this was caused and that it will stop once we take this iron box out of here?”
Oda wasn’t sure it would stop.
“You said, in the legend, that once the box was opened, the oni could detect the arm,” he said.
“Yes,” Wada said.
“Why haven’t they come for the box?”
“I would assume they don’t know where the box is.”
“But, didn’t you pull this out of the hole where the man was taken?”
“Yes. But …”
“So, why was he that close but he still didn’t get the box?”
“Maybe the box was open once. That attracted the oni to the location, or this oni to the location, but it has not been open again, so it’s looking for the box, but it doesn’t even know that it was that close tonight.”
“So, that suggests that if we move the box to Kyoto─”
“And open the box. Or that if you’re in another location and you open the box, they know it’s over there now.”
“True. But if we move the box to Kyoto and they don’t open it, does that mean that the oni still come here, looking for the box that’s never there?”
“Probably. That’s my guess.”
“Unless the monks could do something to send out a signal to the other oni that it’s just gone and they shouldn’t look for it. I don’t know how we will …”
“What if we got the box out of the village and opened it, safely far away? The oni only comes at night. Or … they have. But either way, you think it best to take it to Kyoto, correct?”
“I-I see what you’re saying. If we open the box on the road to Kyoto in the middle of some field─”
“We could attract the oni somewhere else. And then, we would deliver the box to Kyoto.”
“Do we have to go all the way to Kyoto?” Abe said.
“If we want to deal with the box, I think it’s the best idea,” Oda said. “If we address the village with this concern and they realize this is a good too or realize it’s a good idea, we could ask them for a cart to try and haul it along so we aren’t carrying this giant box all the way.”
“I would like to talk to Oji-san as he is older and he might have heard of these things as well,” Wada said. “It couldn’t hurt. They already know this monster is destroying their village. Letting them know it’s an oni and he’s trying to retrieve the arm for the oni king changes nothing for them.”
“And on top of that, some of us weren’t welcome, apparently, and needed a bathhouse murder.”
“We should probably address that. The distance we would have to travel is another reason to talk to Oji-san. In case there’s an easier route.”
“So, sleep on it?”
“It garners more investigation in the morning.”
They tied up the prisoner. Wada took Abe’s room while the iron-banded box and the unconscious prisoner remained in Oda’s room with him and Abe.
* * *
They were awoken the next morning by the sound of a hammer outside. Oda and Wada went to investigate and found, in the street, several Ryû-Ryôshû nailing up a sign declaring the new ownership of the inn by Hebei. Hikyô was wailing and trying to stop them but two of the Ryû-Ryôshû restrained him.
“We might want to get this box out secretly,” Wada said to Oda. “Why don’t you get the townspeople to meet you at the tavern, draw their attention there, telling them we have information on what has been attacking the village. Me and the captain get this box out into the woods, at least, so that the Dragon Lords don’t find out that we robbed them last night, and we will tell them about the oni king story once we’ve hidden the box.”
Oda looked at him.
“I don’t know what they’ll do if they find out we took the box,” Wada said. “It’s technically Hebei’s but I don’t know if he’ll reason with us when we tell him we need to take the box.”
“I also feel like he might have seen the connection,” Oda said. “I feel like─”
“He might know as well. Can you do that, Oda?”
“Sounds okay, although I am still worried, especially with Hebei owning this establishment and with the attack last night. It makes me think that this might not be a safe place to stay for us any longer.”
“We will need to find new lodging shortly.”
“Should we even mention the box at the meeting? We could tell them of the folklore, about the box and the arm and how the oni want to retrieve it. But I don’t think we should say that we know that it’s definitely here or anything like that.”
“I think that’s a smart idea. Feigning innocence is always good in the face of death.”
“Then we can ask: ‘Has anyone seen this box?’”
“Yes. I will say it at the meeting.”
Oda went to call the meeting. He gathered everyone he could in town in an hour’s time, after they had all quickly broken their fast.
The villagers gathered at the tavern and Oda noticed several of the Ryû-Ryôshû were there, watching him carefully. He told them all of the story Wada had told them, leaving out the fact that the rônin had found the iron-banded box out of the story.
“What will you do?” someone asked. “What will you do about this?”
“How will you stop it?” another villager asked.
Oda asked if anyone knew anything about what was happening with the oni upon when it started or what might have caused it. The villagers only knew it started a week or so before. None were certain of an exact date or how long it had been. They persisted in asking him how the rônin would stop the terrible thing. Oda said the rônin were willing to try to kill the thing, which raised a cheer amongst the villagers. He noted that while they would do that, the thing looked horrible.
An older woman fainted dead away.
Oda confessed that even if they were successful, it didn’t mean there were more of the creatures out there. He said the whole village needed to group together to deal with the thing.
* * *
While the village met, Wada and Abe carried the iron-banded box quickly out the front door of the inn. Unfortunately, as they left the building, around the corner came several of the Ryû-Ryôshû. They recognized the three men who harassed them when they first arrived at the village among them. The four Ryû-Ryôshû stopped and watched the two.
“‘Just walk out the front door,’ you said,” Abe muttered. “‘No one will see us.’”
“Ah, the great samurai are now carrying coffins!” one of them said. “Are you coffin-makers now, samurai?”
The Ryû-Ryôshû all laughed loudly and obnoxiously.
“Yes, yes,” Wada muttered. “Yes, we are.”
“Buddhists!” another of the men said with disgust.
They carried the iron-banded box down the street and to the woods, where they hid it in the undergrowth. Abe marked a tree nearby to help them find it later.
“Why … didn’t they stop us?” Wada asked.
“Maybe─” Abe said.
“Does only Hebei know of the box?”
“Probably. That’s what I would assume. They called it a coffin.”
“Then we shall say it is a coffin.”
* * *
The meeting at the tavern broke up and, as Oda headed back to the inn, several of the Ryû-Ryôshû approached him.
“Hebei wants to talk to you and your friends,” one of them said to him. “Come to the gambling house in one hour.”
“One hour,” Oda said.
The thugs walked away.
Oda went in search for Oji-san, finding him at the tavern.
“How can I help you, master?” the old man said.
“I was just wondering if you knew what was going on with the oni,” Oda said. “What might have caused it. Have you heard of the story that I told?”
“I heard of the story,” Oji-san said. “It’s a terrible thing. An iron-banded box, you say? If it’s true, someone has it and they’ve opened it and let the oni know where it is now. It’s a terrible thing! It’s a terrible thing!”
He shook his finger at Oda.
“Have you ever heard of what might stop the oni if we … dispose of the box somehow?” Oda said.
“It will have to be killed!” Oji-san said. “It will have to be destroyed!”
“The box would?”
“No! The oni!
“The oni will have to be killed. Destroyed.”
“But there’s only one? You’re sure?”
“I don’t know if there’s only one.”
“But you just said it had to be destroyed.”
“You just said ‘How do we deal with the oni?’”
“I said the box! The box, Oji-san.”
“I misheard! I misheard, master! I misheard, master! I’m unworthy! I’m unworthy.”
“I’m sorry I said anything with my mouth, ever.”
“No, the oni will have to be destroyed. I do not know what to do about the iron-banded box.”
“Well, I apparently have a meeting with the local gang lord I have to go to in exactly one hour and I don’t know where my friends are exactly.”
“No! Not the local gang lord! He is a terrible and formidable foe! Beware of him! Beware! Beware! Do not mention my name!”
Oji-san ran away.
* * *
The three rônin soon got together again. Hikyô found them as well, telling them they could stay one more night but that they would have to leave the next day. A single tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
“My only possession was this inn,” he said. “What will my daughter do now?”
“Hikyô─” Oda said.
“Hikyô, I would advise you not to sell your daughter into slavery,” Abe said.
Hikyô looked sad, nodded, and walked away.
“Don’t gamble anymore!” Oda called after him.
He turned to Abe.
“Why would you tell him that!?!” he said to the older man. “I didn’t even think he thought of that. Buddha!”
Wada also looked at Abe.
Oda told them of Hebei wanting to see them and they described where they had hidden the iron-banded box. Wada told him some of the Ryû-Ryôshû had seen them with the artifact. They discussed taking their weapons and eventually decided to do so.
* * *
At the appointed hour, they arrived at the gambling house. There was no gambling going on and, as they entered the hall peacefully, they saw six Ryû-Ryôshû armed with wakizashi flanking the open shoji doors leading to the room beyond. It was pitch back in the back room. Hebei was only a shadow.
“I compliment you on your martial prowess after your battle with my Ryû-Ryôshû,” the voice from the darkness said.
“That was my first question,” Oba said.
“But your welcome in my town is wearing thin,” Hebei said. “However, there is a bigger problem of … the thing … that has taken one of my men and has attacked my gambling hall. I have lost men to these midnight abductions and I can see profit with working with you to take it down. I also need peace in my town to conduct business. Are you willing to agree to a truce?”
“We assumed we had a truce when we entered the village,” Wada said.
“You assumed wrong,” Hebei said.
They stared at each other for a while.
“What are the …” Wada said.
“Conditions,” Abe said.
“Yeah, what are the conditions?” Wada said.
“How are you willing to help us?” Oda said.
“I am willing to help you if, afterwards, you leave this town and never look back,” Hebei said.
“Fine with me,” Wada said.
“I mean we basically got a meal and a nice rest and I even got a bath out of it, so …” Oda said. “All in all, better than expected.”
“Can I ask you a question, Hebei?” Wada said. “Why are you threatened by us? We are just traveling rônin.”
“Exactly,” Hebei said. “You are honorable men. Some of the men in my employ are not so honorable. They are realists. But you value a code. You protect certain people who deserve to lose everything because they are fools!”
“I actually agree with you on that one,” Wada said.
“We might do business later,” Hebei said.
Abe realized they might be able to get some other concessions out of Hebei. He seemed desperate to get rid of the demon.
“You’re wealthy, are you not, Hebei?” Abe said.
“Wealthy enough,” Hebei said. “For now.”
“Could we earn some monetary compensation?” Abe said.
“For the road, of course,” Oda said. “When we leave.”
“Or some equipment to make our travels easier,” Abe said.
“You could,” Hebei said. “What do you need?”
“What do you have?”
“No no no, fool. It will not go that way. If you tell me what you need, I possibly could acquire it for you. The way I acquired an inn yesterday.”
“One thousand coins,” Wada said. “This is an oni we’re talking about.”
“I would enjoy some traveling expenses for when we leave town,” Oda said. “At least enough for meals to go on the road and enough money to get us to the next town.”
“I would also like─” Abe said.
“Discuss it amongst yourselves!” Hebei said. “And bring me a tally of what you think you want in one hour and then we will discuss again.”
He clapped his hands and a man on either side of the door slid them shut.
They left the gambling house and went to the inn. They found Chiyo crying in the room downstairs. Abe suggested one of their conditions might be that Hikyô could not gamble any more. They spoke of adding a cart to the tally as well. Wada thought Hebei feared the oni and knew they were the only ones who could get rid of it. Oda agreed. He also thought they should ask for weapons and armor to fight the oni as well.
They returned at the appointed time to talk to Hebei once again. The half-dozen men were there and Hebei was again hidden in the shadows of the other room.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Well, this is a task that we don’t think anybody has ever dealt with before and it’s one that we very well think could cost us our lives,” Oda said. “We think it is reasonable to ask for 1,000 coins. While we do this, we would also request any of your armor or weapons or anything you can outfit us with to get rid of this thing. It will be better for our lives and better for getting rid of it. We need your help fighting it and─”
“You will have several of my archers.”
“That would be most appreciated.”
“At present we have no armor in our treasury. It was sold to make up for debts of other rônin who gambled in my gambling hall. Anything else?”
“Cart and donkey,” Wada whispered to Oda.
“If it is available, to ease our travels, we were wondering if you had a cart or some kind of donkey to … help us,” Oda said. “We’ve been traveling on foot with empty stomachs.
“Done,” he said.
“That is all we ask.”
Abe bowed his head in appreciation.
“Nightfall,” Hebei said. “Meet at nightfall in the town square.”
He clapped his hands again and the doors were closed. They left the gambling hall.
* * *
Wada wanted to see if he could track the trail of the oni. He wanted to find his spear. All three of the rônin headed off into the woods trying to track the beast. Though Oda found a trail, Abe also thought he had found one that led off in another direction. He walked away.
Wada and Oda followed the trail through the woods and to the north until they reach a pathway that led, along with the oni’s trail, to a Shinto shrine. It was a building surrounded by a low, wooden fence, easily straddled, with a post-and-lintel archway, a torii, demarking the entrance to the shrine grounds. The fence formed a square perimeter around the grounds.
The shrine appeared to have been scorched from fire and the roof was ripped off. There were skulls stacked atop the torii. A tree grew up in the temple but it had black and twisted branches without leaves.
“Is this how you do things?” Wada asked.
Oda shook his head. He thought the shrine, which appeared to be desecrated, might have been the lair of the oni.
“I think the oni might be in there,” he said.
“What do you want to do?” Wada said.
“Now it makes me think it might be good to ambush this thing, but I don’t know how we’re going to communicate that to the archers or get them all out here in time before this thing just starts coming through the woods. But …”
“Why don’t we … carefully … confirm that it’s in there?”
“It seems … unlikely I would be successful at that. If you want to do it …”
“I will see if he’s in there.”
“And if … and if he wakes up …”
“He’s fast, I think.”
“Then we will die running.”
“Then one of us is the faster runner.”
While Oda waited some 30 yards away where the trail connected to the path, Wada crept up, using the trees as cover as much as he could. When he reached the fence that ran around the overgrown property, he crept along the south side of it, trying to peek into the shrine.
The smell got worse the closer he got to the shrine. He followed the line of the fence where it passed close to the shrine on the west side and the smell of rotting meat got stronger and stronger. A noise from within was some kind of strange grumble that didn’t sound healthy. He thought he heard the shifting of something large as well. The branches of the trees that thrust up out of the top of the shrine were of a dark wood and bereft of leaves. He realized it was the height of summer and the tree should have been filled.
He crept around the north side of the fence and then crossed the fence line and went, as carefully as he could, to the open front door of the shrine. He crept to the front and was terrified by what he saw within the shrine, almost choking on the stench that came from the place.
Hanging from the ancient tree like rotten fruit were the missing townspeople. Steel pikes and other iron torture implements were impaled in the ground beneath. Body parts littered the ground and the entire area reeked of the stench of rotten flesh. Blood, torn flesh, and viscera seemed to cover the ground in the shrine. What looked like blood bubbled up from the spring under the tree which was not free of the taint either. Parts of it appeared to be composed of living human flesh and bone.
The oni was in the shrine, tending to the tree as a gardener would tend to a bonsai. He chopped off little bits of the villagers and arranged them in some insane artistic formula of his own on the ground and the spikes.
Wada thought it was the same oni.
He also saw his spear. It had been thrust into the ground and a hand was stuck onto the sharp head.
Wada crept back to the fence and then followed the north side of the tree line back down the pathway to Oda. He was pale and wide-eyed, sweating, and vomited when he reached Oda.
“No oni?” Oda said. “Everything’s clear?”
“There is one oni inside,” Wada said. “The one that I put my spear in. He has a blood garden. He … we must burn that place at some point.”
“Burning is … you say a blood garden?”
“That’s the best I can tell you. If we burn it, you will see it and then you will know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Well, maybe I can excuse burning a sacred temple if there is a blood garden in it.”
“There’s nothing sacred about that place anymore.”
Oda knew bodies were to be cremated in Buddhism and so burning the place might be for the best.
“One thing that I can describe to you is: he’s not eating the bodies,” Wada said. “He’s … using them as decorations.”
“Somehow, that is more sinister,” Oda said.
“I really thought he was eating them.”
“He was asleep, right? During the day?”
“No, he was not asleep.”
“He was not asleep.”
“I don’t think they sleep.”
Oda had never read about oni sleeping though he had always assumed they slept at some point and time.
“That is unsettling,” he said. “So he is just waiting until the night.”
“Gardening,” Wada said.
“Can we go away?” Oda said.
“We should find the old man.”
“What are we going to do with the old man?”
“We need to just get him out of the woods. He’s still looking for the oni.”
“Oh, our old man.”
“Yeah, our old man.”
They headed back into the woods and quickly found Abe following his own tracks.
“Now Abe, quit following your own footprints and let’s get back to town,” Oda said. “I’ll tell you all about the blood garden and the mutilated bodies.”
“Uh … sure,” Abe said.
They told him what they had seen at the shrine and what the oni was doing as they walked back to the village.
They spent the rest of the day resting and eating in preparation for that evening. Oda drew the calligraphy planks for Hikyô and Chiyo. Abe asked if the tracks had gone near the iron-banded box and Wada said they hadn’t.
They also discussed their plan for that evening. There was talk of setting up a trap for the oni or ambushing it before it left the shrine.
Abe went to the gambling hall to talk to Hebei but he was rebuffed from the hall if he wasn’t gambling. He ended up gambling and won a little more money before he left once again. He returned to tell them he had won a little money but had not been able to talk to Hebei.
They discussed again the possibility of taking the fight to the oni or fighting it in the village. Abe suggested some kind of punji sticks but they were unsure where to place them to catch the thing. It was pointed out that convincing the archers to ambushing the oni at the shrine might be possible.
They rested the rest of the day.
* * *
They met 10 archers in the town square in the center of town. They were all armed with bows and spears. They told the rônin they planned to climb onto the buildings around the town square to shoot at the oni while they were on the ground.
Abe asked the archers when the oni usually attacked. He was told it varied every night. The night before, it had been just after nightfall. Other nights it was at different times. It was not consistent.
Abe thought the best strategy was setting up the ambush in the town square. He didn’t think going to the thing would be as effective. He told the archers where he thought they should set up on the roofs around, setting up a crossfire that would allow all of the archers to fire without hitting one another. He also ordered the archers to lay on the roofs and stay hidden until they attacked. He noted the three rônin would make noises to draw the thing. He realized if they used the iron-banded box as bait, it would surely draw the oni to wherever they wanted.
The three discussed using the iron-banded box as bait and Wada and Abe went back into the woods and retrieved it. All was still quiet in the village when they returned so they put it in the center of the town square. They also discussed how to get the box away from the town square if anything went wrong.
Then they waited.
* * *
It was after midnight when Abe heard the sound of light tremors as the oni approached. He called up to the archers to get ready while the rônin waited in the square. The tremors grew in strength and then they heard a strangled scream a few rooftops away. Even in the dark, they knew the oni was close as the horrible stench of rotten flesh assaulted them. The horror immediately began chanting in an arcane tongue and came in swinging his tetsubo.
Arrows flew from the rooftops as half the archers, those who were still awake, opened fire. There was the snap of a bowstring as well, though two arrows struck the terrible creature. Some of the archers that awoke screamed and fled or fainted dead away.
With a shout, the oni headed for the iron-banded box. It continued chanting.
Oda took the initiative and rushed the horrible thing, sprinting at it and running his naginata, a great pole arm with long blade on the end, into its right thigh. Wada flung one of his spears at the horror, striking the oni in the left arm. There was a noise as if the spear had struck bone. It let out a shriek but continued chanting. Abe also charged the horror, attacking its left leg with his katana and cutting it to the bone. The oni screamed again as it continued its chant.
The oni, badly injured and bleeding from several wounds, turned and fled from the village, still chanting. The horror swung at one of the archers as he passed but missed, smashing the front of the building. Bamboo and wood went flying.
“We should follow him!” Wada yelled.
The archers let fly once again, one of them screaming insanely at the top of his lungs. Two arrows struck and there was a snap and a scream as one of the archer’s bowstrings broke and the arrow struck him. The oni stumbled and fell as the arrows struck it in the back. It collapsed and death rattled in its throat.
Though it was dead, the chanting continued to echo, becoming increasingly louder. The ground began to shake continuously, the shaking increasing in magnitude.
Oda looked back towards the box and saw it still there. Wada and Abe ran to it as Abe tried to yell at the archers. One of them fell off a shaking building with a scream. Abe gave up on that and ran to help Wada lift the box. Oda ran to the oni and found it was definitely dead. Then he ran out of the north side of the village towards the shrine.
Wada dropped his end of the iron-banded box and ran after Oda.
Abe dragged the iron-banded box to the inn. He had just safely secured the box inside when he heard the crash of a building collapsing nearby. He peeked out of the door and then fell to the ground due to the terrible shaking as he looked out upon a new horror.
In the middle of the town square, a large area turned molten hot, quickly collapsing into smoking void. The body of the oni, at the edge of the hole, fell into the darkness and disappeared. Ropy tentacles emerged from the terrible hole, followed by a great and horrible body as the earthquake subsided. One of the tentacles snatched an archer from a nearby roof, the man’s screams quickly cut short.
The thing was as big as a house with flowing tentacles and pulpy gray-black sack of a body. There were no distinguishing features other than the reaching, groping tentacles though there was a lump in the upper body of the thing. It thing stretched its undulating tentacles to the starry night in a strange repose.
All was silent.
Abe fled the inn through the back and left the town.
* * *
Oda and Wada sprinted to the shrine, slowing only as they approached the terrible place. Oda realized they didn’t have any light source though Wada carried flint and steel.
“We need to burn this place, right?” Oda said.
“That’s what I believe,” Wada said.
“Let’s get to it,” Oda said.
They went to the edge of the low fence around the place and ripped up much of it from one corner for kindling. Bowing to tradition, they walked back to the torii to pass through it to the shrine, Wada in the lead. As he passed through the torii, there was a flash of light and he found himself falling down a hill, crashing onto the side of it on ground that was preternaturally sharp, cutting him horribly.
When he looked around, he saw there were men and women in the horrible place, prodded by oni to climb up razor sharp and alien-looking trees that horribly disfigured them as the climbed. Otherwise, the place was an endless, burning vista that seemed to go forever. He realized he was in Shugo-Jigoku, one of the Buddhist hells. He saw the torii at the top of the hill he had fallen down. Oda looked through it but stayed on the other side, a terrified look on his face.
Wada climbed back towards the torii, tearing himself as he went, his sandals and clothing being torn and shredded by the ground itself.
“It’s a gate to Shogu-Jigoku!” Oda cried out.
One of the oni turned and looked at the gate. Then it left its place by its terrible tree and walked towards them. Oda reached through the gate, holding out his hand towards Wada.
Wada crawled up the side of the hill, the ground ripping at him as blood dripped from his many wounds. He got close enough to Oda for the man to grab his hand and pull him back through. They collapsed to the ground in front of the shrine.
“Break the gate!” Wada said. “Break the gate! Break the gate!”
They leapt to their feet and both of then tore into the torii with their weapons. Wada screamed as he attacked the horrible gate and the oni got closer and closer. It was only then they noticed the arcane wards and sigils carved in rings on both posts of the device.
With a crack of wood the torii broke as the oni almost reached them. There was a strange fizzing noise and the opening to Shogu-Jigoku vanished as the post of the torii Wada attacked with his katana snapped. They were once again plunged into darkness. The creak of rending of wood came from Oda’s side of the torii as it broke as well, splinters flying as the entire structure collapsed. The skulls upon it rattled away on the ground.
Wada continued to attack the wood of the torii, smashing it with his katana and screaming as he did so. Oda approached the man but could not get close to him due to his wild swings.
Oda approached the shrine and saw the terrible sight within. It was horrible to behold and the stench turned his stomach. It was just as terrible as Wada had described it before. He piled the wood they had already gathered against one corner of the shrine and looked back at Wada, who was making kindling out of the torii.
* * *
Abe had heard Wada’s screams from the village and had headed into the woods. He found Wada destroying the torii of the shrine while Oda piled wood against the corner of the shrine.
“The town,” Abe said.
“The town?” Oda said. “There was a gate.”
“Come back there! Now!”
“All right. All right. Lead the way. I’ll come. He might not though. I don’t know about - just leave him.”
Abe tried to persuade Wada to come with them but the man just ignored him.
* * *
When they got back to the village, Oda and Abe saw the terrible thing in the center of the village. It was unmoving though upright.
“That’s the thing!” Abe said. “We have to get the box out now!”
“Is that here because of the box?” Oda said.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to die. You headed off to the temple.”
“I was trying to burn the evil demon and, you know what Abe? We destroyed a portal to hell!”
Oda saw the tentacles of the horror twitch.
“I saw it move!” he said. “I don’t understand how the box is going to help get rid of that.”
“We just have to get it out of there!” Abe said. “We can go in through the back. I left it in the inn.”
“I guess but … I don’t know what to do about that!”
“I don’t either. But we have to get the box.”
“Where are you going to put the box?”
“I don’t know but we have to get it.”
“Okay. Sure. Fine. Okay.”
They crept into the inn and got the iron-banded box, creeping out with it and leaving the town.
The ground shook again and more houses collapsed. It lasted several minutes and then stopped except for a strange hissing noise coming from the town. They hid the iron-banded box in the forest and, when Abe headed for the shrine, Oda stopped him.
“There’s something going on in the town though!” Oda said. “I need to be in the town. I don’t know if you want to check on Wada or not but I need to be in the town.”
“What were you trying to do at the shrine?” Abe said.
“I was trying to start a fire to burn it because there was a blood garden.”
“Do you want me to burn it down?”
“Yeah. Sure. If you’re going there, burn it down.”
Oda gave flint and steel to him and they parted ways.
* * *
When Oda got back to the village, he saw most of the buildings had collapsed. In the center of town was a great sinkhole, right where the town square had been. Within it was a great pit. The hissing noise came from the pit and he thought it sounded like falling water or steam. He crept to the edge of the pit and saw it seemed to disappear into the darkness.
His first thought was that the world was bleeding and it was pouring into the pit. Then he recognized the hot reddish water was that of the hot spring they had languished in two nights before. A great deal of heat came from the hole as well, more so than the hot springs could have generated.
With a creak, the inn, already badly damaged, collapsed. He saw the people picking through the rubble of their former lives, packing up their belongings as if they were going to leave the town. Some people were leaving with nothing but the clothes on their back.
* * *
Abe found a fire already burning at the Shinto shrine and soon heard the sound of insane laughter. A silhouette of a man sat by the fire and, as he carefully approached, he saw it was Wada. A fire burned near where the torii stood and Wada threw chunks of the torii into the bonfire he had started. He laughed hysterically.
Abe ignored the madman and went to the shrine, peeking inside. He was terrified by what he saw. A pile of kindling lay against one corner of the shrine. He went to the fire.
“Abe!” Wada said, laughing hysterically. “Help me throw this in!”
He laughed again.
“I ruined my katana!” he said, laughing still.
He flung it into the woods. He had dulled it cutting up the torii.
“We’re rich, Abe!” he said. “We’re rich! Rich!”
Abe collected more kindling from the pile and piled it up against the shrine. He ignited the fire and then saw to the burning of the entire shrine.
“That’s the spirit!” Wada called when he saw.
* * *
Oda, fearful of danger from the terrible pit in the center of the village, watched it for several hours. Eventually, the water from the hot springs filled up the sinkhole and formed a strange, blood-red, lukewarm pond in the center of the remains of the village.
As dawn broke, more people packed up their meager belongings and fled to the north. The tavern and bathhouse still stood though both the inn, the gambling house, and most of the houses in the town had collapsed.
He helped people pack their belongings as they left the town, heading north in a shambling procession.
He was approached by a man who gave him an unfriendly shove to get his attention. He recognized him as one of the Ryû-Ryôshû. The man flung a sack down on the ground before him.
“Hebei expects you to fulfill your part of the promise,” he said before turning and walking away.
“I mean, it’s dead,” Oda said.
When he picked up the sack, it clinked of coins.
He left the town, noting the column of smoke coming from the nearby forest.
* * *
When Oda returned to the shrine, he found it burned to the ground. Wada and Abe continued to move about the place, making sure everything was burned. It was around noon when they had finished. Oda suspected that, with the burning of the shrine and the bodies within, it would keep any ghosts from returning for revenge on what was left of the village.
“What’s that in your hand?” Wada said with a smile. “Is that the coin?”
“Yeah, gather around everybody,” Oda said. “It looks like we have a fire tonight and a job well done.”
“And you brought sake?”
“Well … bad news about that. The town is mostly a pile of wood.”
“But no oni.”
“No oni. Well done, boys.”
They decided to head for Kyoto with the iron-banded box. They took the path back to the road that led north, recovering the iron-banded box, and found Hikyô and Chiyo as they fled the village with their meager possessions.
“You want to travel with some oni-killers?” Wada said to the girl. “Make the road safer for you.”
The two agreed to travel with the rônin.
Getting off to a rather mixed start with this one. On the one hand I like the Irish setting. I can't remember reading another Lovecraft story set in Ireland. But I don't like the feudalism overlord-ness of it re grateful peasants happy to see their quasi ruler back. I can't help myself but I already want something bad to happen to that character! That says as much about me as anything else, I'm sure. Sorry. It's also problematic in the context of Ireland breaking away from Britain around this time, the idea of bringing in labourers from the north etc. I'd be interested to know what a southern Irish person who read it in 1926 might have thought, especially if they knew it was written in 1921.
The next bit about the narrator going to visit Denys is clumsily written and repetitive, and needed an edit down. I don't know if Lovecraft was trying to write to reach a number of words here, for publication. But this seems to me very much a case where less would be more appropriate.
I do like the description of the legends of the bog though. That's quite evocative. I'm not so taken with the dream descriptions, which feel a bit too familiar, having read many Lovecraft stories now. But I do like the Greek elements in there. There are a number of Lovecraft stories which are Greek Myth inspired in some elements, rather than, say, Arabic or New England or English, and this definitely fits into that category.
There is something rather satisfying about Lovecraft's use of groups of mysterious barely seen figures, whether in procession as in "The Festival" or dancing, as here. And even more so if these figures are not acting of their own volition, but possessed. It's a very satisfying image, that always works for me. I'm using something similar in a text game I'm writing at the moment, inspired by one of Lovecraft's Commonplace Book entries.
I don't think I have ever seen any writer before use the word "fulgently", though I am, of course, familiar with the word "effulgent" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as Lovecraft's fondness for it. Oh and my goodness, he also uses "refulgence" in this story. Another first for me, and not necessarily in a good way!
I'm also struck, as I read, that the piping in this is reminiscent of the strange music that Lovecraft uses in other stories like "The Festival". Reuse can be successful, including for me sequences of strange figures as discussed above. But sometimes it's not so good, and just makes me think he's recycling ideas and elements a little bit too much.
I'm also puzzled why the curse struck, and in such a deadly fashion, before the work to drain the bog began properly? Yes the labourers were already in place, but they were idle, waiting for the work to start the next day. I suppose the dreams and images before were warnings, to stop the bog being drained. But if so they weren't very effective, since they don't seem to have affected Denys at all, or if they did he certainly didn't believe in them.
I do rather like the ending. But generally it's not a great story for me, with some problematic elements, and needed editing and more rework.
My daily activities have, of late, been thrown into some confusion by a sudden development. There is, as so often, a young lady in the case - be that as it may, to cut to the quick of the matter, the East calls to me. Within mere weeks, I must gather my humble possessions (or rather, a small and portable selection of them, the remainder hopefully finding refuge in the attic of one relative or another) and depart for the Middle Kingdom - to Chang'An, the immemorial heart of China.
To put it another and less purple way, I am (visas permitting) heading off for a new job in Xi'an, in central China. And oddly enough this is pretty disruptive, so my communicating, writing, posting, gaming and generally everything is getting dropped while I try to sort it all out. Sadly this mean I have not been spending much time on the forums, and none at all writing posts, blogs or even scenarios. It's a bit of a wrench. Still plenty waiting on the back burner... I'll probably be fairly sporadic until late autumn when I've had a chance to settle into my new job, lifestyle and suchlike. After that I'm hoping to leap back into the fray and try to pummel some more of my ideas into shape. Fingers crossed that Yoggie doesn't fall foul of the Great Firewall!
One sad outcome of this is that I won't be able to attend Games Day this year, which is a huge disappointment. Unfortunately I don't have the freedom to take a holiday that soon into my new job, and I'll be tied to university terms anyway. I'll be very sad to miss it, and hope everyone else has a fantastic time and records everything for my vicarious enjoyment! Maybe some sort of virtual YSDCGD can be arranged for those of us unable to attend? No promises, but let me know if that might be interesting.
I'd also be keen to hear from any other Yoggies who might be around those parts - even in a roughly similar timezone would be nice. I fear a dearth of gaming lies ahead.
Oh this one has an intriguing start, with a German WW1 U-boat commander, and location somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I sort of want to get out a map, or fire up Google Earth, to see exactly where it is.
There's something very appropriate about a submarine as a setting for a Lovecraftian story. The potential for terror in a confined space is increased greatly, and the ways in which people could die numerous and nasty. Though I am rather amused, in a black comedy kind of a way, that going mad, so typically Lovecraftian, is the main issue here. Also as more and more of the crew are killed I can't help but think of a Call of Cthulhu RPG sanity score tumbling, one by one. I sort of wish I knew how many crew a typical U-boat had, so that I could keep score.
Mmm. Delightful isn't he, not, in so many ways. If they weren't in a dire state before they certainly are now! Though to be fair the boat isn't responding to controls, so they're stuffed anyway.
And yes, dolphins as menacing creatures is certainly a novel approach for any story to take.
I find the section underwater overly long though. And I'm struggling to visualise some of the things described, both the black rock thing and the shape of the temple. But it is a nice image, of a submarine drifting at the bottom of the ocean, moving inexorably towards a mysterious lost city.
Thank goodness for my Kindle's built-in dictionary for another archaic word used by Lovecraft: "fane", meaning temple or shrine.
Would a WW1 U-boat really have had a diving suit that could be used safely at that depth though? I know the German sailor wasn't worried about safety so much by this point, but I honestly expected him to leave the submarine and die instantly. Fatal realist me.
But I did like the ending. I was wondering how the message would get out of the submarine, and a message in a bottle - again assuming that the water pressure doesn't crush it - is one solution.
Oh and my edition has a particularly gruesome illustration, which, sorry, I couldn't resist including as an attachment.
I thought I might have read this before, but no, it's new for me.
I really like the imagery of Kingsport in the snow. There's a descriptive passage in there that is one of the most evocative pieces of writing I've ever read by Lovecraft. I'm almost sad to leave that part, and go into the building. I wish I could wander around the town as described and explore it more.
The household with the strange inhabitants is well described too, and there's a nicely growing sense of menace and unease there. Though for me this part goes on too long. I'm clearly still missing the town outside!
The same issue is a problem with the underground sections. I like the walk to the church, and descriptions of the throng of people who leave no footprints. But once things are underground it's less successful for me. And I find the description of the creatures particularly disappointing, though I like the part where the narrator dives into the river.
But I do like the time shift at the end, to a more modern Kingsport, and the idea that it may all have been a vision in the narrator's mind. Obviously I'll side with the no it all happened viewpoint. But it's a nice ending. I'd just like to see some of the earlier sections tightened up a bit, to my taste anyway.
The ladies spend a day pursuing various leads in town and in the surrounding countryside.
Session Date: Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Session Location: Six Feet Under Games, New Holland, Pennsylvania
* Elspeth Marsh, a librarian at the Miskatonic University
* Stephanie MacLeod, an archaeologist at Cambridge University
* Lynn Conners, a stage magician in Arkham, Massachusetts
Saturday, February 7, 1925
After dinner, Stephanie offers to help Edith with the dishes. Edith politely refuses at first, pointing out that Stephanie is a guest, and Edith is more familiar with the kitchen than anyone else. Stephanie mentions that she is interested in managing an inn of her own someday, and asks if Edith has any advice for her, seeing as how she maintains such an excellent boarding house. Edith succumbs to flattery and begins to describe all the ways in which she strives to keep the lodging in good order - especially by keeping out the "riffraff."
While Stephanie keeps Edith occupied, Lynn and Elspeth encourage Hank to tell them more about the Fitzgerald Manse. He warns them that the house has a dark history, and begins to describe the previous owners. There were the Franklins, an elderly couple who lived there peacefully until they died of old age. Before them were the Curwens, a wealthy family from New York. They bought the property about thirty years ago, wanting to raise their children in an idyllic rural setting. Then something happened to Arthur Curwen, who became increasingly irritable until finally butchering his family with an axe and then disappearing. Hank notes that Arthur was never found, and he mentions that Sheriff Whitford - who was only a deputy at the time - was shaken up by the whole grisly affair and was never the same afterward. Hank apologizes for disturbing the ladies, but doesn't refrain from telling them about the 'original sin' that stained the mansion right from its beginning, when John Fitzgerald returned home from the Civil War, killing his entire family and then himself. Hank thinks that the place is cursed, and advises the ladies to steer clear of it.
The ladies decide to retire for the evening. Lynn, who has always been a night owl, stays up late and reads the book from Cornthwaite's study - The Missing People, by Thomas Pratt. She notes a curious reference to a "great dome" that is believed to have held some religious significance to a South American tribe that vanished.
Sunday, February 8, 1925
Stephanie and Elspeth rise early, the latter having recalled a strange dream in which she had committed a ghastly crime and was now confined in a small space with no hope of escape. Elspeth studies Cornthwaite's ledgers again and notices that some information seems to be missing from last month's expenditures. She awakens Lynn and asks her to review the accounts to confirm her findings. Lynn blearily agrees before returning to bed.
Stephanie joins Hank as he works in the yard; she inquires about the missing horse and asks for advice about renting steeds for the day. She and Elspeth travel to the Watkins farm, where they learn that one of the prize horses disappeared sometime during the night. There was a thick dew on the paddock the next morning, and they believe that any tracks would have been seen. Stephanie negotiates the acquisition of two horses for the day. Farmer Watkins recognizes Elspeth as the winner of a local derby last year, and he is pleased to help the ladies.
They decide to take a circuitous route toward the Fitzgerald property. It is a mild day (for February), and the two ladies enjoy their ride until Stephanie spots something under an old, gnarled tree. They women draw closer and see an assortment of large bones on the ground. Stephanie dismounts, draws her Webley, and cautiously approaches. She believes that the bones belonged to a horse, and that they have not been here long. There are no signs of blood or sinew; it looks as though the bones have been picked clean. Unnerved, the ladies search the nearby area but find nothing.
Since they are very close to the Fitzgerald Manse by now, they decide to have another look at the grounds. As they approach the mansion, they are again struck by an odd sense of wrongness about the place - as if the house is somehow crooked. Stephanie ventures into the overgrown garden, followed carefully by Elspeth, who soon stumbles upon a tree root that she swears was not there a moment earlier. Up ahead they see a small shed, and their sense of dread unaccountably increases when they see that the door hangs open. Stephanie has her revolver out as she cautiously peers inside and sees a scattered collection of tools. Elspeth follows Stephanie into the small chamber, and they narrowly avoid stepping on the edged instruments. They notice a space on the wall where an axe used to hang, and then a sudden breeze begins to stir the dead leaves on the floor, making it look as though some of the tools are beginning to move. The ladies scurry out of the shed and quickly complete their tour of the garden before deciding to return to Gamwell.
Back at the boarding house, Lynn studies the ledgers and confirms Elspeth's discovery - some details have been omitted from the most recent expense list. She visits the local bank and asks an accountant to review the ledgers to verify her findings. [Keeper's note: I totally forgot that this was supposed to take place on Sunday.] She then visits the library, where she finds a large collection of books that Mr. Cornthwaite donated just before his disappearance. Many of the books pertain to South America, and Lynn notices that some of them contain scrawled notes in the margins. A pattern begins to develop; it seems that Cornthwaite was very interested in legends concerning a "great dome" that the natives worshipped long ago. When she returns to the bank, the accountant agrees that a considerable amount of expenses have been deleted from the final entries - perhaps as much as $50,000. Lynn leaves the bank just as Stephanie and Elspeth ride into town, and the three of them compare notes during lunch.
The ladies then return to the attorney's office, where they confront Walter Dodge about the missing expenses. After closing the door, Mr. Dodge quietly informs the ladies that Cornthwaite had requested a large amount of salt to be purchased just before he disappeared - a truck full, in fact. The attorneys thought the request odd, but Mr. Dodge is now concerned that Cornthwaite was experiencing some sort of mental breakdown - a suspicion that is supported when the ladies reveal the crumpled note they found in the Fitzgerald Manse. Dodge asks them to keep their findings to themselves; he does not want rumors to spread about Cornthwaite's state of mind. He urges them to continue their investigation and find Cornthwaite as soon as possible.
The investigators agree that there is no choice. They must return to the Fitzgerald Manse to continue their search.
*** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^
Presenting the garden and the sinister shed made me scratch my head a bit. The Keeper is supposed to convey a sense of menace and dread - but there's really nothing there. I guess it's just meant to build an ominous atmosphere. In retrospect, I could have had Joe Virelli or Sheriff Whitford barge in and startle them, but I was planning to save that for the main house.
This was another session with no supernatural events. If I was playing the adventure, I would have been happy to follow up on the various leads - but I sense that these players are getting thirsty for more visceral encounters, which the next session will almost certainly provide. Still, there is a long, slow build-up, and some players get bored with that. I need to think of ways to spice things up, adding in some drama and tension where appropriate.
The next session will probably be the final one, and I am still not sure how deadly I want to make it. Much will depend on sanity rolls and other skill checks, and I am really looking forward to that final, horrific scene.
Please feel free to offer any comments, suggestions, or advice, especially if you've had experience with this scenario. Thanks!
Ah, a collaboration with his wife. I wonder how much of it was by HPL and how much by Sonia.
There are passages that are typical Lovecraft, some of the horrors described. But the way the story gets on with things, and is full of plot, is very atypical for him, so I'm guessing those aspects were mainly done by Sonia. The writing is rather clumsy here, and needed a polish. It's also very unusual for a Lovecraft story to start at the end of the story with a survivor, and then look back. It's far more normal to move inexorably forward.
The images are really disturbing in this story. Again not typical Lovecraft, because he would usually leave things undescribed rather than described. The exact nature of the horror at the end isn't fully explained. Was it an adult monster, or what? And how were the people effectively glued to the rope? But it's really effective. In a horrible kind of a way.
Checking Wikipedia I see the article there also mentions the 1961 B-movie Gorgo as similar in some respects. I've been meaning to watch that for ages. But knowing some things about it already I don't think it would be nearly as horrific as this short story!
And in a cheerier vein I really like this related sketch by Jason Thompson.
Pushing ahead quickly onto this very short piece.
It's all about atmosphere, and I'm not sure the writing fully works. There are clunky sections for me, and bits which seem to have strange phrasing. For example Lovecraft writes "strange oceans that are not in the world", whereas, rightly or wrongly, I'd rather expect his take on that to end "of this world". I know the meanings are different, but it was a slightly jarring moment for me on first reading.
I do like the idea of the terror of a moonlit landscape though, especially one that is transformed, not just in subtle ways, but also stretches without daytime limits. It reminds me of my terror as a child in the 1980s watching the BBC TV adaptation of the novel Moondial. A very scary experience, and this story captures a similar feeling.
I don't know if it's intentional, but the description of spires revealed among the sea water sounds like the story of English Dunwich. I'm presuming Lovecraft knew of Suffolk's Dunwich, and that was the source for his place name. But I'm also now wondering if its legends could have inspired the "dead, dripping city" here too.
The ending is a bit poor for me, but generally I rather enjoyed the story. Even with very arcane language throughout, even more so than Lovecraft often uses, it was successful in building an evocative atmosphere, and satisfyingly disturbing. And all done in a small amount of words. Good stuff.
I'm finding the opening paragraph hard to read. It's quintessentially densely-written Lovecraft, but I do rather prefer a more straightforward form of writing, which he does use some time. I thought things were improving in the railway station, but it's still floridly written.
Much of the early section is strangely reminiscent of his story "The Tree", not just with the idea of a sculptor, but also much of the imagery and descriptive allusions. I see that the two stories were written two years apart. Also another story set in England, in Kent and London. The characters don't feel very English though.
I'm afraid that from "Of our studies it is impossible to speak ..." I started skipping big chunks. Yes I know that Lovecraft was a huge fan of the indescribable, but there's only so much writing about it I can take. I want plot! At the very least more characterisation would be nice. And while I know he's expounding a world view in this section, I just don't find it compelling or interesting, hence skipping hefty portions.
I rather like the idea of drug-induced voyages of the mind though. But I'm finding the narrator's motivations a constant struggle. This friend sounds dangerous, someone who he stumbled across at the railway station, and took up with for no particularly rational reason. Just why?! Also he doesn't know his name?
And then there's more indescribable stuff, and specifically "perceptions of the the most maddeningly untransmissable sort". Aarrggh! Yes maddening.
I do like the narrator waking in the tower room though, and then fainting from the horror of his friend's screams. That's plot, action! I am also bemused by the spelling "phrensy" that I've never seen before.
And there's more plot from this point onwards, which I approve of. I like the rapid ageing, and also the terror in the sky in the vicinity of Corona Borealis.
I'm unsure what happens at the end. Was there really a friend or was it all a hallucination? Or an aspect of Hypnos before the statue appears? But I did rather like that bit. It's just a shame the story took so long to get going.
Monday, May 21, 2018
(After playing the Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario "The Dragon and the Wolf" by John W. Thompson from The Bride of Halloween Horror monograph Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. with John Leppard and Nick Novacek.)
In the year 1000 A.D., the church predicted the Millennium of Christ would bring about the beginning of Armageddon. As if this was not enough to inspire fear in the common people, the land was wracked by the raids of the fierce Viking Northmen.
In the village of Wroxeter, tales of disappearances and a phantom Black Wolf had reached the Count of Shropshire. The Viking threat and an influx of people seeking safety kept the Earl from sending his own men to see to Wroxeter, so he had, instead, issued a reward of 500 deniers for the pelt of the Black Wolf.
Two men had answered the call and rode into the town on Saturday, October 27.
Bossard was from France and was a Norman. He was a black-haired, weathered looking man with a small beard. He wore clean boiled leather armor and had a long sword on his belt. He carried a large shied in his left arm. He rode one of the Count of Shropshire's horses as he was a sergeant in the man's house, the only person the Count could spare to see to the end of the Black Wolf.
John was Welsh and had short brown hair and a face that was not clean shaven, though not with enough stubble, even, to call it a beard. He was scruffy. A hunter and woodsman, he had known Brossard for some time and had agreed to come with the man to hunt the Black Wolf. He wore boiled leather armor his friend had lent him and carried a strange device Brossard had brought from France but never used: a crossbow. He had given it to his friend some years before and John had become proficient in its use. He rode a horse Brossard had lent him.
A cool autumn wind shook the leaves from the trees as they entered the tiny village of Wroxeter. It was said it was once one of the largest Roman cities in Britain. Now, fragments of a great wall and some crumbling foundations, as well as a broken tower were all that remained. Interspersed within and around those shadows of yesterday's greatness was a humble village of a dozen or so families. A solid church stood in the middle of the village near a village green.
The people of the village watched the two riders cautiously as they approached. Men, women, and even children had bow or knife at hand, ready to fight. The villagers were hard, strong folk of Saxon heritage. They were the ones who stayed after the more fearful had fled to Shewsbury. Yet, even in their eyes, the two men could see a hint of fear. The Black Wolf must have been a fierce beast, indeed, to trouble those folks.
Despite their unease, the men could see the villagers were preparing for a festival: All Hallows Eve. Once called Samhain, it was the time of blood and death, when the livestock were culled of those too weak to live through the winter. Such animals were slaughtered and the villagers preserved as much meat as possible by salting and drying. The rest would be eaten in a feast. Naturally, people's minds turned to death in that season and it was common to honor the memories of loved ones now gone. The church held its veneration of the Saints the next morning on the first day of November.
A bleat sounded suddenly as an old goat had its throat cut, a quick and merciful kill. Another gust of wind carried the coppery tang of blood, an ominous omen to begin the two men's hunt for the demon wolf.
Some of the houses had smoke seeping out of the thatch of the roofs but others seemed to have been abandoned. The fields and gardens around the village were fallow, for the most part, as the planting season was over.
They approached a man mending rope by a house. He was a thick man with a great jaw and a shapeless hat atop his head. He was clean-shaven and looked surly.
"Hello sir," Bossard said.
The man pulled on the front of his hat, looking them up and down suspiciously. He had a knife in his belt.
"We're looking for the Headman of this village," Bossard said.
"That'd be Aelfred," the farmer said.
"Where's Aelfred?" Bossard said.
"That's his house," the man said, pointing.
Bossard nodded and thanked the man.
"Give him a coin," John said.
The other man flipped the farmer a denier. He bit into it and tucked it away before going back to his work.
They went to the indicated house and met Aelfred. The Headman proved to be very young, only about 23 years old. He greeted them and they knew, as Headman, he was responsible for collecting taxes and generally serving as the intermediary between the villagers and the Earl's men. The villagers also looked to him to make important decisions and lead them in times of trouble.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," he said. "Can I help you?"
"We've been sent by the Earl to deal with your "¦ black wolf," Bossard said.
"Oh!" Aelfred said. "Good. I've seen it. I've seen the black wolf."
"Have you, now?"
"Aye. Aptly named and bigger than any wolf I've ever seen before. Fifteen to 20 stone at least. Wulfstan, my predecessor, saw the beast up close and was so terrified that he took his family and fled in the night."
"Do you know where he fled off to?"
"I assume to Shrewsbury. That's where many of the people are going."
"Hm. Do you have any more information about the beast besides how much it weighs?"
"It's been here a few months."
"Are any of the buildings abandoned?" John asked.
"Aye," Aelfred said.
"Do you mind if we take residence in one of the abandoned ones?"
"Well, what are you doing here?"
"We're here to kill it!" Bossard said. "Order of the Earl."
Aelfred took them to one of the abandoned houses. They found the single-room building had no furniture and a small fire pit. When John asked about a smith, he learned the nearest one was in Shrewsbury. Aelfred noted there was a miller in the village and a mill on the river outside of town. They were told the miller was Ingeld. He also told them Father Thomas was the village priest.
"He's not too happy with our festivities," Aelfred said. "But Aehtelgythe is. She's the old wise woman that lives here."
"Would she know more?" Bossard said.
"About what?" Aelfred said.
"The wolf," John said.
"The situation," Bossard said.
"The wolf?" Aelfred said. "Maybe. I don't know if she's seen it. I've seen it. It's huge. Big as a horse. If you need me, you know where to find me."
"And here I was thinking it was just some crazy Viking running around with a black pelt on his back," Bossard said.
"Couldn't we win by just killing a wolf and dying it black?" John said.
Bossard frowned at him.
"What?" John said. "We should visit the old lady. It sounds like a local myth."
"Good idea," Bossard said. "The priest might know something too."
"The priest? No. He wouldn't tell us anything."
"We're not from the area."
"Yeah, but he doesn't believe in it. To him, it's just a â”€"
"Well, he said he didn't believe in the festivities."
"Yeah, but the wolf is most likely "¦ not natural if it's that big. We can go ahead and assume that Catholicism doesn't approve of its existence."
"I don't know, it could just be some big wolf that's pretty old."
"If it's old, it wouldn't be abducting people."
"Do we know that it's been taking people from their homes or just killing them?"
They asked around and learned Aehtelgythe lived in a house connected to and partially made of stone from the old Roman tower that stood crumbling just outside of town. The door there was answered by the oldest person either of them had ever seen.
Aehtelgythe was probably 70 years old but still spry and healthy. She wore plain, dark clothing and a hood covered the top of her head. Her skin was wrinkled but her eyes bright as she looked over the two men at her doorstep.
"What do you want?" she growled.
"We seek information," Bossard said.
"Well, you've come to the right place," the old woman said.
She turned and walked into the dark hut. The two men followed and found she was boiling water which she mixed with certain herbs and honey in a cup. She sat down on a bench and drank it, not offering them any.
"What are you looking for?" she said.
"We're looking into the wolf problem," Bossard said.
"Oh!" she said. "I seen the yellow eyes of the monster, staring from the woods. These were not the eyes of a normal animal; they held intelligence and evil within them. I have cast my auguries and know what the Black Wolf is an unnatural beast and it is motivated by malice! It means harm to this village and must be stopped! Are you here to stop it, man with a sword?"
"Yes. The Earl is paying us very well to take care of this."
"Oh. Then you need to find it and stop it. Track it down and kill it. Especially before the 31st. Before our festivities."
"What kind of animals has it abducted in the past?" John asked.
"Sheep," Aehtelgythe said. "Cows. Goats. Killing everything."
"Bait," he whispered to Bossard.
"These are not my horses," Bossard said.
"Bait," John said again.
"What are you whispering about?" Aehtelgythe growled.
"Nothing, ma'am," Bossard said.
"Bait," John said. "Bait for the animal. We can draw it out and track it."
"Which one of you are you going to use for bait?" Aehtelgythe said.
"The armored one."
"You're both wearing armor!"
Aehtelgythe poked John in the side, slapping his armor.
"The shielded one," John said.
"Oh," Aehtelgythe said. "There's something evil about it. It's in the woods. Waiting."
She sloppily sipped whatever brew she was drinking.
"Is there some sort of pattern to these attacks?" Bossard said.
"No," Aehtelgythe said. "Not that I know of. But I'm not everybody."
"Does it attack at night?"
"Mostly. Nobody sees it in the day. It stays in the shadows of the woods. It's an evil creature. It's a horrible thing."
She glared at both men.
"Do you know why this creature "¦?" Bossard said. "Or when it started appearing?"
"Month, maybe more," Aehtelgythe said. "Not longer than a month. Not too much longer than a month."
"Are there any special holidays or traditions that took place in September?" John said. "Last month? A few months ago?"
"No," she said. "Nothing that coincides with when the wolf was first spotted or when it first attacked.
"Do you have any theories as to why it's appeared?" Bossard asked.
"No," she said. "I cast an augury to try to determine what was happening. I've told you all I learned."
They did learn, after talking to the woman some more that she was a follower of the old ways. She didn't come across as very Catholic or Christian. She was proud the festivities would have some of the old ways included in it.
"Do you know anyone in town who might know more?" Bossard said.
Aehtelgythe gestured vaguely towards the town.
"Just ask around, then?" Bossard said.
She again gestured.
"Is there anything else we should need to ask her, my friend?" Bossard said.
"I don't think so," John said.
"Thank you for your time, ma'am," Bossard said.
"Good luck!" Aehtelgythe said. "Kill it! Kill it!"
"We'll come back later if we need your assistance," Bossard said.
She nodded at them and they took their leave.
They went to the church and found Father Thomas, the village priest. Though they had heard him called "Young Thomas" around the village, he was actually quite old, being in his 40s. Balding, he had thick hair on the sides of his head and a beard and mustache. He wore simple, brown robes. He seemed happy the Earl sent someone to deal with the wolf and a little exasperated the locals clung to their superstitions despite his frequent sermons. He seemed a little in conflict with Aehtelgythe and a little upset none of the villagers were willing to learn Latin. He was a little crotchety and mentioned aches and pains he always felt, noting he would not be taking place in the festivities in a few days due to the "pagan foolishness," as he put it.
"As the Millennium of Christ draws to a close and the return of Our Lord, not as the Lamb but as the Lion of God, draws nigh, the Devil is loosing his demons, such as this Black Wolf, upon the world. The Dark One prepares for the great battle of Armageddon! We must prepare ourselves and put on the Full Armor of God! We must repent and pray and be ready for the End is at hand!"
"Is there anything about the wolf that makes it seem as if it's anything but a normal wolf?" John said.
"It is the Devil! It's huge! Bigger than a man! Why, Aelfred himself has said it's 10 to 14 stone. That's bigger than any man!"
"Do you believe Aelfred's word?"
"I have no reason to doubt him. I've taught him Latin. He's the village Headman now. He was a ready student. Not many want to learn. Aelfred took over as Headman of the village, appointed by the earl after Wulfstan disappeared. They left one night. Aelfred said Wulfstan had seen it up close and left due to the terror he had felt after seeing the horrible beast."
Father Thomas didn't see any reason why Aelfred would lie. Lying was a sin, especially at that time, when the whole world was coming to an end. He was willing to listen to the two men's confessions if they wanted to unburden their souls. He was also upset about the festivities planned because Aehtelgythe was adding pagan elements to them. He felt she was too supportive of the old ways.
"Thomas, do you know of anyone whoâ”€" Bossard said.
"Father "¦ Thomas," Father Thomas said.
"Father Thomas, do you know of anyone who does not believe Aelfred in town?"
"Cuthbert is very upset."
"Cuthbert is Wulfstan's cousin."
"He and Aelfred do not get along. Aelfred claimed Wulfstan left the village out of terror and fear. That he's a coward."
"What does he believe?"
"I don't know but he doesn't like Aelfred."
"Where does he live?"
Father Thomas gave the man directions to Cuthbert's house across the village. They learned he was one of the local farmers. They found Father Thomas lived in the tiny rectory behind the house, a building no larger than any of the others in the village.
"Does anyone live in Wulfstan's house?" Bossard asked.
"No," Father Thomas said. "They left a month or so ago. No one has come into the village."
"Thank you Father, I think we're going go to ask "¦ Cuthbert "¦?"
When they left the church, Bossard spoke to John quietly.
"I say we look in Wulfstan's house first," he said.
"I concur," John said.
They stopped at the abandoned house of Wulfstan and let themselves in. The hut was typical of those in the village. It was solidly built with a thatch roof and only a single door to let in light. With only a single room, there was a cold fire pit in one corner. A little debris and straw remained but nothing else was in the place except for a few mice which scurried to the corners and disappeared.
They searched the house, looking for clues but found nothing remained in the house whatsoever.
"I guess we should go talk to Cuthbert," Bossard said.
It didn't take them long to find the man. He was skinny with a sunken face and thick muttonchops. He had dark eyes and wore a straw hat and a tunic. When they questioned him about Wulfstan, he said he didn't believe the man took his family to Shrewsbury as Aelfred claimed.
"Wulfstan was a strong, dedicated leader, a man you could trust," he said. "He would never have just packed up and vanished in the night. Aelfred says that Wulfstan told him that he had a run-in with the Black Wolf and it frightened him so badly that he was taking his family and leaving. If that were true, why did he say nothing to me? We were closer than brothers! Besides, Wulfstan was no coward and as skilled a hunter as I've ever know. In fact, we were planning to hunt the beast down ourselves! The whole story doesn't sit well with me."
"When did, supposedly, Wulfstan leave?" Bossard said. "Last month?"
"It was a month. A little more than a month ago. Not long after the wolf appeared."
"Do you know what happened to his house?"
"No. What do you mean?"
"We looked inside and there was nothing in there."
"Aelfred says they took what they had. In the night. Left in the middle of the night."
"Did he own a cart?" John said.
"No," Cuthbert said.
"No. Would've had to pack it all on his back."
"Didn't leave anything behind?"
"I don't know. I haven't been in his house. You said you were in his house? Was there anything there?"
"Looked like it had been abandoned for a month," Bossard said.
"Is there anywhere the villagers congregate outside of the church?"
"Not really," Cuthbert said. "Sometimes on the village green in the center of town. That's where the festivities will take place in a few nights for All Hallows Eve."
He looked at Bossard.
"Why would he have left without telling me?" he said.
"I don't know who he was so I'm not sure," Bossard said.
"He was a good man," Cuthbert said. "In charge of this village. Did a good job. Then he was gone in the middle of the night."
"Doesn't make sense to me, personally. He would probably wait until morning to leave at the earliest."
"And he would probably have gotten a cart from someone in town first."
"But he's gone!"
"So, why is Aelfred in charge of the town now?"
"He was assigned it by the Earl."
"Uh-huh. The Earl put him in charge."
"Has he been a local in the town for a long time?"
"All his life just like the rest of us."
Bossard thought on that.
"Well, we're hunting down that beast," he finally said.
"Good!" Cuthbert said. "Kill it. Find out what happened to Wulfstan."
"That seems to be something of interest."
"Related to this. Because if we could find what happened to Wulfstan, we might find out more about the beast."
"Or the beast if we find him. Either or either. But I do not feel heading back to town would be helpful. You don't think heading back to Shrewsbury and looking for a man in that town would be helpful, do you?"
He had directed his last question to John.
"It'd waste an entire day, at least, looking for him," Bossard went on. "And, if the fears are right about All Hallows Eve, I don't feel we have enough time to bother. Plus, I feel like the Earl would have told me if the old Headman was in town. Probably would have sent him with us. Help us out with our investigation."
"We should probably leave the building," John said.
Cuthbert looked at both of them.
Bossard told him they'd look into his cousin's disappearance. He told them "Good." He bid them to kill the Black Wolf if they found it. They saw their way out of the house.
They talked about figuring out where the attacks were occurring and also about keeping an eye on Aelfred. John found him suspicious. They decided to talk to the villagers to see what else they could learn. They learned the people had refused to leave the village despite bandits, Vikings, and the Black Wolf. All of them respected Wulfstan until he abandoned them. Most of them very much liked Aelfred and were very happy the man stood up to lead the village. Aelfred was a bit less hearty than the average man but he was very intelligent. He could even read and write Latin, having been taught by Father Thomas.
They learned the Black Wolf was a monster the size of a pony with a pitch black pelt and glowing yellow eyes. Multiple villagers reported the loss of livestock to the beast but no one had been closer than several dozen yards. All of the sightings had been at a distance. Many worried that the slaughter of excess livestock in preparation for the winter would bring the wolf into the village as the demon beast followed the scent of fresh blood.
There were no specific spots where the wolf struck.
The two men discussed what to do. John suggested they watch Aelfred and Aehtelgythe's homes. Bossard wanted to stay together. He feared facing the beast alone and, when John suggested climbing a tree, Bossard wondered aloud if the beast could climb.
"It's a wolf!" John said.
"It's an abnormal wolf, according to these people," Bossard said.
"Fair enough. All right, you take the old woman. I'll take Aelfred."
* * *
Bossard went to Aehtelgythe's hut and asked the old woman if he could spend the night there. He told her he needed a place to stay but she refused to let him in, claiming he was too young for her before she slammed the door in his face. He found a place nearby to watch her house that night. He ended up climbing a tree.
* * *
John had hidden himself near Aelfred's house behind one of the rough stone walls nearby where he could watch the house but didn't think he would be noticed.
It was the wee hours of the night when he saw the silhouette of a huge animal creep up to the house. It looked like a huge wolf or dog. It was far too big and had yellow, glowing eyes. It crept around Aelfred's house as if it was looking for something. Though chilled by the sight, John watched. The animal seemed to be looking for a way into the house. It finally left, heading south and passing closer to John than the man was comfortable with. He thought it might have looked right at him before he crept out of the village. He lost sight of it when it disappeared into the woods.
He waited a while longer before he slipped back to the abandoned house he and Bossard had been shown by Aelfred. There was some firewood there that had been gathered by the villagers for them. He built a small fire before wrapping his cloak about him and going to sleep.
* * *
The day of Sunday, October 28, 1000, dawned with rain. Nothing had happened at Aehtelgythe's house that night. Bossard returned to the house he and John had been given to stay in and found it smelled of fresh smoke. A few ashes were in the pit in the corner and John slept on the floor. He nudged the man with the boot.
John explained the wolf was very real and wanted something inside of Aelfred's house. It was definitely looking for a way in and was around the house for a while. When Bossard asked if the man had seen Aelfred leave, he said he hadn't, but the wolf definitely wanted in. John suggested they talk to Aelfred and ask if he had taken anything from the ruins or done anything to anger the wolf.
They set off for Aelfred's house that morning and found the man there. He seemed happy to see him. John noticed very large wolf-prints all around the house and could see they headed south.
"Did anything strange happen last night?" John asked.
"No," Aelfred said. "I slept well."
"Have you traveled around anywhere in the last month? We have reason to believe the wolf may have wanted to get inside your house."
"Found anything interesting?"
"Done anything out of the ordinary?"
Bossard realized the man was not telling them everything. He was keeping something back and was not being completely honest. He tried to convince the man they were all trying to stop the wolf and he could tell them anything. It was almost an impassioned plea that was very convincing.
Aelfred seemed unconvinced. He claimed nothing out of the ordinary had happened. However, each of the men noticed him glance towards a chest tucked into the corner of the room. It didn't have a lock or even a hasp, but was large and weathered, as if it had been in his family for some time. Bossard exchanged a knowing glance with John before he thanked Aelfred for his time. Aelfred wished them luck finding the wolf and they took their leave.
They returned to the house they'd been lent.
"We need to see what's in the chest," John said.
"I have an idea," Bossard said.
"I have one too."
"What's your idea?"
"If you can fast talk him, if you find him out in a field, we have to be careful that villagers don't see us rummaging through his stuff. So, we need you to convince him to go get him something from the house. And we can go fetch it. And that way none of the villagers are concerned and we can go take a look in the chest."
"My plan was to convince Cuthbert to distract Aelfred for us. Convince him, maybe, that we found some information about Wulfstan that he needs to distract Aelfred for us. We don't need to be truthful about it. It might be true. But we just need to get in that house and get into that chest."
They discussed it, John noting the problem was that the village was small and the villagers might see them. Bossard suggested they try John's idea first.
They soon found Aelfred was going about town and talking to the other villagers about the festivities in a few days. They learned it was a dance with a certain song that would be sung that night.
John told Bossard they would ask to borrow a shovel to dig something around the village that needed dug in thanks for the loan of the abandoned house they were staying in. However, when they approached Aelfred and asked him about it, he told them all he needed from them was to get the wolf. He wanted them to find and kill it. When Bossard told them there was not anything they could do during the day, Aelfred was taken aback.
"You can't track it down?" he said. "Find out where it lairs? That's what I would think you could do. Find where it lairs and be ready for it when it comes out or set a trap or burn it out if it's in a cave. Kill it or block it up or collapse the cave on top of it!"
He seemed very anxious to kill the wolf.
Bossard asked the man if he had taken any spiritual attempts at self-protection, like salt in front of the door. The man said he had not. Aelfred was curious why the man asked and told him he prayed fervently every night as Father Thomas taught him.
They left the man, heading towards the woods as if they were planning on following the tracks. They followed the tracks south and found they went all around the animal pens and the barn, though not nearly as much as were around Aelfred's house.
"Well, I think, one thing we should, could, consider, is setting fire to one of the abandoned houses," Bossard said.
"You know, I was already thinking about that," John said. "I was actually thinking we could set fire to an outhouse."
They both figured it would draw all the villagers to it and they could use the confusion to look into the chest in Aelfred's house. John wanted to burn a latrine. He thought it a good idea to burn the one behind Aelfred's house. They argued over it briefly.
They followed the tracks into the woods but John soon lost the trail when it went on rocky ground. He was not able to find tracks leaving the area. It was almost as if the wolf was trying to lose any pursuit.
As they walked around the rocky ground, John suggested they set loose the animals in the barn as a distraction. Bossard was unsure how they could do so inconspicuously. John was unsure how to set a fire inconspicuously. Bossard suggested leaving something burning in the house. He was also of the opinion the Earl wouldn't mind as much them setting some animals loose as he would them burning down a peasant's house. However, he realized the Earl probably valued the livestock at least as much as the peasants, if not more so. He was unsure which the Earl would hate more.
They continued looking for the wolf's prints around the rocky area that day without any luck. Bossard found some boot prints and followed them, soon following them back to the rocky area. John realized the man was following his own boot prints in a circle. John found no tracks leaving the rocky area in the woods, which didn't seem right to him at all.
They returned to the village long before dark as the rain started.
They split up, Bossard going to talk to Aehtelgythe and John going to see what Aelfred was doing.
* * *
Bossard found Aehtelgythe kneading dough for bread.
"Hello Aehtelgythe," he said.
"What is your name?" she said.
"Bossard? That sounds French!"
"I am French! Originally."
"What are you doing here?"
"I told you!"
"Are you spy? For the French?"
"I've been sent by the Earl to kill the wolf. Remember?"
She looked at him suspiciously.
"I remember," she finally said.
"I'm not a spy," he said.
"But you're French!"
"Regardless, Aehtelgythe, I was hoping you would provide us more information about the wolf from what I've learned."
"What have you learned?"
He told her about the tracks disappearing on the rocky spot and about the boot prints. When she asked if he was sure he wasn't following his own tracks, he came to a sudden realization. Then she walked over to him and poked him hard in the chest.
"That sounds like a werewolf," she said.
"Werewolf?" Bossard said.
"I thought it was just a Viking, some crazy man with a wolf pelt on."
"No, it is a man that can turn into a wolf."
"So, like my original theory."
"I don't know."
She told him the werewolf was a man who could turn into a wolf to do horrible things. They could infect others with their curse if they harmed said others. They were the Devil's agents, or at least that was what the church claimed. She said they were very dangerous. She noted if they hunted a werewolf, they might want to have their weapons blessed by Father Thomas. She said he knew some things.
"For though he is just a priest of a new god," she said blasphemously, "he does have some power and does know some things. But it will be a wolf with the cunning of a man. Cunning of a man!"
She got in his face and pointed at his forehead.
"So, are you saying one of the villagers here is a werewolf?" Bossard asked.
"It could be," she said.
He told her there had been a lot of tracks around Aelfred's house and he had looked at a chest when they had talked to him about it. She didn't know anything about that but she trusted Aelfred and pointed out Aelfred was ready to incorporate aspects the church might not approve of for the festivities. She approved of that use of "the old wisdom." She asked if he was suspicious of Aelfred.
"Not necessarily," Bossard said. "I just don't know what he's worried about in his house. He won't tell us about it."
She thought on that.
"It could be what the werewolf wants," Bossard said.
"Why don't you just ask Aelfred?" Aehtelgythe asked.
"He refuses to divulge it," Bossard said.
He related their question of something happening or him finding anything when he had looked at the chest. Aehtelgythe was unsure but guessed the Romans had nothing to do with anything as even they didn't know the old ways. She again noted the inclusion of the old ways into the festivities was a good thing.
She asked him what kind of Catholic he was. He shrugged and alluded to the fact that he merely paid the church lip service. The old woman nodded.
"The old ways have power," she said.
"Do they?" Bossard said.
"The new ways do not have as much power. Some of them do. But not much. We need to get back to the old ways. The ways from before. From before."
He thanked her and took his leave.
* * *
John found Aelfred under a small, roughly made pavilion on the village green with some of the children of the village, helping them learn the song that seemed to be in Latin. He walked back to Aelfred's house but saw one of the townsfolk, a pretty young woman with long, dark hair named Aelfwynn, mending clothing in the doorway of the nearby house. Unfortunately, she could see the door to Aelfred's house from where she worked.
He went to the hut where Aelfwynn worked. She was very pretty and only about 16 years old. When she saw him, she blushed at the handsome man, lowering her eyes.
"Hello, good sir," she said.
Village gossip had it she was the most beautiful girl in the village. She lived with her father and mother and was unwed and unbetrothed.
"Would your parents mind if you lent out farm tools?" he asked her.
She said she didn't think they would.
"Can I borrow a shovel?" he said.
She brought him a shovel and he left with it, returning after a short while to give it back. He had hoped she wouldn't have the tool so he could use that as an excuse to enter Aelfred's house.
He wandered back to the village green to watch the man teach the children the song in Latin. He told them what to say and when to sing it. John was unsure if it was Latin but guessed it must be. He stayed until he saw Bossard returning to the village and went to meet with him.
"Did you learn anything interesting?" he said.
"It's a werewolf," Bossard said.
John was unsure what he was talking about and Bossard told him. He also noted they needed blessed weapons, according to Aehtelgythe. John wondered if they could just place the weapons on the altar and they would get blessed. Bossard felt they should just go ask Father Thomas.
They went to the church and found the priest. When they told him they wanted blessed weapons, he wanted to know exactly what they wanted. Bossard told him it was the Devil and Father Thomas was certain he was right. When Bossard told him he needed a blessed weapon to drive it off, the man looked more trepidatious. He told the man it was very costly for him to bless a weapon. When John tried to minimize the fact, he noted it was costly to him and would cost him part of his soul.
"But God would want you to do this," Bossard said.
"Are you sure it's the Devil," Father Thomas said. "Have you seen it? Have you seen arrows bounce of it?"
"My friend has."
"Have you seen your weapons bounce off it?"
"I haven't seen my weapons bounce off it," John said.
"Do you want us to try?" Bossard said.
"It's far too large to be a normal wolf," John said.
Bossard told the man he had deduced the creature was a werewolf. Father Thomas listened to him and frowned.
"How dare you lie to me!" he said. "Your eternal soul is more important than lies! You must tell me the truth, young man!"
"Aehtelgythe told me," Bossard said.
"As I thought! She's a pagan! You can't trust her!"
"But I still..."
"If you come to me with the truth, that this wolf cannot be harmed by mortal bow and arrow, then, yes, I am willing to give part of my soul to protect you. But until that time "¦ no. Especially to a liar."
"He's not a liar."
Bossard pointed to John.
"You lied to me when you said that was what you thought," Father Thomas said. "Don't lie to me. I can see the truth. I know a liar when I see one!"
"But God would want you to help me kill this creature!" Bossard said.
"You lied to me already! Don't sully the name of God with the same mouth that just told me lies!"
"Fine, we'll go try and kill it tonight. But if I die "¦"
"It's God's will. For your lies."
"And if the werewolf kills you, it's God's will."
Bossard left the church without another word. John followed.
* * *
That night, the two men entered Wulfstan's house. Bossard, exhausted from saying up the night before, curled up in a corner and went to sleep. John climbed up onto the thatch roof and set himself up on one of the braces that held up the thatch with plans to watch Aelfred's house but he also nodded off to sleep.
* * *
* * *
The morning of Monday, October 29, 1000, was overcast and gray but the rain had stopped. When the light woke John, he realized he had fallen asleep soon after he had taken up his watch the night before. When he climbed down to the room, Bossard was already awake. The Frenchman slapped him in the face.
"I deserve that," John admitted.
They went to Aelfred's house and found fresh tracks all around. Some of them headed south once again. They followed them to a stream and started to search up and down the rill to see where the tracks came out. They had lost the tracks however despite spending several hours carefully looking. They finally found some tracks that left the stream and headed back towards the rocks they had lost the tracks upon before.
Canvassing the area between the two, however, brought them to a sparse campsite on a rocky patch along the River Severn. A man had a small fire burning in the clearing. He was wearing once-nice clothing now ragged and threadbare. He looked like a merchant or a minor noble who had fallen on hard times. He had a thick black beard and thick black hair. He cooked a fish over a small fire.
John signaled Bossard and they crept back into the woods to talk, getting a mile or so away before they stopped.
"What do you think?" John said. "Do we jump him? Do we question him?"
"We should question him," Bossard said. "We don't know that he's the werewolf."
"It would save a lot of trouble if he wasn't."
"You want to try to murder an innocent man?"
"Well, it's obvious from his clothes nobody will miss him."
"No. I know the Earl doesn't care but you're not going to weigh the conscious of murdering a man?"
"I don't want to get eaten."
"You don't know if he's a werewolf! What if you murder him and then the werewolf attacks again?"
"Then he wasn't a werewolf."
"And then you go insane!"
"We should go back and ask the old woman if you can kill a werewolf in its man form."
They returned to the village to find Aehtelgythe. She was unsure if the creature would be immune to normal weaponry or not. When John asked if they could turn during the day, she told them she thought the creatures changed on the full moon. John realized the festivities fell on the dark of the moon and the moon had been waning for several days. The next full moon was not for two weeks.
Bossard asked her who the man in the camp south of town was and she didn't know. They left.
John pointed out they could shoot the man to see if he was immune to their weapons. They didn't even have to kill him. Bossard still wanted to know if the man was the werewolf first. John pointed out the man would have to answer their questions and couldn't get away if his foot was pinned to the ground. They could also claim it was a hunting accident. Bossard preferred to watch the man's camp and wait for him to come back. John pointed out the wolf would probably be able to smell them, even hidden up in the trees. Bossard said it hadn't smelled him that night he'd watched Aelfred's house.
It was noon by then and they talked about getting into Aelfred's house to get into the chest.
They found Aelfred at his house. Several people were there, adults from the village, who he was teaching the dance and the song for the festivities.
Bossard suggested letting the animals out to draw them away. John wanted to burn something, pointing out it was no raining any longer. When Bossard noted it was still damp, John pointed out things could still burn.
They discussed lying to Father Thomas once again about the man they'd found in the woods, faking evidence to prove they needed their weapons blessed. Bossard decided he didn't want to risk further alienating the priest, however. When John suggested they form a lynch mob to deal with the man in the woods, Bossard was not happy about that, not wanting to possibly murder an innocent man.
They decided to go back to the man's camp.
* * *
When they arrived at the edge of the man's camp, they saw he had finished eating the fish he'd been cooking before. As Bossard entered the clearing, John climbed a nearby tree to watch the meeting, making a lot of noise. The man stood and greeted him.
"Hello, fine sir," Bossard said. "What brings you out here?"
"I am Gerhard," the man said
"Who are you?"
"Welcome. I have little to give. I have been living a hermit's life. I seek to purify myself before the end time. I've been living alone, subsiding upon the Lord's bounty of fish and wild berries."
He held out some berries. Bossard shook his head and the man put them away.
"What are you doing to prepare for the end of days?" Gerhard asked. "It comes at the thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ."
"Hunting," Bossard said.
"You're hunting to prepare yourself for the end of days?"
"I'm trying to enjoy..."
"...the Lord's bounty."
"The Lord's bounty is important. Enjoying it doesn't come into play much anymore with the end of the world coming and all."
"But you're welcome to come share my fire and what little I have. I'm afraid I've already eaten the fish but I still have the berries."
Bossard made small talk but eventually steered the conversation towards the local village of Wroxeter. Gerhard knew the village was there but had never been to it, he claimed.
"Have you?" Gerhard asked.
"I passed through it to get here."
"Have you heard stories of the wolf?"
"Aye. I've seen the beast. Black as night and with the devil's own eyes, it was. It came stalking about my camp not two nights hence. At first I was afraid but then I stood to face the beast with only faith to guard me and, like Daniel in the lion's den, the Lord God did keep me safe and the beast fled to the east."
He pointed downstream.
"Do you know why?" Bossard asked.
"Because I had the protection of God," Gerhard said. "That's the only reason that can explain it."
Bossard wished the man to be safe and Gerhard wished the same for him. He left the clearing heading west.
* * *
Bossard circled around the clearing and found John crashing down noisily out of the tree he had been hiding in. He saw him slip the last few feet and crash to the ground on his back, knocking the breath out of himself. It took a few minutes before he could talk. Bossard swore at him in French under his breath.
"I still want to shoot him," John finally said.
"I cannot condone you shooting that man," Bossard said.
"What did you learn?"
"That he is apparently waiting for the end of times."
"Will anybody miss him?"
"If you want to shoot him, you're welcome to try."
He told John everything Gerhard had told him. He said he didn't believe the man, though. John looked around for wolf tracks in the vicinity but found none.
"Can we shoot him now?" he said. "He knows we're here. He's not going to come back to the same spot."
"What are you going to do if you don't kill him?" Bossard said.
"Run. What are you going to do?" John said.
"I'm going to go confront him," Bossard said.
The two entered the camp, John stopping at the edge of the clearing with his loaded crossbow ready. Bossard approached the man who had been deep in prayer or thought. Gerhard stood as the man approached.
"Ah, you have returned," Gerhard said. "Have you reconsidered my berries?"
"Sir, I do not believe that you scared the wolf away last night," Bossard said.
"Of course I didn't. God did."
"There are no tracks."
"There are no tracks? I don't understand."
"I fear this is not a typical wolf, sir. I would ask you that you be honest with me with what happened."
"I have been honest with you."
Bossard looked back at John. He sighed.
"I think you're a werewolf, sir," Bossard said.
"What?" Gerhard said.
"A werewolf. You heard me."
Gerhard looked him up and down. Then he sat back down by the embers of his fire.
"I used to make my living as a trader of goods and a tinker, traveling between villages, trading my wares and repairing the kettles, pots, and suchlike of the villages I visited," he said. "About one month ago, I came to Wroxeter and plied my trade there for a few days. With the villagers being more sparse than when I was last there, I soon finished and made plans to move on. Aelfred suggested that I follow a shortcut that he knew of to the next town. This route, he said, would also lead me past a village I had never visited before. As I had found less business than I expected in Wroxeter, I took his advice and followed the route.
"However, I couldn't find the promised village, and so I had to camp outside that night. Fortunately, the moon was waxing three-quarters full and bright and I had space in my wagon to be off the ground. As I was preparing to bed down, I spied a great shadow crossing the moon and barely dove aside as a dragon, a great wyrm, swooped upon me and tried to envelope me in its coils. The only thing that saved me that night is my heritage. Not only am I of a strong Saxon lineage, but my family also bears the blood of the wolf warriors of old: werewolves.
"Because I was born wolf-blooded, I can control my changes and take wolf form whenever I choose rather than being tied to the cycles of the moon. I was so frightened at the sight of this horrible monster that I froze in fear. I would have died there, but the Wolf was not ready to die. It took over and I changed. My Wolf recognized the dragon as the stronger beast and so ran for all we were worth! My Wolf was faster than the wyrm and we evaded the beast until near sunrise when it took flight back to wherever it lairs, but not before slaughtering my horses and destroying my cart, wares, and tools. Left with nothing, I began to investigate.
"I watch Wroxeter and its new Headman. I spied Aelfred skulk out of the village one night to meet with the wyrm itself! It was he who fed me to the beast. Since then I have been seeking the wyrm's lair and planning revenge upon Aelfred. They took everything from me except my life. I intend to see justice done."
"So, you say you're interested in Aelfred?" Bossard said.
"He's the one who betrayed me," Gerhard said. "He is the one who is working with the wyrm."
"Ask him what's in his house!" John called.
"What's in his house?" Bossard said.
"He is," Gerhard said.
"What? The wyrm?"
"There's something in his house that he's interested in."
"I know nothing about that."
"He was looking at it when we were questioning him. It's in a chest. I don't know what it is."
"I don't either."
"Have you been attacking the village folk?"
"Occasionally. Not the folk. Livestock. When I can get to Aelfred, I will. I cannot defeat his dragon. The Wolf does not feel that we are strong enough. I don't know where it lairs. He is up to something devilish and awful. If you are here to stop whatever evil is infesting Wroxeter, that's where you should start."
"If we shoot him we don't get a pelt," John called.
"He's not a werewolf right now," Bossard said. "He could change."
"Anytime I want," Gerhard said.
He frowned at the two.
"I could kill both of you easily," he said. "Or "¦ I can help you. The choice is yours."
"I'm inclined to believe you that Aelfred is up to something," Bossard said. "I feel like he's acting suspiciously. Do you know anything about Wulfstan?"
"No." Gerhard said.
"Well, if you'll keep your attacks just to the livestock, I'll leave you alone for the moment," Bossard said.
"No!" John said. "Come on!"
"What would you propose, Welshman from your accent?" Gerhard called to the man.
"I do not trust my ability to defeat this man," Bossard said to John. "And he hasn't harmed the villagers."
"Yeah, but we can't kill a wyrm and we can't go back without a pelt," John said. "So, I suppose we kill a wolf and dye it black."
Gerhard looked at the man quizzically.
"The earl has a bounty on you," Bossard said.
"Of course he does," Gerhard said.
"And we were sent here to collect it."
"I would suggest to you that something worse than what I am doing is going on here. If he is working with a wyrm, the gods only know what he is up to."
"I'm not getting paid for a wyrm carcass," John said.
"You might," Bossard said.
The other man looked doubtful.
"Do you have any proof?" John said.
"No," Gerhard said. "I don't have any proof. My own word is the only proof that I have."
John lowered his crossbow and walked over to the two. He unloaded the weapon and put it away. Bossard slung his shield onto his back. He asked Gerhard to tell him more about his transformation and the wyrm.
"The wolf took over," Gerhard said. "Saved my life. It knew it would die when I died. If I die, it dies. If it dies, I die."
"But you don't control the wolf?" John said.
"Not entirely, no," Gerhard said. "I control the wolf, but not completely. But if there is a battle, I can try to help you. The Wolf will help you. I am not much use."
He gestured at the dagger on his belt.
"Do you have any theories on why Aelfred benefits on feeding the wyrm?" Bossard said.
"I have no idea," Gerhard said. "I've been trying to learn what his connection is with the wyrm and I've learned very little so far."
"He is in charge of the festivities on the 31st," Bossard said.
"I've not been Wroxeter during the day," Gerhard said. "I don't know anything about that."
"If we gave you Aelfred, would you leave?" John said. "If we could get you Aelfred?"
Gerhard thought on that a moment.
"I want Aelfred," he finally said. "The Wolf wants the wyrm. But yes. If you kill Aelfred or give him to me to give him to the Wolf, that might appease it. It will appease me."
"Will you stay here?" Bossard said. "So we can find you later?"
"Yes, I'm willing to stay here," Gerhard said. "I will be going to the village every night."
"Does the Wolf know not to attack us at night?"
"I cannot guarantee your safety."
The two men took their leave of the man, who gave them both a hard, distrustful look. As they walked back, they spoke on strange story.
"It seems like the easiest solution here is give up Aelfred," John said.
"I'm not looking for the easiest solution," Bossard said.
"So, should we confront him?"
"If he's alone. How about we wait until nightfall when he goes home and confront him?"
"Then no one knows we entered except Aelfred."
* * *
They returned to the village and returned to Aehtelgythe to ask her about wyrms. She told them dragons were fierce beasts and hard to kill. When he asked if they were weak to anything, she guessed blessed weapons would be helpful against such a beast. He asked if she knew anyone else who could bless their weapons besides Father Thomas but she didn't.
"Why are you asking about wyrms?" the old woman asked.
"Can you keep it secret?" Bossard said.
"It's something I'm interested in," John said. "I'm Welsh. We like dragons."
"Oh, you're Welsh," the old woman said. "That explains so much."
The old woman said she had cast the bones, performing an augury, and found there was a looming threat hanging over Wroxeter. Something bad was coming very soon. Something that could end the world. Bossard, feeling he could trust the old woman, wanted to tell her everything. When he started to do so, John interrupted.
"She's old," he whispered to the Frenchman. "Don't trust the old people."
"What's that you said, Welshman?" Aehtelgythe said.
"Something terrible is coming. I don't know what, exactly. The augury was not that clear."
"I had too much cheese for lunch."
"Just like a Welshman!"
Bossard thanked her and they left her hut.
They crossed the village to Aelfred's house once again. They found the man teaching villagers the song that day. Torold also came to the man's house to discuss taxes.
* * *
It was not until after dinnertime when Aelfred was alone as most of the villagers had gone to their homes to eat their evening meal. The two men approached his house and asked to have dinner with him. He invited them in and shared his meager repast. It was mostly bread and cheese, as well as a little bit of boiled mutton and ale. They sat and ate in silence, for the most part.
Bossard eventually talked of how the village was doing. Aelfred said it was doing fine except for the Black Wolf, that terrible agent of the Devil, according to Father Thomas. If it was gone, things would be better for Wroxeter. He noted otherwise the village was doing well and he was looking forward to the upcoming festivities as were all the villagers. It would make a nice celebration and break from the drudgery of life.
"Have you ever heard of a dragon?" John asked.
"I've heard of lots of dragons," Aelfred said. "There are many stories."
"Have you ever seen one?"
"Do you know any local stories?" Bossard asked.
"Any local stories?" Aelfred said.
"Yeah, about dragons."
He told them some stories they had heard before. John thanked him and told him he enjoyed hearing about dragons.
"He's Welsh," Bossard said.
"Oh," Aelfred said as if understanding.
They left after the meal and discussed what to do about Aelfred. John was for accosting the man but Bossard didn't want to do that.
"Just a little bit," John said.
"The earl will hear about me accosting this man," Bossard said.
"Why you gonna accost the Headman?" a voice asked.
A little nine-year-old boy stepped out from behind the wall where they talked.
"Is it because of the things in the woods?" the boy asked.
"Thing in the woods?" Bossard said. "What thing?"
"The thing I saw. I saw. I saw. I was up late one night. I had to use the latrine. And I saw Aelfred slip out of the village. And I followed him. And I saw a shadow descend from the sky. I did. I was so scared, all I could do was hide. And Aelfred entered the trees. And he was there for a long time and then snuck back into the village. And I went back and I had been terrified of the dark ever since. I've wet my bedclothes at night. I don't want to go out to the latrine. My father's very, very disappointed in me. He says he won't raise a coward. I think he's going to put me in a bag and throw me in the river."
He nodded at the two men.
"What's your name?" Bossard said.
"I'm Leofric," the boy said.
"Leofric. My father's Godwine."
"Yes. Tell him not to throw me in the river. I don't want to be thrown in the river."
"I'll tell him that if I see him."
"Thank you. Because you have a sword and you can stop him from throwing me in the river."
"I can swim," John said.
"That "¦ won't stop him from throwing me in the river, though," Leofric said.
"I can get you out."
"Oh. And then I can come away with you? Once he throws me in the river? And learn that wicked mechanism that you carry?"
The crossbow was probably a mystery Leofric.
"I don't know what it is," the boy said. "I've never seen it's like before."
He looked the men over.
"Was it the Devil?" he said. "Was that what it was? The Devil?"
"What?" John said.
"What?" Bossard said.
"The dark shape that made me scared," Leofric said.
"Maybe," John said. "But we're going to look into it."
"I've been praying and it hasn't helped at all," Leofric said.
"Do you know where he met it?" Bossard said.
"It was in the woods," Leofric said. "To the east."
"Could you lead us there?"
"No. I'm not going back there."
"No. I'm not going back there. It might still be there."
"I'll take you with me if you help."
"I don't "¦ I don't "¦ no. No."
"Can you at least lead us to the edge of the woods where it is?"
"No. I'm not going back. That's a terrible place. It's a terrible place."
"We can go look," John said.
"Yes," Bossard said.
"We have a dog," John said.
"Where was it?" Bossard said to Leofric.
The boy pointed down the road to the east. Bossard gave him a denier. That surprised the boy.
"If he throws me in the river, save me," he said to the men.
He scurried off home.
* * *
Bossard and John returned Gerhard's campsite and found the man cooking another fish over the fire. He stood when they entered the clearing and looked at them warily.
"We have information about a wyrm," Bossard said.
"All right," Gerhard said.
"A child apparently saw Aelfred meet with it," Bossard said.
He described, as best he could, where Leofric had told them he had seen Aelfred meet the wyrm.
"I thought you were going to bring me Aelfred," Gerhard said.
"Well, he's in his house," Bossard said.
"I still vote for that," John said. "To be fair."
"I cannot defeat the wyrm," Gerhard said.
"But what do you want to do about the wyrm though?" Bossard said.
"I "¦ I don't know."
"We were hoping you can track it for us."
"It flies. You can't track something that flies."
"Well "¦ I mean "¦"
"I thought wyrms didn't have wings," Johns said.
"It had wings," Gerhard said. "Long and sinuous, it curled around my wagon and crushed it like kindling. Shattered it to pieces. Unfortunately no, I cannot track it."
He said he could track anything that walked on the ground but not something that flew. He also didn't think he was a match for it alone and his wolf knew it. When Bossard asked if they might be able to kill it together, he didn't know. He just knew it was awful. Bossard asked about using the peasants and Gerhard scoffed at that idea. When Bossard noted some of them might have training, the man doubted it.
"At best, they would be a distraction," he said.
"I have a question for you," John said. "If I were to shoot a crossbow at the wolf, would it bounce off?"
Gerhard looked at the man suspiciously.
"The crone in village said the wyvern could be hurt with blessed weapons," Bossard said. "The father won't bless our weapons unless we have proof that we've tried to kill one of these creatures."
"So, hold this and snap it in half," John said. "Then we can say the wolf snapped an arrow and it won't be a lie."
Gerhard broke the bolt in half and handed it back to him. Then he said he would do them one better. He took the sharp end of the shaft and stabbed John in the arm with it, handing it back. It hurt very much.
"Thank you, though," Bossard said.
They left the camp.
* * *
They went back to the village, Bossard trying to bind up the wound. He managed to stop the bleeding and they returned by nightfall. They went to Father Thomas' house and knocked on the door, showing him the arrow as proof of the werewolf.
"But there's blood on it," Father Thomas said. "You must have wounded it."
"Yes, but it didn't kill it," Bossard said.
"Not only that, it broke the shaft," John said. "It's hide is too thick to pierce with normal weapons."
"But there's blood!" Father Thomas said. "You obviously pierced its hide!"
The two men looked at each other.
"Obviously it's my blood," John said.
Father Thomas looked him, completely baffled.
"You shot yourself?" he said.,
"You know, I'm not very bright," John said. "It's sharp. I tried to load it. It came off my shoulder."
"Why do you lie to me!?!" Father Thomas said. "You're both a couple of liars!"
"Well, the wolf did break the arrow," John said.
Father Thomas was very angry at them.
"It's my blood on the arrow," John said.
"The wolf did break the arrow," Bossard said.
"What happened exactly?" Father Thomas said.
"We attempted to confront the wolf."
"And "¦ have you heard the tales of werewolves?"
"It's a werewolf that's terrorizing this town."
"Stabbed me with my own arrow!" John said. "I lied because it's embarrassing."
Father Thomas looked over the two men with a frown. He finally said he was willing to either bless Bossard's blade or a single arrow of John's. When he told them about the spell, he noted he had to sacrifice part of his soul to do it, something he can never replace. Bossard told him they'd need to think about what to bless.
They left, talking about what they should have blessed. In the end, they decided on the sword. Bossard questioned whether or not they should confront Aelfred that night but John was of the opinion they should wait until they had it blessed before they did so.
* * *
Tuesday, October 30, 1000, was a bright if chilly day.
The two men went to the church and asked Father Thomas to bless the sword. He said he would need the morning to do so. He told Bossard to fetch one of the goats because he would need that as well. The man did so and he took it into the church.
The two men took the time to look in at Aelfred's house but they found villagers there, decorating the structure. Aelfred didn't appear to be home. John suggested they light something on fire.
"John, you should demonstrate your superior archery skills to the village," Bossard said. "I could help you set up and then disappear."
They set up some apples on the wall some distance from Aelfred's house. Bossard tried to convince some of the villagers to come watch but they didn't seem interested as they were too busy that morning. One of them noted they might be able to come watch that afternoon.
Bossard went to the community barn and found a few animals within but no one else was there. He thought about letting the animals out. He didn't think he would be able to let the animals out without being recognized.
When he returned to John, that man mentioned using a flaming arrow to light something on fire. He went into the woods and did a little hunting but didn't get any game by late morning. He went back into the woods so they could implement their plan.
* * *
Bossard noticed Ingold in the vicinity of the house they had planned to burn. He engaged the man in conversation, making sure he had the man facing away from the woods where John was to fire the arrow from. He talked about the next day's festivities, telling the man he thought Aelfred could use Ingold's help. The man was happy to help Aelfred and really seemed to like the young man. He followed the man towards Aelfred's house.
* * *
In the trees, John saw Ingold and Bossard leave the vicinity. He wrapped some oil-soaked cloth on the end of the bolt, lit it, and fired it into the air. It flew high and went into the thatch of one of the abandoned houses, lodging there. He didn't hear any cries of alarm so he slipped back into the woods, circling around the village, giving it a wide berth, and planned to return after everything was all over.
He soon heard shouts from the village and saw smoke rising into the sky.
* * *
Bossard had followed Ingold to Aelfred's house and the old man looked around for the young Headman. Bossard glanced back at the house and saw the first, faint hints of smoke. Ingold asked where Aelfred was and Bossard asked some of the other villagers where they thought Aelfred had wandered off to. Bossard didn't say anything about the fire and no one else in the village noticed the fire before flames were licking at the dry roof.
"Fire!" Bossard yelled. "Fire!"
The villagers ran in the direction of the fire, crying out in terror and alarm. Some grabbed buckets of water, or got some water from the well.
Bossard ran into Aelfred's house and found it empty. He flung open the chest and found, hidden under some clothing was a leather-bound book. He picked it up and peeked out the door. All of the villagers were running towards the burning building. He quickly opened the book but found the handwriting was in Latin. He tucked the book under his armor and ran to help fight the fire.
The fire raged out of control but the villagers managed to isolate it to only the one house, which burned to the ground. There was little left but ashes and a little of one wall. It took them two hours to fight the blaze and, about the time it was little more than a smoldering wreck, John returned to town from the south with a pair of rabbits he'd caught.
Bossard asked everyone in the village what had happened and no one knew. None of the villagers knew how the fire had started in the abandoned house. A few people guessed the town was cursed while others blamed the Devil. Some mentioned the Black Wolf, which might have started the fire by being some kind of Devil Wolf. Father Thomas agreed the Black Wolf was obviously an agent sent from the Devil to wreak havoc at the end of the world.
They returned to the small house they were living in and got a fire going in the pit. John gutted and butchered the rabbits and got the meat cooking. Bossard showed him the book he'd found. Unfortunately John didn't read Latin either. John suggested taking the book to Gerhard to see if he understood Latin.
They ate lunch.
* * *
Returning to Gerhard's camp, the man told them he did not read or write any languages. He could speak English and German.
They returned to town.
* * *
They talked to Aehtelgythe but she didn't know how to read or write either. She could understand Low German if it was spoken but had not head for letters. They went to the church and recovered Bossard's now-enchanted sword.
They talked about getting Father Thomas to translate the journal but didn't trust the man. John wanted to simply give the man to the Wolf. Bossard wanted to know what was in the journal but John was convinced taking it to the priest would be a mistake. John suggested someone in Shrewsbury might be able to read Latin so the two took their leave of Wroxeter.
* * *
Shrewsbury was a larger town and they were able to find a priest, that night, who could read Latin. Bossard told the priest reading the book was on the Earl's business. The man took the book and looked through it, telling them to return in an hour.
They went to have a meal and, when they returned, the priest threw the book at them.
"What blasphemy is this!?!" the priest said. "Why did you write this!?!"
"It's not my book," Bossard said.
"It's confiscated from a fugitive," John said.
"It describes spells!" the priest said. "They've been learned from a creature that is apparently a wyrm . It claims it can cloud a man's memory and enthrall people and create fear and drain power and shrivel a man! Where did you find this? Who's is it?"
"Now a wanted fugitive," John said.
"A wanted fugitive," Bossard echoed.
"It also describes some rite that will turn a man into a god!" the priest said.
"Kill him," John muttered.
"Blasphemy!" the priest said. "Blasphemy!"
He wanted to burn the book and demanded it back. Bossard told him the Earl wanted proof the man's blasphemy. It was evidence.
"Whoever wrote this is a witch!" the priest said. "They must die!"
"We'll kill him," Bossard assured the man.
""˜You shall not permit a sorceress to live!'" the priest quoted.
They took the book and left the church, heading back to Wroxeter. They rode through the night, John's horse going lame on the way when it took a bad step in the dark. It took much longer to get back leading the struggling animal.
* * *
When they finally reached Wroxeter in the wee hours of the morning, they heard a wolf howl somewhere in the distance. The village was dark and quiet. They put their horses in the barn and headed to Aelfred's house. It was dark as well, the door closed. They found it latched from within.
Bossard slammed himself against the door. Aelfred cried out "Murder!" from within. Then John helped the man smash the door open. It was pitch black within.
Chanting came from inside the house. Remembering Aelfred's bed was in the back left side of the room, John fired blindly into the room. He heard the bolt strike something wooden and someone within let out a shout. He pivoted around the doorframe to start reloading his crossbow while under cover. Bossard rushed into the room, swinging wildly with his sword, stomping to the far wall until his sword struck it. He bumped into the side of the bed and brought his sword down onto it. He heard the sword strike the straw tick.
More chanting came from somewhere nearby. Then it went very, very quiet. Bossard swung around in the direction he thought he had heard the chanting from. Then he tripped over the prone form lying on the ground, landing atop Aelfred. The man underneath him said a horrible word that make Bossard's skin crawl. For a moment, an awful feeling of terrible power was upon him but it didn't seem to grasp him. Maybe it was his faith in God. Maybe it was his blessed weapon. He didn't know why, but whatever the terrible thing was, it was gone as quickly as it came. He felt the man slip out from underneath him like a snake.
Outside, John ripped his shirt off and pulled out flint and steel to start a fire. The dirty shirt began smoldering almost immediately.
Inside, Bossard swung wildly, the sword smashing into the ground. Aelfred cried out in terror.
Outside, John was trying to get the shirt to burn more quickly when a figure ran out of the house right past him at a sprint, turning to the right and running towards the corner of the building. He had no idea who it was but snatched up his crossbow and shot the man, hitting him in the side of the chest just before he disappeared around the corner. The man shrieked.
Bossard ran out of the door, looked around, and ran towards the corner of the house as well. He noticed a small flame on the ground, John crouched over it, crossbow in hand. Bossard didn't understand why there was a fire there except that the man was obsessed with fire. He ran after Aelfred.
John went around the other side of the house, reloading as he walked.
Bossard ran around the side of the house and chased after Aelfred. He was catching the man quickly, who struggled to run with a crossbow bolt in the side of his chest.
As John came around the side of the lean-to on the other side of the house, he saw a single silhouette running down the road. He noticed there was a stick coming out of the side of the man's chest and knew it was Aelfred. He shot the man in the abdomen. The man stumbled and fell to the ground.
Bossard saw the man jerk to one side, stumble, and fall when the bolt hit him. He ran up to him and found him quite dead.
He heard a growling nearby and backed away. Out of the fallow vegetable garden came a huge black wolf. Nearby, John reloaded his crossbow as the wolf picked up Aelfred by the midsection and turned to head south out of the village. It passed near John, who put the crossbow on the ground and saluted the terrible beast. The animal went out of its way to move towards him and then took a swipe at the man as it passed, tearing into his midsection. He was knocked back but it didn't stop or slow its pace, simply continuing on its way.
He thought the blow would be much more painful but then found his boiled leather armor had deflected the entirety of the blow though was partially torn. He was pleasantly surprised he was not dead or badly injured.
Lights started to shine in the village as villagers came out of their huts with candles and torches. John and Bossard got together and planned to tell them of the wolf attacking him and their wounding it. They told the villagers their story and headed off to the southwest.
They eventually arrived at the River Severn. Bossard examined the bruise John had sustained but found he was not really injured. They decided to make a little camp near the river so climbed a tree and tied themselves in the branches to sleep uncomfortably through the night.
* * *
The morning of Wednesday, October 31, 1000, was bright and brisk. The two men untied themselves and climbed out of the tree, going to Gerhard's camp. They found him there and asked if he was going to stop attacking the village. He said he would as Aelfred was dead. He knew it as he had found the body that morning, partially consumed. They noticed he looked a little bloated.
Bossard told him what was in the book, according to the priest in Shrewsbury.
"Are they going to do the ritual tonight?" Gerhard said.
"They might," Bossard said.
"Maybe you should tell them not to."
"Well, I could convince the priest."
"I don't know what will happen."
"I could tell the priest that it's blasphemous and they need to stop it since Aelfred wanted to do it."
"Will the priest recognize Aelfred's handwriting?"
"He knows how to read Latin and he taught him how to, I believe."
"So, yeah," John said.
"He would know," Bossard said.
"Show him the book!" Gerhard said. "Show him this book and tell them not to do it tonight."
Bossard told him they were going to tell the priest they were about to arrest Aelfred as a witch when the wolf attacked and killed him. Gerhard didn't really care. John suggested they also note they mortally wounded the wolf and it wandered off to die. Bossard suggested they say they had knocked it into the river and it had washed away.
Gerhard told them if they wanted to fight the wyrm, he would help them as they had helped him.
"Do we even stand a chance against this wyrm?" Bossard said.
"No," John said.
"I don't know," Gerhard said.
"We came for the wolf," John said. "We got the wolf."
"Did it cut you?" Gerhard said, noting the damage to John's armor.
"No," John said.
"His armor saved him," Bossard said.
"That is probably good," he said. "That is very good. Lycanthropy is contagious."
"We might consider taking down the wyrm too," Bossard said. "But we need to stop the ritual first."
* * *
Bossard and John went back to the village and found Father Thomas. On the way, John suggested they gather the entire village. He feared the priest might turn out to be working for the wyrm as well. That surprised Bossard and John pointed out the man had taught Aelfred Latin, noting they were clearly friends. Bossard didn't think the priest knew what Aelfred was doing. John insisted on a few people witness it in case the man tried to cast a spell.
They gathered villagers as they entered town and had a half dozen people with them when they got to the church.
"Let's say we found the book on Aelfred's body," Bossard said. "And we knew he spoke Latin."
"That's a terrible idea," John said.
"How are we going to explain this book we have?"
"We saw him drop it and we couldn't read it."
"Are you sure we want to confront him in front of a big group of people?"
"Just go with the full truth. Just don't tell him we burned a house down."
They arrived at the church and found Father Thomas. Bossard told him when they were searching Aelfred's house, they found the book which they got translated by a priest in Shrewsbury. He said it was witchcraft and handed it over to Father Thomas.
Father Thomas looked doubtful but he looked through the book, reading the Latin within. The further he read, the more horrified he looked. He was terrified by the whole situation. When Bossard told them not to go forth with the ritual that night, Father Thomas agreed wholeheartedly. Aehtelgythe was there and was not pleased at the end of the festivities, but had read doom for the village and so was willing to forgo the ritual as well.
Father Thomas wanted to burn the book and they were agreeable to that. John made sure never to let the book out of his sight. The villagers made a bonfire and Father Thomas flung the book into the flames.
That night, Father Thomas performed a mass instead of the regular All Hallows Eve festivities. They slaughtered the animals and there was a feast. Everyone ate well.
It's been bugging me for awhile now the question of "Am I alright as a Game Master?" it's a question I guess all G.M's ask themselves from time to time but after my last online group just weirdly faded away after a few poorly attended sessions without and real comment from anyone the question of my Gaming style has risen from the depths.
I do all my gaming Online and that may factor into how things pan out, Online is a fantastic way to meet up with people all over the world and actually get to roll dice but it does mean is a little more trickier to fully connect with people as off table talk is almost impossible to do, if you and another person starts talking about last nights game its heard by everyone and interrupts the game, so when the action involves someone else its probably best to mute your microphone and resist the temptation to do a google search on the information the Games Master has just dropped but back to the question that's unsettling me a little, am I okay as a G.M? as I mentioned before the last group I was part of just faded away in a really bizarre manner the first session was nearly a full house and the Players were awesome and I really had a blast running the game though I saw afterwards that I needed to change a few things to match the handouts better etc. but after that first session Players started to skip out, at first it wasn't to bad as they would post up that they couldn't make it next week which was fine, real life always trumps gaming and its always a juggling act spare time wise but soon the updates stopped and each session was a different make up from the previous and then suddenly after five or so sessions no one turned up not even the one Player who had previously made all the other sessions. For me the strangest thing was that even after a couple of days no one had really made an attempt to find out what had happened and when I managed to contact a few of the Players none seemed too concerned either way if the game continued or not, so it didn't (I never managed to contact the only Player who had previously made every session and if you are reading this I hope you're okay as your online presence went dark) Other groups though have lasted several years and I've almost completed a fantastic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign which was updated to the modern day but all these groups in the end have foundered as people lost interest or they said things in the heat of the moment that couldn't be unsaid (This one was unfortunate as the guy running the Cthulhu Dark game is pretty cool but the play test didn't go the way he expected and blamed me for all the problems and I was to was apparently on a short fuse towards the end, never have I regretted not taking a count of five and some deep breaths more) but I still maintain that whilst not playing great I did play okay and it was the adventure that was mostly at fault.
So that's a potted history of my Cthulhu gaming most of the groups have started off well but end badly or in that one case just end which is a shame as these people become my internet friends, we share a cool hobby and I don't talk to most of them anymore because of how the groups ended which is a great shame but thinking about the groups of yesterday got me thinking about what mistakes I have made and its a lot. I don't think I have ever run a decent campaign, there have been two mostly okay ones that petered out before they were finished but everything else has been pretty shabby really and that's been mostly down to me as a G.M to be honest. The Eclipse Phase game I ran was a horrible mess to be honest as I just got swamped by all those options (So many options) and it was the game that broke a Player. Looking back on my G.M'ing career its awash with partial games that ended fairly quickly due to one reason or another, a sprinkling of cool moments here and there but nothing really sustained, overall its been rushed games with not enough preparation on my part and listening back to some of those early games I'm surprised that anyone could understand me as I muttered and mumbled through endless handouts ( I went a little crazy on the handout front with one game ) but for a time at least everyone came back and rolled dice until ennui set in or I blew a fuse.
I suppose the real question is why am I writing this? the answer is I want to roll dice and try to save the world from the uncaring forces of the cosmos but I'm uncertain if it will work. All the other groups have collapsed (Though I think the Masks group might be still going in one form or other) and whilst they collapsed for a variety of reasons I was involved in some capacity with their demise. I think I'm a better Player now but I don't think I'm a better G.M and since running a game is the easiest way to get a group started I'm a bit conflicted and to honest the failure of the last group has taken the wind out of my sails somewhat.
Reading this back I think I will hang off trying to get a group together, I'm playing in a pretty awesome Renaissance campaign at the moment so I'm still getting my gaming fix and it looks like I need to get the preparation aspects right first before trying again as that seems to have been a major problem in the past as I've had to fudge and um and arr a lot which has made things difficult for the Players. Also I need to calm the hell down as I have gotten way too over excited at times as well stressing out about the lack of communication (Must admit this still bugs me but I don't get as angry as I used to)
So this has really been a way to get my thoughts in order and to get in a bit of cheap therapy on the side I guess but if anyone who has gamed with me as a Player or as a G.M reads this by any chance let us know how you thought things went, all offers of advice gratefully received and Mr B if you read this can you just confirm that you made it back safely from the Christmas cruise?
It's been too long since one of these reviews. Apologies folks! Hoping to get back into the swing of things with a more regular schedule. And first up is this one, again from the Eldritch Tales collection.
I really like Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories, though I know they're not to everyone's tastes. For me they are a wonderful mix of the exotic east, very evocative descriptions of places and peoples, and hints of magic.
It's interesting to me that this story's narrator lives in London, I presume the English one, and not e.g. in Ontario or elsewhere. The description of the narrator's writings being mocked and retreating into dreams does sound almost autobiographical, and at the very least something that Lovecraft himself could probably relate to. I almost wondered if it was late in Lovecraft's career, but no, I see it was written in 1920.
I really like the imagery of the dreamer walking through childhood memories, retracing steps from his old home, through the surrounding landscape, until he drops, rather dramatically, into the dreamworld proper.
Things drift a bit much for me when the narrator goes on the galley. Maybe it's because I enjoy reading about Celephais so much, and don't want to leave it. I'm rather like a dreamer myself at that point, unhappy about being pulled in a direction other than the one I want to go! Though I do like his repeated attempts to get back to the city, and the descriptions of the other landscapes he dreams about instead. Lovecraft can be very, very good at building up a sense of place, with a deft and compact turn of phrase.
The ending is strange though. I guess there could be various readings of it. I interpret it as the narrator dying, and in his final moments being carried away in his mind to his dreamworld. Though whether this was for a perpetual time as the story says, Heaven like, or if it was an illusion isn't clear. And then there's the bit with the tramp, and the brewer, and Innsmouth of all places. I thought the story was set in the UK! That very last bit jars for me, and I think doesn't work. Though I do rather like the story up until that point.
I've bought a box of 120 crayons and have done three drawings, including the ones that are probably the most important. I'm probably overdoing this.
I've made a map using something from Google and am not sure why I can't copy it so I can have one without all the points that didn't exist then but also without the green, and one with all of that -- or, for that matter, why I can't add park green to the Basic Atlas style. No big deal, I know, but it itches at me.
Have now seen Angel Heart twice, and while it doesn't help directly here, it's really good.
This site is Japanese CoC unofficial site. Japanese CoC official don't have official site. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/
This page is Japanese CoC official supplement and scenario page. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/d/%b4%fb%b4%a9%a5%eb%a1%bc%a5%eb%a5%d6%a5%c3%a5%af%a1%a6%a5%b5%a5%d7%a5%ea%b0%ec%cd%f7
This page is Japanese Interim CoC scenario timeline. http://seesaawiki.jp/trpgyarouzu/d/%b8%bd%c2%e5%c6%fc%cb%dc%a4%cb%b1%f7%a4%b1%a4%eb%a5%b7%a5%ca%a5%ea%a5%aa%bb%fe%b7%cf%ce%f3